April 2009

Five things that will improve your training

When we teach seminars, we often start by giving some input on how trainers can have better quality in their training. These are some easy points that often make a huge difference:

1. Use Crate Games
Crate games has made a huge difference in my own training, and an even bigger difference in our classes. The crate games teaches the dog to engage in training, be fast, have self control and to relax. In a training session, crate games provides a perfect start and a perfect end to the session. You can get Susan Garrett’s DVD about Crate Games here.

2. Play a lot of Tug
Play a lot with your dog in training and keep a good balance between treats and tugging in your training. A good rule of thumb is to break it off and play for every third to fifth treat in a session. These breaks will keep your dog in optimum arousal throughout the session, helps with building value for both treats and tugging, helps with your transitions and teaches the dog to alter between play and concentration. It also helps with keeping sessions light and fun for both trainer and dog. Sometimes, we get so into training that the dog gets worried by our serious mood.

3. Keep Your Sessions Short
Trainers often train for way too long. We try to limit our sessions to three minutes (unless we do trial training with the obedience dogs, search and rescue training, or other activities where the dog sometimes has to work for a lot more than 3 minutes before he gets a reward). Any time we’re about to start training a new behavior, we keep sessions even shorter (like one minute), so that we are able to evaluate if our plan is right before doing anything else. We make adjustments to the plan and to a one minute session again. Only when we feel confident that we’re on the right track, we add a few minutes to the sessions. When I do agility with Shejpa (who has had issues with focus and speed), I mostly do 30 second sessions (or shorter). This has really made a huge difference in her speed and focus in agility. The length of a training session is determined by how long the dog is able to work with focus and enthusiasm and by our own need for evaluation and planning. Even if the dog is able to work for long periods of time, it is necessary to stop and evaluate the training often. If not, you might be going in the wrong direction for a long time without noticing.

4. Make Your Transitions More Smooth
Good dog training really has a lot to do with mechanical skills. If you want your dog to be fully focused during training and trialing, you must be fully focused and plan your training so that it is smooth, with no unmotivated breaks. A good training session is focused and active from beginning to end. Three minutes of pure joy and koncentration. This means that you don’t have time to search your pockets for treats, move equipment or walk from one place to another without planning it well. In my shaping sessions, I often keep treats in my hand to be able to reward the dog quickly. Breaking off trainign with a game of tug gives me a chance to pick up some more treats and get ready for a new repetition without any dead time for the dog. As soon as I tell my dog to drop the toy, I am ready to click and reward again. No transportations, no dead time. Plan your transitions, train your transitions, so that your dog can be as attentive as you would like. Send your dog to his crate any time you need to think, get something or talk to a friend or instructor.

5. Evaluate Your Training
A common misstake that dog trainers make is to forget about evaluation and just keep doing the same thing over and over again. There are a lot of things to evaluate after a training session. First: are you better of now than you were when you started? Did your plan work out? Do you need changes to your plan? If the session went bad – when did it go wrong? Did you train for to long? Could your transitions be more smooth? How many treats since your last game of tug? Did you stay for to long on one criteria? Or did you ask too much of the dog? Are you working with two critera at the same time (like training the retrieve and at the same time training the dog to focus during distractions)? What needs to be changed before your next session? What could get better? There are a lot of things to consider. Video recording your sessions can be a great tool. It helps your to evaluate your training from the outside and find new things to get better at. I love this quote by Bob Bailey: Video recording is the greatest invention since the secondary reinforcer.

Here is a video clip of Shejpa and I that might give you some illustration on what you just read:

Spring is on it’s way!

Most of the snow has melted and we had a nice walk today with Missy, Pi and Pogue. Laxmi (our vet with a degree on rehab from University of Tennessee) took a look at Shejpa’s back today and it was fine! I can’t wait to start training agility with her again! She has been very bored with no training and walking on leash for a month.

Here are some pictures from todays walk

Some snow left on the field makes Pogue very happy

No snow in the woods makes me very happy 😀

Happy cocker

Two spotted dogs


He loves everything wet or muddy, unlike Shejpa who’d rather keep her paws dry

Foundations For a Great Retrieve

Before I present a dumbbell to my dog, I want to do some foundation exercises. To shape the retrieve can be challenging for beginner trainers and we sometimes get students that actually have created a situation where the dog finds the dumbbell repulsing and aversive – through shaping! By doing foundation exercises before presenting the dumbbell, you can be more certain to get exactly the behavior you are looking for when the time has come for training with a wooden or metal dumbbell.

I spend my time developing a good tug with my puppies before thinking about retrieving. When the dog is tugging well, retrieving is much easier. Tug games teaches the dog to grab and hold firmly.

Retrieving Toys
I mostly work on retrieving toys because I want training with toys to be more efficient, with the dog returning to me with the toy any time I throw a toy or let the dog win while tugging. But I also feel that it helps my formal retrieve, since the dog is programmed to run fast back to me as soon as she picks something up. For my toy retrieve, I use hand targeting. The dog presses it’s nose to my hand with the toy in her mouth. This is really easy to teach some dogs, especially those who likes to carry things around a lot. For them, it is often enough to reward a hand touch a few times, and then present the hand when the dog is holding an object.

The most common problem that occurs in teaching this is the dog letting go of the toy as the hand is presented. My first solution is to take the hand away as soon as the dog lets go, then presenting it again as soon as the dog picks the toy up again (dog is only given opportunity to hand touch when she holds the object in her mouth). If the dog fails many times without improvement, I will teach the dog to hold the object in her mouth while I tempt her with treats, before trying the hand touch again.

What kind of object I start with depends on the personality of the dog. A dog that likes toys, but wants to keep them on her own, gets a boring object to start. A dog with less interest in toys, gets something easy and attractive. In the beginning, I do the play retrieve in separate sessions, but later start using it in play, with gradual increases in intensity and difficulty (indoors is usually easier than outdoors, some objects are easier than others etc.). While training this, I also introduce my puppies to different kinds of objects, like a few repetitions with a metal dumbbell if the puppy has a nice hold.

The start of the formal retrieve
When I start training the formal retrieve, I start with objects that isn’t a dumbbell, so that the behavior is good when I present the dumbbell for the first time. To start with, I use objects that are soft and easy, like a piece of rope, a thick leather leash or a fleece tug toy with two handles. The behavior that I want is similar to what I look for while tugging, with a firm grip and weight shift, but my priority now is koncentration and a calmer behavior. I want the dog to be able to sit down and grab, hold and weight shift (you will notice the weight shift even when the dog is sitting). The hold should be calm and feel heavy in my hands.

I have been a bit slow with teaching the formal part of it to Squid, so this is one of her first sessions:

Increasing Play Drive in Your Dog

Thanks to the very reinforcing comment from Russia in the last blog post, I decided to translate my latest Swedish blog post into English for my foreign readers. It’s about developing your dog’s love of tugging:

As we are seeing a lot of new students right now, we talk a lot about developing rewards and mainly tugging. It’s very hard to train a dog without rewards and we feel that you need more than one good reward. With our own dogs, we focus a lot on developing both food and play as a reward. This is something that we also want to share with our students. Food is a really good reinforcer if you want to give many rewards in a short period of time, maybe without dog breaking it’s position at all. Food is also often calming and is appropriate when teaching precision. Play is a good reinforcer when you want speed and intensity, or if you want to throw the reward a long way. Play increases arousal in the dog and brings out new sides to the dog compared to food. It’s therefore a great advantage to be able to switch between food and play depending on where you want to go with your training.

We often prefer tugging to chasing a toy, but often use both in combination. If the dog likes to chase a toy, but won’t tug, we try to develop the dog’s love for tugging so that the dog wants to end the chasing by grabbing, pulling and winning. At many times, we want the dog to grab the toy immediatly when it’s presented (or when the dog is cued to ”get it”). It could be because we want the dog to drive straight to the handler after a turn on the agility course, or to get full speed and focus towards the handlers left side on a recall. Games of chasing, where a toy is dragged on the ground by a piece of rope, can be a really good reinforcer in other situations, mainly as a jackpot for focus and endurance. But even then, the intensity and joy will be better if the dog really wants to grab the toy.

Not all dogs do automatically like a game of tug. It’s a reward that needs to be developed in many dogs. Our opinion is that it always is worth to teach the dog to play if you want to get the most out of the dog you have. The dog might not have to enjoy tugging as much as food, but he should play with high intensity when we present a toy. For some dogs, tugging will be the ”motor” in training, the thing that makes training worth while for the dog. For other dogs, food will be the ”motor”, but they can still learn to really engage in tugging between food rewards, so that you’re able to gain from all the great things that come with tugging. And with time and good training, the dog’s priorities might change.

Shejpa was a dog that often would not tug. Not while food was around, not out doors, not if she wasn’t in the mood… I worked a lot with her tugging and it’s really good now. I can use 90 percent tugging in training (but she still needs that occational chicken neck to keep the engine running) and most of the time, you can’t tell that it’s a ”trained” tug. I’m convinced that she wouldn’t run half as fast if I didn’t use tugging in training. I can also see how tugging is getting more and more reinforcing for her, that she really does enjoy it more and more.

When developing our young dogs, we always have a goal in the back of our heads. We want the dog to grab the toy immediatly when it’s presented (or cued), tug intensly with weight shift and a straight top line (from head to tail). We want to be able to be passive (moving equipment around, talking to the instructor or student, filling up with more treats) and still have the dog tugging on the toy. If we tell the dog to ”out”, we want the dog to drop the toy. If we throw a toy or let the dog win while tugging, we want the dog to come right into us and deliver it to hand (we use a hand touch for this). At the same time, we want the dog to have fun and find tugging reinforcing.

This is a long term goal. It does not mean that all playing must look that way from the start. If the dog prefers to just chase a toy, that’s where we’ll begin. If we have to be very active to get the dog tugging, we will be. Our first priority is to get the dog to have fun with a toy. I think that good dog trainers have the ability to have a lot of fun with the dog, while reinforcing behaviors that will bring him closer to the long term goal. To reinforce behaviors while playing does not mean that you have to click and treat. It could be that you get more intense when the dog pulls harder, that you let the dog win when he weight shifts. You can find out what your dog really finds reinforcing when playing and use that to reinforce glimpses of what you’d like to see more of in the future. If you reinforce increased intensity in that way, your dog will be more intense and then also enjoying tugging more.

We feel that playing is addictive. You can starve a dog and get him to work better for treats, but it doesn’t work that way with playing. Play regularly with your dog to increase his love for playing. But don’t play for long. Always end the game when it’s at it’s best and make sure that you are ending the game, not the dog. You want the dog to be a bit disappointed when the game ends, dancing after you to get it to start again. That might mean that the first sessions are so short that the dog doesn’t even get to grab the toy, just chase it with high intensity, before it goes away.

Pick the right opportunity to start playing with your dog. You don’t want to present a toy and fail in getting the dog to play. It’s a common misstake to give up way to fast if the dog isn’t immediatly turned on to the game. Some dogs are slow starters in the beginning, but don’t give up. Don’t try to force the toy on the dog, rather act as if the toy is really valuable to you and you’re having a lot of fun with it. Experiment with different ways to get your dog started. Pick really fun toys and make sure that there is a piece of rope or a long handle on it, so that you can drag it along the ground and get it away from your body. Turn away from the dog and drag the toy away.

You can absolutely use food to reinforce tugging and transfer the value from one reward to another. It does require good dog training skills and it isn’t my first choice. It is really important that the criteria is raised fairly fast and that the dog is really engaging in the game before the food is presented. To use few, but really attractive food rewards is better than to use many pieces of low quality food. Timing is also really important; make sure that the dog is really into the game of tugging before the reward marker is used. If you use food to reinforce play, it’s still important for you to be active and have fun while playing. You want the dog to find out how fun playing can be even without food rewards.

This blog post could go on for ever. I’m making it shorter by ending with a few tips in a list. These points has helped me to increase tug drive in my own dogs:

  • Start all your training sessions with a game of tug.
  • Tug with your dogs for every 3-5 pieces of food you give him in training
  • Put running around with the toy on cue and use it to reward good tugging
  • Let the dog tug with you before he can have his food at every meal
  • Play in many different settings
  • Find really good toys (sheep skin, real fur, braided fleece etc.)
  • Snatch the toy away from the dog if he looses the toy. Tease him with it for a while before he can have it again.
  • Check out Susan Garretts ”How to create a motivational toy”.
  • Put sticky food (raw tripe, minced meat, liver pâté or similar) into a wool stocking and let your dog chase it. As he grabs the toy he’ll get a taste sensation directly in his mouth. (NB! Make sure your dog doesn’t get hold of the toy at any time, as it can be dangerous if he tries to swallow it).
  • Encourage interest in objects, grabbing, holding and weight shifting in your regular training sessions – train picking things up, retrieving, pulling on dead objects etc. and reward with food. But don’t forget the unrestrained, fun play. This is just a complement.
  • Don’t ever give your dog a treat if he refuses to play (rather put the dog away if you decide to give up).
  • Get your dog aroused before presenting the toy. Do restrained recalls, let the dog chase you or wrestle with your dog (if he likes to).
  • Believe that it really is possible to get your dog to tug. It is!

Long Time No See

Wow, I’ve been really bad at updating the english blog lately. It’s been a hectic month with lots of teaching. I was in Sweden for a week teaching agility, shaping and obedience. I was unfortunatly really ill all week and couldn’t be at my best. This week and the past weekend has been dedicated to our groups of trainers that work with us for 4-6 weekends in a year. Six days of teaching out of nine. These groups are usually the most fun to teach, as they are very ambitious and you get to see them make a lot of progress. We’re done with two groups (one at home and one in Bergen) and a third group are coming here tomorrow. I got ill again yesterday when teaching and am sitting by the computer, drinking tea, to get well before tomorrow.

We’ve had time for some dog training as well. Shejpa has been taking time off from agility since we detected some pain in her back. She should be back soon and we have a few trials planned for late April and early May. We’re going back to the physiotherapist next week and hope that she’s not in pain any more. It’s not a big thing, you can’t tell that she’s in pain unless you press on a specific spot. Shejpa turned three on Sunday!

Missy was supposed to do an obedience trial in early April, but she came into heat (along with Pi and Shejpa) last week. You are not allowed to trial i bitch in heat at national trials in Sweden, so we have to wait until May. She’s doing well in training. A lot of things are working great. Most of the work we do is on longer sequences in a trial like setting and getting her in a calm mode for heeling.

Squid is now 6,5 months old. She is still a very nice and social puppy. She’s never been really crazy in training (except for restrained recalls and circle work) and I have been fine with that since I have one over-the-top-border collie and I know that they usually get more crazy with age. But I have found that I have a problem with getting her to drive away from me with speed to a crate or target. She runs well to a toy or bowl of food, but the transfer of value hasn’t happened with the target and crate. I have increased the intensity in her tugging, worked with really high value rewards, short distances and short sessions to build a lot of value for targeting and driving into the crate. Still, we’re not having any real success with it. It might come when she gets older, but I’m not ready to just cross my fingers. There has to be something more that can be done.

We’re working a lot on focus at the time. At six months, a lot of puppies get more easily distracted and that’s true for Squid as well. We work a lot on tugging and then just snatching the you away from her and walk away. When she comes back to heel position and walks with focus for a while, the game is back on. Works well and she is getting better and better. We’ve also been working on a few new tricks and she has been travelling with me and is really good at relaxing in her open crate.

Squid tugging

We’ve started some more training for search and rescue (wich is a sport in Norway and Sweden). At first, we worked a few sessions on just driving to new people and tugging with them. She loves it and we’ve done one session in the woods where we worked some on using the wind to find people and some on running straight out in the woods to get to the person. She really likes to use her nose and I have also noticed that she likes tracking. I’m not planning on doing any tracking with her, but a girl working for us right now tried some tracking with her today and she was really good at it.

Oh, and by the way. Thomas decided that he needed a cocker of his own, so he picked up Pogue, a male working cocker. Pogue is 5 months old and a really sweet dog!