Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Motion Triggered Overstimulation

Many, many years ago, I took Agility classes with Speedy.  His first session of Agility was wonderful.  He loved running through the tunnels, taking the low jumps, and learning what to do with the boards and planks.  I had visions of him becoming an amazing Agility dog - soaring over the jumps, blasting through the weaves, and just being incredible.

In our second session, something began to happen that was both confusing and troubling to me.  Whenever another dog in the class was doing anything, he went crazy.  He lunged to the end of his leash, bounced up and down, and barked.  His eyes were wild, he panted, and he completely lost his head.  Not only that, but once it was his turn to go out on the floor, he was too hyped up to learn much of anything.

I had no idea what this was.  I had no idea how to handle it.  And my instructors at the club where I was training had no idea what to do to help him.  My first response was to tell him over and over "settle, settle, settle".   That did nothing.  For one thing, I had never actually taught him the meaning of "settle", so it was a meaningless word to him.  Also, he was too far over his stimulation threshold to be able to comply, even if he had known the word.  On the advice of one of the instructors, I also tried to bring along a ball to engage him as the other dogs took their turns.  It was too much, and he could pay no mind to the ball at all.

At first my approach to the issue really wasn't one of trying to help him.  I was embarrassed by his behavior.  I was disappointed because I wanted him to enjoy Agility and he couldn't when he was riled up so.  I was also rather ticked off because I was paying for these classes and I wanted to be able to take part fully, and because of this "problem", I couldn't.

I know now that he was highly motion triggered and that the environment was far too overstimulating for him at that point in his development and training.  I have come to understand that when he saw the motion of the other dogs and heard their excited movement, something tripped in his brain, on a chemical level, and he had no control whatsoever over his response.

This was not happening because (as some told me at the time) he was having "too much fun", nor that he thought it was time to have a "party", nor that he had too much pent up energy (of course, I tried stopping on my way to class to let him run before class which did nothing to change the situation), nor that he was "blowing me off" or ignoring me in some way.  But I did not know that at the time and I found the explanations that people were trying to provide as confusing as the behavior itself.  Even then I knew that those explanations just didn't add up.

One of the best descriptions of overstimulation that I have heard is this:
  • Imagine that you are on the initial down drop of a roller coaster.  It's one of those super high roller coasters, and the drop is almost straight down.  
  • Your emotions kick into high gear, your adrenaline is rushing as fast as it can, you have the sensation of dropping at top speed, and you are screaming your head off.
  • You didn't choose to get on this roller coaster.  You didn't even know this drop was coming, but now you are in the midst of it.
  • Now, as this is happening, someone tells you to focus on something that taks concentration.  You are told to solve a math problem, or read the directions to a complicated project and pay no attention whatsoever to the fact that you are on this roller coaster.
How difficult would that be?  For most of us, it would be very difficult, if not completely impossible!  It would take a very high level of self control to totally ignore the fact that one is dropping from a great height at top speed to focus his or her mind on something like that.

But when a motion triggered dog is in the presence of other dogs running, jumping, or doing something super exciting, and the dog has gone over threshold (which happens before the barking, lunging, leaping, etc. begins), we are asking the dog to do something exactly like that.  The dog is experiencing a chemical rush in the brain that he or she has no control over, and calm and focus is out of the question as that is happening.

At that time, nobody that I worked with really understood what was happening with Speedy, or why, and there was very little help for us.  I did my best because I promised Speedy that I would.

The main approach that I was taught to use at that time was to teach Speedy to "watch me" whenever he was in the presence of a dog running, jumping, or doing anything that would trigger this response.  Often I had to remove him from a room altogether if a dog was going to jump through hoops or something, but to some extent "watch me" kept him calm enough to remain in the room.  We got to the point, eventually, where I could distract him with tricks or simple behaviors, as long as I saw what was going to happen before he did.  But "watch me" did nothing to help him learn a new response to those triggers.  That would come several years later.

Although I was unable to help Speedy raise that motion trigger to any extent at that time, I did learn some things.  I learned that his responses were not his fault, and they were not my fault.  I learned that this happened because of the way his brain was wired.  I learned that I needed to be more concerned with Speedy and his well being than I was about myself and what I wanted.  I learned how to manage the problem, and we did go on to do quite a lot more than we would have had I failed to recognize the issue for what it was and actively sought ways to help him learn to work around it.

Speedy and I did drop out of Agility permanently.  We got involved in Rally, which he could handle much better.  Of course, Speedy and I found our niche in Freestyle, where we could eliminate jumping altogether.  In retrospect, given the degree of arthritis that he has, and probably had his entire life, it was a blessing that we did not invest much time into Agility and that we landed in a sport that he could enjoy throughout his entire life.

In spite of that, I still had quite a lot to learn about accepting a dog for who he and when we adopted Dean, I was bound and determined that he was going to be the perfect sport dog.  And when I first took him into a room where dogs were doing Agility, my heart sank like a rock when he was triggered by the motion.  He ran to the end of his leash and lunged, and barked.

Oh NO!  I was not giving up Agility again for this problem!!

I set out to teach Dean to be calm while he was in a room with other dogs running Agility.  I tried "watch me".  That didn't work for Dean like it did for Speedy!  He was too far over threshold to "watch me".  I tried, following conventional wisdom on the subject, having him tug, tug, tug, and tug while other dogs were running.  When I could get him to tug at all, tugging left him even more revved and unable to focus than he was before.

I started to search and search for a way to handle this that I did not know about.  And I was committed to find a way that was reinforcement based.  My reasons for that would be the subject of an entirely separate post!  But I was certain that there had to be a way to use reinforcement to help Dean.  I knew that there were trainers out there doing things with reinforcement that I had not yet heard about.  What I did not know was how to find them.

I'll admit, I was tempted to consider punishment.  It seemed, at times, that I was not going to find a reinforcement based solution, and that I was going to have to resort to punishment.  I am very, very glad that I did not because in the end I did find a reinforcement based approach that worked.

I turned to the internet and I kept an eye out on message boards to see if I could find resources that might help.  The first that I tried, Shaping Success, by Susan Garrett, did not really pan out.  It was an enjoyable book, but there was nothing in there that helped Dean be more calm around dogs who were doing Agility.

Finally, one day in the summer of 2007, I found it.  I saw a recommendation for Control Unleashed.  I went to Amazon, read the description, and immediately ordered it.  The day it arrived, I went out in my yard and began to read.

I was astonished by quite a lot of it.  There was so much that rang true.  Here, at last, was an author who understood that focus issues are not a result of the handler not being "interesting enough".  Here at last was an author who understood that the dog's brain chemistry is not the handler's fault.  Leslie McDevitt won my trust immediately as I read these things.  That trust was soon tested when I found the solution to the problem with which I was dealing - the Look at That game.

I will admit that I was reluctant to click as my dog looked at a trigger.  I was certain that this was going to teach the dog to look away from me, rather than focus on me.

But the approach was reinforcement based, and I had nothing to lose.  I decided to try.

I pulled Dean out of all classes where dogs were running, jumping, etc., and I enrolled Dean in a beginner Agility class where the dogs would not be moving around very much at first.

I brought along a mat, and I fed Dean treats for lying on the mat during class.  Since dogs weren't running, this was a piece of cake.  Once he understood that lying on the mat was a good thing, I waited for him to look at another dog (as he was just looking around naturally), and I clicked and then gave him a treat when he turned back to me to look for it.  So far so good.

We continued with that througout the class.  As dogs started to run, just a few steps at a time, he could play LAT.  The stimulation level raised in that class right at the rate that Dean needed - enough to keep the game a challenge, but not so much that he reached threshold.

By the fifth week of class, Dean could be on the floor with another dog running a very short sequence, and he didn't care.

Dean is never triggered by dogs running Agility anymore.  He is also no longer triggered by the motion of cars, a very nice side-effect of the LAT training that we did for sports.

This may sound like it was an easy-peasy "fix", and for Dean it was.  Dean isn't really a dog who is prone to extreme overstimulation.  Once he learned that he was to do something different in the face of those triggers (remain calm), he did exactly that.

The true test of this approach came when I went back to apply it to Speedy.  As I said before "watch me" did not really change Speedy's response to the triggers.  It was a band-aid, not a solution.  After having such success with LAT with Dean, I started to work the exercise with Speedy.

It took more time, and more repetition, but LAT helped Speedy, too.  These days I can actually put Speedy in a crate while I dance with Dean, even if I incorporate a prop or jump, and Speedy watches calmly and happily.  I have also successfully used CU Offswitch Games with Speedy to help him learn to keep his stimulation levels in check when he is in motion himself.

Not all dogs are prone to overstimulation.  Maddie was the opposite.  I often needed to work to bring her "up" before and Agility run.  Some of her best runs happened when she ran after a dog who barked through his or her entire run because that got her just excited enough to go out there and really fly!  But I don't think Maddie was ever overstimulated in her entire life.  Tessa loves to watch dogs do Agility and she gets excited, but doing so does not send her into a state that makes it impossible for her to focus or function.  She can break herself away from the excitement in a second if I give her a cue or she just decides to stop watching and lie down.

For dogs like Speedy and Dean, I am grateful to have found a way to help them learn to deal with stimulation in a far more appropriate way.  They are able to enjoy performance and sports and they don't have to deal with the super duper roller coaster brain trip.

I am grateful, too, for the education that working them through these issues has given me.  It has been very helpful to understand that there are some behaviors that are not a conscious choice on the part of the dog, but an involuntary response to external triggers.  It is good to know that these things are beyond the dog's control, and that I can only help the dog in these cases by change the dog's underlying response to the trigger.  That when the dog's underlying response to the trigger changes, the behavior will change.  That allows me to be proactive in formulating a training plan that can provide real solutions for my dogs.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

An Open Letter to Beginner Trainers

There is quite a lot of material and information out there on training dogs.  Some of it is good, some of it is not.  There are many, many trainers out there.  Some are effective and humane, some are not.  Some will be able to recognize the needs of your dog, and some will not.  Some will work well with you, some will not.  And there are endless training methods to choose from, and even the trainers themselves debate which among them are most effective, most humane, and most appropriate.

If you feel intimidated, overwhelmed, or confused by all of it, or you simply do not know where to start, you are not alone.  On the other hand, be assured that dog training is not rocket science, and it is possible for just about anyone to find information, trainers, and methods that will be a great fit.

Today I will reflect a bit on some things that I have learned as I have grown and gained experience as a trainer that I wish I had known when I was just starting out.

1.  Don't be afraid to make mistakes.  You can learn a great deal from them, and you will be able to get great training results.  You will not ruin your dog because you didn't know how to train perfectly your first time around.

When I first started training my first dog in Beginner Obedience, we were constantly admonished to "do it right the first time" because it is easier to do it right from the start than it is to fix it later.  While that is technically true, it is also the case that it is better to try and risk getting it all wrong than it would be not to try in order to avoid the possibility of mistakes!  The attitude of "you must get it right the first time" was intimidating to me as a beginner, and I eventually just had to make up my mind to try it and risk making mistakes.  I made mistakes, but those mistakes set me on the path to doing better.

Developing good training skills takes time and practice.  As a beginner, you won't have perfect timing, and that's OK.  As a beginners you won't always know what the finished picture is supposed to look like, nor how, exactly to get there, and that's fine.  You will never move beyond being a beginner, if you do not try, make mistakes, learn from them, and learn through that experience to work with greater skill.

I would say to a beginner - don't even try to train perfectly with your first dog.  Nor even with your second.  Try your best, be willing to learn from your mistakes, and know that you and your dog will learn far more from coming to know how to make it right in spite of those mistakes than you ever will from worrying about getting it wrong.

2.  Trust yourself.  You know your dog best and you know what is right for your dog.  If someone tells you that something must be done to your dog that you would not do yourself, walk away.

The single biggest mistake I have ever made in training had nothing to do with timing, nor with my personal skill level, nor with my level of training experience.  The most serious training mistake I ever made was allowing a trainer to do something to my dog that I was not willing to do for myself.  I don't mean that I handed my dog over so a trainer could show me how to do something that I wanted to learn for myself, but that I allowed another person to do something that I would never be willing to do to that dog.

The dog experienced more negative fallout from that one experience than he ever has from any mistake that I made for myself.  And if there were one training choice I could go back and un-do, it would be that one.  It was flat out wrong for me to allow someone to do something that I knew was wrong for my dog.

A good trainer will listen to your concerns, discuss training options with you, and be willing to help you train and handle your dog in a way that is in both of your best interests.

 3.  Educate yourself.  If you see someone who trains in a way that you would like to emulate, ask that person for book or DVD recommendations.  There is quite a lot of great, and beginner-friendly, material out there.  A referral from someone whose techniques you trust will help you to avoid materials that are not compatible with what you are looking to do.

While it is true that working with a good instructor in person is the best way to get started, the more you know about training, the more proficient you will become, and you will be well on your way to devising and implementing your own training plans.

I particularly recommend doing a bit of reading that will provide some basic understanding of how dogs learn (and how they do not!) and what actually causes the most common behavior problems.  Patricia McConnell's "For the Love of a Dog" is an excellent introduction to these topics, and, while quite a full read, is certainly beginner-friendly.

Reading quality training books and watching good DVD's will prepare you to work in conjunction with your trainer.  It is not 100% necessary, but I do recommend it, especially if your dog struggles with any problem such as fear, reactivity to humans or other dogs, over-excitement, separation anxiety, etc.

4.  Listen to your dog.

Leslie McDevitt, of "Control Unleashed", often says that training should be a conversation with your dog.  A conversation is not one sided - the dog has a voice, too.  Training should not be something that we do to our dogs, it is something that we should do with our dogs.  While training goals and the rule structures that we intend to teach are ours, training actually works best when the dog's feedback, responses, preferences, and input are taken into account.
Just like basic training skill, listening effectively to our dogs takes some learning.  Mistakes will be made along the way, but those are opportunities to learn how to listen better.  If a particular technique or approach causes a dog stress, loss of confidence, or if it causes the dog to avoid learning instead of enthusiasm for it, the time has come to find another approach.  Don't hesitate to ask your instructor to suggest another approach, or to ask around to find someone who is open to a different approach if your current instructor is not.

As an instructor, I like it when I hear the words, "I tried "xyz" and it didn't work.  Do you know any other way?"  Those are my best students!  Ask those questions!  Your dog will not be the only one to benefit - you will, too!

If you keep these four things in mind - Don't be afraid to make mistakes, trust yourself, educate yourself, and listen to your dog - you will be well on your way to fantastic working partnership with your dog!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

What Motivates Us?

Often we speak of motivating our dogs, but at times it can be beneficial to reflect on what motivates us, the human partner of the dog and handler team.  What leads us to choose to train, to compete, to work toward goals, to work through the challenges that are inevitably thrown our way as we progress through levels, titles, goals, etc?

In this post, I would like to reflect a bit on my own motivations for choosing to take part in competition with my dogs.

Looking back I have to say that I did not have a clear reason for entering my first competition.  Speedy and I had been attending Rally Obedience classes, really just for enjoyment and a chance to take classes together.  He had been severely reactive and we had spent a good bit of time helping him learn to interface with the presence of other dogs in more appropriate ways, and he and I were once again enjoying the experience of being in classes together.  Competition was not even on the radar.  After a couple of sessions of Rally, some of my classmates were entering a competition, my instructor thought that I should enter Speedy, I wondered what it was about, I knew it involved dogs and that made it interesting to me, so I entered.

Going into my first competition, I did not know what a leg or a Q or a title was.  I really did enter just to see what I would see.  I learned those terms in discussion with others at the event.  By the end of the weekend, even though it had been incredibly difficult in many ways, I was hooked.

At first I was intent on trying to meet little goals, always keeping Speedy's needs and limitations in mind.  At the first event, I set a goal to go back on the second day just to try to qualify.  We had NQ'ed on flukes and my inexperience on the first day.  Then, at our second trial, the goal was just one title.  The idea of earning a title with Speedy, a dog who had not even been able to be in a class with other dogs just the year before, was too amazing for words.

After our first title, I'll admit, I let it go to my head.  At that point, what I wanted became the driving force behind my pursuit of competition.  I wanted placements, I wanted titles, I wanted to prove that Speedy could be the most amazing dog on earth (irony - he already was extraordinary and I didn't have the sense to recognize his truly amazing qualities!).  That drive led me to treat him in ways that I am not proud of.  I became more focused on his performance than helping him to be confident and comfortable.  I ignored his fears, believing that doing so would somehow make him get on board and want to be "great".  I ceased to pay attention to his needs and I made my own goals primary.  I considered is "issues" to be "problems" that had to be "fixed" so we could earn accolades.

In the end, that backfired in a big way.  I had my "top of the world" moment on the day he earned a first place, earned his Level 2 title, and completed a Stand for Exam in competition!  The very next day it came crashing down - because I was focused too much on myself and not enough on his needs at the trial the day before.  It was a big setback.  The biggest I can ever recall having with any dog I've worked with.  And it really was my own doing.

As Speedy and I slowly rebuilt his confidence and trust in me (which I had rightfully lost) and we began to explore a brand new sport together (enter Freestyle), I finally got the message that, for Speedy and me, competition could not be solely about what I wanted.  Sure, I could work toward progressing through the levels, mastering challenging skills, and overcoming challenges with Speedy.  But if Speedy and I were going to make this competition thing work, it had to be more about him than it was about me.

Freestyle was fantastic for this.  I could even design his routines with his strengths, abilities, and comfort level in mind.  We never looked back and we had an amazing ride from that point forward.  There are some title goals that he and I never met and that's OK.  I am fully certain that Speedy met his full potential.  And, in the end, Freestyle became something that gave him a great deal of joy, and it enhanced the overall quality of his life.

Wait a minute!  How's that?  How can participation in a dog sport competition improve the overall quality of a dog's life?  Isn't competition all about the handler and ribbons the pursuit of what the handler wants?  How can that be good for a dog?

Through competition, Speedy learned confidence in a way that he never could have in our own backyard.  Yes, we could have danced in private, and that would have been fun and he would have benefited from it physically.  But the joy that he experiences when dancing in front of an audience, getting to feel those eyes on him and learning that he was safe and could let go and be himself, and being out and about together in new and different situations all worked together to help him become the dog he is today.  And the only word I can use to describe him now is "joyful".

There were times when I wished I could have aimed for the highest level of WCFO competition with him, but I always chose to keep in mind that Speedy's needs and well being must come first.  I am pleased that he will have the chance to be a champion through the DCD Challenge.  But the look in his eyes when we go out and about in the world together will always mean more to me than any title ever could.

Dean went on to solidify this lesson.  Because of his noise phobia and social anxiety, it has been necessary to approach competition with him with even more focus on using participation in the sport as a way to improve the quality of his life.  If we are at a competition and he is unduly stressed, we leave.  If we are at a competition and he is having a great time, I don't care what he does on the floor.  We are there to enjoy the ride together.

So, along comes Tessa and she truly did, as I have often said, get the handler that I wish Speedy and Dean could have had.  I didn't make Tessa take part in sports, I invited her to do so.  And she accepted, put on her most beautiful ballgown, and became my princess sport partner!

Tessa and I are still working to build some of the precision that we will need, but she gives every competition performance her all.

The best part about competing with Tessa is actually when we get home.  For the entire rest of the day, after coming home from any competition, Tessa's eyes are lit up with joy.  She prances, preens, invites the other dogs to play.  She really is, I believe, the dog she would have been all the time had I had the opportunity to raise her myself!

Over time she is becoming that dog more and more at other times, but competition always jump starts that attitude!

With Tessa I can compete for her and I can compete for me.  If I go out there thinking, "let's try to qualify", Tessa's demeanor screams, "YEAH, LET'S GO FOR IT!!!!"  The first few times we did this, I was astonished.  I honestly never have competed with a dog like her before.  It is breathtaking - for both of us.

So, my motivation for competing in dog sports is greatly mixed.  There certainly is an element of my own goals.  But there is also, always, an element of "how can I use this to make my dog's life better?"  I do love the pretty ribbons.  But I love the dogs who earn them so much more.  Some of my favorite competition memories are of performances (in Agility, Freestyle, Rally), were we did not qualify at all!  The time Dean slalomed all of the jumps in a Jumpers course with a look on his face of, "Wow!  Check THIS out!!!"  The time Maddie came bursting out of a tunnel, saw a crowd of people, stood and wagged her tail at them, and went on with the course far to late to make time!  All the times Speedy was an absolute nut, but he entertained the audience in a way that they remember years later!  And Tessa's second attempt at a Snooker run where she took an off course tunnel and then took every single tunnel she saw on her way across the field to get to the table, prettily hopping over the last one after going through it!

We compete to work toward my goals, we compete for the pure joy of working together as a team, we compete to make the dog's lives better, and I am sure we compete for a host of other reasons that I haven't even thought of yet.

Why do you compete?  Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

Sunday, October 21, 2012


There is enough information on the website now that folks can get all of the basic information that they need to sign up for the first class!  I have had one person tell me that the registration form is in the mail!  And I know of one other "definite".  I have also had about 6 inquiries with questions, so I am hopeful that I will have my target number of students - 4 - for the first class.

I know the timing of this one is rotten for most people, because of the holidays, so I am not expecting very many.  I am hoping that more will be interested in the dregs of January, after the holiday rush is over.  And, at that point I will have some feedback from students from the first class to share with interested folks in the future.

This is very exciting!  I have so many ideas for classes to come . . . .

This has been a very quiet weekend with the dogs.  I have three very busy weekends coming up.  Agility next weekend, Freestyle the following weekend, and then Rally the third weekend.  So, this weekend we are taking it easy.

Also, starting this week, all of the dogs will start their new jobs as my demo dogs for the online classes.  They are all going to have a blast.  They love making videos.

I am definitely excited about the weeks to come, including Tessa's official adoption day this coming Friday!


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Tessa is so Cute!!

This is a complete and utter shameless fluff post!

Yesterday I realized just how cute Tessa is! 

She has a little ritual, almost every time she comes in the front door, of jumping up on the sofa, flipping on her side, lifting up her back leg, waggling her tail like mad, and looking with me at eyes that obviously beg for snuggles.

Of course, I almost always comply.

So, yesterday I was snuggling with her on the sofa and I was scratching the inside of her back leg, which she absolutely loves.  I realized that even the inside of her leg is cute!  Yes, even the inside of her leg!  How can that be?  I have no clue, but it is!

Everything about this dog is adorable!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Something New . . . .

I love teaching.  I love Freestyle.  I enjoy the heck out of the internet and I have participated in many internet based classes, both formal and informal, as student and discussion leader.  Now I am going to put all of that together and try my hand at teaching online Freestyle classes!

This simply occurred to me several weeks ago.  I was thinking about what I could do in the summertime to earn some supplemental income that I would be able to do from home.  Not only is this something that I can do from home, but it is something that every one of my dogs can take an active part in!  Perfect!

I believe there is a niche for this sort of class.  There are many who do not have access to a class locally.  Some may have access to classes, but cannot attend due to scheduling, cost, or having a dog who cannot handle being in a class for one reason or another.  And so many of us use the internet now for blogs, groups, videos, and every manner of communication!

So, I formally introduce . . . . Poised for Success!!!

I made the website just yesterday - my first ever website!  It isn't finished yet.  I barely have any information on there.  But it is enough to get this kicked off.

Hopefully it will turn into something good!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Here Comes the Sun

The last couple of weeks have been pretty quiet.  Tessa and Dean both had a really good Agility night on Thursday.  Tessa continues to be more and more fun to work with every time she and I are on the floor together.  After finding out that the building is finished at Periland, I entered Tessa only in the trial.  I always scope out a new situation for Dean before taking him into it.  So, Miss Tess and I will have a girl's day, which I am sure we will both enjoy immensely.  We will be going for our second Level 2 Fullhouse Q, our first ever Level 2 Standard Q (complete with teeter!), and our final Level 2 Colors Q, which would finish our first ever Level 2 title!!  We are getting into the thick of it now, and it is getting to be very fun.

But the big dog related event of the last couple of weeks for me was yesterday when I took Speedy and Dean down to West Virginia to do some filming for the Dogs Can Dance Challenge.  This was for Speedy.  Dean really just went as company and moral support.

Many years ago, Speedy and I had a routine to the Beatles Here Comes the Sun.  Our very first ever routine was to the Beatles Octopus's Garden.  It was a good Beginner routine, and we enjoyed performing it at competitions and demonstrations.  But by the spring of the following year, I was starting to get tired of it.  It had been a very cold, icy winter, and Here Comes the Sun seemed to fit.  I got myself some craft foam, cut it into the shape of sunbeams, glued on some velcro and Speedy has his own sunshine collar.  I also used a yellow dowel as a cane for the routine.

Speedy, wearing his original sunshine collar.  This was taken at Barkaritaville on the day he earned his Novice Title!

That routine is attached to a lot of great memories.  Our first big demonstration of the very early form of the routine was at this amazing Freestyle Festival that was held in Weyer's Cave, Virginia.  It was an amazing weekend with workshops by many excellent presenters.  I learned skills at that festival that I still use to this day.

We had just adopted Dean the December before and this was my first trip with two dogs together.  Dean didn't enjoy everything about it, but by and large it was an adventure for him.

Speedy and Dean at the Freestyle Festival.  It's amazing how YOUNG they were!!  Speedy was 5 and Dean was just a little past 1 year old!

One of the most memorable parts of the festival for me, and for many who went, was the demonstration night on Saturday.  There were people there from different Freestyle venues, and performers of different skill levels.  Speedy and I had not even competed in Novice yet, so we were demonstrating a WCFO style routine at the Novice level.

Speedy did such an amazing job.  To this day, this performance is among my favorites of all time.  I watch it now and I am surprised by how young he was!  We were in the midst of such an incredible journey together and I really had no idea.

Our performance from the Freestyle Festival . . . .

Wasn't he adorable?  I love how his tail wagged when everyone clapped.  All in all, it was just a very endearing performance.  He showed the best in himself in this one.

We went on to earn our first Novice leg with it at the Star Spangled Swing, the first that either of us ever attended.  That was where a judge suggested that I develop more in the way of costume, so to the drawing board I went.  I took a blue dress that I had that was really more like a long shirt and I painted white puffy clouds on it.  I wore that with white capri's, so it was like I was the sky with the white clouds and he was the sun.

We took that to our first ever Hershey competition in September.  Hershey was unique in several ways.  It was held in conjunction with a big grooming exposition, and it took place in a parking garage!!  I wasn't sure how Speedy would handle performing in a parking garage, complete with yowling dogs down at the far end (the groom expo dogs), but he ended up liking it very much.  In addition to earning his second Novice leg, he also earned his first ever first place for a Freestyle routine!

And we earned something even better - an invitation to the big invitational competition at dinner for the groom expo that evening!  Ten teams were invited to this event and there was no separation of levels.  Everyone was encouraged to pull out all the stops - food use was permitted - and it was judged by audience applause.  And the audience . . . about 500 people!!!

I think dancing in front of that amount of people with Speedy was one of the single most amazing experiences of my life.  And Speedy seemed to think so, too!  He did a really nice job.  After all was said and done, we walked away from that with a prize for honorable mention - 4th place.  Not bad for a Novice team!!

But the biggest honor for me came after we finished our performance and the audience literally thundered applause.  For a split second, Speedy looked startled, but immediately, his face relaxed into an expression of sheer joy.  He looked around for a few seconds and then he looked at me, just beaming!  That meant more to me than any Q or title ever could.  I wouldn't trade that for the Intermediate title that he and I just couldn't earn together (not for lack of training and trying).  It was an experience that will always be unique to Speedy and will always stand out as one of his most important accomplishments.

Speedy had started his life as a dog who would hide behind my legs if anyone looked at him.  On that day he danced in front of 500 people and loved every second of it.  That routine took us to a place I never would have dreamed Speedy could go.

The story of this routine finished up at Barkaritaville, the competition held in Red Lion, PA every November, one year from his first ever Freestyle Q (with Octopus's Garden).  He earned his final Novice Q with it, and that finished out his Novice title.  We also went back the next day, with it slightly revised, and earned our first (only one of two) Intermediate Q.

That was really an indescribable year for us, and that routine is just attached to so many memories.  I retired it at that point.  Speedy was starting to get overstimulated by the leg weaves and the cane.  I tried several different routines for Intermediate, but none really worked like Here Comes the Sun had.  We did not have another routine like it until we created Reunion a couple of years later.  That routine has a story of its own that I will likely share sometime in the next few weeks.

Here Comes the Sun will always be a special routine to me, but I am not the only one who feels that way.  Since that time - even this year - people that I don't even know have come up to me from time to time and asked if I was the one who did that routine with the dog with the yellow collar and the outfit with the clouds.  People remember it.  They remember Speedy.  And that makes it extra special to me.  When we first started Freestyle, my only goal (beyond giving Speedy a good time) was to entertain the people.  That routine certainly accomplished that goal.

Since that time, Speedy and I have never performed that routine again, and I never had any intention of doing so.  In it's original form, we actually can't perform it.  Speedy would end up very stiff!

But I heard Here Comes the Sun a few weeks ago and I started thinking about it.  I started imagining performing a new version for the Dogs Can Dance Challenge.  Since we are supposed to edit for Feature Presentation, I thought I could pull it off if we filmed it in small sections that I would edit together.  I did modify it quite a bit, but I also included some of the original elements, including a few that Speedy never gets to do anymore!

I created a new prop to modify the beginning.  I took a large ring gate and draped blue fabric over it for the sky.  I no longer fit into my blue outfit with the clouds.  I could not find Speedy's sunshine collar, which I do have somewhere, so I made a new one out of yellow felt.  I did have the original yellow dowel, though, so that went along.

Yesterday we filmed.  Ann, Speedy, and I all had an absolute blast.  I can't remember a time when I have filmed for a video event that I have just had so much fun!  Speedy was a little nuts, but he was loving every second of it.  He adored working to that song again.  He was enthralled by the ring gate!  And he was overjoyed to work with his cane again.

Somehow we came up with enough footage, and when I got home, I spent 3 hours editing it together.  I couldn't stop once I got started!  Editing is interesting.  In the end, I think I actually like it a lot.  I can't say this was a professional level editing job, but I think I did a pretty good job of it for a first attempt.

Alas, I must end there!  I won't share the final project until after it is judged!  It will be entered in the November event in just a few weeks now, and then we will have to wait 3 - 4 months for our score!  But once we have that, I will put it here!

In the meantime, our scores for Reunion for the summer event should be out sometime soon, and I will write all about that one and share it here.

I am really glad to be adding a version of Here Comes the Sun to our Challenge.  I really feel that through the Challenge I am creating a portfolio of Speedy's work.  Now all of the major routines that we have done will be part of it in some way.  Also, by adding this to our Entertainment Division work, it will be the only one of the three titles that all four of my Freestyle dogs - Speedy, Dean, Tessa, and even Maddie, will have been a part of.  That will make it extra special, and a fitting grand finale for Here Comes the Sun.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Power of Luring

The very first dog training technique that I was ever introduced to was luring with food.  I learned, after my first week of training class, that I needed to bring treats that my dog actually cares about in a distracting setting.  I learned how to put the food on his nose and show him how to move in heel, how to move into a sit, how to move into a down, etc.

I'll admit, I didn't really know which way was up at that point and I had no idea how I was going to end up with a dog who would do what I asked without food on his nose.  And at that point I wasn't really even thinking of those sorts of things.

So, I lured with food, and lured and lured and lured and lured and lured.  By the end of our Advanced Basic class, Speedy could do most of what I asked, as long as I had treats in my hand.  I still wasn't even wondering how to get him to work for me without food.

Later on we got involved in Rally, and when my instructor suggested that we compete, I decided to try.  Of course, one cannot compete with food in one's hands.  Our instructor taught us to always work with food in our hands, so the dog would always expect it to be there.  That way the dog would never suspect, in the competition ring, that there might not be food in our hands.

That did work, for the most part.  But the whole thing made me somewhat nervous.  I was aware of the fact that I had no food in my hands and I was worried that Speedy would know it, too.  Working in the ring without food in my hands never really was an issue for Speedy, but it was a cause of stress to me.

Some time later I was introduced to the concept of shaping, and I fell into the mentality that luring was bad, that it created a dog who could not think, and that I should avoid luring at all costs.  If I absolutely had to use it, I could, but it should be used only sparingly, if at all.

However, I had initially learned to train using lures and it had worked fairly well.  Often trying to shape a behavior seemed like a cumbersome option.  There are definitely certain behaviors that I prefer to shape or capture, but I would say that I start out with luring for the vast majority of the behaviors that I train.

It was Maddie who really opened my eyes to the power of the lure.  Yes - I said that - the power of the lure!  Maddie was initially a slow learner.  And I do mean slow.  There were a few behaviors that it took her literally years to master.  These were relatively simple behaviors that most dogs typically pick up on within a few weeks.  Granted, I did not have as much training experience at that point.  I like to think now that she would have come along faster if I had been a more experienced trainer, but I don't actually know that she would have.

I literally had to lure Maddie - with food - over and over and over.  Every repetition, for a long, long time.  If I tried to fade the food, at first, she would refuse to budge.  She knew whether I had a treat in my had or not!  Where Speedy had quickly gotten to the point where I could fake him out a large percentage of the time, Maddie certainly did not.  If I tried to shape, she would lie down and stay there!  Luring with food was really the only way to get her motivated.

I got to a point where I thought she would never be able to do anything if I did not have food in my hands.  But she proved me wrong.  When she was good and ready to work for me without food in my hands, she did.  She got to the point where she simply did not need the lures anymore.  Whatever learning had to take place for her to get to that point had taken place, and she became capable of learning through shaping, capturing, and targeting.

And at that point, I realized that I needed to re-examine conventional wisdom on lures.  I had been told many things about food lures - that they only teach a dog to follow food, that they don't allow a dog to think, that one must only lure a total of three times and then drop the lure, that using lures will create a dog who can only follow a lure.  My experience, though limited at the time, told me that none of those things could possibly be true.  Maddie had been lured for ages.  Yet, she reached a point where she could respond to cues fluently without food present.  She had become an Agility partner who was solid, consistent, thinking, and competent - even without food in the ring.  How could this be when lures should have made her completely food dependent, unable to think, and unable to function without food present?

The conclusion that I have come to is that luring is a very good, highly effective, and very useful training tool that, like any training tool, can be used incorrectly.  Also, the best use of lures may vary from one dog to another.  Where Maddie needed to be lured for a very long time on certain behaviors, Dean picked those same behaviors up relatively quickly and needed much less luring.

Also, there is a need, when using luring as a training tool, to systematically fade the food.  Use of food in training, like luring, often gets a bad reputation.  People try using food to train, find that the dog will only work for food, and then blame the food.  I am convinced that neither the lure, nor the food itself, is really the problem.  I believe that the problem is a failure to fade the lure/food properly.

In a recent discussion of food on a list of which I am a member, a poster said the following:  "Feeding at the wrong time or delivering the food in the wrong position, luring for too long, luring without really training are all liabilities." - Vicki Ronchette (Quote used with permission)  This statement was actually the inspiration for this blog post, so thank you, Vicki, for making me really think about this!

I agree wholeheartedly, and I have done all of this myself at one time or another.  When I first started training with Speedy, I really did lure without training.  There was no plan, I had no set goals in mind.  He really was just following food.  I can't say it really did him any harm, but training didn't start to happen until I began to develop goals and to think about the means that I planned to use to reach them.

On the other hand, how long is "too long"?  I would say that depends entirely on the dog.  What is the best way to fade the food effectively, while taking care not to decrease the dog's enthusiasm and motivation?  Again, that depends on the dog. 

I like to do something that is rather controversial.  When I start to train heeling (on right and left), at first I literally have the dog follow food.  I don't really want the dog to think at that point!  I want the dog to actually feel, on a purely physical level, what moving in heel is like.  After I have done that enough to familiarize the dog with the behavior, I move into luring the dog into position and then remove the food and c/t for choosing to make eye contact, or lure the dog into position and then move a step or two forward and c/t the dog for choosing to come along.  I do move away from luring, but not until the dog has had a chance to get a good feel for where we are going.

When I started to train Tessa's jumping, I was strongly encouraged not to lure her, but let her choose to take the jumps.  Problem was, it was too much thinking for her and it wasn't working.  I started using peanut butter on the end of a spoon to lure her over, and she started to jump with some enthusiasm.  After doing that for several weeks, I allowed her the chance to offer the behavior and she began to do so.

Lures need to be used intelligently.  They need to be used to move the dog in the direction of knowing a trained behavior.  They need to be used as long as the dog needs them, but no longer than the dog needs them!  I feel that they need to be mixed in with exercises that do allow the dog to do some independent thinking.  At the same time I am luring initial heelwork, I am also working on games like Doggie Zen, which encourage the dog to figure out what is desired independently.

In spite of the fact that I lured Speedy rather mindlessly for about two years, in the end he learned to carry out behaviors on cue, without lures, in various settings, he learned to think, and he is certainly not a dog who can only follow food.  He is a great example of the power of the lure, and of the fact that even if the handler should use luring incorrectly for a time, good results can occur.

End results of good luring:

Luring will remain a training tool that I value highly, and use readily.  And, hopefully, as I gain even more experience using lures, I will learn to use them even better.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Skipped Trial

I was hoping to get down to Periland Agility this past weekend to try some more CPE with Tessa and Dean, but I didn't get down.

On Saturday I was dead tired.  I figured I would take the day to relax and then go on Sunday.  I spent much of Saturday catching up on house things, and just being with the dogs.  We did absolutely nothing!

On Sunday I woke up with a bit of a stuffy nose and decided, again, to stay home.  I think that was the wise choice.  Getting up at 5:30 to spend a morning in the cold running Agility probably would have made that worse.  So, I stayed home and did absolutely nothing again.

I was sorry, though, to miss the opportunity, and I hope I don't regret it down the road.

I skipped the last trial that Maddie was supposed to attend.  Had I known it would be her last, I would have been there.

Of course, I don't anticipate anything like that - Tessa and Dean should both have plenty of trials in their future.  And I have quite a lot of competition coming up in early November, in Freestyle and, hopefully, Rally.  I should be able to fit in a few more CPE trials, too.

This is a long ride with plenty of chances to progress.  I need to remember that I don't have to try to do it all within the span of a couple of weeks!