Wednesday, March 31, 2010

2010 Goals: First Quarter Update!

So, it’s been three months since I set my 2010 dog training goals, and I thought it would be nice to evaluate our progress so far. Overall, there’s been some great successes, some moderate progress, and a few places where I’ve dropped the ball entirely.

Goal: Complete the relaxation protocol.
Progress: We did the relaxation protocol daily for several weeks, getting to the point where I was ready to progress to the “second day” of the protocol… but then petered out.
Looking Forward: Doing the relaxation protocol is a bit boring, especially to do it every day. This quarter I’ll try to work on it once or twice a week.

Goal: Increase Maisy’s physical exercise.
Progress: I feel like we made a ton of progress here! Unfortunately, the numbers disagree: I walked Maisy 47 out of 90 days, which is a success rate of only 52%. Still, this does include the month of January, when we had sub-zero temperatures for the first two weeks, as well as the two weeks at the beginning of March when I had pneumonia.
Looking Forward: I am anticipating even more progress next quarter. The thing that really surprises me here is how much I love walking Maisy. I actually tried to walk her while I had pneumonia because I missed it so much.

Goal: Develop novice obedience stays.
Progress: None. Haven’t even tried. Oops!
Looking Forward: I would like to spend some of my Five Times Challenge time on this goal.

Goal: Improve heeling so that we can complete a novice-level heeling pattern.
Progress: I’ve really built a lot of attention into her heeling. I’m getting excellent eye contact through the first several steps of heeling, and she often offers a nice, attentive heel during the off-leash portion of our walks.
Looking Forward: I’m hoping to continue to build these skills. First, I need to work on improving duration. Then, I want to work on reducing food treats. Finally, I’ll need to drop the verbal encouragement, as well. That’s three sub-goals, and I have three quarters of the year left. Neat!

Goal: From heel position, hit the proper front position on the first try.
Progress: Some progress seen. She’s usually getting heel position on the first or second try, but not yet from heel position.
Looking Forward: I’d like to spend some of my Five Times Challenge time on this goal, too.

Goal: Develop jumping skills for a recall over high and directed jumping.
Progress: I was able to send her over a jump from heel position during a trial in February, and one of those times, we were six feet away- the required distance to avoid taking a 3 point deduction!
Looking Forward: I learned at the Suzanne Clothier seminar that due to Maisy’s structure, jumping will probably never be her strong suit. We’ll continue to work on it in small pieces, and I think a jump or two will be doable for her.

Goal: Reduce ring nerves.
Progress: I did get through a trial without using stomach medications, which was a huge improvement! I did this by using Rescue Remedy. Unfortunately, I was so nervous that the judge actually took me aside and had me smell an essential oil to help me relax a little. Oops.
Looking Forward: I have an appointment at the end of April to get hypnotized to help deal with my ring stress. Hopefully it helps, but if not, I suspect I’ll talk with the therapist about some visualization and other exercises to incorporate.

Goal: Complete ARCH.
Progress: Maisy completed her Level 2 title in February, which was the first step towards the ARCH.
Looking Forward: She already has enough Level 1 points, so we just need 40 Level 2 points and 5 QQs. I don’t think we’ll actually achieve all that this year unless we travel, and that, of course, is going to be dependent on whether or not I can get my ring nerves under control.

Goal: Get one leg towards a CD (any venue).
Progress: None officially, but we are working on the skills necessary (heeling, etc.).
Looking Forward: I’ll probably try St. Hubert’s CDSP program first. The problem with that is that the only local trials are held in conjunction with APDT rally… and that might be too much for one day since I want to work on her QQs then.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Suzanne Clothier Seminar: Answering the Questions for Maisy

In my last entry, I detailed what the questions are, but I really didn't personalize them. (Seriously, folks, I'm already pretty long-winded for a blog anyway, can you imagine how much worse it would be if I didn't break these things down?) Anyway, today I want to post a bit about how answering these questions have changed my perspective on Maisy.

Question 1: Hello?
Due to our long association with one another, this one is easy. If I say Maisy's name, or any one of her nicknames (and there are many; I have no idea how she understands they all refer to her), she wags her tail. Immediately. Every time. She'll often do this when someone else says her name, too. It is safe to say that Maisy is quite willing to interact with me.

Question 2: Who are you?
Question 3: How is this for you?
I've combined these two questions because I think they're pretty bound up in one another, and I think my post would be far more disjointed if I didn't combine them.

For a long time, when I described Maisy, I described her as "fearful" and "reactive." Those are the two adjectives that came out of my mouth most often, though I often followed it up with "extremely soft." The problem with these descriptors are two-fold. First, they're primarily negative, and second, I'm not sure they're really all that accurate.

I've been watching Maisy's responses lately, and she's surprised me. A lot. For example, I've always thought she's fearful because she's a bit jumpy and startles easily. An unusual noise or unexpected event will make her jump backwards and perhaps tuck her tail and slink a little bit. But her resiliency is amazing; she'll often come back to that scary thing quite quickly. I've written before about Maisy's response to a wobble board. It initially startled her, but she came right back to it, and continued to interact with it. Is this what a fearful dog would do?

And in the past week, I've seen countless examples of her jumping in surprise, and then immediately calming down or returning to work. I'm beginning to think that a better descriptor for her is sensitive. The way I react to something will predict the way she reacts. Lately, I've been paying attention to Maisy's triggers, and making a huge effort not to stiffen up (this was the direct result of Suzanne's seminar, and I'll write about it in more detail soon). When I remain loose, Maisy might look at the trigger, and even take a few steps towards it, but when she sees I'm fine, she relaxes. When the trigger also startles me and I gasp or start breathing differently, or if I tighten the leash or tense my body, then she's far more likely to lunge, growl or bark. Interesting.

She is very sensitive to her environment, and to me.

I've also talked about Maisy as "not liking children," but I'm not sure that's true, either. Yesterday, she actually asked to go say hi to a strange child. We were out in the front yard, and I had Maisy off leash to work on heeling (the reward was throwing her ball), when I saw a mother pushing her toddler in a stroller. I called Maisy to me, put her back on leash, and as they came close, the mother asked if her toddler could say hi. I started to say no, reflexively, but then I looked at Maisy: She was loose, wriggling, and had a "helicopter tail." She wanted to say hi.

The important question of asking "How is this for you?" is about asking it every time the situation comes up. Will she always want to greet a child? No, but sometimes she will.

Some other descriptions of Maisy: she's funny, and loves to play. She's incredibly snuggly, and it's a rare morning that I don't wake up with a dog in my arms. She follows me everywhere, but is quite content to stay with other people she knows. In fact, although she can be a bit shy with people she doesn't know, once she meets someone, she's incredibly friendly. She's very visual, and I sometimes wonder if her sight isn't a stronger sense than smell. She's biddable, smart (too smart, sometimes!), and very willing.

And she's mine.

Question 4: May I...?
Generally, yes, I may. Although Maisy is pretty clear that she hates being groomed. Nails, brushing, baths, all of it. I try to make those times worth her while with lots of treats, but even so, she'd rather not, thank you.

Question 5: Can you...?
Most of the time, yes, she can. Intellectually, she's very smart. She learns quickly, which is both a blessing and a curse. If she's not understanding something I'm trying to teach her, it's pretty much always my fault. We used to really struggle with left pivots, until I began to hold my shoulder slightly differently. Then she nailed them every time.

Emotionally, she's getting better. She still does have some of that reactivity, but it's improving all the time. I'll have to do a separate post on this soon, but I'd say we're down from having a reactive outburst every time we're in public to about 20% of the time.

Physically... well, some days are better than others. She does have some back issues, and she sees a chiropractor and canine massage therapist who does massage, acupressure and reiki every month. These things help a lot, but even so, there are days where she's reluctant to jump. I'm learning to assess her before I ask her to jump, because if I ask, she'll do it, even if it hurts.

Question 6: Can we...?
Yes. We can. Maisy will always try for me. I am, however, aware that my reactions will affect her, and so when she fails to do something properly, I try to always look at myself first. I think our biggest obstacle to trials is my nerves, not the environment, and so I'm starting to work through those issues as best I can so that my half of "we" actually can do it.

I've learned a lot by stepping back and asking the questions on a regular basis, especially "How is this for you?" I've made assumptions that weren't true, like with the child yesterday. Have any of you guys tried asking your dog any of the questions? If so, what did you learn? Was it surprising, or just as you expected?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Suzanne Clothier Seminar: The Elemental Questions

The first session of the seminar was spent discussing what Suzanne calls “The Elemental Questions.” These questions were designed to help people get to the core of who their dog is, and to deepen their relationship with their dog. While the questions are simple, they require you to be open to the answers, and to make detailed observations.

Question 1: Hello?
Perhaps the easiest of the questions, this is the one that most people fail to ask. Literally, we are asking the dog if they’d like to interact with us, rather than assuming that they do. People tend to overwhelm dogs, thinking that we have the right to invade their space, and this question makes us step back, and respect the dog’s desires, too.

Question 2: Who are you?
In asking who the dog is, we need to let go of all of our preconceived notions of who the dog is. We tend to carry baggage around on behalf of our dogs, and these labels or frames of reference may be incomplete or inaccurate. By asking the question “Who are you?” we take a detailed look at the dog, gauging her physical, emotional and intellectual abilities. Suzanne suggests that we create lists or protocols, and check everything systematically, and to be aware that as people, we have a tendency to skip over the items that we aren’t sure about, or aren’t as good at seeing.

When we ask a dog who she is, we need to be present in the moment. Stand where the dog stands, and see what she sees. Really try to get into the dog’s mind. How is the dog attending to the environment? Visually? By listening? By touching things or chewing on them? By sniffing? Identify your own sensory preference, too, and ask yourself, how does my preferred way of attending to the environment (typically visual) affect the way I interpret my dog’s reactions based on her preferred sense (typically olfactory)? Suzanne recommended practicing using our other senses one at a time so that we can become better at attending to cues in the environment that we might miss otherwise.

Over and over again, she stressed that the answers are already there. We just have to find the questions.

Question 3: How is this for you?
In the previous question, we asked the dog how she perceives the world. In this question, we ask how those perceptions affect her. The most important, and perhaps the only, aspect to this question is, “Do you feel safe?” If not, why not? And what can you do to help the dog feel safe?

If they don’t feel safe, then no matter what you’re doing, it’s not humane. As a positive trainer, I certainly agree that if the prong collar makes a dog feel unsafe, it isn’t humane… but it’s a bit harder to face the idea that if a clicker feels unsafe, it, too, is inhumane.

Question 4: May I…?
This question is similar to the first one. We are again asking the dog permission to step into her world. The difference is that the first question is a hands off question, while this question asks if we may step into her space, touch her, or ask her to do stuff.

Question 5: Can you…?
By asking this question, we are asking the dog if she has the ability to do something. The question has three components. Can the dog literally meet the physical demand of the task? Sometimes, the answer is no. We also must ask if the dog has the intellectual understanding of the task. Does she understand what we want? And, we must ask if the dog has the emotional ability to do something. Do they feel safe enough to perform the given task right now, or are they too over-aroused or shut down instead?

Question 6: Can we…?
This question is more about the handler than the dog, and it ought to be asked last. Unfortunately, people often ask it far too soon, and we often fail to consider our own impact on the dog’s abilities. Specifically, we need to carefully look at ourselves, and consider if we are detracting from our dog’s abilities, understanding or enjoyment.

These are not easy questions to ask, and more importantly, they are not a one-time assessment. Each time we interact with our dog, we need to ask them all over again. Just like us, dogs grow and change. If we are willing to ask our dogs the questions every day, or every hour, or even every moment, it is much easier to develop the deep, respectful relationship that we are striving for.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Behold! The Power of the Mat

A huge component to my reactive dog class is mat work. Once dogs learn about the mat, they tend to really like them due to the strong reinforcement history. Our class focuses on relaxed states while on the mat, so it becomes a cue for relaxation, as well.

However, I’ve been rather skeptical about Maisy feeling relaxed on the mat. She tends to lie on her side on the mat… with all four legs sticking straight out, and at least two of them (if not all four) are held rigidly off the ground. Even though she’s in a relaxed position, she’s not actually relaxed. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that despite appearances, she has figured out that the mat is a relaxing place.

On Sunday, we went to visit Elizabeth and Beckett. Beckett, a true greyhound, promptly lay down on his mat and fell asleep. Maisy, however, being a corgi-possibly terrier mix does not voluntarily stay still. Not only that, but we’ve only been to Elizabeth and Beckett’s a few times, so she was a bit unsure about what she should do, and was pacing the living room and occasionally whining.

Elizabeth got one of Beckett’s many mats and brought it to me. I thanked her, but expressed that I highly doubted she would use it. Still, I set it down next to me, pointed at it, and told Maisy to “go mat.” She did, of course, but what really surprised me was her willingness to stay on the mat with only verbal praise. She even curled up in a little ball and snoozed a bit! Pretty relaxed for a high-energy ball of fuzz!

I’m pretty excited about this discovery. I’m going to start taking her mat more places to try to help that relaxation generalize. Although a friend’s house is a fairly low-key place, if we can build up to using the mat at trials, this could be a huge stress-reliever for her!

Have you taught your dog to go to a mat or place? What’s the most useful application that you’ve found for it?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Suzanne Clothier Seminar

This weekend I had the good fortune to attend a seminar given by Suzanne Clothier. I was very excited about this seminar because I wanted to learn more about her Relationship Centered Training. I have said over and over again that training and trialing is about relationship, and so I was eager to learn how Suzanne conceptualizes and uses this concept in training.

Overall, I really enjoyed the seminar. I learned a lot, although at times, I felt overwhelmed. Some of what she said was extremely challenging to my current worldview, and while I initially disagreed with some of it, I am excited to think over what I disagreed with, and more importantly why I disagreed. In the end, I’m not sure if I will come to agree with her or not, but in the process, I know that I will have a more well-rounded education and a better thought-out philosophy on dog training.

All of which is to say: You may expect a lot of blogging from me about this seminar. I am first going to spend a few posts summarizing what I learned from the seminar. These posts will not offer much personal insight, and I’ll attempt to represent what she said as accurately as possible. I do hope that I render it fairly, as I’m sure I missed some details that clarifies something she said, and there is certainly a high probability that I misunderstood a few things.

After those summaries, I will begin a series of posts discussing my personal reactions to her work, and the way I hope to apply what I’ve learned. I definitely took away a lot great ideas, and things that I really want to try with Maisy. Although I don’t really feel like these ideas are new in and of themselves, I do think Suzanne’s perspective was unique. A slightly different way of looking at things or doing things can make a huge difference.

In the meantime, I strongly encourage you to attend a seminar by Suzanne if you ever get the opportunity. She’s fabulously engaging, quite funny, and very real and honest. She is also very direct, and strikes me as someone who absolutely believes in what she’s saying, and frankly, she doesn’t care if you disagree with her. But the amazing thing is, she’s not rude about it. In that sense, she’s very dog-like: “This is how it is for me. Would you like me to explain it for you?”

And, I absolutely recommend that you read Bones Would Rain from the Sky. Although the seminar really helped flesh out a lot of what she said in the book, all of the basics are there.

Okay, I’m off to work on my first post on the seminar…

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Matters of Heeling: Watch Me vs. Look At That

Since Maisy and I have been working on heeling for the Five Times Challenge, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about criteria. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t require constant eye contact, but I’m finding that difficult to enforce. Maisy seems to either look around or to look me in the face; I may have chosen a middle ground, but she clearly hasn’t. In fact, she obviously didn’t read the dog books that say dogs don’t like to make direct eye contact. In fact, eye contact seems to be her preferred method of communication. When she needs to go out, she makes eye contact. When she wants food, she makes eye contact. When she wants me to throw her ball? Okay, then she usually stares at the ball, but if that fails? Eye contact.

I suppose I could teach her to use a focal point like my knee, but that just seems excessively difficult to teach, and let’s face it: I’m kind of a lazy trainer. As a result, it appears that we’ve agreed to do eye contact heeling. In ways, I like this. I love the way it makes us feel like we’re working as a team. But, as I’ve discussed, I have reservations about it. My two concessions to this are that she is allowed to break eye contact if she sees something that worries her, and we’re teaching a right-side heel to help mitigate the physical effects.

Normally, I wouldn’t even post about this. It’s a fairly minor point, and not even terribly interesting… except the part where I allow her to break eye contact if she sees something that concerns her. I suspect that this sounds odd to others, but I firmly believe it is essential to Maisy’s ability to manage her stress. Let me explain why.

There seems to be two main ways for a handler to deal with visual stimuli and their reactive dogs: they either cue their dogs to look at them (ie, “Watch Me”), or they cue the dog to look at the trigger (ie, “Look at That”). “Watch Me” is considered an incompatible behavior; the dog cannot demonstrate reactive behavior while engaged in another task. “Look at That” is a cue that is given to direct the dog to look at a visual trigger, which both allows the dog to see what’s going on, and rewards the dog for an appropriate response. This doesn’t mean that people only do one or the other. On the contrary, both cues can be very useful. Personally, though, I favor “Look at That” because Maisy is a highly visual dog. Most of her triggers are thing she sees, as opposed to sounds or smells, and she is very sensitive to fast motion, novel sights, or things that don’t look the way she expects them to.

Interestingly, she has the most difficulty when she knows something is present, but can’t see it, or when she can’t see it in its entirety. For example, on one of our recent trips to a pet store, there was only one other dog in the store, and it was in the adjacent aisle. Maisy knew the dog was there- she could hear it, and could probably smell it as well. Being short, she decided to check out this other dog by peeking under the display racks. Of course, she only saw feet, and this set her off in a barking fit. However, once the dog rounded the corner, she looked at it, and then quickly looked at me. She was still nervous, but she was no longer overreacting. It seemed to me that now that she had all of the information, she could make a better choice about how she ought to behave.

I could cite many similar examples, and in fact, her very first reactive response was to an incomplete visual stimuli. (In that instance, it was a very tall dog in the ring adjacent to us at training club. All Maisy could see was its neck and head.) However, if I shared every example, this post would become entirely too long. The point remains: Maisy is more likely to become reactive when she cannot look at whatever is upsetting her.

And that’s why I allow her to look at things while we are heeling. Ultimately, I’m hopeful that by working on just one step of attention heeling at a time, we can build up her focus so she doesn’t feel the need to look around. Of course, I also understand that I have the dog that I have. Although I hope that she will conquer her reactivity, I realize that she will likely always be more susceptible to stress than the average dog. So, my long-term goal is to help her learn to manage her stress so that she only needs the briefest of glances before she returns to the task at hand.

I know that sometimes I choose different methods than others, and I’m okay with that. I also know that in doing so, I’m probably sacrificing precision and high scores and ribbons and placements- things that I really do want, but that I’m content to give up if it’s what’s best for Maisy. I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: training and trialing is about being with my dog, and about the relationship we build in the process. As much as I want that coveted OTCH title, I want Maisy to feel loved and respected and protected more.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Five Times Challenge: Week 1 Update

It’s been just over a week since I started the Five Times Challenge. I still really like it; my biggest difficulty has been tracking the sessions. I don’t have the best memory, and though I’ve been trying to make a hash mark on my training board when I complete a session, I’ve forgotten to do this a lot. The upside of this is that Maisy has probably gotten more than five sessions on several days.

There have also been days where we haven’t been home much, either because we’ve been at a friend’s house, or because we’ve been at training class. On these days, I’ve tried to work in sessions, either while waiting for my husband to run an errand, or while in the waiting room at the vet’s, or even while waiting for pizza to be delivered! So, on those days, we may get fewer sessions in, but we get the added bonus of a new environment.

This is the beauty of the Five Times Challenge: since it’s so quick, it’s easy to sneak in some practice in other environments. I’m taking advantage of those natural times in life where you have to wait for something. There isn’t time for a full 20 minute session, but a few steps of heeling? No problem!

The progress Maisy has made has been amazing. I’m getting some very nice attentive heeling, and my instructor even commented last night that Maisy’s heeling looked really nice.

But, my favorite moment happened on Monday night. My husband needed to run to the credit union, and we tagged along. It was beautiful out, so instead of waiting in the car, we hung out on a busy street corner in downtown St. Paul. Since we’d been in a hurry to leave, I’d forgotten to bring treats (bad trainer), but luckily there was a ball in the car. Normally, I don’t train with the ball; Maisy is borderline OCD about balls, and when she sees them, it’s like her brain falls out of her head.

So here we are, on a busy street corner at rush hour, in a location Maisy has never been before, outside a credit union, which means people are coming and going, and I’m holding a ball. An exciting, enticing ball. And my Maisy was able to take one whole step of attention heeling.

I know that doesn’t sound like a lot- one step? That’s it?- but trust me, for a fearful dog with reactivity and a lot of difficulty with focus on concentration, it was absolutely beautiful.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Trying not to take it all for granted...

Something amazing happened yesterday. Something so amazing that I ought to be shouting it from the rooftops, bragging about it to everyone I come across, something that I could never have imagined happening only six months ago. And yet, it barely registered in my consciousness.

Maisy and I went to PetSmart yesterday, something we do on a fairly regular basis. It's a good opportunity to work on our Control Unleashed skills if the store is busy, and if it's quiet, it's a chance to work on our obedience skills in a different environment. Yesterday, I went with the idea of working on heeling in mind. In fact, that idea was so firmly in my head that even upon seeing all the dogs and chaos, I didn't revert to working on CU stuff instead. As a result, I almost missed out on appreciating just how far my reactive dog has come.

So, we were in the store, and there were two women with adolescent yellow labs in the store. They were dragging their people around the store, jumping and leaping in some rather impressive displays of acrobatics, panting heavily, and just generally being adolescent labs. Adding to that, there was a large, darkly colored mix of some sort- the sort that typically guarantees a reaction out of Maisy- as well as a few small dogs, about Maisy's size. In other words: lots of distraction, lots of chaos, and prime breeding grounds for over-arousal and reactivity.

And yet my amazing dog never once growled, barked, lunged or even initiated playing Look At That (which she normally does when feeling stressed). In fact, at one point, we accidentally came within ten feet of all of these dogs at the same time, and Maisy's only response was to solicit play.

She solicited play.

Her response to a huge handful of crazy, to what only six months ago would have provoked an over-the-top reactive episode, was to give a play bow.

That is so amazing I can barely believe it, and yet at the time, I was frustrated that she wasn't in heel position. Here's Maisy, being the most amazing dog in the world, and I'm worrying about something as stupid as heeling.

Sometimes, I'm just as amazed at my own foolishness as I am by Maisy's progress.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Training and Retraining

Maisy graduating from her puppy class. She's about five months old in this picture, and clearly thinks that wearing a hat is stupid.

When I first got Maisy just over three years ago, people who knew me were shocked. Crystal? With a dog? As much as people who know me now can't imagine me without a dog, people who knew me then couldn't imagine me with one... because I hated dogs. Well, maybe hate is a strong word, but I did not care for how ill-behaved most dogs are.

Despite my strong dislike of dogs, Maisy somehow wormed her way into my life and my heart over the course of approximately thirty seconds. Still, I didn't like ill-behaved dogs, so I swore that Maisy would never become one. I signed her up for training classes before she even came home.

Now, three years later, I wish I had known more before bringing Maisy home. If I were to do it all over again, I would do many things differently, not because Maisy isn't a great dog, but because I was haphazard in the way I taught her.

Take, for example, heeling. Since I never planned to compete with Maisy, I figured that if Maisy was more or less close to my left side, that was good enough. I didn't even know the concepts of forging and lagging existed, much less cared about them. Maisy learned that the behavior of heeling was to get on my left side and walk the same speed as me.

A year later, when we went to classes at a local training club, I learned that heeling was about a particular position. I began to tighten up what I expected of her, and as a result, Maisy has passable, though not spectacular, heeling.

After our last two trials, though, I realized that Maisy's heeling needs to radically improve, so I began to work on attention heeling with her.

All of which is to say: I never had a very clear picture of what I was teaching until long after I began teaching it.

So, I've set out to retrain heeling, and since I finally know exactly what my criteria is, I've been using my five daily sessions to work on attention heeling on both the left and the right.

Oh my god, you guys. The difference in retraining something and in training it properly in the first place is astounding. Although I am starting to get some nice attention with heeling on the more traditional left side, I am getting way more attention and focus on the right. This shouldn't be surprising- learning something new is obviously so much easier than trying to fight against prior learning and muscle memory. And I'm not surprised, really. More like amazed at the degree of difference I'm seeing.

So, elementary training lesson of the day: Know what the end behavior looks like before you start.

What do you wish you had trained differently? What have you had to retrain? How successful were you? I'd love to hear about your experiences.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Training Schedules

What’s your training schedule like? How often do you train? How long do you train? How many exercises do you work on at once?

I have always treated training like homework- you sit down, do what you need to do, and then go to the next task. So, I’ve always trained in one daily chunk, generally about 15 to 30 minutes. And in that daily chunk, I’ve worked on an average of four to six items. This has always worked well for us, although sometimes it's hard to get my lazy butt off the couch.

Then, my dog training “crush,” Patricia McConnell, posted in her blog about a book about people who had strokes, and how they made more physical progress when they were immersed in their therapy than when they did the more traditional daily chunks. Learning by immersion has long been considered the best way to learn foreign languages, and based on the science, it makes sense: you can form new neural pathways better if you’re immersed in what you’re doing. And why wouldn’t this been true of our dogs, too? After all, their brains are very similar to ours. Trisha decided to set a learning immersion goal for her and her dog: she would work with her dog five times a day.

Call me a hanger-on, but I decided to try it, too. I thought it would be really difficult at first. How do you find the time to train your dog five times throughout the day? At 30 minutes a pop, well, you don’t. Plus, Maisy hates drilling, so I decided to do very short sessions: two minutes.

I’ve done this a couple of days now, and I’m surprised by how much easier this is! Before, it was a struggle to find 15 minutes all at once. But two minutes? That’s the length of a commercial break. It’s easy to fit in while cooking or doing the laundry. It only adds marginally to a bathroom break between chapters in the book you’re reading. Before you know it, you’ve done five sessions!

And the learning seems to be faster, too. Maisy and I have been working on heeling. We spend one minute on attention heeling, and then one minute on right-side heeling. I throw a few right finishes in there, too, to help her understand the difference between a right finish and a right “get in heel” command (which I desperately need a cue for- any suggestions?). In only a matter of a few days, Maisy has almost mastered the “get in heel” on the right side- my body movements are less extreme, and she’s almost sitting straight every time now. Her attention, on both sides, is much better! And she seems to get the difference in my hand signals for right heel and right finish.

Maisy seems to be enjoying this new schedule, too. She loves training, and now she gets to do it five times a day instead of just once! Could life get any better? She still needs to entertain herself between sessions, but stretching it out like this seems to be more stimulating, even if we’re spending the same amount of time (or less!) actually training. Plus, it’s so much easier to keep her attention the entire time and end on a good note when the sessions are so short!

I’ll report back in a couple of weeks, but I think we’ll keep working like this. It will be easy to add in fronts, moving downs and back up in heel. Of course, the more I add in, the less time we can work on each skill, but I think I could easily increase the session length to three minutes while simultaneously reducing the amount of time on each skill to 30 seconds or so. After all, 30 seconds is really quite a long time.

So… what’s your training schedule like? Are you ready to take the Five Times Challenge?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Asking the Wrong Questions

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last week thinking about no reward markers and keep going signals. In fact, I’ve thought so much about it, that I just had to post about it again.

In the comments to my last post on this topic, the point came up that there is a huge difference between shaping and competition. This is absolutely true. Shaping is about teaching a new skill, while competition is about testing a skill which is, presumably, under stimulus control. This means that you can’t really compare how a dog interprets silence from the learning stage to the performing stage; they’re two completely different contexts.

More than that, though, I realized I was also asking the wrong question entirely. When it comes to shaping, the question should not be How does my dog interpret silence? Instead, the question should be Why is there silence at all?

Think about that for a moment.

Now think about your last shaping session with your dog. How much silence was there? And why was there that much silence? For my last session, there was about thirty seconds of silence. Why was there that much silence? Well, because Maisy didn’t meet my criteria, of course.

But is that true?

My job as a clicker trainer is two-fold: split the task down into many small steps, and give a high rate of reinforcement when my criteria is met. These two things are interrelated. If a task is properly broken down into small, achievable steps, your rate of reinforcement will naturally be quite high. Likewise, the inverse is true: if you lump the steps together by setting the criteria too high, it will take your dog longer to figure it out, and thus your rate of reinforcement will be lower.

So why was there that much silence? Because I failed to do my job as a trainer. I lumped when I should have split.

Clicker training is difficult to master. To be a truly efficient trainer, you need to not only be able to split the task up into small steps, but you also need to be able to analyze your dog’s response, assess whether that means your criteria is too high, too low, or just right, and then adjust that criteria… and you need to be able to do all of that in a matter of seconds!

Thankfully, clicker training is also easy to learn. Even if you never move beyond the basic "click the behavior you like and give your dog a treat" stage, your dog will still learn. That's what I love about clicker training: regardless of your skill level, it has something to offer to everyone.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Because it's too funny not to share

Maisy must have been a retriever in her past life, because she is obsessed with tennis balls. I wake up with them in my bed, I get them dropped in my lap constantly, and the first thing Maisy does, well, ever, is run to get her ball.

Recently, she's begun to do something absolutely hilarious with her ball, and though it really has nothing to do with training, I just had to share.

See, usually when we play ball, she'll chase it and bring it back for five to ten minutes, at which point she'll flop down on her belly to chew on the ball a bit before bringing it back to start the game again. For the past week, however, when she goes to flop down on her belly, she does so right in front of the couch. Of course, it often goes under the couch, at which point she goes nuts trying to get it out.

At first, I thought this was an accident. But when it began to happen again... and again... and again, I remarked to my husband that for such a smart dog, she sure was acting stupid.

Tonight, I realized that this is all part of some crazy game. Over and over again, she has flopped down by the couch, very purposely pushed it under, and then gone crazy trying to fish it out again with her too-short legs or by trying to shove her too-big body after it.

And this is one of the reasons I love my crazy dog: she always makes me laugh.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Clicker Theory: No Reward Markers and Keep Going Signals

I apologize in advance to any readers who are not familiar with clicker training, or who are just beginning to learn about the learning theory behind it, as today’s post concerns more sophisticated clicker concepts.

About a week ago, someone on a mailing list I belong to posed a very interesting question: If the click means “yes,” then what does no click mean?

The poster, a teacher, mentioned that when she has her students play the“clicker game,” in class, they initially learn faster if they receive feedback for both yes, that’s what I want you to do, and no, you’re going in the wrong direction. In other words, a no reward marker. She went on to say that once her students understood the game, they learned that the absence of a click or verbal marker was basically the same thing as being told no. Once they figured that out, they could figure out the task just as quickly with only the positive marker.

She wondered: do our dogs understand the absence of a click the same way? Do they interpret silence as “no”? If so, why do they keep working in trial settings, where they receive neither clicks nor encouraging verbal feedback? Wouldn’t the silence inherit in a trial tell our dogs that they are doing it wrong? If so, this would have dire consequences on our performances.

The general response was that silence should not- cannot- imply that the dog made an error. Instead, we must teach our dogs that silence is a keep going signal- that they are on the right track, and that if they keep up with what they are doing, they will earn reinforcement. That is the only way that our trial performances will hold up.

So, if silence means “keep going,” then how do we tell our dogs they’re going off track? As Clicker Trainers, we don’t use corrections (defined here as anything that causes the dog pain or stress) to tell the dog they’re wrong. The logical response would be the use of a no reward marker- an emotionally neutral way of saying no, try something different… but some people on the list argued that this would actually slow learning down.

I disagreed. I shared with the group that when Maisy begins to get off track during a shaping session, I tell her “Nope! Try Again!” in a cheery voice. I wrote that I felt my dog learns faster this way, but that even if she doesn’t, it helps me feel better to be giving the feedback.

Still, in light of the conversation, I decided that I would test my theory, so I sat down with Maisy to work on a shaping project. First, I just worked with her like normal, not really thinking about what I say or when I say it. Although I did say “Nope! Try Again!” perhaps three or four times in the course of five minutes, I found that I said it more as conversation and less as information. Interestingly, I discovered that I was saying it at times when we were in the midst of a long period of silence. That “nope!” served to fill the silence until she finally got the click for doing what I wanted.

Next, I worked with her, but remained silent. I didn’t speak; I simply clicked or didn’t. Maisy continued on, doing well until we hit one of those long periods of silence. She kept trying things, but after about thirty seconds of neither a click nor a “nope!”, she laid down and looked at me as if she wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do.

Finally, I tried using the no reward marker more regularly. We continued shaping, but I tried to think in terms of right and wrong. I clicked when she got it right, and said “Nope!” when she got it wrong. This led to rapid-fire clicks and “nopes,” and after she got three “nopes” in the space of about ten seconds, Maisy again laid down with her chin on the floor. This time, though, I had to encourage her quite a bit to re-engage with the shaping game. But when she again got several more “nopes,” she laid down and refused to play any more.

I began to feel frustrated; this is not how it’s supposed to work! She’s supposed to want to play! My frustration came out in my voice, and I began to tell her to get up with an edgy tone. When she didn’t, my feelings of frustration gave way to anger. Since I didn’t want to take that out on her, I ended the session to evaluate what had just happened.

The first thing that I decided was that I was wrong: Maisy does not learn faster with a no reward marker. In fact, she gave up so quickly, and was so difficult to persuade to re-engage with the task, that I believe she found it punishing. True, she also gave up when the silence went on too long in the second scenario, but she worked approximately three times longer, and was much more willing to re-engage when I asked. As a result, I think she found the lack of any feedback confusing, but not aversive.

Still, I concluded that the complete lack of any kind of feedback was also not the best way to help Maisy learn. Instead, her learning is most efficient when she gets lots of reinforcement over a short period of time. This means my job is to break the shaping task at hand down into as many pieces as possible so it is easier for her to progress through each step of the task. However, sometimes it is difficult to figure out how to break a task down any further. As a result, if I cannot figure out how to make the task easier, and if it’s been fifteen to twenty seconds without a click, I need to give Maisy a “gimme” click- reverting to the previous level of criteria for a few moments before trying the higher criteria again.

I also suspect that my initial use of “nope!” wasn’t actually serving as a no reward marker. Given the way Maisy responded, I think it actually served the purpose of a keep going signal for her. This means that for tasks that haven’t had a sufficient amount of duration built in yet, she depends on verbal encouragement to know that she’s doing what I want. (Interestingly, though completely off topic, I haven’t been very good at building duration past 30 seconds or so, which was Maisy’s threshold for silence during these tests. It makes me wonder if my inability to build more duration in her behaviors is due to her threshold, or if she’s developed that threshold because I have neglected to put in the work necessary to build more duration. On second though, I’m pretty sure I know the answer to that.)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I learned that I don’t like it when I have to tell Maisy she’s wrong. I became frustrated and then angry as she continued to fail, even though that “failure” was behaviorally no different than when we did silence only, or when I used the keep going signal. Maisy was going about the shaping task in the exact same way in each scenario. She wasn’t any more wrong when I told her she was than when I didn’t. In other words: focusing on the wrong behavior rather than the right one changed the way I viewed and felt about the training session, and it took all of the fun and joy out of playing the shaping game with Maisy.

In the end, doing this experiment not only taught me that my initial supposition was wrong, but it also reaffirmed my commitment to positive training. Focusing on what I want her to do helps Maisy learn faster, but it also makes us both feel better.