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.

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.

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.

Winter training

Thomas has been away teaching in Norway for a week now and I’ve been home alone with my dogs. I haven’t had much teaching to do this week, just one evening class, so we’ve been training a lot. We’re fortunate enough to have two indoor dog training arenas within about an hours drive. They are warm and have turf footing, which is a life saver when it’s cold and icy outdoors. We also have a riding arena where I have my agility equipment just 5 minutes from our place, but it’s not quite the same. I’ve been training a lot of obedience the past month and both Squid and Epic are doing well. Squid will do her first obedience trial in march and I feel very well prepared for that. We’re working on a lot of sequences with 3-6 exercises in a row with only one reward at the end. I’ve also started to add more and more distractions to the sequences, trying to find new things that could distract us at a trial. I will keep doing that, but now that everything works well as a whole, I’m also planning to take care of some minor details that will make our performance even better. My goal for the trial is to be so well prepared that there will be no surprises.

Squid, tired from four hours of training in one of the indoor arenas

Epic is mostly working on heeling, the stand (which i promise I will talk about in the blog soon), sitting still with distractions (people coming up to him is one of the hardest, he is such a happy dog, just like his sister) and always retrieving his toys to me in full speed. We’re also working on some tricks and agility foundation behaviors, like circle work, nose touches and puppy jump grids. He is so much fun to work with – always keen and focused, but also very good at relaxing in his crate when I work with one of the other dogs or watch others work. He will be 6 months old this week.

Epic, running in the snow at home

Shejpa doesn’t do obedience, but I’m working on some stimulus control and standing still waiting for a cue with her, something she’s not very good at. We’re also training agility, like today when we went to a riding arena where our dog club has training every Sunday. This year, my goal with Shejpa is to get a more consistent performance in trials. She really has ups and downs and I’ve never really figured out what makes the difference. I’m starting to think that the correct warm up is very important for her and I’m trying out different warm ups and record keep so that I can get optimum arousal and focus in every run. So far I feel I’m on the right track and I’m very excited to do more trials so that I can tell if I am or not.

Crazy cocker spaniel <3

Right now, I’m preparing for two days of obedience with our favorite instructor Maria Hagström. I’m really looking forward to it and I’m sure I’ll have something to tell you about it later this week.

My pretty dogs

Teaching heel

I have finally been able to make a little video to show you some of my thoughts on teaching a good heel for obedience trials. Heeling is difficult since it is a duration behavior and has many different parts that all need to be good. I split heeling into it’s parts and train one behavior at a time. This blog post is about the basics of heeling – the dog walking with me on my left side with perfect attention, attitude and position. Turns and straight sits is another part that I work on separately. Maybe I’ll write another post about that some time.

When teaching the dog to heel with me, I start by walking backwards and have the dog follow me. Doing this has many benefits, like:

  • It’s easier for a puppy to follow me when I walk backwards and I can get more rewards to the dog.
  • It’s easier for me to see what the dog is doing without having to turn and bend towards the dog.
  • Since it’s not the final setting for the behavior, I’m not worried about shaping one aspect at a time. I would not like to reward the dog for good attention but bad position if I was walking forward. By walking backwards, I can shape a good behavior and be pretty sure that I will get good behavior to reward once I start walking the right way.
  • I use the walking backwards-heeling for teaching stand, sit and down from heel.
  • It’s very good to have when training in a distracting environment, as the young or inexperienced dog has better chances of success.

When I start the training, I walk backwards away from the dog and mark and reward all attention the dog gives me. I’m not interested in the dog looking me in the eyes, as that is incompatible with a good heel position. As long as the dog is giving me attention, I will reward it. I keep the treats in my left pocket, or in my right hand (only if the dog can ignore treats in your hand). As i mark the behavior I want, I get one treat from the pocket (or right hand) with my left hand and reward at my left side. In the video, the rewards are pretty calm. This is because my dogs have great position by my left side and because they don’t need to get more active. For most dogs, I would recommend that the dog gets to chase the treat in your hand in a straight line and end up with his shoulder at your left knee. I show this with Squid at 1:05 in the video.

When the dog is giving good attention, I start to look at the dogs attitude. Some dogs need to get more active and with them I will mark and reward things like coming closer to my side, ears up, going from a walk to a trot, tail up, head up etc. I will also make sure that all rewards are active and that the dog has to chase the treat after the click. With some dogs, it’s a good idea to work on how to reward separately, so that the dog knows to come close and steal the treat from your hand on the click before you start training heel.

Other dogs have a little too much attitude. They might be jumping up and down, making noise or touching you too much. With them, you have to do the opposite. Walk a little slower and reward calm, quiet and rhythmic behavior. Stop when you reward and give a few treats for just standing still before you walk again.

When the dog shows great attention and attitude, I start shaping a good position. For a lot of dogs, this comes for free because of good placement of reward on the earlier stages. I want the dog close to my left side, straight in the body and far enough back. Watch the video to get an idea of the finished behavior.

When the dog can do a nice heel while I walk backwards for a few meters, I start to turn around. This is demonstrated by Squid in the video. It is an advantage to have worked on some rear end awareness before doing this, so that the dog is willing to swing his rear end in before walking forward.  In the beginning, I will reward the dog as soon as he finds position by my left side when I walk forward.

There is of course a lot more to be said about heeling, especially when thinking of all the problems that might arise. If you have questions or comments, please post them below.

Merry Christmas

We have been working our puppies with Maria Hagström (awesome obedience instructor from Sweden) for two days and we’ve had a lot of fun. If you think obedience is boring, take a look at this video. There’s a lot of playing going on, but also a lot of obedience training with high precision, and even sequencing. Do you think the puppies even notice the difference?

With that, I wish you a Merry Christmas! Please leave a comment if you have something on your mind. I’m off to clean the house and prepare for my parents and brothers arrival tomorrow.

How to get your dog to beg to work!

A lot of people have asked for ideas on how to do if you don’t want to ask your dog to work. In all training, my first goal is that the dog asks me to work with him, not the other way around. One part of this is of course to have great rewards. Developing good toy and food rewards is a really important job to do if you want to have a good working relationship with your dog, but it usually doesn’t fix the problem in itself. A lot of high drive dogs that are easy to reward are still relying on the handler to tell them to work and are easily distracted from their work.

I use shaping when I teach my dogs new things. Shaping relies on the dogs own initiative and I don’t use lures or promts to get behavior. This is a huge benefit if you want your dog to beg to work. The dog will learn to beg you to reward him by offering behavior right from the start. In addition, the dog that is used to shaping will learn to come back from not getting rewarded and to keep offering behavior. This will make it easier to work on longer sequences without rewards.

Doing a lot of shaping with your dog is really good, but it is also important to keep this attitude when you combine behaviors to exercises and exercises to sequences. With my puppies, I do a lot of training where my goal is to reward the dog for spontaneously following me and begging to work. I play tug with the dog (or use another good, active reward), snatch the toy from the dog, hide it and walk away. When the dog catches up and gives attention, the play resumes. As the dog gets more experienced, I will wait for longer before I give the reward back to the dog.

In all training, even when preparing for trials (or in a trial!), the dog has to make the first move to get the game to start. Coming to heel position should be automatic for the dog, I don’t even have a cue for it with my two-year-old dog. To start an exercise, the dog has to come to heel and give attention. It is so easy to start nagging the dog when the training starts to look more like obedience trials and less like shaping tricks. The trick is to keep the same division of responsibility all the way. Make sure that you never use cues when the dog doesn’t ask for them. Cues should not be “commands”, they should act like green lights and reinforce good behavior.

Good luck with training and please comment if you have any questions.