The first response I get from anyone when I express the fact that we are having a difficulty is "training!" The thing is - we have been training - for almost four years now - and she is still not getting the general concept of performing behaviors on verbal cue. The training that I have done with her is the exact same training that I did with Speedy, who did a good many things on verbal, and Dean, who adores verbal cues and can respond to a bunch. Tessa and I are at an impasse with all but a few of the simplest behaviors (whiplash turn, recall, jump, and sit are about the only verbals she really knows well).
Second, the more we train and the more I try to transfer her behaviors over to verbal, the less I am seeing her enjoy training and performance. We have had a few absolute train wrecks this past year - I am seeing her stress levels increase and her pleasure in performance decrease. And that simply won't do!
When considering Tessa it is important to recognize where she has come from. This is not making excuses, but truly taking the dog that she is into account. Tessa will learn in the way that Tessa learns and in no other way. The experiences that she had in her life before coming into our home have shaped who she is in a big way - that will never change even though she has grown and moved past a lot of it.
When she first arrived, she was clearly fearful of the human voice. I got her to sit (after several days of attempts) by holding a treat over her head, and then just a hand over her head, but the first time I said "sit" as I raised my hand, she ran out of the room. At first she could only respond to a recall when it was directed to the dogs as a group, never to her alone. All of our initial training was done without voice - I either set her up and let her offer behaviors for clicks and treats, or used lures or hand targets to get behaviors.
Keep in mind that Tessa learned to take a jump while running by following peanut butter on a spoon!! And she turned out to be a very fine jumper! Sometimes the approach I had to take to introduce concepts and behaviors to her was unconventional.
When I did introduce verbal cues, they were paired with hand signals, and she did get to the point where she no longer reacted in a negative way to the sound of a voice in training. She even loves verbal praise - a lot! She will preen, tail held high, when you say, "gooooooood girlie!!"
But the concept of "hear cue - perform behavior" has eluded her, no matter what I have tried to convey that point to her. And believe me, I have tried a lot!
And I have asked person upon person upon person for advice. I pretty much keep getting the same advice - advice that is excellent for the vast majority of dogs, just not, seemingly, for Tessa. The advice: say a verbal, wait a second or two, show the hand signal, reinforce behavior.
One of two things will happen when I try this. Either Tessa will jump in and offer the first behavior that comes to mind when she hears the verbal, well before I can show her the physical cue. So, I could say "circle" and she might twirl. And she is so clearly pleased with the fact that she offered a behavior (and getting her to do that initially was a major feat!) that she has been reinforced even if I don't give her a treat! Or, and, unfortunately, this has been her more recent response, she stands there or lays down and doesn't try anything, and avoids the behavior even when I give the signal. It is almost as if incorporation of the verbal is actually demotivating her.
I was pretty much to the point on giving up on this. Tessa loves Agility and our main title goal is our C-ATCH. There is no need to use verbal alone in Agility - it's perfect! And she loves Cyber Rally-O and physical cues are allowed in Cyber Rally. So, why not just focus on the venues where she can have her hand cues and be happy?
Well, I am doing that!
But for some reason, I just couldn't let this go. It seems to me that there is something to be learned here. Something that will be good for me and good for Tessa if we could just crack the code and figure it out! It's not that I want to push her and push her and make her do this. But I want to accomplish this if it can be accomplished in a way that Tessa will actually enjoy.
I was pretty convinced, though, that we had exhausted our options and it was time to move on . . .
And then . . . Bandit showed me a brand new answer! One that I was not expecting! One that has me completely excited and eager to give some new approaches a try!
It was a little thing, really. I was watching the most recent of Bandit's circling videos. I noticed - and it really was a tiny thing - that he is actually listening for the verbal cues.
Bandit doesn't know many verbal cues and the ones he knows are barely fluent, but he already has the idea of listening to hear me give him a directive. And he already understands that when he hears a word, there is a response to it. And he very clearly likes listening to hear a word to respond to.
When I first saw that, I knew I was seeing something very significant, but I couldn't even put what I was seeing into words!
So, last night on my way home from training class, I had a long conversation with myself and I figured it out!
I realized that:
- Tessa does not know, in a training and performance context, that words are a good thing
- Tessa does not know that words provide her with information
- Tessa does not know that words lead to good things
- Tessa does not understand that certain behaviors are paired to certain words
- Tessa is generally confused by words
Before trying to put any more behaviors on verbal cue, I need to teach Tessa:
- That hearing words is a good thing
- That good things happen when she hears words
- That words give her information
I believe that then, and only then, Tessa might be able to learn to respond to verbal cues. I believe that if she learns those things, she will start to listen for words, and expect to respond to them in certain ways.
I am astonished that my 7 month old puppy showed me this. But it is loud and clear as I watch him work the circles. He already knows those things and he's just a baby! But he grew up in a home where words are good, good things happen when he hears words, and words have given him information.
Who knows if Tessa got anything like that before she was in my home?
So, I have a plan.
- I am going to spend a few training sessions pairing word with food, like a clicker, to teach her that it is good to hear those words. Although I will use words that can become cues, I won't be using them to cue behavior
I plan to start by having some high value treats and wait for eye contact. When she gives me eye contact, I plan to say the word "eyes" in a tone that says "this is eyes". Then I will feed her. I will repeat that a few times, and toss some treats to keep her attitude way up.
I will do the same thing with her paws because she will offer them if I hold out my hand. I will hold out one hand and say "paw paw" as if to say "this is paw paw" and treat. And with the other paw "tap".
I plan to repeat that for about a week.
- Once it is clear that Tessa is enjoying our sessions where I name those things, I plan to let her offer behaviors and quietly say the name of the behaviors she chooses as she does them. So, if she twirls, I will quietly say "twirl", as if to say, "you chose twirl". I am still not going to be looking to teach her that these are cues, but that when she hears me say the words as she does these things, something good will happen.
- Once that is going really well and she is loving every minute of it, I plan to cue one of the few behaviors that she knows well, and click/treat when she does the correct behavior. I will set her up for absolute success. So, I might have her sit by a jump, and I might cue "jump" because I know she will jump. I might cue sit, as I know she will do that. And she will get a click/treat and tossed treats to jackpot.
From there, we shall see. I have some general ideas, but first I want to see where this plan goes. I suspect that she is going to become interested in and intrigued by words. And if I can get her there, then I think I can devise a way to teach her that certain words are matched with certain behaviors . . . .
I am excited about this and eager to see where it will go. Just the idea has breathed new life into my attitude toward training Tessa!
And that is exactly what we needed!!
If this works, I owe Bandit a steak. My 7 month old Border Collie is apparently a Master Teacher. Whodathunkit?