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Dog Training and Understanding

“I can’t believe it! Another session where I wanted her to turn right, but I gave the cue for turning left over and over without realising”. One of my friends was very upset with herself after an agility session yesterday. I think many agility trainers and handlers have been in this situation. Always giving the right cue is hard! This is interesting to me, because we expect our dogs to respond correctly to our cues at all times, and to always perform according to criteria. If they don’t, we often conclude that they “don’t understand”.

Understanding is a vague concept, and also maybe not as important as we think. There are a lot of things that I as a human “understand”, but still manage to get wrong a lot of the time. Like giving the right cue while running agility, not pulling on a door when there’s a sign that says “push”, not eating that piece of chocolate cake that I understand is bad for me, and so on. On the other hand, there are things that I do that are driven by reinforcement or punishment that I don’t understand. I might not even be aware of them. Change in behavior often happens long before we consciously are aware of how we changed something, or even why. I suspect that many of the behaviors that I perform without understanding – or even awareness – are stronger than some that I understand I should perform…

Understanding and teaching new beahviors

When teaching new behaviors, some people are reluctant to reward behaviors that happen without apparent intent from the dog. When I ask why the (correct) behavior wasn’t rewarded, the answer often is “But he didn’t do it on purpose!”. My answer is always to not worry about what the dog is thinking, instead only focusing on what the dog is doing. Reinforcement builds behavior, whether the behavior is deliberate or not. Grab any chance to reinforce the behavior that you want! It’s really cool to capture behaviors with a puppy or a dog not used to training. First, you’ll see the behavior becoming more frequent without any apparent “understanding” from the pup. Second, you’ll see the lightbulb moment, where the dog goes: “Really?! If I do this, I get a treat?” and they do it again with more obvious intent. With more experienced dogs, the “understanding” part usually happens much faster, as they are used to the concept of training and are deliberately looking for understanding in a different way. That said – just because the dog seems to “understand” that a behavior leads to reinforcement does not mean that we’ll have a solid understanding every time.

Getting a solid performance – What’s understanding got to do with it?

So why is it that we often experience that our dogs does not perform like we think we have taught them? There’s one type of dog trainer that will say: “I’m sure that he knows it, he just choses do to otherwise”. This is often associated with a more traditional training style, where the dog should perform because we say so, and failure to do so is a sign of the dog giving us the finger. At the other end of the spectrum, I find friends and clients who will say “He made a mistake, so I don’t think he understands at all”. The notion is that if the dog just understands, he’ll be perfect every time. And superficially, that makes sense. If the dog knows that x leads to reinforcement and y leads to nothing – why wouldn’t he chose x every time? There are many reasons why our training fails to produce perfect performance every time. I could probably write a book just listing things that we often do wrong, or fail to consider. And I still wouldn’t have all the answers.

I do think that it is possible – maybe even productive – to talk about the dog “understanding”. There is a difference between knowing what you’re doing and just doing it without ever thinking about it. I think that is true for dogs as well. The first layer of understanding might be that “lightbulb moment” where the dog seems to deliberately perform the behavior in order to get reinforcement. The next step could be when we see the dog fixing a mistake after a no reward event. Third layer could be when the dog is able to use the “understanding” to perform the behavior when we change the setting. I definitely feel more confident in my dogs understanding if I see that they have the ability to correct a mistake that they make and to figure out how to perform the behavior in a different setting.

Reinforcement still trumps understanding

It’s important to remember that “understanding” is a vague term and that it in no way is a guarantee – or even a requirement – of solid performance. It doesn’t matter if the dog understands the behavior if it isn’t important to him. Reinforcement makes the behavior important. The dog must want to do it for understanding to even be a factor to consider. Understanding without motivation is worthless. And there’s another thing: Even if the dog both wants and knows, it must be important to him to get it right on the first try. Let’s talk about human behavior again:

There are lots of things that I know how to do and am motivated to do. Like writing right now. I know that the letter “K” on my keyboard makes the letter k appear on the screen. And I want it too, because I want to write “keyboard” and I also like it to be easy to read. I still quite often hit the “L” when I try to write keyboard. It’s not a big deal, because just as quickly as I hit that wrong key, I can correct it with the back space key and keep on writing. I do that a lot. Not because I don’t know how to do it, but because it’s easier to make a few mistakes and correct them as I go, than to try to be perfect on the first try. Now if I had to find correction fluid to fix my error, or maybe start the whole blog post over again, I’d be much more careful with my fingers (and a lot slower).

I think the same often is true for dogs, especially dogs that are highly motivated and like to do things fast. It doesn’t matter if they miss that weave entry the first time, because we’ll call them back and send them back in in no time. It doesn’t matter to them if they sit when we ask them to “down”, because we’ll repeat that cue in a second and they can fix it really fast. If we want them to care about getting it right the first time, we have to make it important to be correct on the first try.

Also: Sometimes I just forget things. I know that I absolutely know the answer to a question, but I can’t seem to retrieve it from my mind at that moment. This happens most often when I’m really stressed and short on time. Sometimes I make a mistake with something I’ve done a thousand times without problems. Sometimes I forget things. It’s human. And dogs are human too in this regard.

Comment!

What is understanding to you? Which factors are most important in creating a reliable behavior? I hope to be able to get back to you with more ideas on what should be considered during the weekend. I sprained my ankle quite badly yesterday, and might have to spend more time in front of the computer than I’d like.

More on Engagement – Pi

Writing about my early training with Spy and teaching engagement made me think about Pi. She is an English Setter that moved in with us 10 years ago (she is now living a spoiled and active life with Thomas’ sister in Oslo). She came at a time where I was really excited about training a new puppy, so even though she was bought for hunting, I started training her with obedience in mind. She was such a fun puppy to train – very focused and deliberate in her actions. She learned lots of tricks and behaviors for obedience and we had a great time.

She was born in summer, so we spent most of our training time in the kitchen during the winter when she was half a year old. As spring came, we started to train more outdoors. She went from puppyhood into adolescence and hunting drive kicked in. This coincided with lots of spring birds competing for her attention. I fel like I didn’t have that focused dog from the kitchen anymore, and I decided that I probably needed to interrupt her looking at the birds, as it might be very reinforcing to a young setter. So whenever she was disengaged and looking for birds (and sometimes just staring at the horizon, as setter do) I’d call her back to me. I’d use her name or a cue like “heel” to bring her to me, and she always responded and started to work.

A few months after that decision, we held an obedience seminar away from home, and I used Pi as a demo dog for down from motion. She started out a bit disengaged and split her attention between me and the magpies on the ground. I then decided I wanted her to offer a down without a verbal cue and started waiting her out. She didn’t quite understand what I wanted, but tried lots of other things. As I remembered it, she worked for several minutes without a reward, and without ever looking away from me. She was the same dog that I usually had in the kitchen when we were working on tricks. And then it dawned on me. She wasn’t “distracted”, “hunting dog” or “teenager” – I had created a less engaged dog outdoors because I’d shown her that she never had to be attentive to me. I always told her when it was time to work.

When I realised this, we went to a dog training club to train. We were travelling, so it wasn’t where we usually trained and I didn’t know any people there. It was mostly older men with GSD:s and they looked at me very strangely as I started my session. I kept her on a leash and let her stare all she wanted at things. When she finally looked back at me (after what felt like minutes), I threw her a party with the best rewards I had and then waited again. She stared away from me again, but checked back sooner this time. She got the idea after a few rewards and turned back to me immediately once I stopped rewarding. I could increase my criteria to coming to heel position and then heeling for longer and longer stretches.

This session was pivotal to us. From thereon, everything went smoothly. Pi did her first obedience trial at 11 months old (still the youngest dog I’ve ever trialled in obedience) and did great. She immediately qualified for the next level and we had a great time in the ring despite birds everywhere. My experience with Pi changed my outlook on engagement a lot and made me realise that most dogs that are distracted are so because we allow it. It doesn’t matter if we use lures, cues or corrections – the outcome is often the same. Only when we make it the dog’s responsibility to be engaged in order to get rewards will we have true and lasting engagement.

Teaching Engagement

In training my dogs for sports like agility or obedience, there is one thing that is my priority above and beyond everything else: My dog should always ask to work and always want the training more than I do. Let’s call it “engagement”. If I don’t have that, I’ll always have to make huge compromises in training, and it will probably not hold up for competition anyway. I will therefore always work on this first and put other things on hold.

There are two components to teaching engagement. First, you need to develop great rewards. If you don’t have a reward that your dog is really excited about, he’ll probably not get excited about training either. But remember: A reward is not a thing, a reward is an event that creates feelings of joy and excitement for your dog. If your dog is not excited about food or play in itself, you need to figure out what brings your dog joy and associate rewards with those feelings.

Second, your dog needs to learn that he is responsible for making rewards happen. He needs to do in order to get. There are a lot of dogs that aren’t engaged even though they actually really enjoy the rewards. We can easily create a disengaged dog by poor timing and bad training choices. So many dogs have learned that the best way to get engagement out of their humans is to disengage, run away or show signs of frustration. Timing is everything! There is truth in the saying that you need to be “more fun” in order to get your dog to engage, but it is crucial that the trainer brings the fun when the dog is bringing engagement, not the other way around.

I’ve probably written about this many times in the past, as it is such a key element in my training and teaching. The reason I wanted to bring it up again is that it’s what I’m working on with Spy. She is now 15 months old and she’s been with me almost half a year. Creating a driven agility dog out of an adolescent dog brought up in a shed on Ireland has been a longer process than I imagined. I still think we’ll get there, and I’m learning so much in the process, but I have to be very patient. To me, patience means that I think much more about creating that perfect training flow than I think about specific skills. She does know a few skills – she can sit, do a jumping stand, circle a cone, get in a bed, do a nose touch – if she is motivated and nothing distracts her.

Spy really likes to play with me, which is great! It took months for her to be confident enough to play, but now she’s just getting more and more excited about it. Treats are not important to her at all, she’ll only work for them if absolutely nothing distracts her (and it helps if she’s hungry). I try to use a lot of praise, social interaction and play to increase the value of food rewards, and we’re making progress, but it will get much easier once she understands to be really engaged in our play sessions.

Although she really likes to play, she isn’t really engaged. She is very easily distracted and will often disengage within seconds after I take the toy away. It’s much easier if I keep moving, and harder if I stand still. I try to mix it up in our sessions: Sometimes I’ll move away from her after taking the toy away and she has to do a little more to get the toy back. Sometimes I’ll stand still and wait for any kind of engagement – a glance at my face for example – before I initiate play again. Timing is of course really important: Me moving away makes it easier and more fun for her, so I do that while she is still engaged, not when she’s sniffing the grass or staring into space.

I videotaped a session today (I actually video most of my sessions, it helps me with structure and evaluation) for you to see. I should probably have kept the session a bit shorter. She starts to disengage at about 1:20 into the session, and she takes off from me at 3 minutes. I’m not sure if it’s best to keep her sessions really short so that she never disengages, or if it’s actually a good thing for her to check out and then come back to work. I lean towards now stressing about the checking out, because she got better after a few repetitions where I had to wait a little. I definitely should have ended before she took off, because 3 minutes is more than enough for any dog. Notice that I am calling her back once she’s left, but only as she has turned around and is headed back to me. I reinforce that decision with a game of chase and play, and also build value for her name/recall in a situation where I know she’ll be successful.

Questions? Leave a comment and I’ll answer as soon as possible!

If you want to learn more on developing rewards, building engagement and teaching skills, you should check out our Foundation Class starting on August 14

Happy Birthday Spy!

Today is Spy’s first birthday. We’ve celebrated with our first successful play session outdoors and our first ever session on backwards heeling. I teach heeling by walking backwards and having the dog follow me. One of the things that I love about this method is how it can be modified for any level, and how it encourages focus and engagement in training. I was very happy that Spy stayed with me through the training session, and that she was happy to switch between food rewards and play.

We started Foundation Class Online yesterday, and I have decided to follow the lessons with Spy. She’s definitely ready for it now and it will be great for her to try all the different behaviors in class. It will also be great for everybody in class to see how I work with her and what we’re struggling with. You can still sign up if you want to join the fun!

Spy herding

Right now we’re waiting for Squid to start whelping. She’s been restless and focusing on digging in the whelping box (although she also tried a tunnel and under the playhouse in the garden). It’s going to be a long night… Bet’s puppies are two weeks old today and have opened their eyes. We’re also in the middle of lambing and have gotten 10 lambs so far. All the babies are keeping me very busy.

Update on Spy

Sorry for not giving you enough updates on what’s happening with Spy. It’s been a very intense time. In the past month, I’ve travelled to Canada, Switzerland, south of Sweden and Italy. I’ve hosted a seminar at home, delivered puppies and fought a persistent flu. The first lambs were born in the beginning of this week, and I’m getting ready to travel to Norway for the weekend. Since I’ve been travelling so much I haven’t had a lot of time to work with Spy. We have made a lot of progress in herding. She learns quickly and is very focused. Training for agility and obedience is harder, since I have to teach her everything from scratch. It’s not like starting with a puppy. A puppy is usually easy to reward, offers a lot of behaviors and progress is very fast. With Spy I’ve had to work on building food and toy rewards and for her to offer behavior.

She will now happily eat from my hand and can offer some behaviors. I’ve shaped her to put her feet on things and to back up. I didn’t introduce play until I felt that she was ready for it. I wanted her to feel safe with me and develop her playful side with the other dogs first. My first attempt at playing was done outdoors, which was a mistake. She wasn’t interested until I got Bud out and played with them together. Bud has been very helpful in training Spy. She looks up to him and relaxes more when he’s around. In some of our early training sessions she got worried and wanted to leave, but having Bud around and training him at the same time really helped in getting her to feel both safe and excited.

Next time, I tried indoors and was more successful. When introducing play, I use a soft toy on a long line that I can drag on the floor away from the dog. I don’t care if the dog actually grabs the toy – all I want is for her to get engaged and chase it. I try to use playful body language and to quit while the dog is engaged in play and still wants more. Here’s a video of our very first play session indoors (March 20). I was very excited that it went so well.

Another area that I focus on with Spy is her physical fitness. She is surprisingly strong and coordinated considering that she probably hasn’t been conditioned much as a puppy. I use our walks in the forest to build core strength, balance and coordination. We alternate between walking slowly on uneven ground off track, off leash running and balancing on fallen trees and stones. We have a beautiful forest just 5 minutes away where I walk my dogs. We rarely meet anyone there and it is perfect for conditioning. The ground is covered in moss and blueberry bushes and I spend a lot of time just walking slowly with the dogs behind me so that they have to lift their feet in a walk.

Dogs in the forest

My number one priority is building a great relationship with Spy. It takes more time with a dog this age, but we’re getting there. Relationship is a vague word that some dog trainers avoid, but I think it’s important to talk about it and define it. For me, a great relationship with a dog means that the dog trusts me and feels safe with me. If something is scary, the dog looks to me for support and guidance. When Spy came here, her response to something that scared her (for example heavy machines working in the forest) was to run away and hide. With time, I want her to come to me when something is scary, and even more importantly – not get scared when seeing that I’m not. A great relationship is also about the dog viewing me as a resource. Someone who provides fun games and meaningful work in their life. Good things come through and with me.

So far, I’m really happy that I decided to take a chance on Spy, and I’m excited to see what the future brings for us!

 

Irish Spy

A few weeks ago, I got in the car and drove, drove and drove some more. Drove until I ended up on Ireland and met Spy, whom I previously only had seen in a shaky 90 second video. I randomly found Spy on YouTube one day. The video was recently uploaded and it said she was for sale, but there was no contact information or location. It was love at first sight, and I spent hours doing detective work until I finally found the ad on an Irish site.

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Spy on an agility field in England

Epic and Bud joined me in the car and we did some sheepdog training on Ireland before heading back to England where we took some pictures for my upcoming agility book (in Swedish, sorry). We watched a sheepdog trial and trained some more before we headed home. My car broke down in Germany on the Autobahn between Bremen and Hamburg. I had to stop, call for assistance and try to find a place to stay with three dogs within walking distance from the auto repair shop. Spy had probably never been indoors before and it turned out she was in heat. Dragging all my luggage plus handling two male dogs and a bitch in heat through the small German town wasn’t easy. Spy got to sleep in the bathroom and handled it well. I thankfully got the car fixed in a day and we returned to Sweden on the Tuesday night, nine days after leaving Sweden.

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Spy and Holly in the woods with Thomas

Spy has now lived with us for two weeks, and we’re still getting to know her. She’s 10 months old and hasn’t lived inside a house before. It amazing how quickly she has adjusted to life in our pack. She seems housebroken, which is remarkable considering how she’s lived before. Developing a good relationship with her is a work in progress, and very different from starting with a young puppy. I hope to make an agility dog out of her – in addition to sheepdog of course – but right now we’re just focusing on becoming friends and to even take food from my hand. It’s such a simple thing for a small puppy, but so hard for her. She enjoys food, but eating it from my hand is not very interesting and she doesn’t do it in all situations. The step from taking food to actually working for it seems even more difficult.

I bought her because she looked amazing when working sheep, and she does that well in Sweden too. She isn’t trained, but has a natural and mature way with sheep. I think she’s ready for training despite her young age. Our relationship will be the most important thing around sheep too. She needs to trust me and want to listen to what I have to say.

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We got some more snow the other day… Spy herding sheep outside our house

It’s very exciting to get to know a new individual. There are new sides to her to discover all the time, as she gets more comfortable here. Right now, I realised that she gets very excited when Thomas is training and playing with Holly in another room. We might have to work a bit on staying calm when others are working. I hope that we can start to train and play together soon. She seems to be interested in toys, but I haven’t dared to try to play with her just yet.

Have you got experiences with starting to train an older dog that hasn’t been exposed to family life and training before? Maybe a rescue? Please share your experiences in the comments section below.

Puppy Play

The three girls got their very first training session today. I’m not sure if you can call it training, but I played with them for a few minutes each. Of course, they have been playing with me a bit before, but nothing planned. All three seemed to enjoy playing. Holly is the most intense and most interested in toys. Ivy is more socially interested and really wants to cuddle. Fern is somewhere in between. I’m very excited to try a shaping session with each of them too, to see how they might be different there. The only “training” I’ve done is to let them eat some treats from my hands (puppies don’t really understand that concept until you show them).

They are 10 weeks now and obviously I haven’t done much training with them. I usually think talking about “puppies being puppies” is strange (what else would they be?), but that’s really what they have been until now. Just three puppies exploring the environment, playing with each other, interacting with the older dogs and sleeping in a pile.

In order of appearance: Fern, Ivy, Holly

Bud’s Agility Debut

The dogs and I went to Mora this weekend for agility competitions. I was just going to run Epic and Squid in class 3, but last week I asked if I could do a late entry and run Bud in jumping class 1 on Sunday morning. I feel that Bud is more than ready for class 1 handling, but he needs more work on some obstacles. My goal with him has been to be very well prepared for his first trial, so in that sense I failed. The first run of the day had both the tire and the flat tunnel in it, and I did not feel confident that he would do them on the first try if I was running normally. The tire was obstacle number two, so I could help him get that right and he did also do the flat tunnel on the first try (but with some hesitation). I guess we can consider it a good training session for the future. He dropped a bar on a tight turn out of a very fast line. I think I was a bit behind and maybe not as clear as I should have been.

The second run was with just tunnels, jumps and weaves, but with much more handling. It suited us better and I was very pleased to feel confident that I could handle him the way I would have with one of the older dogs. He was clean and fast enough to win the class! He behaved nicely before and after his runs and seemed to enjoy finally getting to run and not just watch others at a competition. Now we’ll train for another month before his next trial, where he’ll also get to try standard agility.

Holly, Fern and Ivy

These are Bud’s three little sisters that are staying with us – at least for a while. They are 8 weeks old now and their two sisters Moss and Bracken are moving to their new homes. All three are just lovely and I’m excited to see how they will turn out. One of them (I don’t know who) will probably move to a new, great home in a month or so. Our reason for keeping three puppies is to be able to evaluate them more and decide which one – if any – will be suited for breeding and maybe sheepdog trials with us (or with someone else on breeding terms). If we decide that one of them are not what we’re looking for, we make sure that they end up in the best home possible with someone that is perfect for them. One big advantage in breeding sheepdogs and teaching/competing in other dog sports is that we know lots of great people that provide excellent homes. I really prefer to sell other puppies/dogs if I have the choice, as it is easier to make a perfect match when you know more about the dog.

I’m getting ready for a weekend of agility trialing tonight. I will miss the puppies. When I get back, I might try their first training sessions. It’s always very interesting to observe them in new situations.

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Holly – loves to tug and play. Very happy and focused.

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Fern – loves Thomas and would prefer to stay close to him all the time.

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Ivy – went for an evening walk with me and my dogs tonight. The other puppies decided to stay by the house.