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!

19 comments:

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

Hmm, I would add having a "mark" to the foundation. And I don't think a bark is neccessary :)

I guess I don't see the purpose for the dog to be offering all these behaviors past the very early learning phase. I agree that the dog has limited options for offering behaviors so can guess the right one pretty quickly, but if the dog already has a great introduction to a fold back down why would you need the dog to offer it while heeling? If you're actually progressing in slow enough steps and really teaching a nice moving down I don't see the danger of it ruining your verbal down cue.

I personally try not to name a behavior until I'm happy with it but as long as I am getting that nice picture, even if it's still with the help of a prop or baby distances, I don't understand the benefit of waiting until I have the final ring picture of the behavior.

It would have been really interesting to hear her lecture!

Crystal Thompson said...

Laura- the idea of "mark" made so much sense that I went back and re-checked my notes AND the powerpoint handout. It definitely says "bark." I steadfastly refuse to teach Maisy to bark, and ESPECIALLY not as an uncued, voluntary behavior.

I think you would have enjoyed her lecture, and especially the lab component. I didn't go to the lab (I wanted to see something else more), but I heard that it was VERY VERY good.

Kristen said...

This presentation changed my life! (Or the 2008 one did at least!)

How much emphasis did she put on having the right dog? In KY 2008, it was one sentence and they literally whispered it as they didn't want to offend anyone... It's something I took to heart as I then wanted to do obedience and do well and did not/don't need another dog as a pet/casual competition.

Things on the list: Their obedience is different than ours, hence the bark and crawl and tracking pieces. The only thing I have really added is a front. and THIS caused problems with the backwards walking, my dog had trouble discriminating front and that side-fronty position.... so I gave up and just did the "true" front for backwards walking, it doesn't get quite the same heel position, but....it was my compromise.

The behaviors being offered made complete sense to me. The "sacred" cues as being the fundamental and crucial piece for reliable and precise behaviors. Spending the bulk of your training time not on nitpicking your full chains but getting the little pieces right so that it flows together perfectly. Never having the whole thing get messed up.

There is a lot about Griffin that I don't know if is him personally or due to how I trained him. I DO know that the training processes have made things more "binary" for him than my other dogs who had more shaping for competition behaviors. He is typically in heel or not. Blaze and Luna have SO MUCH history of rienforcement for kind of, almost, sort of, just about in heel that there is a lot more grey for me and them.

Really, really inspiring stuff for me.

Crystal Thompson said...

Kristen, the "choose the right dog" bit was pretty small. Maaaaaybe 5 minutes. I see both sides: if you want to do competition, get a dog that can do it (or at least, is more likely able to do it). But... I don't want another dog. I want Maisy.

It sounds like your criteria is much more clear for Griffin. How did you train him differently, process-wise? I think you're saying that you did more of an all-or-nothing approach with him, but maybe I'm reading too much into your comment.

Sophie said...

Okay, so these are my thoughts based on absolutely no experience in dog sports, though I am looking into doing some with Lola when she’s older.

I find the idea of the ‘right puppy’ interesting, and I do agree that it helps to an extent if you have a dog that is already motivated and eager to learn. But whilst I think that you don’t need the elusive, mythical perfect puppy to compete, I do agree with you that some dogs simply won’t work in a competitive environment. Maybe they have no interest in toys or food, and shut down in any even remotely stressful situation. Maybe they’re a rescued dog, and too old (at fourteen, fifteen years old) to learn all the ‘puppy ABCs’ and all the cues they need if they’ve had no previous socialisation or training.

I’m also not sure about the idea of having so many uncued behaviours. Does that mean that the puppy is simply expected to perform them, with no verbal or hand signals? It sounds like this runs completely opposite to the idea of getting something under stimulus control; I don’t really understand how you can reward something you haven’t asked for in some way (even in shaping, I’m asking my dog to interact with the object, to up her game, to carry on, etc). But as I said at the beginning, I have no experience in dog sports – and no desire at all to work in competitive obedience. And the idea of having an uncued bark/speak is really, really not appealing to me; I like having Lola’s sharp yap on cue, but only because it helps get it under control in other situations when she wants to bark.

I don’t really get the idea of the Windows system, either. I understand that you can logically file away behaviours... but how do you practice behaviours enough that the dog knows they only have those options? How do you get the dog to pick the ‘right’ behaviour, for what you want, in context? This also sounds like it goes against generalization – I like my pup to be able to offer cued behaviours no matter where I am or what I’m doing (e.g. I taught Lola to leave the kitchen by body-blocking with the verbal cue, ‘out’; and she will now shuffle back out if she comes in, even if I don’t walk toward her, because she’s generalized it. She’ll also leave other rooms, sometimes).

I personally like to name behaviours when they’re being offered with minimal fuss, and when the behaviour looks similar to the finished picture: e.g. I named Lola’s fetching of a ball (‘ball’) not when she was merely targeting it, picking it up or following it, but when she ran after the ball, picked it up and tottered a couple of steps back to me with it. I understand waiting to name the behaviour, but I’m just impatient really.

In regards to offering better quality but lower quantity foods, I do this with Lola already. :) When outdoors, we usually start off with kibble, and then progress to hot dog chunks, ham, etc, when we get to an off-lead area and there are more distractions. This also helps to stop her from getting ignorant when we just go out to the nearby park and I only take kibble, because sometimes there’s a chunk of cheese or two in there – there is always the possibility that I might stop giving her kibble and start giving her the Really Great Stuff

Kristen said...

Very interesting they took that from a half-whispered sentence (that I took to mean along the lines of... if you want to be serious and do a lot agility, don't get a mastiff...) to a few minutes! It definitely wasn't TOO hard for me to go with a golden as that's what I already had 2 (___1.5___) of....

Heeling is the primary/best example: with Griffin most of our shaping is very very very separate from the final exercise. So he learned about straightness and parallel and head position and pace change and closeness and ignoring distractions with the backwards walking and pivot box. So when we transfered to proper heeling....our heeling had a much higher success rate. Our criteria was higher from the start. Less messy things were reinforced.

My "placement of reinforcer" is fairly consistent for sit/down/stands/stays. Pivot box work made the L finishes very straightforward. It seems like we get maybe 1/15 to be crooked. With my other dogs....It's more like 1/15 is ideal. And I'm definitely guilty of reinforcing some of those less than ideal ones....because wehn we're in a distracting environment, gotta lower criteria...reinforce effort...etc...

My predictability when starting to put chains together is close 95%+.... I try to always do the same things so he always knows what is next and we can utilize that anticipation.

All that said...we've not accomplished much, so there's not a lot to show for our work.

Raegan said...

Augh, I had a huge comment for you and Blogspot decided it was incapable of posting comments, despite the fact that posting comments is the basic function of a blog.

This was one of my top lectures I wanted to see, so I was very excited when I saw that you had gone. Based on this summary, I'm even more jealous! It love it, and it makes total sense to me. The basic skills feel very attainable to me, like you said they are all variations on a theme.

I don't think of it quite like folders. Have you ever played Legend of Zelda? In that game, you get a lot of tools that are really useful, but only under certain conditions. If you aren't near a rock, you don't want to use the power bracelet. In fact, you can't, the option to do so is greyed out. But when your are near a thing that you can pick up, the option becomes available. That's how I think of it, and it's a powerful thing since it leans on "dogs are situational."

"Like most Scandinavian trainers, Cecilie recommends starting this by walking backwards and having the dog follow you"

Other than Fanny Gott's, do you know of anyplace this is described/walked through? I'd really love to use this approach (I haven't loved any other method of teaching heeling I've seen) but can't wrap my mind around the details.

Kristen, I want to come train with you!

Crystal Thompson said...

Raegan, I agree- I want to train with Kristen, too! :) I love her description of all the foundational work she did, which translated into a very pretty picture when she put it together.

I'm afraid I couldn't find anywhere else that described the "backwards heeling" method. Cecilie showed video, of course, but I can't find it on the internet...

Kristen said...

I want to come train with all of YOU. It's on the to do list. Someone told me the Fenzi seminar was in the fall.... which would have been great. But apparently in the great white north, "fall" is "july".

If you go through some of Fanny Gott's blog, she did a post about it recently with some video.

Crystal Thompson said...

I'm so excited about the Fenzi seminar. I've interacted with her on email groups and facebook, and she's been really nice.

doberkim said...

i tried to post twice and lost the posts too :( now im exhausted and cant find it in me to comment...

Crystal Thompson said...

Oh, I'm sorry to hear that, Kim. I know you're an amazing competition trainer, so I would have loved to hear your thoughts. Thank you for trying!

...I wonder what's going on with blogger, though? That's seriously annoying.

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

So what is the real benefit of not naming cues until so late in the process?

I understand not naming until you have the behavior but I still don't understand not naming it during the baby stages. My impression is that she would not name the pivot to heel if you're still using a brick even though it's perfect position? Or even a bit later stage, say a nice straight go out you have at 5ft until you have it at full distance, past distractions? I'm still stuck on her reasoning for the offered only behaviors past the early learning stage...

Crystal Thompson said...

Laura, I think it's because each of these behaviors are only building blocks, and not the finished behavior. She wouldn't name a pivot because she'd never cue JUST a pivot in the ring. The finished behavior would be a pivot and a sit, for example. THAT she would name.

She said it's much easier to fix full/finished behaviors that have broken down if the components weren't named. I'm not really sure why that's so, though. And if you don't use cues, I have no clue how she strings each of the components together so that you CAN name them.

Kristen said...

My understanding....
- Cues are added so late for A MUCH more "perfect" association of correct behavior and cues. The words used often in 2008 were 'sacred' and 'elegant'. The cue is NEVER associated wtih earlier variations of the behavior and you are less likely to experience the dog giving you any earlier variation. If you are doing distraction training, you may over face your dog...and if you have cued....you will have that error with the cue.
- Cues are typically added (or re-added) a couple weeks before competition so that the chains can be worked on.
- Stimulus control is on stimulus control.
- And remember, many of the behaviors are cued. If there's a dumbbell, you'll likely be retrieving it. If it's the thing with the target on the floor, you'll be touching it. If there's a jump, you will be going over it. If you are in front of me, we'll be doing sit or stand or down or return to heel. Limited options.

That's --my--- understanding and interpretation.

Crystal Thompson said...

Kristen- re your last point- So a lot of the cues are ENVIRONMENTALLY cued, then? And not verbally cued? That makes sense to me in context of what she said.

Thanks for clarifying what I missed. I have no idea if she said things differently (I don't remember the words sacred and elegant, for example), or if I simply don't remember certain things because I was focused on understanding other parts (um, highly likely).

That's the downfall of these posts- you're getting the information through my filter. I don't think I'm wildly inaccurate, but what sticks with me may not be what sticks with someone else.

Kristen said...

The environment is always providing some level of information. But yes.... the folders are a bit more specific. Dog in front only has X options. A jump in the environment? X options. Dumbbell...even fewer... while there are several dumbbell exercises, the presentation and set up is going to be slightly different for some of the different exercises....

There is eventually a stage where you ARE adding verbal cues, primarily so that you are able to get stimulus control.

You probably didn't miss things.... maybe the information I have is old and outdated!! Or I'm mis-remembering things or things have modified in the time since then! It was a few years ago!

Crystal Thompson said...

Kristen, you're doing a great job of filling in the gaps. All of it sounds consistent with the message, even if I don't remember those bits (whether due to my memory or a changing presentation, I don't know). So thanks! :)

Joanna said...

Thank you for posting another detailed recap! The building blocks make sense to me, though I too was confused about adding cues so late. I'm still a novice when it comes to adding cues to offered behaviors, though. (It's one of those things where I can rattle off the theory, but I don't quite GET it because I'm not fluent in the behavior. :)

I'm bookmarking this in my "advice for our future obedience career" folder!