Archive for July, 2011

2-minute dog trainer – a day of firsts!

July 31, 2011

Bud and I have taken all four dogs to Dayton Dog Training Club’s 2-day AKC trial. We both entered everything, of course, including “Time To Beat” on Saturday morning.

First first was our Time To Beat class. Neither of us had run it before and it was lots of fun.  Bud’s going to document it on his blog, probably, but certainly it will be included in the soon-to-be-published electronic Houston’s Book of Agility Games.  Points are awarded to dogs for qualifying (must run clean, refusals are not faulted), with additional points awarded to the fastest qualifiers in the class.  Ten (10) Qs and 100 points earns a title.  When a title is earned the slate is wiped clean and you start from scratch.

Second first was our Novice JWW run where Tempest ran clean (yikes! we scared up some off-course jumps) with no off courses and no bars down.  The ring crew had forgotten to set the electronic timer at the final jump so Tempest’s time didn’t get recorded properly.  I was given the opportunity to accept SCT or re-run for time.  Well, of course I re-ran for time.  Our second run wasn’t nearly as clean as the first but it was fast, earning Tempest ….

Third first was the blue ribbon Tempest brought home for his first Novice JWW qualifier.  These two runs took place within minutes of each other and left me with a slightly over-stimulated youngster.  I put him in his crate and waited for the crew to build Open Standard, a tiny class with only about 15 dogs entered.

Fourth first was Tempest’s approach to the start line for Open Standard.  He was still over-stimulated from his jumpers’ run and I should have seen trouble brewing. He held it together through 75% of the course, hitting his contacts and holding them, nailing his 12 weaves, performing an automatic down on the pause table and holding it, though dropping 2 bars in a long line along the back wall. The closing line began with a really tight pinwheel and I was providing limited motion when everything went pear-shaped.  Tempest started to the first jump, turned to look back at me and, when I said “go jump!” he darted in and nipped me so hard and so quick that I yelped “Ouch!”   The judge didn’t see it, but I asked to be excused.  Tempest’s first “BC walk of shame” occurred after that nip.  I got a blood blister the size of a dime on my thigh and he listened to me repeat “no biting!” all the way to the ring gate.

Let me reiterate that I train with positive reinforcement and negative punishment.  Positive reinforcement is the application of reward for wanted behavior that you want the dog to offer again.  Negative punishment is the removal of reward for unwanted behavior you don’t want the dog to offer again.

Positive reinforcement trainers and force-based trainers often get into arguments about which system is better. When the argument degenerates into “I love my dog too much to hurt him” the language becomes a barrier to further discussion. I don’t think force-based trainers love their dogs less, they just don’t trust that the dog will offer behaviors consistently without being required to.

Positive reinforcement trainers often lack the training consistency to build behavior consistency in the dog. And, regardless of the quality and quantity of the reward system, you must have a response when the dog performs incorrectly.

I’ve practiced a “no command response” to errors in performance. Often the positive reinforcement trainer is caught out with no prepared response, and their disappointment is evident to all (including their observant canine partner, of course).  Disappointment is counter-productive, and is enough to shut down the softest dogs. The response to incorrect performance has to be neutral, the removal of all good responses.

On the other hand, when the dog does bad things (i.e. “bites the momma”) the response has to be immediate (i.e. “Ouch!”) and have an effect on the dog.  If the dog continues to smile and play, if the handler continues with the course thinking “I need this Q!”, if there is no immediate negative result from the bad behavior, the dog will be confused and unable to process the results of their behavior.

If we consider that dogs are constantly calculating “when I do this A happens, but when I do that B happens” then we know what we need to do.

Our response must be black-and-white.  “This is my response when I like what you’ve done (over-the-top praise, treats, tugs, toys, continuing with the course), this is my response when you’ve made a small error (removal of all positive reinforcers, allow the dog to try again), and this is my response when you’ve crossed the line into bad behavior (no attention, no continuing with the course, no praise, no tugs, no treats).”

A trainer cannot be too obvious with these cues. We get confused dogs when the handler’s positive responses are quiet and subtle, and their negative responses are big and pronounced.  The dog may think, “Well I know I did something wrong but I wonder what the right thing is.”

I’ll be interested to see if Tempest learned a lesson with Saturday’s standard round.  Our courses always end with over-the-top praise, tugging, lots of attention.  Small errors on course earn a neutral request to try again. His bad behavior was followed by no praise, no tugging, a “lie-down” for his leash, and no attention afterwards.

Today will be a little test.  His novice jumpers’ round will be quickly followed by open standard, and I’ll watch for over-stimulation at the start line.  I’m going to keep him out of the room as long as possible so he doesn’t get jacked up, and I’ll try to keep moving on the course in order to not incite his inappropriate herding behavior.

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2-minute dog trainer, Tempest’s 4th trial

July 30, 2011

We arrive at this weekend with three qualifying scores in Novice Standard (2 firsts, 1 second) and three qualifying scores in Novice FAST (1 first, 1 second, 1 third).

We have NO novice jumpers legs due to dropped bars and off courses.

My goals this weekend are to keep the 20″ bars up and to have no off-courses due to Tempest misunderstanding my handling.  I’m trying to NOT set goals that sound like, “I want to come home with 2 novice jumpers’ legs.”  <g>

We’ve run the first class of the day, AKC’s new game “Time To Beat.”  Tempest had an off-course to to misunderstanding my handling.  Well, we’ll just have to try harder in the rest of today’s classes. <g>

However, on a rather technical, complex sequence, Tempest kept all the bars up, hit all his contacts, completed 12 weaves (the second time around).  Time to Beat is not leveled so all dogs, novice to excellent, run the same course.

The most marked improvement in our performance, from my perspective, is his increased attention to me. He’s watching me and turning when I turn, but (and this is the important bit !!!) allowing me to move without altering his obstacle performance.

In other words, he hits his contacts and holds them even with me moving.  He weaves with me moving and pushing him.  He allows me to get into position while he’s jumping, and (today at least) is keeping bars up.

Tempest’s 2-minute training is focusing on two elements of his performance.

First, contacts.  I’ve had several people say to me, “my dog had great 2-on-2-off contacts until he turned 18 months old, then he got a little crazy and his contact performance went away.”  I consider this unacceptable.  I’m also guessing (hoping) that my contact training has little in common with their contact training.

If I do the math, Tempest has performed his 2-on-2-off about 2,000 times for meals (6 times a day when he was eating 3 meals a day x 3 months, 4 times a day while eating twice a day x 11 months).  He continues to perform his contacts for meals at least twice a day now.

Amusing sidebar on conditioning performance …. this week I walked away from the contact trainer while Tempest was eating … I emptied the dehumidifier in the basement … as I walked back Tempest’s bowl had moved and he’d walked off the trainer …. he glanced at me coming back and replaced his back feet on the trainer … waited for me to push his bowl back to him.

I continue to allow Tempest to hit his contact performance.  I don’t release him until he’s settled into position. I refuse to become so rattled in competition that do the wrong things for my youngster. I’m hoping that the continued conditioning at mealtimes, and allowing him to settle into 2-on-2-off on course, will keep his contacts solid.

So I guess what I’m hoping is that broken contact performances are a result of inadequate conditioning, lack of support on course, and allowing the first mistake to be self-rewarding.

Second, jumps.  I’ve said all along that I was not going to worry about Tempest dropping bars. I’m not going to punish him, correct him, or drill him.  I’ve considered raising the bars so he jumps a little rounder but — guess what — as he matures and pays closer attention to his coach he’s jumping rounder at 20″ !

As he matures he’s becoming more “forgiving” of my movement, and naturally taking more responsibility for his job. Interesting …

On another note, I continue to gather information on canine seizures. Friend Bonny is recommending an anti-convulsant that, unlike phenobarbitol, does not result in loss of equilibrium or weakness in the back legs.

Tempest loves to travel, enjoys agility, and will continue on this journey as long as possible.  I’m hoping to partner with this boy for 9-10 more years.

I’m off to run novice jumpers and open standard in Dayton, Ohio !!

2-minute dog trainer, focusing on Jumpers

July 27, 2011

One of the last skills learned by agility dogs is jumping.

We introduce jumps fairly early, keeping the bars low, but often we neglect to reinforce the act of jumping or the skills needed to negotiate a line of jumps.

Frankly this is true of novices, experienced trainers, even folks with jumping systems.

The novice dog will attack a course with focus on their handler, on the contact equipment, on the weavepoles, or whatever their handler has been focusing on in recent training sessions.

Jumps are often taken for granted. They are, for sure, the weakest link in my training with Tempest.

My timeline for jump conditioning for Tempest is as follows:

July 2011:  With high temps I’ll be doing no drilling. I’m experimenting with the notion that Tempest keeps bars up when he’s working at a distance from me. At trials and in class he only drops bars when racing at my side, or if I’m turning away from him while he’s jumping.

August 2011:  We have 3 weekends with no trialing, and I want to set up some technical jumping sequences.  I want to experiment with different types of handling and figure out if slow dog handling or fast dog handling works best with Tempest.  I also want to set up some lines of jumps and figure out if the bars drop when we race because:  A) we’re racing,  or  B) he’s flattening out in straight lines.

September 2011:  With Tempest’s first USDAA trial looming large near the end of this month I want to establish whether Tempest should jump 24″ in AKC or stay in his 20″ jump class.  He has to jump 22″ in USDAA and he’ll drop most of those bars if he gets too accustomed to jumping 20″.  I’d rather teach him to jump nicely at 24″, with USDAA at 22″, than have to babysit him through a course at 20″ to make sure the bars stay up. Does that make sense?

October 2011:   October is going to be all about TDAA, I’m afraid.  We’re having a working seminar / judges’ recert weekend the first weekend of October, leaving on Tuesday for the Petit Prix warm-up workshops and national event, then we have three TDAA trialing weekends in a row (Ostrander OH, Springfield IL, Latrobe PA).  Tempest gets to do class and gets the rest of the month off.

November 2011:  Bud and I have yet to determine whether we’re going to enter trials during cold weather months.  Bud’s accident has created a negative opinion of winter travel, I’m afraid.  No …. seriously …. I’m afraid. <g>  We’ll see what happens.

2-minute dog trainer – novice agility titles

July 21, 2011

When Tempest finishes his novice titles I’m going to create an electronic book from the 15-16 months of 2-minute dog trainer blogs outlining his foundation training for dog agility.

This blog will continue to be my training journal for the second phase of my partnership with Tempest.

Because he has begun to have seizures, my blog will address my attempts to de-toxify Tempest’s environment (some dogs are more sensitive to flea and tick treatments, for example, than others), and will become my seizure journal.

At the suggestion of my vet and several friends with dogs-with-seizures, my journal of Tempest’s events will include — 1) what he had to eat and drink before and after,   2) what vaccinations / meds / treatments he had before,  3) phases of the moon,  4) activity in the house before and after,  5) level of exercise before and after …. what else?

My hope is that Tempest’s seizures will come less frequently, and that I can control them.

My hope is that Tempest continues to do agility and grow as my agility partner.

It would be a terrible shame to have to retire this little boy when his sun rises and sets on me and dog agility.

2-Minute Dog Trainer – phase 2

Phase 2 of this training journal will outline our journey for advanced agility titles and building a working language.

When we refer to a working language we’re referring to the dog’s understanding of what we mean when we present specific physical and verbal cues.

“When I do this it means you should do that.”

Dogs continue to build their understanding of language as their handler presents consistent cues.

My easier job, once Tempest has developed his obstacle performance, is to teach him sequencing cues.

My harder job, one with which I struggle, is to present consistent cues.

I’ve watched video of myself and frankly I’m a bit twitchy, but over the past few months I’ve been working on keeping my physical signals consistent.

More on this later. This weekend we’re off to CATC for 2 days, 6 runs, all novice.  We need 1 standard Q, 2 FAST Qs, and 3 JWW Qs.

2-minute dog trainer – working on novice agility Qs and titles

July 16, 2011

We’re in North Olmsted, Ohio, at our third AKC trial weekend.  Bud and Kory have blown through Open in 2 weekends, and have been working in Excellent A standard and jumpers all weekend. Tempest and I are in a small, but very chummy, novice class for all our runs.

Tempest and I are learning at record speed. He’s learning how to read my cues. He’s learning that it’s more fun to follow me than to shoot off into the course (though he occasionally chooses something interesting off the dog’s path for which I strategized <g>). He’s learning that all the fun in the building is inside those gates, with the agility equipment.

I’m learning what Tempest requires from me, as his coach and his emotional guide.  I’m learning a lot about what motivates me, what drives me to succeed, and how I feel about myself when I don’t.

I’m also learning about the pure bliss of walking to the start line with a dog eager to play.  A dog actually quivering with joy and anticipation of fun-to-come.

Because Tempest tends to become over-stimulated in the ring, and because his over-stimulation increases over the course of the day, I’m starting to consider calming techniques I can implement easily ringside.

I’ve tried mild massage, which he likes, but haven’t noticed any emotional change in him.

This afternoon I decided to hang back from ringside as I waited for his run. He began sniffing inside the empty crates left by our students and his canine buddies (aka “the beagle boys”).

I let Tempest sniff all over the crates and the floor.  I refer to it as “sniff therapy.”  I figure, if a dog sniffs to calm himself, then perhaps allowing sniffing while waiting for our run will release endorphins or calm the little boy.

His standard run was ballistic, with one off course and a teeny teeter fly-off, but I actually DO think he was a little calmer than he’s been in the past. He wasn’t quivering anyway.

I’m going to play with this tomorrow and will write more when I’ve experimented with it a bit.

After 7 days of trialing, at 14 months of age, Tempest has accumulated a Novice Fast Q with a 2nd place finish, and two Novice Standard Qs with 1st places.  And today he had his first day with no dropped bars !!!  And he hasn’t missed a contact 2-on-2-off position, except for the teeter (he doesn’t always recognize the teeter), in a month.

I’ll try to post tomorrow with Sunday’s results.  Next weekend we attend Columbus All Breed’s 2-day Novice/Open trial.

This week’s 2-minute dog training is going to be done with Tempest’s breakfast and dinner bowl and a set of 12 weavepoles. Poor boy has to work for his food. <g>

 

2 minute dog trainer – goals for this weekend

July 10, 2011

This is Tempest’s second trial weekend.

My goals are two-fold — 1) improve my strategizing and handling by understanding how Tempest interprets my cues (new dog, new interpretations!)  AND  2) manage my twitches and mixed physical messages so Tempest can continue offering his 2-o-2-o contact performance, his weave entries, and can keep all his bars up.

On Saturday we ran Novice B Standard and JWW.

Jumpers included one dropped bar and two off courses — both in the wrong end of tunnels and both could have been solved with a different handling strategy.  Jumpers also included a to-die-for weave entry for my novice boy.  He’s showing increased obstacle focus and an ever-increasing understanding of his job on the course.

Standard started with a 3-obstacle depressed angle turn, with Tempest facing an off-course a-frame versus #4 teeter obstacle discrimination. I agonized over my handling strategy, considering a v-set, a pre-cued front cross, a KISS post-turn, and combinations of all these.

Bud recommended the lead-out with a pre-cue to indicate the left turn, to keep up the pre-cue for another left to the teeter, and then let him have the teeter when his nose was pointed at it.

Part of my angst was created by the fact that Tempest doesn’t always understand the pre-cue, and I don’t spend much time training it.

Watching the rest of my class wasn’t all that helpful. Most of the dogs were slow enough that handlers got away with whatever handling choices they made. The faster dogs were mature dogs on their retirement (Preferred) titling track. Starting over in novice with a dog that has it’s agility championship titles is considerably different than starting out a young pup, and their handling choices didn’t influence me much.

I decided to try the lead-out pre-cued turn and, though Tempest did a slight fly-by on jump 3, it enabled me to be in position to pull him back and pre-cue jump 3 and the left turn to the teeter.

For my ballistic boy, it was a very controlled opening line. <g>

At the #4 teeter I practiced my blind cross on the dismount. He held his conditioned position while I moved.  NOTE: 2-minute dog trainers — Tempest has been eating 2 meals a day on his contact trainer — I send him to the mounting end and do several blind crosses at the dismount end, in front of him while he holds his position.  You can’t expect a dog to do in competition what he’s not conditioned to do in training.

After the teeter I sent him to a jump and — completely out of control — turned towards the #6 a-frame. Before I could re-focus on the jump I heard the bar drop.  Dumb handler ….

Once more one dropped bar kept us from a Q and no-doubt placement in Novice Standard.  I’ll try harder today.

When Tempest gets his novice Standard, FAST, and JWW titles, and his USDAA starters’ titles, I’ll be compiling my 2-minute-dog-trainer blogs into an electronic document, complete with pages where readers can add their journal entries.

I’d love to have feedback from my regular readers.  E-mail your comments to marshahouston@hughes.net or add them as comments to the bottom of these blogs.

2-minute dog trainer, class format for trial focus

July 5, 2011

The experience of attending trials and showing a dog results in heaps of information. Processing that information in a way that improves performance is key to providing a worthwhile class experience for our students.

When Bud and I leave a trial site we immediately beging processing information. Whether we’re both showing, or one of us is showing and the other is observing, we process without blaming either the handler or the dog.

These conversations can be “edgy,” and I tend to only get into them with Bud because I’m certain neither of us will be thin-skinned about anything said. If, on the other hand, a student wants to have this conversation with me, I must choose my words carefully and edit myself.

If the conversation takes place immediately upon leaving the ring with your dog, it’s too soon. Neither of us are ready to be objective. The adrenaline has to wear off a little.

If the conversation takes place ringside with other people listening we must edit ourselves slightly.

So we do our best debriefing in the truck on the way to the motel, or home. And, running these two young BCs, there’s plenty of information to be processed.

Once we’ve discussed, debriefed, and developed a solution we have to ask ourselves  1) is this information equally relevant to our students, and  2) is there a shift in class format which will fascilitate the solution.

Last night’s class format was designed to make us and our students think about focus at trials. Instead of an entertainment round followed by an instruction round we had 5-6 sequences which we walked and ran and scored — no extensive instruction, just learning through doing.

About 15 minutes into class I heard, “well now you’re getting to see what our trial experience is.”  As for me, I felt myself keeping my head about me and calculating more appropriately “what’s the best fix in this moment?”

Tempest was in good form, dropping one bar in 90 minutes, missing a couple of weave entries, but nailing countless teeter performances in his 2/2 posture and — most importantly — HOLDING that position while I shifted sides or moved into a better position.

Additionally, we worked nearly 2 hours with no treats. His reward involved his tug toy only.

Because it was very hot, we did no drilling. And I was careful to allow Tempest plenty of water, potty breaks, and down time between sequences. Just like at a trial!

Our score was the lowest in the class, but — except for Bud and Kory — we’re the only team in the class not trialing in Excellent / Masters / Superior classes.

Tempest is the only un-titled dog in the class. Considering that, his performance was not too shabby.

In about 5 days we drive to Cincinnati for 2 days of AKC agility. Using my newfound capacity for focus, and Tempest’s newfound capacity for keeping bars up, I hope to come home with a qualifying ribbon or two.

I must say that our typical class setting is relaxed, upbeat, and VERY social. Students bring snacks. We have an informal rule that — if you fall during a sequence — you must bring cold beer to the next class.

So last night we had beer and chocolate-cherry cookies.

Because of the “trial format” we also had a meltdown or three. It felt JUST like a trial setting. People started with tunnel vision and it wasn’t until sequence 4 or 5 that we started relaxing a little.

Bottom line — Tempest and I had a great time and learned a good bit about working with each other.  Bud and Kory had a great time and learned a good bit about working with each other.  I think Vicki, Jackie, and Beth had a great time and learned a good bit. (Turns out we have a student who objects to the consumption of beer. Our apologies to Denny. No one knew you found beer objectionable.)

So for the next 4 days I’m going to take Tempest to the building a couple of times a day for reminder sequences. Keep the bars up, hit your contacts, nail your weave entries, and have some obstacle focus.