Advent Calendar 2011

23 – More shaping with Sarek

My family has arrived and we’re ready for Christmas. I had to excuse myself for a while to make this video where Sarek learns to put his head on the floor during the long down. This is a common style in Nordic obedience, where it can be a good thing with clear criteria for the dogs head. I trained it just to show you some more shaping (and because I have some students working on this), but maybe Thomas will choose to use it in obedience later on. We had four sessions, two around the sofa and two on the floor. I have cut out about half of the training, because the video would be too long and boring otherwise.

21 – Shaping Sit Up with Sarek

Sarek and I had our first session with sit up from down today. I thought it might be interesting for you to see a shaping session where a new behavior is shaped from scratch. It’s of course just a start. I’d do one more session to get more fluency, then try to teach him to sit pretty to get more strength and power. Sit pretty is a really good behavior to have on the repertoire if you want nice sit up from down.

20 – Smart enough to know the difference?

This post is a bit connected to yesterday’s post about innate behavior. I said that if you don’t want a behavior in training, don’t allow it to be rehearsed in other places in your life. It could be that your obedience dog is making a lot of noise when waiting to get of of the front door, or that your dog is running around on his own with toys between repetitions in training, or that you’re rewarding a lot of blind crosses in freestyle, but don’t want them for agility. I’m not saying that these things have to be a problem. I know a lot of dogs that run around with their toys a lot, but still have a great retrieve. And I know a lot of dogs that make noise in some situations in life but never in obedience. You don’t need to create problems that aren’t there. But if you are having a problem with a behavior that seems hard to solve, it could be a great idea to look at what happens 24/7 with your dog. And with a puppy, you really don’t know what will become a problem, so I won’t allow my puppies to rehearse behaviors I don’t want to see (flanking me, eyeing rewards or equipment, blind crossing me, running with toys on their own in training etc.). I will rather build value for the behaviors I want in as many situations as possible.

I do have some problems with obedience behaviors that are contradicting what I’m trying to teach my agility dogs. In agility, I want the dog to come straight to the front of me if I’m facing the dog. In obedience, I want the dog to aim for my left side and go deep before turning around (all you guys doing front and finish for obedience have an advantage here 😉 ). This might sound like a small thing and people usually say “don’t you think dogs are smart enough to know the difference?”. I totally believe that dogs are smart enough to be able to tell the difference between different situations. It’s just that it takes a lot more training. And if I want the dog to make out the difference between agility and everything else, I will need to do a lot more training on equipment. I like to train my agility dogs a lot without equipment. It’s both easier (can be done anywhere, any time) and is more healthy for my dogs. Since I try to make agility handling rules part of our every day interaction, I don’t have to do a lot of training on jumps. If I reinforced a lot of contradicting behaviors in every day life and in training without agility equipment, I would have to spend a lot more time on the agility field. It’s of course possible, but I wouldn’t do it just because I’m to lazy to think about what my dogs are doing when we interact outside of agility.

We had a wonderful time herding this morning. A thin layer of snow and the rising sun. To my great relief, all the “naughty” behaviors we want in herding (stalking, flanking, blind crossing etc.) does not seem to affect other areas of our life and training with the dogs. 

19 – Innate Behavior Causing Trouble

We now have a cosmetic layer of snow that brings the right Christmas spirit, but still allows us to train herding in the big field and take walks in the woods. Perfect! We’ve been doing a few hours herding and then a couple of hours of agility and obedience in the riding facility every day. In the blog today, I thought I’d write about how our dogs innate behaviors can give us challenges in training. One might think that the retrieve would be easier to teach a retrieving breed, but we’ve found that it’s not like that at all. Teaching our cockers a nice retrieve for obedience has proven to be a great challenge. Shejpa doesn’t do competitive obedience (if you ask her, she doesn’t do any obedience at all…) so I haven’t put much work into it, but Thomas has worked a lot with Pogue.

Pogue is a natural retriever and loves to carry things around. His natural reaction is to carefully pack objects in his mouth, then trot around in circles with them. Both things are not very good for obedience, where we want the dog to grip fast, hold hard and run fast. Even though Pogue knows these things when working on the details, it’s often much worse when the behaviors are performed in a sequence. It’s a constant struggle to get him to not fall back on what he was bred to do.

Thomas has never cared much about what Pogue does once he gets a toy. He’s been happy to let Pogue trot around with his toys between repetitions in training. But then he realized that Pogue was actually repeating the behavior he doesn’t want in retrieving over and over again. 95% of the time when Pogue picked up an object in training, he was allowed to have fun on his own with it and the behavior got even stronger. When Thomas realized this, he started to look at all these situations as an opportunity to build a new habit. Every time Pogue got his toy, Thomas would give a verbal cue (“ja!”) and throw a new toy or a big piece of food the other way. Pogue soon begun to expect the new reward and started to turn to Thomas when he grabbed his toy. This required a new kind of concentration from Thomas, who was used to leaving Pogue on his own between repetitions, but made a big difference to the retrieve in obedience.

You can find many examples like these in training – like doing loads of circle work to keep your border collie from flanking, then disconnecting from him between repetitions in agility training, not noticing that he is flanking you all the way back to the start line. It might not seem like a big deal, but these innate behaviors do not need to be rehearsed much since they are so natural and so reinforcing to the dog. If you allow them to happen a lot outside of training (or even in training, like the two examples above), they might be hard to get rid of when you don’t want them in training. With my border collies, I don’t ever need or want flanking and eyeing in training, so I never allow it to happen. And I’m happy to report that a lot of herding does not seem to make them more likely to show it when there isn’t any sheep around.

18 – Jump Grid or Handling Exercise?

It looks like we’re getting a green Christmas this year. Last year we had -23°C and a lot of snow this time of year. Right now it’s just around 0°C. We’ve had some snow, but most of it is gone now. I don’t mind green fields for Christmas at all, we’ve spent many hours herding in our big field last week and it’s just wonderful to still be able to do that. Agility training is done indoors now, my field is too muddy and icy. We’ve spent quite a lot of time in the riding facility the past week, training contacts, weaves, jump grids and handling.

Epic took some bars down at the handling seminar last week, so I’m going to work on some jumping with him. He jumps well, but seems to struggle a bit with his striding at times. I set up an exercise last night that was really challenging for him. As the dog gets better at jumping, the exercises look more and more like “real” agility. This exercise looks really easy – it’s just a straight line and a pinwheel, but you could really see the dogs struggle. It makes me realize that what we think is easy really isn’t for the dogs. What we require of them in a simple class 1 course can be really challenging when it comes to jumping. When Squid did her first trial in class 1, the distance between jump 2 and 3 was 3,5 meters and a lot of dogs crashed into the bar at jump 3.

This exercise was easier for Squid that has more experience, but she had to work hard. Epic struggled a bit with the straight line and dropped some bars in the beginning – but never made the same mistake twice. I started with just running the straight line in both directions and then worked on the pinwheel, where I want one steady stride between each jump and a tight line. The jumps were 55, 60 and 65 centimeters high. All the jumps in the pinwheel were 55 cm high.

I ended with some handling where the dog did both the straight one stride line and the pinwheel. 1-10 (light circles) were run with rear cross at 8 and I also tried starting the dog on my right, rear crossing 4. With number 1-11 (dark squares), I worked on leaving the dog as soon as they took off on 6 – having them chase me down the line to the finish. Great training! Can’t wait to get back to a similar exercise next week and see if the dogs have improved, I’m sure they have.

17 – The right attitude

We’re talking a lot about getting the right attitude for every behavior we teach the dog. It’s especially interesting in obedience, since there are so many different kinds of behaviors that needs different attitudes. When we’re talking about “attitude”, we’re really talking about the state the dog is in during training. It’s about focus, level of arousal and feelings – a general state of mind. Getting the correct attitude before we start and then making sure it stays that way during the session will make sure that we get more correct responses and that we associate the right feeling to the behavior. This is especially important during the initial learning, and if we’re experiencing problems. Later on, the dog will hopefully do some of the work him self, adjusting for example his level of arousal depending on the task.

When training the retrieve, I want the dog to be highly aroused and ready to move. Since I want the dog to grip fast and hold tight, I’m glad to associate the feelings we get from tugging to the behavior that I want with the dumbbell. I would not start a retrieve session unless my dog was highly aroused and was tugging well. (There is of course the odd exception to this rule, with dogs that get over aroused by dumbbells, where you might want to go for a calmer attitude.)

Example retrieve:

  • Tugging and/or chasing games to get arousal up
  • Tugging before and between repetitions to get the dog thinking about gripping and holding.
  • Frequent tugging between repetitions if I reward with food
  • Short session

If my dog has that same attitude when I’m working on precise movements for distance control or when I’m working on a nose freeze on the article that smells like me, I’m very likely to get a lot of mistakes. This will lead to that I either reward things that I don’t really like, or a dog that gets frustrated from lack of reinforcement. For this, I want a much calmer dog with more concentration.

Example distant control

  • Start with play to get the dog awake and aroused, but more focus on self control in play
  • Start session with some reversed luring and/or pushing and pulling on the dogs feet in stand to get the dog focusing on keeping feet still
  • Go back to reversed luring and/or pushing and pulling on feet if the dog is making too many mistakes
  • Reward in position
  • Take frequent breaks where the dog gets to play so that he can keep focused and also move around a bit between repetitions

This is really hard to explain in writing, so please ask any questions you might have in the comments section.

15 – Training Sequences

Tonight, I had a handling class in our riding facility. I ran my dogs after class and Squid got to go agility for the first time since her little accident nearly three weeks ago. She was just crazy fast and I had to spend some time working on her turns… I wouldn’t have thought that a few years ago. Epic felt really slow in comparison, but I don’t doubt that he’ll be even faster in the end. There is no need to rush that, I’m happy as long as he does everything with full focus and enthusiasm. Here are the sequences we ran, you might want to try them.

14 – Different Kinds of Reward Markers

I want my dogs to know a few different reward markers that I can use in different situations. A click or a verbal “yes” means that a reward is coming from me. The click can end the behavior even if it’s a controlled behavior like a sit stay or a nose touch contact, while just praise doesn’t.

One of the most important reward markers is a word that means that the dog can get an external reward. This word should not be the same as praise, or as a word that means that a reward is coming from you. I would suggest that the word means “get what you want the most”. It can be used to let the dog sniff the ground, chase a leaf, take a swim, get the treats on the floor etc.

For obedience, I want a word that means “turn around as fast as you can and run back to an external reward (even if you don’t know it’s there). So far, I’ve used the same word (“varsågod”) for this as I have for the “get what you want the most”. It has worked well, but I don’t think it is perfect. I would prefer two different words.

You can also teach the dog more specific release words, like “go pee”, “take a swim”, “go for a run”, “see the person” etc. I think it’s very practical and also good stimulus control training in everyday life.

What kind of reward markers do you use?