Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Clicker Expo 2011 (Chicago): Cecilie Koste- Top OTCh: Skills for Top Obedience
Cecilie Koste is an amazing trainer. She's one of the top European obedience competitors, and the videos she showed were darn impressive. I enjoyed her presentation a lot, although like many of the sessions at Clicker Expo, I wish it had been longer. Talking about the skills you need to attain an OTCh in only 90 minutes is pretty much impossible, to the point that I kind of feel like her presentation was more about clicker training obedience skills for competition in general, and less about champion-level behaviors.
Without further ado, here are Cecilie's five steps for achieving great things in the obedience ring:
Step 1: Find the right puppy (and prepare it for training).
Declaring that good trainers deserve good dogs, Cecilie advised that we should take the time to find the right dog. After all, some dogs are better suited for competition than others. She didn't really say much about what the right dog is, which is too bad. While I understand this was not the focus of her talk, I would have loved to hear her perspective on what makes a good competition dog.
For those of you who already have the “wrong” dog for competition- it's okay! She said that any dog can be trained for obedience, it's simply more work. I'm not entirely sure I agree with this- a trial environment may be too stressful for many dogs. And while I certainly don't have a problem with picking a dog with a certain performance goal in mind, it bugs me just a little that this is listed as a step. It's certainly best to pick a dog that is suited to your life and desires, I also think there needs to be a spark- some relational compatibility. Maybe that's why she didn't talk about what the perfect puppy is- your perfect dog and my perfect dog are likely different, even if they both have the ability to attain high-level obedience titles.
Once you find the right puppy, you have three tasks. First, and most importantly, you need to socialize the heck out of that dog! Make sure he experiences as many different environments and as many different (nice) people as possible. (Interestingly, she didn't mention other dogs. I'm not sure if that was simply an oversight, or if she doesn't think that's as important.) Second, develop your reinforcers: Play. A lot. With as many different toys and objects as possible. And don't allow your puppy free access to food. Really work to build a reinforcing relationship with your dog. Finally, get your puppy used to rough handling. No, not too rough, but you don't want a sissy dog in the ring. This is especially important for clicker trainers since we tend to be hands off in training, and thus need to make a concerted effort to teach our dogs to accept handling.
Step 2: Teach the basic skills.
These are simple behaviors that form the building blocks of many different exercises. Cecilie called these the “letters” in the “doggie ABC.” Letters make up words, and words will make up sentences and paragraphs. Just as you can't write a book without knowing the letters, you can't achieve obedience titles without teaching your dog the basic skills.
The goal is for your dog to learn how to offer each of these basic skills without a cue, and without any help or luring from you. Once your dog knows them all, Cecilie said it's quite easy to teach him all of the obedience exercises you'll ever need because you simply wait for him to offer the behavior, then add the cue and develop them into exercises.
The basic skills you'll need are:
1. Look at you (focus)- Cecilie said your dog should be able to do this while standing in front of you, while you're walking away backwards, while in heel position, and with distractions.
2. Targeting- She recommended teaching a nose and paw target, and teaching both with duration.
3. Sit- The dog should be able to sit from a stand, while walking, and at a distance.
4. Rear end control- She teaches this mostly by teaching the dog to back up, but it can also be done with perches.
5. Sit at heel (finish)- She sends the dog to heel position from the front, back, left and right sides.
6. Gallop towards you- Your goal is a dog who runs at you with speed and enthusiasm.
7. Walk and look up (heeling)- Like most Scandinavian trainers, Cecilie recommends starting this by walking backwards and having the dog follow you, walking forward/toward you before teaching the dog to walk in heel position. (This site isn't Cecilie's but shows a good overview of the concept.)
8. Down- Like the sit, the dog should be able to down from a stand, while walking, and at a distance.
9. Stand- Cecilie teaches this while walking backwards away from the dog. The dog will simply stop walking and stay put. She also uses “reverse luring”- teaching the dog not to follow a food distraction.
10. Stay (remain in position)- The dog should stay in all positions: sit, down, and stand. Again, she uses reverse luring here.
11. Doggie zen- This is basically an uncued “leave it.” The dog should not chase or eat food he has not been told to take.
12. Hold- As in the dog holding objects in his mouth. The dog should be able to hold something while at heel, while sitting at front, while you lean over him, and while you touch the object.
13. Let go- As in, letting go of the object. I'm not quite sure how this can be an offered behavior if the dog is supposed to hold an object despite the distractions noted above.
14. Bark- The old “teach the dog to bark so you can teach him not to bark while working” idea, I think.
15. Jump- Including going away from the handler, towards the handler, and curving away (ie, a directed jump).
16. Scent discrimination- Cecilie recommended using duration targeting while teaching this so that the dog doesn't learn to depend on “tasting” the scents.
17. Tracking- This may not be needed, depending on your venue.
18. Go to person- This may not be needed, depending on your venue.
Now, if you're like me, you're probably thinking that sounds overwhelming. That is a lot of behaviors, and a lot of variations on each behavior, to have the dog offering uncued. Cecilie is adamant, though, that she wants voluntary, offered skills in order to fix the problems that surface during the course of trialing. She says it's easy to do this when you can go “back to basics.”
So how does she keep it from becoming chaotic? By utilizing something she called “the Windows principle,” which takes its name from the computer operating system. Basically, she thinks of each behavior as a file to be put in different “folders,” much like you would do on a computer. Each folder is based on the dog's location in relation to the handler. The dog will offer the behaviors that make sense based on context, and since there's only 4 or 5 behaviors he can do in each context, he'll quickly find the one you want. You'll click it, which will tell him to offer it again.
The basic folders are:
Folder 1- the dog is standing in front of the handler. His options are to sit, down, stand, or finish.
Folder 2- the handler is moving backwards. The dog's options are to sit, down, stand, or follow.
Folder 3- the dog is sitting in heel position. His options are to down, go out, or sit and look up.
Folder 4- object dependent. Targeting, jumping, or retrieving can only happen when targets, jumps or dumbbells are present.
Step 3: Perfect the separate parts of each exercise.
Once your dog knows all of the basic skills, you'll use the doggie ABCs to make words by developing each skill into parts of exercises. Split the complete exercises down into manageable parts- that's what you're working on here. Develop the maximum speed and precision you want before you name it, then add the cue and get stimulus control.
Step 4: Back chain the perfect parts into complete exercises.
Now take those words and make sentences by creating a chain. A behavior chain is two or more behaviors that are performed in a fixed order, with the reinforcer coming only after the last behavior in the chain. Back chaining works by teaching the last behavior first, which takes advantage of Premack and uses cues as reinforcers.
When you're doing this, if the dog doesn't perform one part of the chain, don't reinforce that mistake by giving the next cue. But don't be dismayed, either. Cecilie said it's good when your dog tests the behavior because that means he is figuring out exactly what you want. So, if your dog slows down in anticipation of the down cue in the drop on recall exercise, don't cue the drop! Go back to building up speed, and then reinforce the speed by giving the drop cue.
Step 5: Competition training.
The real challenge is to teach your dog to perform at a trial just as good as he does in training, which means your job is only half over. Your dog can (and will) mess up in a trial. This often happens because he doesn't recognize your cues. Maybe there are too many distractions for him to notice, or maybe he is dependent on something you've done in training. Or, maybe he's having an extinction burst, which shows up as increased variability in the behaviors performed. The problem is that bad behaviors are often reinforced in the ring because you allow him to continue the exercise anyway. If this happens just two or three times, you may end up with a ring-wise dog.
So what can you do to prepare for competition? First and foremost, don't compete before you're ready! Don't damage the behaviors and exercises you've spent so much time developing. Next, start training for competition in the beginning, while you're training the basic skills. You don't need to wait until you're training the full exercise to train with distractions like other dogs, an audience, a judge, etc. Then, begin working on a schedule of variable reinforcement, but do it gradually. And, as you decrease the quantity of reinforcement, increase the quality of reinforcement. Finally, Cecilie believes you shouldn't need warm ups, so you know you're ready for the ring when your dog can perform a perfectly backchained exercise on the required schedule of reinforcement on the first try.
As you can see, Cecilie spent most of her time talking about the basic skills needed and relatively little time talking about what she called “half the job”- polishing and proofing your dog for competition. I really feel like it's that polishing and proofing that will get you an OTCh, but I do appreciate that a solid foundation is necessary. I do think that Cecilie did a nice job of breaking down the exercises into the skills needed as well as the different variations on each skill. Just working on each of those little pieces- even if you put it on cue- would go a long way for most people, I think.
Still, despite her explanations, I continue to feel apprehensive about having all those behaviors being offered, not cued! I have so little on cue with Maisy that the idea of having even more behaviors thrown at me is a little scary. People who attended the lab said they felt the same way until they saw it in action with their own dog. They didn't expect that their dog would stop and offer a stand while they were walking away, they told me, and yet the dog did!
Anyway, it was an interesting session, and I definitely want to use some of the ideas. I can see where Maisy is missing some foundation skills (we definitely could work on more rear-end control, for example), and I definitely need to work on training around distractions more. I also love the idea of increasing quality of reinforcement when decreasing quantity, and will definitely implement that. (Maisy's excited about that.)
I'd love to hear your thoughts. Do you think Cecilie's basic skills cover all the bases for competition obedience? What would you add to or remove from the list? What do you think of having all those skills being offered, not cued? Does the "Windows principle" make any sense to you? Let me know!