Tuesday, September 14, 2010

CU Seminar: Give Me A Break!

This dog takes a break while Alexa explains
how to play the Give Me A Break game.
Photos by Robin Sallie.

The last exercise that Alexa showed us at the CU seminar was a fun game called Give Me A Break! GMAB is a game designed for the easily distracted dog. The goal is to build attention, and to teach the dog that paying attention to the handler is more fun than going off and sniffing, looking at other things, or whatever else the dog might find attractive. It also builds in regular breaks for the dog. This is important because it gives the dog permission to blow off some stress, and forces the over-zealous handler to take a step back.

GMAB is easy to play. Before you start, count out sets of ten treats. Each set of ten will be one round of GMAB. To start, you probably want to play three or four rounds. Once you’ve got your treats ready, you and your dog go into a small, enclosed area with a chair in the corner, but without any other distractions (at the seminar we went in a small box made up of ring gates). You let your dog off leash, and then rapid-fire click and treat for any attention or behavior your dog offers. Eye contact is nice for early stages (later on, heeling is a great activity for GMAB). The goal would be to get rid of all ten treats in ten to fifteen seconds.

Once you’ve given all of those treats, you tell your dog to take a break, and go sit down. Some dogs will take the opportunity to sniff the floor or to explore the perimeter of the box. That’s fine. You don’t do anything or say anything, you simply wait. The moment the dog comes back to you, give him a treat, and jump up and play another high-reinforcement round. Once the treats are gone, you’ll dismiss your dog to take a break again.

Within only a few rounds, most dogs will refuse to take their break, and will instead want to stay working with you. This is good! It means that the dog is making the choice to hang out with you instead of investigating the environment, which is exactly what we want.

At the seminar, Alexa played this game with a cute dog that has a history of running off and disengaging with his handler while on the agility course. She played the game inside, and the dog did great, barely taking any breaks. The dog’s handler, though, felt that it would be more difficult for the dog outside. Luckily, the seminar location had a small fenced area adjacent to the building, and so we all went outside.

The dog was a bit more distracted initially- there were birds and squirrels out there, after all! Even so, it didn’t take long before the dog didn’t want to quit playing with Alexa. This is pretty typical, actually. GMAB is a powerful game.

Truthfully, I haven’t played this game much with Maisy- she hasn’t really needed it. I’ve really been blessed by her willingness to work and learn, and her eagerness to engage with me. In fact, I’ve struggled with the “break” part of GMAB more than anything else. Still, it was cool to see GMAB in action. What about you guys? Have you tried it? Did you get awesome results, like Alexa did? I’d love to hear about other people’s successes.


Laura and The Corgi, Toller, & Duck said...

I haven't done it with my own dogs and really haven't felt the need to. I train vol attention and use a high rate of reinforcement in the beginning so my dogs have never been wandery even at a young age.

At work I do a lot of this when the dogs first come in for final training, plus choose to heel which I think of as pretty similar. The downside is that I don't have a boring and empty environment to do this in so instead I try and set this up but have the dog drag a leash as well. This way if they choose not to engage with me after a short time I get up to grab the leash. With me holding the leash and preventing them from reinforcing themselves I wait until I have their attention again. Then I can reward and release them to the environment again.

I love premack!

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Your dogs have LOVELY attention and focus, Laura. This really isn't an exercise for you guys! :)

How many dogs do you work with at your job? I must admit I'm a teensy bit envious of your work. It sounds fascinating.

Kristen said...

Was there any discussion on when this game in inappropriate?

I've had it fail miserably more than once. We've used a few variations (type of reinforcer, value, # of food pieces pre-cut, how contained the environment is, when in the lesson we try this, length of GMAB session...). And it just hasn't gone well with a few teams.

The things in common... are that the humans put a lot of pressure on the dogs and even taking treats just isn't enjoyable. The dogs dis-engage even after a few treats.

With normal dogs and relationships it goes fairly well.

Dawn said...

I think I will try this with Peace. She has a really short attention span and I have yet found a good way of connecting with her. Thanks

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Kristen- I did not hear any discussion on when this game is inappropriate, but I must admit I didn't hear everything Alexa said (I needed to stay inside with Maisy when everyone else went out- my friend Robin filled me in on the rest).

However, that's very interesting that you've seen it fail. The common denominators that you've identified makes sense. And, that falls in line with my belief that part of the game is to teach handlers to loosen up and put less pressure on their dogs.

Dawn- Let me know how it goes when you try it with Peace!!

Laura and The Corgi, Toller, & Duck said...

Well my comment before was not to brag :P I just wanted to say that I think a high rate of reinforcement and focus on attention training is one of the most important things for new dog/owner teams to do. With a "normal" dog you can progress really fast and have a dog who pretty much never chooses to take a break.

I work with all of the dogs who come in for their final training. But that really is more of a statement of age then of any previous training the puppy raiser has done. The dogs are very well socialized but usually quite lacking in even basic obedience especially once the gentle leader is taken off. Hence the need for me to do tons of attention training, choosing to work type games, and teaching them that training CAN be fun. I haven't had the experience of this failing like Kristen mentioned, but I also will do the grab leash and stand in one place thing to help them along.

I have 10 dogs right now and another 2 in for evaluation.

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Laura, I know you weren't bragging. My jealousy is my own. :) For as much book knowledge as I have, it's been much harder for me to develop physical skills- I have only one dog to work with, after all. I wish I had as much skill as you do.

KLW @ Dog.Nerd.101 said...

Crystal, isn't Alexa great! I train with Alexa and Leslie here in PA. Alexa and Leslie work together and both teach the CU classes. I am in Alexa's class right now with my Hungarian Mudi Puppy Griff. Griff is reactive with people mostly, but both Alexa and Leslie have been so helpful! Thanks for blogging about these seminar's and sharing your pictures!

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Oooh, highly jealous. Alexa IS wonderful, and I enjoyed the weekend I spent with her a great deal.