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Puppy Training

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

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

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.

Training with Bud and raising puppies

It’s November already, and unfortunately winter came early this year. It’s snowing, so my agility equipment is covered in snow and sheep have had to move indoors for the winter. Winters in Sweden can be really depressing, but I’m a bit more optimistic this year as we’ve got a new indoor agility facility just 15 minutes from home. I do some training on my own there, teach class once a week and train with friends every two weeks. Here are some clips of Bud from training with friends yesterday. Things are starting to come together. He’s responsive to my handling, jumps nicely, weaves with confidence, and did his first A-frame in a sequence yesterday! It looks like he’s figured out how to run it without flying too far over the apex (another “let the dog tell you when he’s ready” situation). We still have a lot of things to work on (like that weave situation that he didn’t understand, and always jumping the tire/wall jump/spread, and consistently doing perfect seesaws, and…), but we’re having so much fun getting ready for his first competition in December.

Bud’s five little sisters were born 8 weeks ago. They are absolutely adorable and so much fun. Two of them will move to new homes this week, and three will stay with us – at least for a while until we know more about them. I’m very excited to see how they will turn out. Raising puppies is a lot of fun, and a lot of work. I believe the most important things in raising good puppies is good genes. No amount of socialisation or stimulation will make up for breeding from nervous dogs. And puppies with good genes generally turn out really good even if they are raised with just basic socialisation. I’m not afraid to buy puppies from working farms in the UK. If it’s a good dog, it will turn out just as good as any dog from a breeder here.

What I think is important, and what I make my priority with my puppies, is that they get a lot of time outdoors where they can move, play and explore without restrictions. Where they are not slipping on slick floors and where they develop balance, proprioception and confidence. My puppies spend most of their days from 4-8 weeks playing and exploring (and sleeping!) in our garden (yes, even in the snow). I also make sure to let them meet as many different people as possible, including children. They get to hang out with their mother a lot and also with the other friendly or neutral dogs in the house. They get fed mostly raw, but also tries different kinds of kibble and other types of food. I’m convinced that Early Neurological Stimulation and things similar is pseudoscience, and while it probably doesn’t hurt it’s weird how many people will value that kind of thing over other many much more reasonable criteria for picking a breeder.

Puppies

Fidget

Time to introduce Fidget – Thomas’ new cocker puppy. She’s 12 weeks old and has lived here for a couple of weeks, although it feels like much longer. Fidget is a working cocker spaniel and will be a field trial dog just like Kat, who turned four in March. Kat and Fidget are not related, but I think they have a lot in common as puppies. Fidget is mostly calm and quiet in the house, sometimes playing with the young border collies like Nicks or Bud. She likes to come along when we move around the house, but will stay in a room and sleep if she’s not allowed to follow. She is really good at going to sleep when she needs to, and we don’t need to confine her in any way. Just give her something soft to sleep on and she’ll go to sleep when she’s tired. She’s very happy that she can get on the sofa on her own now. Border collies sleep anywhere, cockers wants it ore comfortable!

Fidget

Thomas has started some training with her. She loves to play and enjoys food, so motivation is not a problem. The biggest challenge with a cocker puppy is that they are so quick and do so many different things, often all at once. Teaching her a sit with her paws still was a challenge, but she is getting the idea now, and will sit still and release on a word. She’s also worked on recalls, picking up a toy, following Thomas with attention and self control. We’ve had a very busy time with two litters of border collie puppies (on litter is 7 weeks old and the other was born last week) and a lot of work. Thomas has been travelling and Fidget has been hanging out with me a lot. So most of the time, she’s just part of our big pack of dogs and acts like it. She just needs to go out to pee more often than the grown ups…

This fall’s hunting and field trials

This fall has been very exciting. I brought my German wirehaired puppy, Alot, grouse hunting in the Swedish and Norwegian mountains for the first time.
I started training the foundations like sit stay, stop signal, recalls and delivery to hand already when she was a baby. All training is based on fun games that develop a great relationship.
I prefer to keep a balance between the level of obedience and the hunting drive that usually kicks in at six months and keeps developing until she turns two or three years.

She was only six months old the first time I took her to the mountains. She found the birds, but didn’t point yet. I shot a few birds that she was allowed to retrieve just to give her the experience. She picked them up and returned straight to me to deliver to hand.

AlotApp

One new thing I taught Alot which I haven’t done with my other GWPs and setter, is to teach her steadiness to the gunshot. The procedure is exactly the same as for adding any other cue.
1) Check that the dog offers the behavior fluently without any cue.
2) Add the cue right before the dog offers it.
3) Change small things all the time to avoid any patterns. Make the cue salient. Generalize it.
4) Test the cue with gradually more distractions and increase the distance.

The first sessions I used a loud hand clap instead of a gunshot to make sure not to scare the little pup. This video shows the first steps.

I could progress really fast because I already had built a lot of value for the sit behavior and because such the gunshot is a salient signal that is different from all other cues.

In September I took her to the mountains again, and let her hunt with an experienced dog. Now she was seven months old. Before leaving I introduced her to partridges. She could point, flush and be steady to the verbal cue (see short video below). But she didn’t had the experience to handle grouse in the mountains and didn’t point yet. But she was perfectly steady to the gunshot every single time.

I recommend to get the foundations done and then take the young dog hunting to gain experience. Then nothing really goes wrong because I know that I can control the dog if she tries to run in.

In October she was eight months old and we spent a week in the mountains. Now she covered more and more ground, on average 100 meters to each side and sometimes up to 150 meters. She even handled the grouse perfectly and we both had such a great time.

There are some great contrasts in the hunting sequence. The dog should hold her point and only flush the birds on cue. She should be steady to the wing and shot and wait for the cue to retrieve. When hunting with a youngster, I don’t ask for all at once. I know she will flush willingly if I ask her (like in the partridge video), so I don’t ask her to flush. I just walk up to her, flush the birds myself. This way the situations become nice and calm and I get the opportunity to praise her for making good choices. I even fetch most of the birds myself and let her hold or sniff them as I return to her to reinforce the sit stay. But she did a great retrieve on a runner. Super experience!

Kat, my 3 year old working cocker has been hunting too. She did great in two field trials and placed third and forth. In both trials she got a first prize with “CK” (certificate quality), which means that she is more than half way to the title Swedish field trial champion.

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January 4th I do another round of our popular online class “Relationship building”. This class is based on my experience training gundogs, but is open for all breeds. You can join with a puppy, a young or adult dog of any breed. A great relationship is the foundation that makes both everyday life and (training for) trials fun and easy.

Read more and sign up here.

Criteria continued

Bud learned the jumping stand early. I like to teach it to small puppies because they are bouncy and you can often easily capture it by just standing and waiting for it to happen when the puppy has energy and is playful. I don’t care a lot about perfection at this point, I just click and reward any bounce where both front legs leave the ground until the puppy offers the behavior in order to get a reward. I also like to name the behavior early, because I think it’s good to work on stimulus control with my puppy, and they often learn to love this behavior quickly.

I have not planned for Bud to be an obedience dog, but I love to work on obedience behaviors and think they are great for anything I want to do in the future. I’ve used his jumping stand for cue discrimination, and I have added some staying in position after the jump too. But I haven’t really worked on it, and I realized recently that he always moved his back feet counter clockwise on landing. It wasn’t pretty, and he did it every time. And I had rewarded it every time. Now, I decided that I wanted him to stay straight infront of me when doing the behavior, maybe even be able to keep his back feet still and just bounce with his front feet.

If the dog is always performing the behavior in a way we don’t like, it’s not a good idea to just not reward it and wait for perfection. The dog will probably give up in the process. You could chose to reward the better responses, and not reward the ones where he moves his feet the most – but you’re still rewarding something you don’t really like. Another solution is to think about some other behaviors to train that might help with understanding and hopefully bleed over to the behavior in question. That’s what I started by doing. I worked on backing up straight, offering a stand (not a jump, just four feet on the floor) straight infront of me and some rear end awareness and finishes on my right side (moving back feet clockwise).

This helped enough for me to get much better behavior once I started the jumping stand again. There were a lot of offered jumping stands that I didn’t reward, but he did seem to remember the exercises we’d just done when I didn’t reward, and I could jackpot some jumping stands that were much straighter than before. I still rewarded back foot movement (which I don’t really see as a problem) as long as it wasn’t to his right. If I found that he reverted back to his old style, and rate of reinforcement got too low, I would remind him of one of the behaviors used before (often just standing in front of me, or some clockwise pivoting) and then go back to the jumping stand. But most important was criteria – not rewarding what I don’t want, and rewarding all the good attempts.

I made a little video of our training today. He was doing well and had some nice repetitions where he kept back feet still, and even could go from sit to stand with his back feet planted. When I found myself just rewarding many repetitions in a row, I decided to change something – challenge him. The behavior is nice, but it’s not ever finished. Just changing something small can make it a bit harder for the dog and increase his understanding of what we want. I chose to add an open hand with treats to the left. It made it harder, but he worked through it nicely and came out more confident in what I want. I usually don’t want to use a cue for the behavior when I add a challenge like this, so it would have been smarter if I’d let him offer it freely instead. Noted for the next challenge!

Bud Update

Home again after another weekend at an agility trial. Squid won jumpers on Sunday. Epic had a really good jumpers run on Saturday, with one bar. Agility courses were not my favourite design, and the ground was muddy. Both dogs ran well on Sunday, but picked up (the same) extra jump after a tunnel. I got the chance to reward Squid for a good dogwalk performance, so I was just as happy. I really like the relaxed attitude in Sweden that allows you to reward your dog with a toy in the ring anytime you want. You can plan it, or just choose to do it when you know you’re not going to place. I keep a small toy in my pocket for those instances. I think it’s great for training, good for the dogs (instead of a disappointed handler, you can turn it to something positive), and good for Swedish agility internationally (difference between training and competing becomes less obvious for our dogs).

Wilco had two runs per day and I really felt that I figured out more on how he needs to be prepared and taken care of in that environment. He was a bit worried about other dogs (he is very friendly and seems to take it personally if other dogs are upset in any way) before our first run, and I didn’t feel connected to him. For our other runs, I made sure that he didn’t have to be as close to other dogs. I also had more exciting play with him before and after our runs. I think he ran faster than he has before. We had some really nice parts, but he didn’t have time to weave on the first try in any run… I trained weaves at home today and he was brilliant. It’ll soon come together in trials too!

We had long days at the competition, as they ran all classes and started with class 3 (Squid and Epic) and then ended with class 1 (Wilco) with class 2 in between. Bud got to come out and play/train and just hang out around the ring. He is very good at staying calm around the ring, and also very good at focusing on training with a lot of distractions. He just doesn’t seem to view it as distractions at all. I made a video of some of the training – it’s far from perfect, but some of the things we’re working on, like:

  • Self control around toys
  • Listening to cues
  • Basic handling without obstacles

I hope you enjoy it even though it’s a bit too long and things are far from perfect. If you want more clips from our training (and a nice blooper from this session, where he bites my leg, blind crosses as I scream out in pain and then steals the toy), you should check us out on Instagram (@fannyftw). Today, I posted a video from his first ever jumping session.

Stay at station with distractions

We’re having some lovely summer weeks at home with friends visiting and a lot of dog training. Wilco is learning so many new things (dogwalk, seesaw, a-frame, weaves…), Epic and Squid are perfecting skills, and Bud is working on foundation skills and hanging around new people and new dogs.

I also find opportunities to train him when doing other things. My dogs love licking the dirty plates in the dishwasher, so I’ve started to use that as a distraction for his stay at station. It also has the benefit of letting me load the dishwasher without someone rearranging the plates…

This is of course not a very interesting video, but I wanted to share it to show how you can incorporate dog training in everyday life, while also making life a little easier for yourself.

Teaching your dog to go to a station on cue, and stay there with distractions until released, is one of many things covered in our Foundation Class, starting on July 27th.

Bud and I in the morning

Bud 6 months

Bud just turned 6 months, but he still feels like a little puppy both physically and mentally. We’re having a lot of fun training and growing our relationship.

Here’s a video of some things we worked on yesterday. I focus a lot on stimulus control, and it feels like he’s starting to chose correctly most of the time. I’ve mostly worked on “stand” and “sit”. Sit was his first position, and it’s his strongest cue (besides his name). I’ve been working on the jumping stand on cue and thrown in sits often enough for him to be open to another cue, but not so often that he forgets about standing. Now it seems “stand” and “sit” are fairly equal and I don’t have to be so tactical for him to be right. I’ve also introduced cues for coming to heel position at both sides. My left side is called “fot” (Swedish heel cue) and my right side is called “på plass” (Norwegian). “Fot” is stronger at the moment, and I could use it in this stimulus control session and he did it! “På plass” did not work, so I need to remember to work him just as much on my right side as on my left.

The video also contains a session of backing up (first one with me standing up) and heeling on both sides. I don’t plan on doing any obedience trials with Bud, but the foundation for obedience and agility is very much alike to me. I work on stimulus control, body awareness, play, toy retrieve, heeling, holding positions and driving to me fast. I don’t think I change that much depending on the sport I want to do in the future, and I think Bud will have excellent obedience foundations if I decide I want to do obedience too.