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.


Lindsay said...

I think that Heffner is similar to Maisy in that he really needs to look at the stimuli. Even if it all it is is one glance, he's very definitely more relaxed after he's been given the chance to see what exactly it is. If I try to "force" him to maintain focus or eye contact on me when there's something that is bothering him that he hasn't had the chance to visually acknowledge, he's more perceptibly on edge and worried. Once he sees what it is, he just relaxes so much and can then spend the next however long focussed entirely on me. It took a little while to get there, but I'm pretty happy with where he's at!

Crystal said...

Does that translate well to his heeling?

I suspect that many (all?) dogs are like this. I attended the first of a two-day seminar with Suzanne Clothier today, and she said that one of the reasons dogs have trouble when crated or in cars is because they don't get the benefit of using all of their senses (in this case- sight).

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

That's exactly the reason that my dogs look at me while heeling. I didn't set out teaching it that way, well with Lance anyway, but I did so much eye contact work away from heeling that my dogs look at me all the time when working. So I know that if I"m heeling and they are not looking at me, well then they're not paying attention. Not true with every dog, but it is with mine anyway, I just don't have their 100% focus.

I can see your reasoning too about allowing her to do a look at that. But I also don't really know if you need it. I mean if Maisy is worried about something, why would you still continue heeling? wouldn't you stop and play look at that with her? or at the very least continue doing "loose leash walking" but not heeling? I guess I only heel when I have complete attention. If I'm working on proofing things, like heeling with toys, food, whatever out, I work on that first from stationary position, then loose leash walking, then heeling. But maybe I"m missing something here with Maisy.

And another thought, I don't think you should be so scared of the focal point. You're a good enough trainer that you can figure it out. If you don't want eye contact then don't settle for it. most OTCH trainers want a focal point anyway. I personally like the eye contact so I'm working on getting rid of the forging that comes with it. You're subscribed to Ring Tested yahoo group right? go through the archives to about 3/3/10 and see a discussion on teaching it.

Crystal said...

Laura, you always have such thought provoking comments.

If Maisy is worried, then absolutely, yes, we'll stop heeling and play Look At That. The problem is that if Maisy knows something is there and can't see it she will become worried. However, if she knows something is there and is allowed to see it, she is more likely to remain calm.

Ultimately, yes, I'd like her to stay focused to the point that she wouldn't realize there's something to look at, but at this point in time, she's a hyper-vigilant dog who is very aware of her surroundings. If I insist she continue to look at me, I'm concerned she'll become stressed. My hope is that if I allow her to take a brief look, she can think, "oh, not a big deal, I can return to heeling properly."

So, as part of the heeling criteria, I'm accepting brief, momentary glances away to gain information, so long as she quickly attends to me again. If she sees something she's concerned about and glances several times, or appears frantic (and it's pretty obvious, even in a brief glance, how concerned she is about something by how she moves her head), then we'll stop and take a break.

Does that make more sense?

Kristen said...

As you work around (initially, controlled/set up) distractions, Maisy will learn that various things in her environment are cues to be looking at you/Heeling.

We do a specific exercise in my pet class and rally class that's either called the "Dead Squirrel" game or the "$500 biscuit game". The dog/handler are given a specific line on the floor, 10-20' long, often marked with cones. At the center, and about 5-6' (more, if I have more space and/or the team needs it), I put said item. Either a dog biscuit or a stuffed toy. The team goes back and forth on "their line" far away from it. Doing more c/t when "closer" to the biscuit. When they're -really- sure the dog won't go towards the item, and, as in $500 sure or no dead squirrel licking sure, the "path" line is about 6" closer to the item. Most teams are able to walk super close to the item the first lesson.

We repeat with a bunch of different things. At home, they're supposed to pull things out of the garage/attic/etc to practice with in the driveway.

If the dog does go towards the item or leaves the LLW position, owner stops, waits for the dog to give some indication back towards him/her, then click and feed while walking off.

On walks, they're to practice with distractions (real dead squirrels, or the trash can everyone pees on or a piece of trash or leaf...). Back and forth, closer and closer.

While the pet dogs aren't having to give eye contact, many are "heeling" for this exercise and it's quite impressive to watch and very empowering to the owners.

Shy dogs can benefit from this set up for several reasons: A) You're always starting far away and working closer, you can adjust distance for the particular dog. B) The pattern becomes very predictable. Even if a dog starts to get interested in an item/something on a walk on the first pass... the owners ramp up the reinforcement the second pass... and the whole process ends up only takeing 3-4 passes or less once the dog understands this. It's a predictable thing. And by setting up and practicing it with different things...we're generalizing parts of the game, but the whole set up is super predictable

And there's a few more reasons and comments and etc.... but... This might be too long to show up as it is.