Rewarding effort and changing tactics

The motto at class today was ”When all else fails, reward effort.” Without effort, you have nothing. Even if your dog is going through the motions and staying in position, it can be (in my opinion) lacking in joy and teamwork, and who wants that?!?

People get too hung up on everything being perfect. You can work with any dog who gives you effort. Help them, show them, encourage them. But if you have a dog who does not love to work with you and simply goes through the mechanical motions, what fun is that? I want bright eyes, a naughty grin and a dog pushing me to work. So, when things start to fall apart (and they will), go back to simply requiring effort. Forget perfection for the moment and do whatever you need to do to pull the desire and joy out of your dog. And, if I require effort from the dog, you better bet I require effort from the two-legged half of the team too. You only get what you put into it.

To clarify, just because I sometimes isolate the “give me effort” part, it does not mean my criteria is loosened. For example, if I am working effort on signals, I do not allow my dog to take a step forward in the stand as I am walking away. Or, if I am working speed on the drop on recall, I do not allow my dog to break his sit stay before I call him. If I allow my criteria to change, it creates grey area for the dog…something I never want in training.

Training’s today brought some unexpected challenges, which required a change in training plans. Like most young dogs, Kazee got confused on a basic skill….a come front signal. We had started the session with directed jumping, so the jumps were in the ring, and we had actually done a couple of quick drop drills in our earlier warmup before I had taught a class. Watching the video, I think he was getting confused more with the hand signal than the actual “come” portion of the exercise. He loves the drop on recall exercise (done primarily with a right hand signal), we had just done directed jumping (right and left hand) and my come signal is also with my right hand. So, to him, he was seeing hand motion and not differentiating between the different commands.

Some people may have simply made the decision to correct a failure to come directly, but when you watch the video, this is clearly NOT what is going on. Kazee is giving me effort…actually too much effort. He is just not making the correct decision. So, I changed tactics and helped him figure it out. I paired my verbal with my signal and I did not put as much distance between us, in some cases taking the jumps out of the picture entirely. But, once he started to figure it out, I set him up for directed jumping to my right. Why would I do this when he clearly was confused on the right hand motion? Because I wanted to show him the difference between the jump signal and the come signal. I wanted to clarify his understanding that “THIS is the difference!” And, he nailed it. Train your dogs for understanding!! Had I simply worked the come command only, I am pattern training, not training for understanding. He would not have to differentiate between commands, he would simply say “okay, now we are working fronts”. While he may get his front command, he is doing it without thinking of the actual command and/or signal.

The next training session of the day brought another couple of training opportunities. We started with articles and, after all of our problems working through this exercise over the last year, I am very happy with where Kazee is currently at. He is working the pile extremely well on a consistent basis, going quickly to and from the pile, continuously working, and (though he sometimes will make a mistake) is reliably finding the correct article. Because I am more concerned with his attitude and confidence on this exercise, I am not asking for pivots before the exercise and I am just now getting to the point where I occasionally ask for a front on the return. However, it was clear on the last article that the added energy brought along some undesirable mouthing. Something to work more often, OUTSIDE the context of the article pile.

Then, when working on the return to heel from a stand position, it was obvious Kazee did not want to give me the behavior I was asking for. This may have been the result of him being tired, who knows. So, I again changed my tactics and went back to just requiring effort to get into heel position. Normally, I ask him for a little bit of a bounce/hand touch when he is coming around to heel position. If I don’t, Kazee has a tendency to not go far enough behind me before trying to turn (something you will see at about 5:30 on the below video). I was happy with where we were when we stopped training, but the entire hour drive home involved me thinking through my problem. So, when I got home, I pulled him out of the car and we went back to work. Instead of asking him to physically come up towards my hand, I decided to let him power through the return to me, going directly to his tug toy. I will need to thoroughly shape and condition this drive on the return, so this skill needs solidifying before attempting to pull everything together. However, this does not mean I will stop the requirement of him coming “up” to my hand in other situations. This is a great way to require (and reinforce) effort from your dog.

And, maybe someday, I’ll learn how to set up my camera so I don’t cut off my head!

Setups are one area where it is easy for you to work effort. I want my dog driving quickly into heel position, setting up straight, with head up and eyes bright…ready to work. This “ready to work” attitude will then carry over into my exercise. But, if I allow my dog to wander around, call him multiple times to get into heel position and watch him numbly get into heel position, you can bet that attitude will carry over into the exercise also. If your dog has a problem with setups, they are super easy to work with a food lure. Let him chase the cookie in your left hand for a second, then ask him to quickly set up. As soon as he is in heel position, mark and reward. In the beginning, I don’t even care if my dogs sits in heel position, I will reward the drive and speed trying to get there. Later, I will lose the cookie and do the same game with a hand touch requirement. If your dog prefers a toy, you can play the same game with a toy. Use it as a lure in the beginning, but quickly turn it into a reward.

Because there is always the comment of “there may be an underlying physical issue”, I feel obligated to add that I absolutely agree. Make sure there is not a reason your dog CAN’T give you the effort you want. But, there are plenty of people who cite “he must not be feeling well”, to excuse a lack of effort. A lack of effort is then inadvertently trained and reinforced. Yes, everyone (two and four legged) have bad days and sometimes things just go south in a hurry. On those days, put your dog away and try again later. But, learn to recognize the differences in your dog and address the areas where your dog chooses not to give you effort. Key indicators are when your dog will happily work for the cookie in your hand or when the training is all done in a playful manner, but stops working as soon as the cookie goes away or you take training in a little more formal direction (which has to be done to make it ring ready).

Train hard, but play harder!

 

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Not enough hours in the day…

Fortunately, the breed ring is finished for the time being, because with agility and obedience, there are not enough hours in the day to get everything accomplished (not to mention work and family!). Kazee finished his breed Championship on January 28th and, while he may play as a special once and awhile, he is not competitive right now against the mature dogs. So, we have been concentrating on the fun stuff.

I say “fun stuff”, but sometimes it is not fun at all. Challenging, yes. Complicated, yes. Fun, not always!! Kazee is so different than my last two dogs, I feel like I have started several things over multiple times…probably because I have. The old adage of “throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks” definitely applies some days. This is primarily true for articles and go-outs. If you have followed along, you have seen our struggles with articles. I started scent work with the Scent-a-whirl, but the barking was over the top. I then switched to the Around the Clock method. This method worked wonderfully for awhile and Kazee was doing multiple finds with a complete pile. Then, one day, it broke. Kazee started snatching and grabbing, without sniffing at all. After a few days of this, I went BACK to the scent-a-whirl. Kazee clearly understood the sniffing requirement and was (without fail) only picking the correct article out of the 4 uncovered bins. But, while the barking had been fixed on this particular tool, Kazee does not like putting his head in the bin. I was not about to fight this and add more pressure to the exercise, so I bit the bullet and went to a tie down board. Honestly, I have never used a tie down board before with any of my three dogs. The German Shepherds just understood the exercise after it was explained to them and Gunner never needed it after doing the ATC method.

Kazee has been on the tie down board for about week at home. I decided to take the board to the dog club this morning to see how he did. Because I was working articles in a new location, I left only two articles on the board to make it easier. I was happy with his effort. So, until THIS method breaks, we will be using the tie down board. 🙂

I mentioned Kazee’s barking earlier. I finally decided to give MYSELF a kick in the butt and start to get this under control. Kazee is not very easily offended, so the method which seems to be working is a muzzle hold and/or putting him on the ground in a down position for a few seconds. Low growling is allowed on the tug toy right now, as I do not know if this will ever be silenced. Kazee is an extremely vocal dog and he needs some method of release. Barking completely depends on the dog and, given the fact that I have never had a barker before, I let this go on way too long. Honestly, if Gunner gives me an occasional bark in the obedience ring, I love it, as it means he is having fun. And, Zita, well I got after her once for barking as a young dog and I could never get her to bark again.

Our other problem area is go-outs. He loves to mark to his tug toy, but has a tendency to go deaf to everything else when his tug toy is involved. So, while I’m still using his tug for some marking work, I have gone back to his placemat for go outs. When going back over my notes and video, I was previously releasing Kazee off of his mat to be rewarded. Big no-no, as all rewards need to happen on the mat. So, for right now, I’ve gone to food rewards on his go-out spot. There are not many treats Kazee will eat (not your typical Springer!), but he loves homemade tuna fish treats. He could have picked something that makes my house smell a little better. Oh, and he loves bacon. That makes the kitchen smell good, but then I end up eating half of it! So, I make myself bake the tuna treats. 😦

On a bright note, heeling is coming along beautifully and Kazee LOVES agility. I have never done agility before, so I am trying to keep myself in foundation classes and pick Kazee’s breeder’s brain whenever possible.

For those of you who enjoy watching training videos, I took several of Kazee today and one  of Gunner as well. The National Obedience Championship is in three weeks and Gunner has been working very hard on our problem areas. I have never had the opportunity to show Gunner at an NOI/NOC before because of logistics, so we are excited to compete. I am not worried about running clean, but I want good positive work from my wonderful boy, so everyone can see how well an English Springer can work in the ring.

Kazee – Agility work from today, over a couple of different sessions. Weave poles – almost closed, with guide wires. Dog walk and A-frame with his target box. Teeter – which is still very new to him.

Kazee – First obedience session with him of the morning, while Gunner does a sit-stay in the ring.

Kazee – Articles on his tie-down board and dumbbell retrieves

Kazee – go-outs to his placemat

Gunner – working on problem areas of dumbbell pickups and fast finishes, also some heeling work and signals. It always feels “easy” when I train Gunner after working Kazee…maybe it is just because I do not have to think as hard. 🙂

Kazee and I are in no hurry to get into any type of ring, especially obedience. There is still a lot of work to be done on impulse control before even going to a formal match. And, I like to train completely through Utility before entering Novice any way. And, with my started skills over again every other week, it may be awhile!

I am also starting to accumulate agility equipment and now have a teeter base on order as well. My husband is not especially thrilled with my new yard ornaments (he thought the obedience stuff in the garage was bad!), but a happy wife is a happy life!!!

Until next time….train hard and play harder!!

Where does the time go?

It is hard to believe Kazee is 8 1/2 months old already. Everything has not gone exactly to plan with my training goals, but when do plans work out that way? He has, however, exceeded my expectations on his overall confidence and work ethic. I am letting Kazee dictate the pace on a lot of our training, although I am starting to require more impulse control in work and daily life. It is so much more fun to concentrate on building drive and his desire to work with me, but when his nickname turns into “Crazy Kazee”, it is time to put a little bit of a cap on things. 🙂

So, what has not gone to plan? Retrieves. Kazee has had zero interest in shaping a dumbbell hold beyond pressing his front teeth against the object or a quick open mouth over the object, then pulling back. Play retrieves he would do, but in a wild-eyed (Crazy Kazee) manner. And, after chipping a tooth on his dumbbell during a play retrieve, those have been stopped until there is more control built in. But when it came to sitting down in a chair and putting his mouth on a bar…no way. The +R faction would say I must not be shaping it correctly, my timing is bad, my cookies do not have enough value or maybe the dog is just not hungry enough. I have no doubt there are better free shapers out there than me, however, I am more about giving my dog information. This includes, “yes”, “no”, or “good, but try again”. With a full menu of information, I am finally at a point where Kazee is taking the object and holding it. “Object” meaning anything BUT a dumbbell. We are making progress (albeit slow progress), which is all I ask of him. There is no timetable and he will likely not do a “retrieve” for many months.

Heeling, on the other hand, is always fun with this little dog. He is drivey, animated and focused, through shaping this behavior from early on. He has never really been on a cookie for heeling, though I do use them for working setups, halts and some other behaviors. I am still working a moving hand push with him, but it seems to irritate him that my hand blocks his view of my face. So, instead, I am working the hand push for fast setups and stationary behaviors. What works for one dog, doesn’t work for them all!

I have also started free shaping a send away to a platform. While I do not use platforms for fronts or finishes, I do use them for other things, including go-outs. Gunner was trained go-outs to a platform and the desired behavior always seemed very clear to him…run straight until you hit your platform, jump on it, turn and sit. While he does not use his platform very often any more, he LOVES to see it come out in training, because it still has a lot of value for him. Because Kazee loves his tug more than food, I have been shaping his platform with the tug as his reward. Placement of the platform is not important right now and it’s position always varies. Sometimes it is up against a barrier or other times, like today, it is in the middle of the ring.

The platform used above is 14″ x 20″ and has 2″ x 4″ boards for legs (so it can be used as a chute, if desired, by flipping it over). I liked this size for him, especially the fact that it is a little taller than his platform at home. It was very clear to him if he was entirely on the platform, which is important when shaping because it removes grey area to the dog.

The more black and white you can make something, the better. This goes for all aspects of training. If you are having a problem on a certain exercise, put your dog away, step back and just look at the exercise or skill you are asking the dog to do. Is the desired outcome clear? Are there any grey areas you can remove? Ask a training partner if what you are doing makes sense. One hint, if you can not explain to another person (especially a non-dog person) exactly what you are doing or what the dog’s response should be, it probably is not clear enough.

As always, train hard, but play harder!!

 

Keep it fresh…

Those of you who know me from obedience, know Gunner. Those who know Gunner, love him. But, those who know him WELL, know how hard of a dog he is to train, show and live with. Could it be me? Did I cause some of my problems or at least intensify them? Oh, yes, I have no doubt about it. We have started over more often than I would like to admit. But, I guess these problems and figuring how to dig our way out of holes, has allowed me to keep learning new ways to do things.

Background on Gunner for those of you who do not know him…he’s a 7 1/2 year old Springer, who has been showing for over 4 years. He has earned top awards in his breed and many, many High in Trials and High Combined awards. He is also very environmental, has some separation anxiety and has decided that he no longer needs to work very hard in the obedience ring. We have not been showing as much this year with the new puppy in the house, so we have stepped back to work on effort and confidence.

While Gunner has not really had any problems with go-outs (which were originally taught with a platform), they can always be better. After attending a Debbie Quigley seminar, I decided to introduce food pouches to see if they helped with his speed and desire to move away from me. This is the first time Gunner has used his food pouches at the dog club, so I was expecting (and got) some mistakes. The video is a little long, but I think it more important to show his errors and how I handle them, rather than just him running out to get a pouch.

We HAVE had some recent issues with articles…and I’m not sure why. Gunner will occasionally stop in the pile and look at me for several seconds before going back to work. Looking for help or directions? I’m not sure, as I have never talked to him while he was in the pile. So, I’ve thrown in some more distractions and have been asking him to think a little more “outside of the box”. This is NOT proofing for a green dog. And, this is not all new proofing for Gunner either. He struggled today, which I am fine with. I will help him figure it out. One thing you will see, is even with some mild corrections, Gunner is NOT stressed about going to (or working in) the article pile. He is not circling the pile, afraid to make a decision. His head is up and his tail remains wagging. So, despite some issues, it is still a success for me.

Kazee continues his foundation work. I am thrilled with his progress on heeling and his engagement while working. I am going to have to stay on my toes because he’s a little “too” smart, but that is what makes obedience training so much fun. Because I am not sure how he will be trained on his go-outs yet, I have also decided to introduce him to the food pouches. Even if I do not use them for go-outs, I may want to incorporate them somewhere else.

Kazee makes his breed ring debut tomorrow, so wish us luck! Actually, wish ME luck. Kazee knows what he is doing, it is me who needs help!

Until next time…Train hard. Play harder.

 

Struggles…

Be-not-afraid-of-growing

Why can we see the holes in our training, but we can’t seem to stop long enough to fix it? Sure, we might work on it by throwing in some fundamental drills here and there to try to help our dog, but to actually STOP showing and work on fixing the hole is very difficult. While at a seminar last weekend, the foundation hole in my dog’s training kept showing its ugly head.

I have never had the good fortune to live in a location where I was able to train with someone really good. Maybe if I had, they would have seen the hole a long time ago. That’s not true…I saw the hole a long time ago. What is it? Basically, it is the “get it game”. The drill where you throw a cookie to a puppy/dog and they are supposed to run out to get the cookie, then whirl back around and race back for another cookie. I’m sure I did the drill, but like so many people, I did not do it long enough or often enough for it to become ingrained in my dog. And now, the hole shows up on every retrieve exercise and some recall exercises – looping on a dumbbell pick up, wide turns on direct jumping, wide turns on the glove pick up. It is all the same hole.

I have tried to patch the hole with cookies, games or corrections. Other trainers’ suggestions have included never doing a retrieve off of a flexi lead, throwing something towards my dog to interrupt him when he’s not concentrating on coming into me directly, tagging him while he picks up the dumbbell, or throwing a toy or cookie when he’s coming in to front. I’ve done them all. Have they helped? Yes, temporarily. But they didn’t solve the problem, which is the dog needs to make a concerted effort to pick up the object and concentrate on the next portion of his job….to get back to me quickly! I made a decision last weekend to stop and try to fix my hole, not just patch it. Yes, this means I miss a trial or two (or more), but if it helps fix my issue then it is worth it.

Another part of my issue involves a pushy dog, who is upset that he is no longer the center of my training universe. A dog who is grumpy around the house and giving me lackluster effort at shows. The seminar presenter asked me how much freedom my dog had…my answer was “too much”. She kept pushing. How much freedom does he have? He has all the freedom he wants. He is loose in the house except for bedtime, where he sleeps in a crate in our bedroom. He does not have free access to regular play toys, he does have access to chew toys. While I do not plan on crating my dog for long periods of the day, he will be spending some time in his crate each day. He will also have less liberties in the house and his sleeping crate will be moved out of the bedroom.

But, I have to be honest, I am upset. Not that he’s losing some freedom, his crate is being moved, or I will miss a few shows, but that I have let it get this far. That I didn’t deal with it sooner. That I took the path of least resistance to try to fix my problem.

I could blame it on being busy. I could blame it on having a non-traditional breed who can be difficult to work with and live with. I can blame it on work, or the family, or the new puppy in the house, but it is me who is responsible. I am the one that makes the rules in the house for the dogs. No one else. Yes, sometimes everyone has to suffer because of my rules. We have to listen to a dog whining in his crate because he would rather be with us on the couch while we are watching television or we have to rotate dogs being outside because they are not allowed play time together.

Do I think I can fix my problem on a 7 1/2-year-old dog? I don’t know. But I don’t mind breaking it down and trying. One thing I am not willing to do is keep amping up corrections to keep the hole patched. I need my dog engaged with me when working. Engaged because he WANTS to work, not because he’s afraid of what will happen if he doesn’t work. That being said, I want my dog to work a specific way. I do not want him simply in heel position. I want him brimming with excitement at the very thought of heeling work. I want him leaping in the air at the thought of being able to retrieve his dumbbell. There is, in my mind, a difference between engagement and attention. The latter can be forced, coerced and corrected, but if your dog is not engaged with you and wanting to work, why bother? So, while attention is good, keep striving for true engagement from your dog. And work to achieve that perfect picture in your head…that picture of a happy, working dog who loves the sport YOU have chosen to do.

Train hard. Play harder.

 

Effort

I am a huge believer of the dog giving effort during training. And, this does not just mean the exercise itself…it also means coming out of the crate, entering the ring and moving between exercises. If you allow your dog to “turn off” during these activities it WILL bleed over into your formal exercises.

How do you get effort? Wow, million dollar question, isn’t it? Every dog is different, so you need to figure out what works for your dog. Not very helpful, is it? 🙂

Examples of how I require effort from my dog or my students’ dogs:

  1. If the dog is lagging, the behavior is marked and the handler quietly takes a hold of the dog’s collar (normally from the left side of the dog’s head) and pushes him forward into heel position. While doing this, the handler tells the dog what they are doing “We’re heeling, good heel”, etc. Then the collar is released and the team continues forward a few steps before releasing the dog.
  2. If the dog is forging, the behavior is marked and the handler quietly takes a hold of the collar (same as in #1 above) and brings the dog back to heel position. The handler then slows their speed and asks the dog to maintain heel position. It takes a lot more impulse control for these dogs to maintain a slower speed and it allows you to address issues more timely.
  3. If the dog shuts off between exercises and is following numbly behind me, I address it similar to the lagging dog. But, I may just do a “with me” correction (a TRAINED behavior), instead of a “we’re heeling” correction.
  4. During a left finish, if the dog under rotates, the handler pivots left during the finish (helping the dog verbally if needed).
  5. During a right finish, if the dog stops short, the handler is either prepared with their left foot back or they take a slight step forward or to the side during the finish.
  6. If the dog is not coming into a front straight, I mark the behavior, then pivot or sidestep, while reminding the dog of their job.
  7. If the dog is not getting his rear in on a left turn, I ask him to do a left spin in heel position DURING the left turn.

The key…if your dog isn’t working hard enough, help him work HARDER. If your dog understands what you are asking from him, do not automatically make the exercise easier. As much as possible, train like you show….meaning not throwing in a whole bunch of extra physical cues or guides. Make doing the correct thing easy and the wrong thing much more work on the dog’s part.

Don’t forget to tell your dog when he’s doing something incorrectly. How else will he know what he can or can’t do? This doesn’t mean yelling “NO!” and running at your dog. A simple “wrong” or “oops” or “try again” works just fine. Keep your voice light and your hands soft. If your dog deflates, get him back in drive before continuing.

And, likewise, tell your dog when he’s doing something right! Even if it is just a smile, let your dog know he is awesome! Remember, you can smile all you want in the ring. Also, in Novice and Open, you can use any word for your heel command. So, why not say “AWESOME” as you move forward, instead of “heel”? This may also help you get a little spunk into your heeling if your dog is worried about the environment. (Disclaimer…Don’t say “Awesome, Fido heel”, that may be pushing it for most judges.)

As always…Train hard. Play harder.

Shannon