The seminar was set up as a series of mini-lectures, and between each one, we were paired up with another dog/handler team and several auditors. The working dogs would make a plan and then train, while the observers would help with data collection and then have a small group discussion on how things went, what to change on the next round, etc.
As the title implies, Maisy and I had one of the working spots. Although she was amazing, I was not. Sigh. I was so frustrated by the tasks set to us. Truthfully, it had very little to do with Maisy, the tasks, or the seminar. Remember: the seminar happened back in early October, which was about two months after I had separated from my (now ex-) husband. There were a lot of adjustments to be made during that time, and honestly, I probably wasn’t in the right mind-space to be training a dog.
Each day had a separate training task. The first day had to do with targeting; to be honest, I forget exactly what we were supposed to be doing now, but I remember trying to get her back feet on a piece of carpet. Utter failure. (Short legged dogs are hard!) The second day was a bit better; Kathy showed us a commercial of a dog who took a chicken strip from his owner, held it until given some sauce, then dipped it in the sauce and ate it. We were to work on this in whatever form we wanted. This went better; I worked on having Maisy hold a dog biscuit without eating it.
Here are some of the things that really hit home with me. I’m not sure that these were new things, exactly, but they were things that I understood in a new way after the seminar.
Train in Short Sets
I’ve heard this about a billion times before, but somehow I never do it. You get on a roll and don’t want to stop, or just lose track of time. We got around that in the seminar by deciding how long we were going to train (usually between 30 and 90 seconds), and then having someone time us. And even then, some of us had a tendency to do “just one more rep.”
Training in short sets is important, though. Part of this is because you can only concentrate for so long; good dog training requires you to both SEE what the dog is doing and then to MARK it with good timing. This is hard work, and something people often underestimate. Taking regular and frequent breaks allows you to rest between sets, and thus keep your eyes (and thumb!) fresh.
Training in short sets also allows you to think in between. This is incredibly important when it comes to…
Criteria and When to Change It
First, keep your criteria the same throughout each set. Since your sets are going to be short, it should be easier to resist the temptation to change it midstream. The problem with trying to change it on the fly is that it tends to throw off your timing. In addition to seeing and marking, you’re now analyzing performance and deciding what to click. I don’t know about you, but my brain just cannot do that much at once!
Raising criteria can be done based on the rate of reinforcement (Kathy recommends doing so when you get into the double digits per minute), the percentage correct (most people do so at around 80%), or by the density of reinforcement. This last one comes in to play with duration behaviors where you can’t get reinforcement rates in the double digits. Instead of giving one treat per click, you give a larger amount so that the dog would end up with roughly the same amount per minute.
Once you’re ready to raise criteria, do so by looking at the responses you are currently accepting. You’ll have “technically meets expectations, but nothing special” on one end of the continuum, “average responses” in the middle, and “outstanding!” at the other end. Raise criteria by clicking only average-to-outstanding behaviors, and drop the “technically meets standards.”
If something unexpected happens- either super good or super bad- STOP. End the set and think because…
Planning is Important
Perhaps the most important thing I learned was how specific you should be in order to train well. Many of us had the tendency to state “I am going to work on duration now,” but that really doesn’t say a whole lot. Instead, Kathy challenged us to be very specific in what we mean by duration. Much better to say “I’m going to click when she holds the dog biscuit centered and lengthwise in her mouth without mouthing it for a minimum of two seconds.”
In other words, know what you’re going to click. There should be no guesswork about whether or not something meets criteria.
So, even though I felt sad and frustrated the entire weekend, I learned enough to make it worthwhile. I am fortunate to have a dog who will keep working for me even when I’m not feeling up to par. So, it was a great seminar, and I’m so glad I got to have a working spot with Kathy!