Friday, January 29, 2010

Training today at Winnegamie

I drove into Appleton today to the local AKC club building for some training. The Winnegamie Dog Club allows its members to pay for floor time in its heated training building. The fee is extremely reasonable and all you have to do is vaccuum and clean up when you're done, which is a small price to pay for working in a clean, matted and heated building at this time of year. I have my own training building a convenient walk from the house, but it is none of those things. Unheated, dirt floor. Clean? nah. I love having that available to me, of course, but sometimes it is nice to work my dogs in a different environment and to travel to a location to train instead. Not only that, but as I continue to recuperate from my bout with bronchitis, breathing the chill air and dust isn't the best thing for my lungs. As if those things weren't incentive enough, basing my training operations for the day in Appleton also makes a trip to Barnes and Noble a requirement! Can it possibly get any better than that?

I had Ridley and Cooper with me today, and worked Cooper first. It is apparent that he is lacking in stamina and conditioning right now. He is in the house and crated much of the time, sprinting outside just to potty before crashing the door to come back inside, so he is way out of working shape. We worked on reinforcing the proper heel position, first refreshing it by working ala Knut Fuchs, between the legs and then transitioning. On the left side, he was in proper position, making nice, tight turns and fast halts. We did this all for food. I loosened him up with spins in both directions. When I do this work, I make it very dynamic and we continue to move from one exercise to the next without allowing him to fall out of focus. I worked some "here/front" positions from a standing position, and moved into backing and the change of positions. He understands to stand from a sit but not from a down position yet and his down is still abit sticky. It gets slower when he gets tired out. I also practiced the "finish", first by bringing in to my back and working him sideways, and then finishing completely, and moving sideways from that position, as well. Moving left isn't where it needs to, but moving sideways to the right at heel position was very happy and fast. We did a couple sit in motions. I bought a jute wrap for the dumbbells from Jim Hill when I was at the Nationals, and so I worked the "hold" and did some heeling and fronts with Cooper carrying the dumbbell and then ended that portion with a couple throws, with Cooper racing back between my legs with the dumbbell. Then we practiced the "revier" with me sitting in a chair and having Cooper come in and do a bark and hold from different angles. When he centered himself, it was marked and rewarded. The very last thing we did was a send away. Much to his chagrin, Cooper had to practice some restraint in being released. Initially, when I moved about half the distance, he got up and ran toward me, so before it reached that breaking point, with my back still to him as I walked away so as not to change the trial picture, I marked "goooood" and then returned to him to deliver a bite on the pillow. We did this several times at increasing distances, and rewarded him for staying. When he could do that, I added a little distraction by running and placed the pillow. His final send was very fast and straight. I was able to work many small pieces in a short amount of time, all while keeping Cooper actively engaged. It was a very good training session.

Ridley's session was also short and covered some of the foundation exercises. She is learning to move herself between the legs for heeling and we worked on shaping proper position there. She must have been quite hungry as she was punishing my thumb and she has her adult teeth now. Spins are both good to keep puppies engaged as you move. On the floor I could toss a piece of food and tell her to "get it" and them move away for recalls. Teaching sits and downs is on the "must do NOW" agenda. I lost a huge chunk of time following my shoulder surgery, which transitioned directly into bronchitis and she is behind on learning some of the things I ordinarily would have already addressed. She is very willing and motivated, however, so I have no fear that it will come. I did try to work some recalls to an informal front position (no command, shaping with food with hands position in center of body) with my friend handling the back line, but with Ridley we have to be careful not to apply so much pressure that she spins. That is a horrible, horrible habit that I try to avoid. Back line handling is actually a fine art, as you need to apply only enough pressure to allow the dog to feel that it can pull forward straight and without spinning, and then to poP!! release the pressure at the last foot or so to cause the dog to drive in fast and hard at the end. If you have pressure throughout, your entry will be slow. With Ridley, I ended with the pillow bites, making her work for the grip and hold it firmly. She has a full, calm grip naturally so what I need to work on is having her make her grip count the first time or she loses it. She had a victory lap that was quite hilarious, as she showed off her prize to the dog in the mirrors, not realizing it was HER! It isn't my preference to allow her to run free around a room with her toy, but 2 or 3 times I did that and she was figuring out that if she brought it back to me, the play would continue. Ideally, that should be done on a long line to encourage her return but I will confess I allowed her to have some self revelation since she couldn't really escape anywhere.

My friend worked her adult male GSD last. The issue she wanted to work on was the front recall, as the dog was coming in crooked and too far away, but would then "fix" himself when a reward was not forthcoming. Addressing this ended up being challenging and fun, as we kept tweaking his performance until we had the ideal we wanted. In the first observation she held a ball on a rope in front of her and there was also excessive body movement to help him; she would then lower the ball and release him to grab it on "yes". I asked her next to hold the ball to the side and see what happened, but also to remember to give him a very specific physical area to be correct by spreading her feet at shoulders width apart. The correct position would be when his two front feet were straight and place between her feet. Initially, the dog was clearly looking for the ball and sat crooked. I opinioned that this might be because the marking and reward were coming from the side, so I next asked her to bring the ball in to her center before marking. It was clear the dog knew he needed to be closer as he would correct himself it the reward did not appear immediately and it seemed he was intially wanting to sit just a little too far out so that he was in position to take the ball as it had normally been presented to him. So the next change was to ask the handler to hold the ball under her chin and see what happened. Dog was straight but still making the secondary adjustments. I know it sounds crazy and silly, but part of problem solving is in identifying what the problem is exactly and making adjustments and not necessarily starting over with a new behavior. So far, I believed I was understanding why the mistake was happening, and that was that the dog was trying to be in the best position to receive the reward. I then asked the handler to step backwards on release and let the dog drive forward and up into the toy. Now we were making progress. Judges want to see the dog coming in quickly without a speed change as it approaches the handler until it slides to that last-minute sit. I added back-line pressure. At first the dog was unsure he could pull through it. Several times I instructed the handler to hold the toy in front of her and then as the dog pulled in strongly, to do the bull-fighter step-aside ( I liken the movement to a bullfighter, swirling his cape as he sidesteps the bull) and let the dog fly through and grab the toy. In this movement, the position of the toy does not change; it remains centered and the dog drives through, but the handler moves her body sideways. The dog believes they can drill right through without slowing. After several repetitions and rewards with this, with back-line pressure, we had the perfect final product that we ended on: I held back line pressure, letting it pop/release before he reached the handler, who initially held the toy in the same front center position and then slid it up and in front of her body just before the dog arrived, drawing him into the most perfectly centered and dynamic front sit position you would like to see! It was a thing of beauty!

Is it finished? No, it will require additional repetitions but we have identified what the problem was and are on our way to creating the correct habits for position and speed. I always like to take a step back and refresh at the next session, not begin from that last perfect action. The temptation is to train to "failure" rather than success and until a behavior has been taught, practiced and worked under distractions you cannot consider it has been ingrained. The next session will likely begin with several step-asides first, continuing with back line pressure. Once the dog is working with speed and correct position, the toy will not be visible until after successful performance. At the current stage, we also want to be aware that the toy is a reward and not a lure. When you call the dog, you should be standing in a trial-like position, not waving the toy around or moving. At any point as the dog approaches, you can mark it and release it and move, simply to reward the dog for good speed on the approach. Good training will not ask for a front sit each time.

The process was actually alot of fun and challenged me to think of methods that would be suitable for both the dog and handler. In training, we are always bound by the limitations of each half. A very good young trainer in our club is athletic and so very fast himself, he can do things that leave me panting just to think about!! So, with my own dogs I have to consider what I am able to do to bring the best out in my dogs. It may not be the same thing someone else would do, or could do, but until such time as my dogs get a vote on who their handler is, this is the way it will be!

I was pleased with the work done by all the dogs today! So what did YOU do?