No creeping!

Sit and watch any Utility class, and you will more than likely see dogs moving forward out of position. Often, you will see dogs taking steps forward on the signal stand as the handler walks away, or you will see dogs who fail to lock up on their moving stand exercise, continuing to trail along after the handler.

Reasons for this are many…a lack of clarity regarding the performance requirements, stress about the exercise, the dog may not like the additional distance from their handler, or the dog may be feeling pressure from the judge and trying to alleviate the pressure by adding distance. A lot of times, in training, you will see these handlers physically correct their dogs for breaking position. Unfortunately, if the dog is breaking because of stress and/or pressure, you have now made the situation worse.

When I was training Gunner as a young dog, it was very evident he did not want the judge touching him for a Novice stand for exam. He was not necessarily worried about the judge, he just did not see a need for anyone (other than me!) to touch him. We worked through this in a common way, with a clicker and a whole lot of cookies. Novice exams went smoothly and it was almost comical to watch Gunner’s tail wagging wildly on a exam, waiting for his click and treat.

But, judge pressure in the advanced classes was a whole different ball game. This was primarily visible on signals, when Gunner would take a couple of steps forward as I walked away, sometimes looking back at the judge before he moved. People’s opinions for correcting the problem covered the entire gamut, from physical corrections, to ground poles or platforms, to having the judge go in and feed him while he was standing…none of which I liked. So, instead, I went back to one of Gunner’s favorite foundation exercises – the target. But, instead of releasing Gunner to a target in FRONT of him, I released him to a target BEHIND him.

Kazee is going to have the opposite issue as Gunner. He wants everyone to touch him and, even better, he will help you by running over to you! Yes, just a little bit of impulse control issues. 🙂 So, I decided it was time to pull the target into more of Kazee’s obedience work. He is familiar with the target from agility class, but in this context, he is always running towards the target, it is never behind him.

If your dog is not familiar with a target, I would recommend sending the dog to a target placed in front, before moving the target to the side or behind the dog. The target needs to hold a lot of value for the dog. This is a good game to play at mealtime, even using your dog’s food bowl as their “target”.

The following video show Kazee’s first introduction to the target behind him, as well as some basic target work to introduce the concept to the dog. Please note my very exaggerated hand signals when releasing the dog to the target. They are slightly cut off in the video, but you have to make sure your release is dramatically different than your Utility signals. My cue to release the dog to the target is a step forward, with BOTH hands raised, and a verbal “go target”.

If you have another person to train with, work up to the “judge” carrying the target and placing it on the ground after you stand your dog on signals. Normally, in the beginning, I want this done before I have left my dog, so I can support him (if needed) during the judge’s movement behind him. The target does not need to be close to the dog, it can be placed by the go-out stanchion. But, what helped Gunner the most with the judge pressure was placing the target closer and closer to the judge, including directly between the judge’s feet. Yes, I would send my dog TO the judge to get to the target! Then, the judge would feed several cookies to my dog ON the target, while I ran to give an evan better jackpot on the target. What better way to have your dog control the judge pressure than to make your dog WANT to run towards them!

Targets can be worked into any exercise. And, for dogs who love to eat, it gives you some built in proofing, as the dog has to work through the exercises with cookies easily visible (and attainable) on the target.

For dogs who move forward (either because of pressure, Gunner, or from insufficient impulse control, Kazee), I also feel it is important to be able to move my dog backwards in ANY position (stand, down or sit) and have them maintain their position. As soon as I start working with a young dog, I teach them if I give them a signal and they are already in the position, they need to move backwards. For example, if the dog is in a down and I give them another down signal, they need to scoot backwards, but maintain their down position. Remember, the ring exercises need to be easy, but the practice work needs to be difficult. I want my dogs always thinking backwards. If they are thinking “backwards”, they will not creep forwards!

Yes, I know I cut off the top half of my body, but when you are filming yourself on a tripod before you have had your coffee, that is what happens. You can easily see my dog and my requirements, so that is the important thing.

Moving stands can be another challenge to get dogs to lock up. Most handlers add pressure in front of their dogs to get them to stop. But, in the ring, when this pressure is gone, the dogs take a couple of steps forward (or worse, do not stop at all). Instead, increase your requirements in training. Teach the moving stand by requiring BACKWARDS movement on the stand. In the beginning (and often throughout the dog’s career), I will help them by moving backwards with them (if you show in Rally, this would be comparable to the backwards steps during heeling). In the ring, I generally do not see backwards movement from Gunner, he merely locks up into his stand. But, really, if he moved backwards one or two steps, what is wrong with that? Bonus points, in my opinion! And, to reiterate, this is something I do forever with my dogs. The more you show, the more you have to keep your requirements crystal clear. I could have easily gotten Gunner’s OTCH without teaching this, but he recently finished his Obedience Grand Master title and went over the 700 OTCH point mark. No way would I have been able to meet those goals without requiring extra effort in practice.

You may have noticed my verbal cue with the stand signal…”Stand Back”. Completely legal in the ring and a little extra reminder to my dog of his requirements. The stand signal (in my case, my left hand) can not be held as a cue to the dog, and it needs to be immediately returned to either my side or the center of your body as I walk away. If the signal is held, it may be a scored as a handler error or, if the judge felt my signal kept my dog from moving forward, an NQ on the exercise.

This blog post is in response to a reader’s question on helping a dog who moves forward on exercises. If you have any problems or questions you would like to see me address in a blog post, please feel free to either ask in the comments or send me an email to shannonshepherd@me.com. I never claim to have all the answers, but if what I do with my dogs can help someone work through a problem, I will help in any way I can.

Until next time…train hard, but play harder!

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Progress!

While working on my next (more informative) blog post, I wanted to check in on Kazee’s articles, especially for those of you who have told me that they are working the same method with their dogs.

I have been working Kazee’s article bins daily, unless I am out of town at dog shows, and I am very happy with his progress. He had been reliably finding the correct article each time and willing picking up the article and bringing it to me when I removed the lid. Normally, I do the articles before breakfast and Kazee seems to have much more drive than he did this afternoon. But, we had an early agility class, so there was no time to do them this morning. However, this is definitely something to note in my journal, and I may need to start varying the time I do the articles and increasing my rewards respectively.

But, even with the slight lack of drive searching the bins, I upped the challenge for him today…I started removing lids to bins containing non-scented articles. I did one article find as we had been doing them (all lids on), but then I removed a lid on each of the next three searches. I was very happy to see him check the open bins, but continue working until he found the correct bin.

My plan is NOT to remove ALL of the unscented lids before removing the scented bin’s lid, but rather to randomize how many bins are uncovered on any given search. And, sometimes, leave the scented bin uncovered as well. If the scented bin is uncovered, he will not be praised until he has the article in his mouth and is moving towards me. Obviously, if he gets stuck in the beginning, I will help him, but this help will be dropped quickly. I will probably work up to about half of the bins uncovered before removing the scented bin’s lid. But, at some point, ALL of the bins will be open.

By now, everyone knows this little dog’s love for his tug toy…so I have started using it for more difficult impulse control work, which will hopefully be transitioned into our go-out work later. He has done very similar tug drive work before, but I have always held onto the tug toy, I have never dropped it on the ground. It definitely made him think!!

On a breed ring note, Kazee was an awesome boy last weekend at a local breed trial (okay, mostly awesome for those of you who saw him in the regular Group ring 😉 ). He went Select on Saturday and on Sunday was given Best of Breed, Best of Breed Owner Handled, and was then awarded an OWNER HANDLER GROUP 4!!! Very, very proud of my boy. 🙂 Don’t tell my husband, but the GCH title is looking pretty intriguing…2017-04-09 OH Group 4

Train hard, but play harder!

Journaling

I have to admit, I am horrible at journaling any kind of information. I never kept a diary when growing up and (I am little ashamed to admit) I did not even maintain baby books for my two boys…granted, I had twins and there was no time for sleeping, let alone journaling! But, with each dog I train, I tell myself I am going to start keeping track of my training, as well as problems and lightbulb moments. But, yet, I never did. I would start, with good intentions, but it never lasted long. But, I was determined this year to start maintaining a training journal for Kazee.

Recent research by the University College London says they believe it takes an average of 66 days to create a habit. Wow, no wonder exercising never became a “habit” for me. I could not even make the old theory of 21 days, let alone 66 days!

I knew a couple of things had to be in place for me to create this new habit for myself – it had to be convenient and it had to be portable. Enter technology. While I do carry a notebook and pen in my gear bag, it is much faster for me to do a voice to text memo or even type my notes, than it is to write them out. Plus, I wanted some other perks of doing my journal electronically.

As I have exclusively Apple products (iPhone and iPad), I found the answer in an application called “Day One”. They also have a version for your Mac computer, but that application is more expensive (and I record mostly on my iPad anyway), so I stayed with the mobile only application. If I train at home, I generally record my training data on my iPad, as it is easier to type on the keyboard. But, because I do not carry my iPad around with me in my gear bag, I can also journal on my iPhone, and everything stays synced.

I can set up multiple journals and record much more than just what I did during a training session. A screen shot of a journal entry from April 4th shows how much data is recorded automatically. It records the time of my entry, as well as my location and the weather conditions. If I do not write down something right away, I can go back and edit the time and/or location and it automatically updates the weather conditions to the corresponding time and location. You can also add “tags” to entries, to search for them later, although there is also a general search feature.

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Friends who know me, know that I can not even remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, let alone when I started training a new skill. Journaling keeps you honest. You might think you have been training that particular behavior for four weeks, when truthfully you have only been working on it for two weeks. Also, if you work with an instructor, you can go into your journal at the start of a lesson and tell them exactly when you started something, problems the dog has been having, good progress or handling items, and lightbulb moments.

If I happen to record my training session, I can insert a hyperlink to the YouTube video and it embeds the video directly into my journal entry, where I can watch it from the Day One app, without going to YouTube. You are not able to save video directly into Day One, but you can insert photos directly into the journal entry. If you wanted to keep track of your ring setup on any given day, this would be a perfect way to do it.

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While I do not have these particular features set up, Day One can also be linked to other accounts, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. And, if needed, you can password protect the application with either a numerical password or Touch ID. Do not worry about losing your data, as Day One automatically syncs your entries with iCloud and you can import/export the entire journal or just one entry.

Recording plans or ideas is as simple as doing a voice text directly into the application from my phone. I have also discovered, that as I record my problems, I come up with alternative solutions to address my issue. So, while I also like to talk through problems with training friends, I discovered that just writing my problems down helped me work through it.

While I am a not ready to say my journaling habit is carved in stone, I am happy to report I am well past the 66 day timeframe. Journaling has given me somewhere to do more than just keep track of Kazee’s progress, it has given me a place to write down my goals and a means by which to hold myself accountable for the way I train. Dog training is not all fairy farts and rainbows, sometimes our dog, or us, just has a bad day! Writing it down helps you vent. If you have a bad day, write it down, then either forget about it or come up with an action plan!!

Happy journaling!

** For those of you who have already asked, this is the exact app in the iTunes store –

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I do not know if there is something similar for Android phones. If someone is using something, please share the information in a comment!

Proofing vs. Confidence Building

I sat at a trial last weekend, watching utility A after utility A dog fail exercises. For some reason, no one expects Utility A dogs to pass, why is that?? My last German Shepherd earned her Utility Dog title in two weekends. While I know she is the exception to the rule, I do not understand why people are showing dogs who are not ready for the ring. Yes, I know dogs make mistakes, people are nervous, etc…all of these factors play a part in why dogs fail in the ring.

While watching one dog struggle in the article pile, someone came up to me. “Can I ask your opinion,” she said. “Of course,” I said. She went on to tell me she was helping the team currently in the ring. The dog was visibly stressed on articles (staring at handler, repeatedly picking up and setting down articles, circling the pile…handler eventually called the dog in), and she wanted to know what I would recommend doing to “fix” the problem. This is an awkward position to be placed in. While I have known the dog for a while, I can not say I know him well. When I did not answer her right away, she went on to tell me what she thought they needed to do…which was to put more pressure on the dog in the article pile and apply harder proofing situations. She believed the dog needed to be required to work through the pressure and find his article.

Honestly, looking back, I think I visibly sighed. Everyone seems to think when something fails in the ring, the dog has not been proofed enough. That the dog was not required to work through enough pressure on a daily training basis to handle the pressure in the ring. I shrugged, and (politely as I could) said that is not what I would do. The dog lacked confidence. Take a dog who lacks confidence on an exercise and start applying a lot of pressure, and all you are going to do is make the dog’s world explode. You have now turned the scary article pile into a horrible place where there are toys or food laying around to trick you or the person standing close by (who you thought was safe) is now there to pull you out of the pile if you do something wrong.

If you start putting a lot of pressure on a dog who lacks confidence, especially on an ‘away from the handler’ type of exercise like articles, you are going to create a problem with the entire exercise. Not to mention risk damaging your relationship with your dog altogether. I told her, while I did not know the dog very well, I would recommend stepping back and retraining how to work an article pile with CONFIDENCE. I would consider going back to working small article piles, in easy locations, and with high rewards. The dog would have to be successful and very confident, before I started making the exercise harder or applying any proofing at all.

This does not mean proofing does not have its place or that it can not be used to help a dog GAIN confidence. But I really believe it depends on the exercise, the problem you are experiencing and the overall relationship between the dog and handler. I will use my older Springer, Gunner, as an example. Gunner is (and has always been) very environmentally sensitive. Thunder (or even rain), diesel trucks, motorcycle noise, air conditioners turning on…all of these were enough to send him running for the ring gate. If he had a visual to pair with the noise, it was even worse. Seeing the large truck making the noise did not make it any better, it only confirmed there was something to be afraid of.

Years ago, before I even started showing in Novice, it was recommended to me to take Gunner to difficult environments and REQUIRE him to heel with attention. The well-known instructor clearly told me, “You will NOT like what you have, especially in the beginning. But it will get better. The more you expose him to difficult environments and help him work through his anxiety, the better he will be able to handle easier environments in the future.” Looking back, I do not think I followed her advice right away. I wanted to work through the anxiety more positively. But nothing I did could recreate a more difficult show situation. He could handle quiet shows, where nothing out of the ordinary happened, but he could not hold any level of concentration under more difficult scenarios. While I did not go heeling in a train yard, I did go to places he felt were difficult…an empty grass lot behind a park-n-go lot being his biggest problem area. To me, there was nothing super distracting about his lot. The main road was on the other side of the parking lot, and the lot itself did not have a lot of traffic. Sometimes there was a large truck making a delivery at the nearby pharmacy, but other than that, not much going on. But Gunner decided the lot was hard, so this is where we went…often.

To be clear, my dog was NOT being flooded. He was always willing to take cookies, he was never frozen in fear. But it was difficult for him. And, six years later, it is STILL difficult for him. But, I can tell when I do not do enough of this highly distracting work with him. By heeling in these difficult (for him) situations, it makes the ring pressure easier.

But heeling is different than articles. Articles are worked 20 feet away from the handler. The dog is by himself in the middle of the ring with a judge standing right next to him, sometimes with dogs in the next ring with dumbbells being thrown, commands being shouted, etc. Articles (and other utility exercises) require A LOT of confidence on the dog’s part, you can not rush to the dog and help him in the ring. So, if your dog lacks confidence and you start applying pressure, all you are doing is adding stress to the exercise. In contrast to my above heeling example, while heeling I can support my dog. I can help him through problems, I can completely break from the exercise and do whatever I need to do to help him be successful. Who cares if my OTCH dog is heeling to a cookie in my hand? I don’t!! What is important is that my dog knows I am there to help him, to support him, and to reward him…very, very heavily.

So, now that I have droned on and on for eight paragraphs (oops!), let me pull the article situation back to my own dog. Last I checked in, Kazee was doing articles on a tie down board. I hated it….and Kazee hated it. I was not providing enough information and Kazee was getting frustrated. He would scent the pile well one day, then try to snatch and grab the next. So I broke it completely and went all the way back to the beginning.

Kazee does NOT like the scent-a-whirl, he hates it actually. But, he hates it because he has to put his entire face and head down into bins. This is an issue in other ways for Kazee, which (I believe) is what led to some of our initial problems on the scent-a-whirl. So, I went a similar, but different route. I decided to teach it initially like a nosework game. All I wanted him to do was FIND the scent, he did not have to pick up anything at all. I bought 12 new, shorter plastic tubs, which would allow him to pick up an article (when the time came) without him having to put his entire face into it.

We stayed at this “nosework” stage for almost two weeks, starting with only 1 bin and building up to 12 bins. His confidence came back up, he was eagerly running to do his “find it” game and I was not seeing any stress signals from him. We did the game in different locations – inside my house, in the driveway, on the back porch, in the garage, at the dog club. I will not say that he never indicated the incorrect bin, but he was actively using his nose and searching for the correct scent.

I will not post all of the early (working up to 12 bins) videos, but I will post two videos at the end of this step, as they show different issues –

The main thing I wanted to see was a happy, confident dog in the article “pile”. A dog who could easily take a negative marker, if needed, and eagerly go back to work. I definitely saw this from Kazee, so at the end of last week, I decided to move to the next step, which was having him pick up the article after he found it. Because I added new requirements, I made the exercise easier, going back down to only two bins. Today, I add two more bins, bringing it up to four bins total.

I am in no hurry to train articles. I know, in my mind, what I want his article work to look like, so we are working towards that vision as our goal. Some people would look at our earlier article work and say “he knows he is supposed to scent in the article pile” and would have started to apply more pressure to the dog. They would have then, essentially, taken all of the joy out of the exercise. I want my dogs oozing joy. I want people to stop ringside and watch them work. I want people to look at my non-traditional obedience dogs and see that they can be successful with something other than a Golden or a Border Collie. And my definition of successful does not necessarily mean in the winner’s circle, it means showing the judge what a true obedience TEAM looks like. And, sometimes, you have to have a sense of humor…if we go down in flames, we go down together. 🙂

As always, train hard, but play harder!