Puppy Training

So many puppies!

The ice and snow is finally melting, and it’s actually possible to train herding on the bigger fields now. And very soon the roads will be clear. It was worse on Wednesday, when I slipped and fell on my hands while dragging the trashcan down our driveway. My left hand is still bruised and hurting quite a lot. I’m glad that I’ve had friends here all week that have been able to help me out while Thomas is away.

We’ve had some great agility sessions in the riding hall, and some training sessions in the house. Sometimes I publish short clips of our training on Instagram, so make sure to follow me there – @fannyftw

Fay and Epic’s puppies turned 8 weeks on Tuesday, and four of them have moved to their new homes. The fifth one leaves tomorrow, and little Bud will stay with us. I’m very excited about finding out what kind of dog he is. Tomorrow is also the day when my new Scottish puppy Nicks will come to Sweden to join us! She’s 11 weeks, so will probably be a better play partner for Bud than Volt and Leet who are bigger and tougher. So many puppies. Expect lots of fun training videos. Some of the videos will be exclusive for our online classes (and you can still join!), and some will be saved for later projects, but I’ll post here as well.

Volt, Leet, Nicks, Bud

Volt, Leet, Nicks and Bud

Switching between behaviors on cue

When training your dog with reward based methods, making the dog thoughtful by coercion is not an option. There are better ways to train your dog to use his brain, really listen for what you’re saying, and to avoid anticipation and keep the level of arousal just right.
Varying what you ask your dog to do in an unpredictable manner makes you keep the initiative.

Therefore I teach my dogs several different reward markers. It’s not only practical in training that the dog knows which kind of reward to expect when, but it’s also allows me to develop a great working relationship where my dog turns to me to ask for guidance. Another advantage is that it is great stimulus control training.

When the dog knows the different cues and reward markers, I test the dog’s understanding by giving the cue the dog doesn’t expect. It’s important that my cues start and end the different behaviors. Anticipating or guessing should not pay off.

Examples of cues in the video (translated):

“Get it” – Bowl of food
“Break” – Release from controlled position
“Ja” – take the toy from my hand
“Out” – drop the toy
“Fetch” – take the toy on the ground
“Back” – take the toy on the ground 180 degrees behind you

Switching between behaviors and a lot other tips on how to develop your relationship in training and everyday life will be covered in the new online class Relationship building starting Nov 1st.

Wilco learning to focus in position

Wilco and I had a fun day yesterday, with a lot of obedience training. Since Squid is in heat, I decided to focus on Wilco in every session with our training group. He is really starting to mature. He was able to focus for the entire day, and he’s got more power and speed than before.

We started experimenting with adding distractions when he is sitting by my side and looking up. I’ve been feeding him in position before, but I’ve never interrupted him for looking away, only for moving. I don’t think he’s been mature enough for this before, but now I really felt that I got exactly the result I wanted. The important thing here is not how he performs the behavior, but rather how he is handling being interrupted and having to try again. I want my dog to be engaged in the interruption, and very eager to try again. It should matter to them when they miss out on a reward, but I don’t want to see any displacement behaviors or avoidance. I want the dog to bounce back immediately and work hard to get it right the next time.

Wilco gets quite intense when I interrupt him, but he is doing a great job in going back to calm and focus quickly. With a dog that struggles more with this, I’d probably be moving all the time, and work on focus in motion (walking backwards or with the dog at heel). Remember that this is a process, and with some dogs, you really have to reward them just for trying again. It could be rewarding the over-aroused dog right away for sitting down after the interruption, shaping the response that you want. Or it could be rewarding the more cautious dog for engaging in the no-reward routine, without asking for anything more than that they don’t give up. When Squid was young, I taught her to steal the toy away from me when I did my “haha”-routine. I worked only on the routine, until I got the right emotional response to it.

Working on the best possible emotional response to different interruptive routines is important! We put a lot of work into creating a great emotional response to our different kinds of rewards, but this is just as important if you want to be able to mark incorrect performances (for example in a behavior chain or when working on duration) and by that increase the likelihood that the dog will try again with great attitude. I mostly use this kind of cheerful interruption (term stolen from Denise Fenzi) in well planned sessions, where the choice is an easy yes/no, and if I use distractions I like them to be planned. I think that the rituals would lose a lot of power if I used them all the time to get the dog to try harder. Most of the time in training, just withholding the reward and waiting for them to try again is the best way to handle wrong responses.

Here is a video of Wilco’s training today (second session on this):

Wilco 8 months

Wilco turned 8 months last week. That means that he’s lived with us for over half a year. Wilco is a very nice little dog. He’s got many traits that I really like. First of all, he’s kind and social with everybody. Meeting new dogs always means that he wags his tail and hopes to start a new friendship. He likes people, but is calm and balanced when greeting them. Although he is happy and friendly, it’s hard to get him to lose focus in training. He is not triggered by other dogs moving fast or playing, so there’s never a problem with training him close to other teams. He is also very good at waiting for his turn when others train (although I have to admit he could be better at waiting for his turn when I train the other dogs). He easily relaxes when nothing happens, bot outdoors and indoors. I also think that he has a very nice build and a balanced structure that he uses well. He’ll probably end up a bit taller than Squid and Epic. He’s got tall legs and a short and strong back. I like these traits a lot in a border collie. I feel very lucky!


Wilco waiting for his turn

I read a Swedish blog by Maria Brandel last week, on how every dog is different and how it’s not dangerous to be ready for competition early, but also how you shouldn’t be stressed out if your dog needs more time. I totally agree, of course. It’s not a bad idea to wait if you feel like your puppy isn’t ready for what you want to teach. Wilco learns quickly and has good focus, but there are still things that I don’t think he is ready for. He is stilla puppy, and he doesn’t have the power and strength of an adult dog.

Wilco’s father Epic was another type when he was young – he matured early and has always been very powerful. I’ve always compared Epic to at typical “jock”. Physically capable, strong, hardy and with a lot of confidence. I don’t think he’s grown out of that role yet. Squid was a very different young dog. She was clever and learned a lot of behaviors, but she had a lot of trouble with other things. She couldn’t do anything with power and speed. She stopped working if anything went wrong. I couldn’t do much duration work or trial prep, because she’s get very worried if anything went wrong. When she was about 14 months old, I took her to the vet to make sure that she was healthy. She was, but we had to let obedience wait for quite a long time, while we did other things. Agility was easier, but it took some time before she really got excited about doing it, and I had to build her confidence in jumping very slowly.

Wilco is somewhere between his father Epic and his aunt Squid. He isn’t as sensitive and slow as Squid, but also doesn’t have the power and confidence of his father. He is mature in some ways, but still a puppy in other aspects. With Squid’s journey fresh in my memory, I’m not worried that I won’t get speed and confidence in Wilco. I just enjoy developing the things that I feel that he’s ready to do. A balance between games for speed, physical conditioning, shaping and skills for obedience and agility. There are things that I haven’t felt like there is much point in working on yet – for example a formal retrieve or send to box. When I started with Squid, I planned to teach her send to square early. It took me an extra year before I felt she was ready. When I started training, it took me 9 minutes to get her to find the box with her eyes and run there in full speed without any prompts. I don’t regret waiting!

At the same time, I constantly feel like I should be training Wilco more. It’s not that I compare our journey to others. Not much anyway. It’s just that we have so few years to spend with out dogs, and I want to make the most out of them. There are things that I think that Wilco should wait before he learns, but also a lot of things that we should be doing more of right now…

Managing the little sheepdog

Wilco is really a very easy puppy to raise. He loves both play and food. He relaxes really well. When he doesn’t feel like sleeping, he plays with his toys and leaves the furniture alone (he didn’t do that a month ago, but now he seems happy with his toys and bones). He doesn’t go crazy over other dogs running, playing or working. This is such a good trait in a border collie puppy. It makes having him with me everywhere so much easier.

There is really just one annoying problem. He loves herding sheep and he’ll go in the sheep field on his own to push the sheep around (really nicely, but still not a good idea). He won’t run away when we’re training (sheep are just across the driveway from my obedience/agility field), but he will if he’s just hanging out in the garden, or when we come back from walks. And the more you try to stop him, the more determined he is to go. He’s been on a leash around the farm for weeks now, but I miss having him just hanging out with me outdoors.


Wilco 4 months

Caught in the net:

Wilco caught in the net

Wilco in the woods

It’s been a while since I updated about Wilco. I’ve been teaching abroad for a couple of weeks, leaving my dogs at home with Thomas. I really missed them, and it was especially hard to leave Wilco. Things happen all the time, and a lot happened during the weeks I was away. Mostly good things! Wilco turned 4 months old yesterday, and I really, really like him! He is so easy going. He can relax ringside at agility competitions, he has such great skills with both dogs and people, he loves training with me. He also loves herding, and when I got home he started to go into the sheep field on his own. I had to keep him on leash around the farm for a while, but he seems to have better thoughts now and is more allowed off leash. His herding looks really good, I can’t wait for him to grow up so that he can be trained!

Yesterday, we went to the woods for some fun. I usually don’t take Wilco on my longer walks with the grown up dogs, but take him out on his own for 10-20 minutes before or after I walk the others. Our adventures in the woods are both for his physical development and for building our relationship. For relationship building, I try to do a lot of recalls and play fun games with him, like hiding his toy and letting him find it with his nose. Sometimes we just walk and he can sniff and explore. Other times, we do things together. I want to have a nice balance between the two.

For his physical development, I like him to work in different speeds. When we’re just walking, I love that he chooses a relaxed trot. Trotting is great for recovery. For strength and coordination, I like to walk my dogs slowly in brush and on uneven ground. In a slow walk, the dog has to use a lot of muscle to move his legs, especially when he is walking in brush that requires extra high leg lifts. This training builds great stabilizing muscle around hips and spine. With Wilco, he is just doing a little bit of it to get used to the idea and to help him coordinate his long legs. I reward him a lot, and I try to reward when he is looking ahead rather than at me. He needs to see where he’s going. Finally, I also want him to do some full speed running. Restrained recalls are great for this!

We also find fallen trees and work on balance and coordination. I haven’t done a lot of body awareness things with Wilco. My priority has been for him to find balance using his own body. Compared to my older dogs, he knows less about climbing things, but when he does (this was his first time on a fallen tree!) he knows how to balance his body. With him, my priority is quality in posture and movements. Less is more, I hope. What are your thoughts on puppy conditioning?

Wilco learning down

Another “first” video today: I decided to try to teach Wilco a fold back down. The goal is for him to fold back while keeping all four paws still. This is just one of several position changes that he will learn, it felt like the best one to start with. I will later add the cue “dekk” and use this for position changes. In the first training session, I thought I would just start and see what he did. I normally capture downs in everyday life before I try it in formal training sessions, but I haven’t done that this time. I was just about to stop the session, and wait a few weeks before I tried it again, when suddenly he went down:

In the next session he quickly got back on track and we got quite a few decent repetitions:

The next step is for him to become less dependent on having the reward hand so close to his nose and I will increase the criteria for his paws to be completely still.

Wilco learning to heel

Time really flies, and I haven’t had time to do as much training with Wilco as I had envisioned. He is a very easy going and happy puppy (although he does like to bite me – hard!). When we do find time to train, he learns frighteningly fast. I often don’t understand how he can make the connections so quickly. Today, we started working on heelwork. I think it’s great to get video of the first time we do something, so the camera was ready today. Here is our very first session on heeling:

After a nap on the kitchen floor, we tried again:

The third session was on just standing in correct position by my left side. I just feed him as long as he stays there:

He is so much fun to train! I will try to find more time for training him in the coming week.