Titles Achieved to date...

Monumental A to Z High On Liberty

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Busy Sunday

Today we found a hole in our recall training - pravus, malum, domesticus felinicus. I'm not really surprised -- I should be more surprised that it hasn't come up before, given that my next door neighbor has about a dozen half-feral cats that wander the neighborhood. Sooooo we have a new training challenge to work through - I'll keep you all advised on how it goes.

Later during our free walk (3 miles on the pipeline), I added some heeling training into our walk. We also did some "side" training (short for "other side", the opposite of heel). We've done a lot of recalls: lifestyle recalls, obedience fronts and agility recalls... so she is used to training breaks in the middle of our fun. Gimme did very well at heeling. Not as well at "side", but honestly I haven't trained it as much.

After I finished my obligatory yard work and a bunch of equipment painting (having to rebuild my baby training aframe), we did a session of Obility. Funny to have that name for it... and all this time I thought it was just something I do because of Adult ADD... Obility is a combination of obedience, with or without agility thrown in, but with lots of fast, fun flow.

I got interesting results. Because we've had such a horrifically wet spring, I haven't done much obedience training outside. And since my living room is only 12x20 feet without furniture, leaving me about 8x12 with everything pushed back, it has certainly limited what we could do.
Having all the room in my front yard to work with... the results were interesting, with several very pleasant surprises.

  • Heeling was actually really nice. She didn't blast past me ever, which has been a recurring problem. She was wide a couple times and crabbing now and then, but she stayed right with me. Her sits at heel were prompt and pretty accurate.

  • Other side heeling was not quite as good, but as I said before, more than I should have expected given our limited practice.

  • Stays - woohoo... with just one reminder, she was able to hold her stay with all that background distraction (cars going by 20 feet away, kids playing ball on our side street, barbecue smells, lawnmower noises nearby), at a distance of 30 feet!!!

  • Stationary drop from a distance - one at 6 feet, then the same 10 feet that we've been able to do in the living room.

  • Sit-stay-walk-around and Down-stay-walk-around - flawless.

  • Recalls to front from 30 feet... very nice, a little off center on her front, but fast and sure.

  • Finish to the right - a little slow and wide, but she got it and the second time very good.

  • Her dogwalk contact accuracy fell of a bit... In her defense, we haven't worked them with her that pumped before, and haven't worked them at all in the last 3 weeks.
We worked through 75 hotdog treats and a couple of short play breaks. She disengaged three times, all were instances where I wasn't being clear with her - moving from one exercise to another. She came back to work really quickly, as soon as I was clear.

Today is Gimme's 9 month birthday and she's doing so well - much better than I deserve. She's a canine genius and if she had a better trainer I've no doubt she'd be halfway to utility by now. I adore this girl.

BTW one other thing I did... her treats were in a small container set up on a platform. She could get to them and could have beat me to them any time. Only one reminder that she couldn't self-serve and some high rate of reinforcement heeling practice near the container was all it took. She was content with the understanding that she had to work to earn them. I was very pleased with that - I've never had a Dalmatian that I've been able to get this level of self-control around food.

Have I ever mentioned how much I adore this girl?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Our Killer Recall

Since you asked -- the secret to our "Killer Recall" is practice, practice, practice. 

Did I mention that we practice this a LOT?

Many years ago, someone told me that if your dog sits, stays and comes on cue, most people will think they are very well trained indeed.  As I've been doing dog sports - I've concluded that sit, stay and come are also the foundation behaviors for everything we do. 

At least they are the way I approach them.  I do want to say that I didn't invent any of this stuff.  This is just how I think of it and how I've put it together.

Sit is such a basic behavior, that we take it for granted.  Its the first behavior that Gimme learned pays well.  She thinks she invented sitting to demand stuff - its her default behavior.  Over time, I've made it a "required" behavior to get whatever she wants.  I don't cue the sit,  I basically stand there and look stupid.  I let her figure out for herself each time how to get something, so she thinks its always her idea and thus is very motivated to sit.  She's always a bit stunned when it doesn't work (which puts it on a variable schedule of reinforcement - the most durable behaviors of all) and she redoubles her efforts.

Gimme sits to go outside, come inside, get treats, get meals, get out of a crate, get out of the car, have a ball/toy thrown, initiate training - really everything.  Gimme thinks she is training me, absolutely not the other way around.  She thinks I'm not entirely bright, so its her full time job to get me adequately trained.  You should hear her expound on what it will take to get me ready for our rally debut in August.

The other really important aspect of sit that many people miss is what a great barometer it is for where a dog is mentally.  If you train cued sits (as opposed to default-offered sits) so they are nearly instantaneous (or at least very fast)... then you can use the time it takes a dog to sit (dispatch) as a gauge of how much distraction or duress the dog may be experiencing.  If I cue a sit and Gimme is slow to respond, I know she's distracted or stressed.   Then I can take measures to reduce the distraction/stress and work through it incrementally.  If she doesn't respond at all to the sit cue, then I know she is over-threshold and its my job to get her out of that situation immediately and make plans to train through it strategically, another time.

Stay is just one form of impulse control.  Its probably the most immediately useful form for us, but there are so many behaviors that require impulse control.  A dog without impulse control is often pinging off the walls, as they bounce from one impulse to another.  I taught Gimme a number of impulse control exercises long before I ever broached a formal stay.  Honestly, a default sit is the first impulse control exercise - since it requires the dog to control whatever impulse might seem the immediate answer to getting what they want and choose to sit instead. 

Gimme learned the Eye Contact Game, Doggie Zen, Mine and Leave It, and Waiting For A Release to eat.  Other than mine and leave it, these are all exercises without a cue - so again its up to Gimme to figure out how to win whatever goodie is at paw. 
  • I teach the Eye Contact Game the way Chris Bach teaches it - without a cue other than the formal stance that tells her the game is afoot.  The first thing Gimme had to learn was to look away from my hand and the treat it contained.  Then she learned to look at my face, then into my eyes.  We added duration and distraction.  The beauty of the Eye Contact Game is that you can play it anywhere and anytime and the number of distractions you can add is limitless.  If your dog can't play the simple Eye Contact Game in a noisy or distracting environment - they won't be able to do their best weave pole performance either (so why practice sub-standard poles, eh).
  • Doggie Zen taught Gimme another valuable lesson - "You have to give it up to get it, Grasshopper".  Mugging me (no matter how cutely it was done by climbing up on the couch and shinnying down my arm) will not get you the treat.  Pulling away (giving it up) will get it.  Over time this became harder and harder.  At one point I would lay the treat literally between her paws while she was laying down, so it was just inches from her lips and she ignored it for the multiple treats she knew I would give her.
  • Mine and Leave It are both the first cued impulse control behaviors that Gimme learned.  Mine means "this is mine and not yours".  Leave it means "even though you found it, its still not yours."  Both are taught as an extension of Doggie Zen as well as being part of life skills that are taught as life goes on..
  • Waiting for release to eat was probably the most difficult exercise for Gimme.  Dalmatians are verrrrry food motivated, so it took a lot for her little baby brain to wrap around the idea that your bowl, filled with raw chicken necks and sitting on the floor in front of you, is still not yours.  When I started this, the rule was if she was putting her paws on the counter or bouncing around like a maniac - the food dish didn't move.  After she settled down a little I'd lift the bowl and start to turn to put it down, which often set her off again and the bowl got set back on the counter.  Once I could lift the bowl up and turn toward her while she kept all four on the floor - then I rushed it to the floor.  So we started with just the minimum of what the final goal was and I rushed the bowl down to give her a reward for her efforts.  Over a two week period, I gradually increased the difficulty until she had to sit while the bowl was set on the floor in front of her - then she learned "okay" releasing her to eat.  I've kept this up all along and now when I set her bowl down, I stand up wash and dry my hands, pick up all the meal fixin's and put them away, gather up M&M's dishes and walk out the kitchen door before poking my head back in and saying "okay". 
Since I had already taught her so much impulse control stuff, on the day I started teaching a formal stay - it went very quickly.  Two 3-minute sessions was all it took for her to clearly understand what that "wait" word means.  And frankly, much of the three minutes was being released and getting reset.  We've continued our stay work, adding distraction and duration.  Sometimes I go to her to give her a payoff, and other times she has to come to me.  Often the distraction is part of the release "okay", which is also a form of recall, since she has to come to me to get the payoff; many of those releases to me come right by delectable food on the floor. 

Come has been something we worked on from the very first day and continue to work on every day.  We really don't often do formal recall training as such, its just worked into our daily life together.  I take great care to make sure it pays well and often, and that it rarely results in the end of fun.  Usually it just means come and get a treat and then go back to what you are doing.  Sometimes it means come have fun with me. 

The crucial elements have been to protect the value of the cue, classically condition it at every opportunity, pay well and practice, practice, practice.  So what have we done and what are the important things I keep in mind all the time?
  • First Gimme learned her name in what I call bathroom recalls (bathrooms are boring and small, so you are surely THE most interesting thing going).  I'd say her name and stick a treat in her mouth - without requiring a response from her.  She learned quickly that hearing that special word meant good things and very soon was glued to me.  We did 100 bathroom recalls each day for five days (20 at a time).
  • Its important to protect the good association to hearing her name - I try to never use it to scold or stop her from doing something.  I admit that it sometimes slips out... but I'm as careful as I can humanly be. 
  • Next we did living room recalls, again 100 per day for five days.  At this point, I'd call her name, give her a treat for coming to me and then toss a treat (saying "get it) to reset her for the next recall.  Again, 20 reps at a time. 
  • Meanwhile, I was already walking her in some carefully selected off-leash environments.  They were selected based on safety.  Gimme and I walked a lot and she got random recalls, which were heavily reinforced and then she was encouraged to go back to exploring.  I used a balance of recalls and free time, since her tendency early on was to glue to me and I didn't want her to be sticky.  We did more recalls later as she showed her confidence.
  • It was important to me that she always go back to play after a recall on our walks, so that we were setting up the idea that coming to Mom was a great opportunity to get a reward before going back to exploring.  Coming to Mom is not the loss of good things.
  • She also got treats for checking in voluntarily (initially treats every time, later random treats).  On those times I saw her coming toward me to check in, I called her name - using that opportunity to strengthen the association.
  • Also, because she had so much structured safe freedom early on, its never been important enough to her, that she was reluctant to give it up.  She always knows there will be more free walks.  Likewise she's always happy to get in the car after our walks.
  • When I was able to arrange play dates with suitable dogs, we did recalls there too... cookies and back to play with your playmates. 
  • We've done group recalls at home where she gets treats with Michael and Meaggi getting their treats too. 
  • I use her name to recall her when she is already coming to me for anything that she wants.  I know when she wants a snuggle, is getting ready to climb on the couch, any time she is following me around... any of these can be used as an informal recall opportunity.  This is classical conditioning at its finest.
  • I use her name to recall her for a good game of tug a couple times a day. 
  • When Gimme started getting more independent on our free walks, then I started playing hide-and-go-seek with her.  If she went out of sight, I hid.  If she clearly wasn't keeping an eye on me, I hid.  Behind trees, bushes, stumps.  Laying down in a depression in the ground or in tall grass.  When she finds me, I say her name and give her a treat and a hug.  This isn't really formally associated with a recall, so much as it strengthens her desire to be with me and certainly encourages her to keep an eye on me.  I admit anymore I almost never get hidden, because she watches me so carefully. 
  • If I know she is distracted and likely to have difficulty responding to my recall, I pair it with running away (call and run away simultaneously), using my motion to strengthen the cue.  Because she so wants to be with her Mom that ensures success. 
  • Sometimes when I call her, I run away as she heads toward me - so that it is part of the game, part of the reward.  She loves to play with Mom and a good game of chase is fun.
  • When I'm working in the yard, I call her randomly for treats.  Sometimes its because I have a ball or a stick to throw.
  • I use peanut butter from the small containers I carry or the toothpaste tube to reward her best recalls.  Other times I use less-valuable rewards.  I try not to over-use the peanut butter (thus devaluing it).  Other times I may use other valuable rewards.  So even though every recall is rewarded, its still on a variable system of rewards because the rewards change.
  • I've taught Gimme to recall on hearing her name.  In an emergency other people might need to call her and not know that, and I myself sometimes use other words.  So, I have paired other likely recall cues with her name recall cue.  Essentially she has several recall cues.
  • I practice success.
  • On a slow day, Gimme gets 50 recalls a day.  Did I mention that we practice this a LOT.
So, sooner or later there comes the day when the dog doesn't recall.  With Gimme this happened going to the car.  One day at around six months she decided it was time to explore down the alley.  I live on a busy street, so not coming when called is potentially dangerous.  Naturally, she was skittering around just out of reach and my blood pressure was going up by the moment.  After the first time this happened, she got walked to the car on leash every day for a week.  Then about two weeks later it happened again and another week on leash.  Then any time she was off leash going to the car it happened.  I have to admit I felt anger: partly a reaction to the danger of this behavior, but there was also a sense of betrayal that my best buddy who is the center of my life was being "flagrantly disobedient".

Then one day a little voice in my ear said - "okay Madam Dog Trainer - what would you tell your students?"   What would I tell them?  Train - don't complain.  Set yourself up for success.  Use management to ensure safety and to prevent practicing what you don't want.  So that's what I did. 

I bought two more jars of peanut butter -- I know I've mentioned that Gimme loves peanut butter.  We already had a jar in the car - which she gets a finger-full into her bone when she gets in her crate.  I taught her a super recall cue "p-butter" which means she gets to lick a gob right out of the top of the jar.  I placed one jar of the peanut butter in the carport where I could pick it up on the way to the car and get the lid open where she'd smell it and be reminded of that potential.  She already knew peanut butter was in the car, having gotten it several times a day all her life with me, but the allure of exploring was too enticing.  So adding the smell upped the ante and helped her focus (ensuring success).  I had another jar stuck in a tree in the yard, so I could use it randomly to reward her best recalls in the yard.  I cut apart a set of daily pill minders to make small containers to carry peanut butter with me everywhere we went.  I set aside a couple dedicated training sessions to train going to the car - so I wasn't rushed by trying to get to work or somewhere else.  We trained and trained and trained. 

I rarely use the p-butter cue, but I know I have it.  I occasionally train the p-butter cue to keep it fresh and she is practically acrobatic in turning back to me when she hears it - its very high value to Gimme. 

In other situations when she fails to respond to a recall, I calmly walk up to her and put her on leash and then we spend a few minutes practicing loose leash walking.  I can be calm because I KNOW she will come if I need to use the p-butter cue.  This is not a punishment and there is no element of punishment.  We just train something else for a couple minutes and then she gets to go off lead again.  After that, she always responds beautifully to the recall cue, even though we didn't directly train the recall again.  I think any training helps her to refocus on her Mom. 

I was talking to someone recently about my idea that sit, stay and come are the foundation behaviors for everything we do.  Her immediate question was - "What about attention?"  While I haven't really trained specifically for attention, it is the by-product of all this other training. 

Here's a cute picture of Gimme when she was responding to one of her first recalls when out walking free.  Is there anything more beautiful?

Note the ears... I call this her flying recall, because it looks like she is about to take off...

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Gimme and the Bad Man

We've found a place near home where we can go for some of our short off-lead walks.  Its a trail that I used to use years ago, but has since been improved.  Where we park is in the middle, so up and back to both ends is a 90 minute walk. 

Because its improved, and it connects with an old improved bike trail that runs through the city, there are a LOT of cyclists using it now.  Consequently we get a bunch of recall practice with every walk.  Gimme needs to be near me whenever there are cyclists going by so they aren't faced with trying to dodge a dog that may move unpredictably.  Dodging dogs leads to biking accidents. 

Fortunately the one thing I've done very well with Gimme is to establish a killer recall.  On each walk I get many compliments on her recall, and her beauty, of course.  Interestingly, I've called her so many times, that she is just starting to see the bikers and then turn toward me and see if I call her.  I expect she will start coming in on her own, which would be great.

Because the weather is warming up, I've started walking her in the morning so I can take her home before I go to work - just too warm to have her stay in the car.  As a result, I'm starting to see more homeless people in the area, as they come out of their camping areas in the woods nearby.  Mostly they've been fine, but recently we ran into a man that was behaving very weird.  Gimme was walking ahead of me and still thirty feet away from him when he started behaving threateningly toward her - which of course made certain that she was fixated on him.  Since he was being so spooky, that basically pushed her over threshold and she couldn't even hear me calling her.  Meanwhile he's yelling at me that he's going to kill her and beat me up if I didn't get her away from him (she was 15ft from him, but barking).  She was so worried, there was no way even when I was right next to her that she was going to turn her back on him to come to me...   She was unwilling to turn her back on him until he was about forty feet away.

Gimme didn't act inappropriately - he started menacing her before she even started to pay any attention to him, but an even better response would have been to come to me automatically.  I like her friendliness, but when someone acts odd, she should return to me.  So that's something we'll be working on. 

The guy was obviously whacked.  And while there are a fair number of people using that path - I see about ten during my one hour walk... I could be in a lot of trouble before someone wandered along to come to my aid.  In all my years of being out and about alone, I've never run into someone that spooked me - until now. So went to Cabela's and bought a pepper spray device that will clip on my pants.  

I recommend that anyone who is out and about walking alone carry some "personal protection."  There are several different ones - many small enough to conveniently carry and reasonably priced.  Clearly I've been ignoring that kind of advice for many years -- you can one-up me by heeding that advice.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Rally Graduate

Gimme graduated from her first rally class and did a good job.  We had a couple problems on the first run-through on graduation night because of a wardrobe malfunction.  Gimme was in season at the time and had to wear drawers - and they sagged.  After we got them all tucked up, she did a great job.

Gimme thought her name should have gone first on the certificate, after all, she did all the hard work, whilst all I did is wander around and try to keep my two left feet out of her way.

We have formally set a goal to enter her in rally at the Puget Sound Dalmatian Club specialty on August 26th.  That'll be a nice way to start her performance career - among all her Dalmatian peers.

Gimme thinks she's going to have to train me a LOT to get me ready in time.  She's happy to be out of season so she can concentrate on getting me ready.