Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Verbal Experiment Report #1

I took some time to do the work with Tessa that I was planning and it was . . . interesting.

First thing I observed was that no matter how softly I said the word "eyes", when Tessa made eye contact, hearing the verbal caused her immediately to shift her eyes away from me.

Just for fun I tried it out with Dean and it worked like a dream.  Within minutes I was saying "eyes" as he looked at me and he was riveting his eyes toward me with an expression that plainly wanted more, more, MORE of whatever we were doing!

Not Tessa.

She's good until she hears me make a sound and then she focuses her attention very pointedly elsewhere.


I'm thinking of trying again with a different word.  Maybe "the sound of 'eyes'" is confusing to her.  I don't know . . .

Friday, October 10, 2014

Bandit at 7 and 1/2 Months!

I can't believe my baby boy has grown up so much!  He's a Border Collie and he's beautiful!!

If I could have put in an order for a Border Collie I would have ordered the long coat and the stand up ears.  And I would have ordered an absolute beauty!  He is all of those things and more!

My whole crew running together on a beautiful fall day!

The boys!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Tessa and the Verbal Cue Saga

Tessa and I have run into quite the brick wall in both Freestyle and Rally FrEe over the necessity of transferring the performance of behaviors over from physical to verbal cue.  And we are at a level where not having at least a nice selection of behaviors on verbal is making it practically impossible to qualify, except by the skin of our teeth, or by fluke!

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
And then I worked out what I need to do.

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.

  1.  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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

We're Really Doing This!!!

Bandit and I are off and running and well on our way toward becoming a Freestyle team!!

I do have to recognize the irony in the fact that the first thing I am teaching my Border Collie puppy is to circle around me!!  HA!!  But, he is learning to circle on cue, under stimulus control, not willy-nilly.  We shall see how that pans out!

Here he is doing his first training session with circles around me.  He was offering the behavior in the gates and he was getting clicks and treats for it:

Here we are just one week later and he is circling, still in the gates, on verbal cue!  YES!!!

We have also been doing some pivot platform work.

Here he is, actually a little while ago, learning to offer paws up on the pivot platform:

Recently, starting the pivot with a lure to help him keep his front feet in place:

And, just yesterday, starting to offer the pivot as I move around!

We still have a long way to go before we are dancing, but these are such great skills for him to be getting at this stage of his training!

I can't wait to see where we go from here!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Happy 4th Gotcha Month, Tessa!!!

Yesterday marked the fourth anniversary of Tessa coming to our home as a foster.  Since she has three anniversaries, all in October: the day I met her, the day I brought her home as a foster, and her adoption day, Tessa gets all of October as her special month!

In honor of this anniversary, I am posting the text of an email that I sent to a friend on October 17, 2010, in the days just before we decided to adopt Tessa, then "Sadie" . . .


So, I promised to write and tell you the long story about Sadie!  [Now the lovely Miss Tessa]

She was at a new shelter in Pine Grove (Off of exit 100 on I-81) and I went to evaluate her two Mondays ago.  She was miserable there.  I have seen dogs that were none too happy to be in a shelter, but she really was in a bad way.  She was close to almost completely shut down.  I had to evaluate her in her kennel run and she was cowering at
the back of it almost the whole time.  The whole scene – concrete floors, loud barking dogs, a stranger in her space – was beyond overwhelming for her.

Apparently she was a stray near Lebanon.  It took 3 months for Animal Control to catch her.  She should have gone to a different shelter, but the Animal Control person, who is super nice, knew she would probably be euthanized because she was so skittish.  So she took her up to the new shelter in Pine Grove.  They took her and they contacted GHF because she was doing so badly in the shelter environment.

It was a tough eval because the shelter would not give me a dog to do the dog to dog test with.  And she was too freaked out to take any food, so I couldn’t do the food test.  But she let me touch her everywhere.  She cowered, but once my hand was on her, she relaxed just a little and was fine.  She let me do the ears, tail, paws, etc.

GHF decided to take her, but apparently they are completely full so they asked if I could foster her for a few weeks.  I couldn’t say no after seeing how miserable she was.  

Her name, given by the shelter, was Maggie, but I asked to change it because it sounds too much like Maddie.  So, it was changed to Sadie.

When I went to pick Sadie up at the shelter, she was pretty skittish as I leashed her.  She gets really nervous when you move in to leash her, even though she does relax once you have her collar.  I had her on a slip lead and after all of the business was done, I took her out to load her into the car.

That was a problem.  She panicked completely when I tried to get her into the car.  I got her in there, and was closing the crate door and she was out like lightning.  I still had hold of the slip lead, but she got out of it.

I kept myself from chasing her, knowing that she would probably run from me.  I got the shelter people and they went to find her.  When she spotted them she ran back to the shelter.  They had to corner her to get her back inside, but once they did, they helped me get her into the crate in the car.

That is the first time in all of the years of transport that I’ve done that I have ever had a dog run off like that.  I will definitely be taking precautions to avoid that in the future.

When I got home, it was even more difficult to get her into the house.  She really panicked when I tried to get her to come into the side door.  I had two leashes on her at that point – the slip and one on her collar - and it was a good thing.  She would have gotten away if I hadn’t.  I did get her into the house.

Once in, I had to bathe her because she smelled like shelter.  I couldn’t get her into the shower – no way.  I ended up putting towels on the floor and mixing shampoo into water in a container.  I poured that over her and worked it in.  She accepted that and she got a halfway decent bath.  I had to take her out and rinse her with the
hose, and that took some doing, but once it was done the hardest part was over.

She met my dogs after that.  Thankfully that went well.  I really had no idea how she would be with dogs.  One really odd thing – Speedy didn’t mind her at all.  That goes to show how afraid she was.

Since I didn’t know if she was housetrained, I kept her tethered to me that first day.  She seemed to like that.  She didn’t mind moving from room to room with me on leash at all.  I kept taking her out into the dog yard to do her business, but she was too nervous to go.  She remained
extremely skittish.  Anytime I moved, even a little, she would startle.

Later that evening, she ate very well when I fed everyone.  And she finally went to the bathroom very late that night (outside, on leash, with me out there – brrrrr!!!)

I wasn’t sure what I should do with her for sleeping.  I decided to sleep in the North Bedroom with the door closed.  That meant Speedy was shut out, but I figured he would be fine for one night.  I was going to put her on the floor next to me with a crate box to keep her in place.

She got right on the bed and planted herself there – chin to the bed and all!!  That made it simple.  I arranged her and the mutts on the bed and they slept that way.

Sadie loves furniture.  It’s almost heartbreaking to think of what a couple of weeks on concrete must have been like for her.  When she was on a bed or in Sammie’s chair for the first couple of days, she got a look on her face that was almost beatific.

She settled a lot by the second day.  She no longer startled every time I moved and she got better about going through doors.  By the second day I trusted her enough to actually drop her leash when we were outside.  This was inside the fence even!  I was really worried on the first day that she might even scale the fence, she was so fearful.

By the third day she started to run in and out of the house with the dogs to ease nature, and I started to let her out without a leash.  By that day, she was even showing that she knew a recall.  It is to "Dean, that'll do", but it's still a recall!  Just today I started calling out, "Dean, that'll do - Sadie, that'll do".

She is very interesting.  She doesn't trust us completely, but she has come a long way from the first day she was here.  She is going to the vet tomorrow for a heartworm/lyme test and that is going to be . . . interesting!!!

Ben actually hinted again tonight about wanting to keep her.  He mentioned that Dean has a new sister.  Huh.  Then he asked if we could foster her until she gets adopted.  Actually, I think that's a good idea.  I think she will be miserable at the Farm.  Wonderful as it is, it still isn't someone's home.  I think she would love running in the
paddocks, but I think she would hate the barn.  Even the stalls, I think, would seem like very small spaces to her.

I am very protective of her.  I'm not sure why.  I've actually felt this way since the car ride home.  Maybe Ben feels the same way.  On one hand, we need a fifth dog like we need a hole in the head.  But on the other hand, I honestly think she might be here to stay.

I have thought very seriously about whether or not I could deal with having a dog who doesn't love us back.  She is easy enough.  She is pleasant.  She fits in perfectly with the dogs.  She loves to be petted and she enjoys treats.  We certainly love her.  She still cowers a bit when you look at her, but that could be helped, I think, with some training and desensitization, and more time.  But she might
never be an affectionate dog who can really love us in return.

But then, Dean loves us enough for ten dogs.  They would sort of balance each other out that way.

Of course, she might become more affectionate in time.  But Sadie is a dog that you have to accept as is.  She might never really be a people dog.

For the moment my plan is to see how things go at the vet tomorrow.  If she is healthy, I am going to start some light training.  Start loading up a mat and - this might seem like an odd place to start - but I want to start her on some jumping.  She actually lights up outside and sometimes she just runs around in the yard.  I think she would enjoy a little jumping.  That is something she can learn without
having to go into anything.

Anyway, I doubt we can keep her, but . . . I don't know.  I guess we'll see what we see.  If Ben wants her - and it seems like he kind of does - then this just might happen.


Obviously, she never left!  One of the best decisions we ever made!

Happy 4 years, Miss Tessa!  You are the most beautiful girl in the world.

Oh, and I was right about the jumping.  She did - and does - love it!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

It gets better . . . and it doesn't!

It has been almost nine months since we lost Speedy.  Nine months that seem to have dragged on for a lifetime, and to have passed in the blink of an eye.

Yesterday I was sitting with Bandit on the futon, running my fingers through the fur on the back of his neck, which is starting to get quite long.  It struck me that it has been a very, very long time now since I had experienced that feeling.  Speedy was my only really long coated dog.  And then, it felt strange - like I remembered something I had forgotten that I shouldn't have forgotten!!

Things like that happen a lot.  Little things remind me of Speedy - when Bandit's ears first stood up, sometimes an expression on Bandit's face, walking in the woods with Tessa, being at the beach, catching a glimpse of his picture, hearing one of his Freestyle songs . . .

Nine months out from losing him, things are much, much better.  Most of the time during most days, life is going on just as it used to.  Things are very much back to normal with Dean and Tessa and we hang out and we play and we train, and things are just . . . good and ordinary.  I rarely think of the fact that I had thought, for such a long time, that Speedy, Dean, Tessa, and I would still have several good years together after Sammie, who was getting so old and clearly near the end, had passed on.

And Bandit has truly been a blessing sent from God who has made everything better in countless ways.  Watching him grow was a daily miracle.  He has brought joy and fun and a sense of adventure back into our household.  At first he provided more of a distraction than anything, but over the months I have truly come to love him for himself and we have already had such good experiences together and I am genuinely excited for what is to come with him.

Life really does go on and a time really did come when I would smile more at Speedy's memory than cry.

But . . . there are still those moments.  More than I ever thought there would be.  More than there were for Maddie, or have been for Sammie (although I miss both of them in their own right!).  Speedy was different.  I wouldn't say I loved him more, but there was a unique connection with him.  Every dog is an individual, but Speedy was exceptional.  He wasn't a perfect dog, but there was such a depth to the bond and the experience that he and I shared and there really has never been anything quite like it with any of my other dogs.  And he was so beautiful - inside and out.  I always said that the world was a better place just because he was in it.  He had a way of connecting with your heart - unspoken, subtle, but unmistakeable.

And sometimes it just hits me that he's gone.  And he always will be.  His time to bring blessing to my life and to this world has passed.  And his memory can still inspire so much, but I will never see him curled up on his bed (now Dean's) or hunkered under the futon (where Bandit goes) or running in huge circles around Dean with his eyes blazing with fun.  And I will never move with him at my side, gliding along as if he wasn't even touching the ground, in time to music, with our eyes locked together . . . 

And when those moments happen, it still hurts - a lot.  Not like it did back in January or February or March.  Not like it did after we lost Sammie, too.  Not like it did before Bandit came.  But it is definitely still there.

I find that I want to make sense of the the whole thing, but it doesn't make sense.  On an objective level I know he lived the life he was intended to live and his time had come, even though I was not expecting it right then.  I know that if Speedy hadn't gone, Bandit wouldn't be here, and I know 100% that Bandit was meant to be here and that everything worked out exactly the way it was supposed to.  I know that Speedy is no longer suffering from those horrible allergies, nor from the arthritis that he had in so much of his body, and that he will never have to grow really old like Sammie did.

I know all of that and on some level it still doesn't make sense.

But . . . most of the time that's not where I am.  Most of the time I am grateful for the experience that Speedy and I had together and I am excited to build on it with my new boy.  Most of the time I am glad that Tessa and Dean are still here and I am set on enjoying the time that I have with them because they are a delight.  And all of the time I am grateful to have such a new boy, full of life and promise, in our lives.

It gets better . . . and it doesn't . . . and it does . . . and it doesn't . . . and . . . it does.

Friday, October 3, 2014

In the life of Dean Dog . . .

Since I seem to have taken A LOT of time off from blogging since last spring, I want to give a bit of an overall update on each of my dogs.  I will start with the (now) eldest, Mr. Dean Dog.

I can't believe Dean is my oldest dog!  I can't believe he is going to be 9 years old in February!  It seems like just yesterday I brought him home, an untrained, hyper, crazy 10 month old in need of so much work!!  But he is.

Dean is mostly retired from competition sports.  He has a permanent hitch in one of his hips and we have dropped Agility altogether.  I am so glad we had our two "dream competitions" last fall.  I will always remember those two days as the highlight of his Agility career and the fulfillment of all that we worked toward all those years.  There weren't any big championship titles or anything, but he overcame his fears and even did a teeter in competition.  It was truly amazing and an experience I will never forget.

He is still involved with Rally FrEe, but is only doing video events.  He is so brilliant when he is not performing in a competition setting, but he still struggles - even in front of a camera - without food or toys in the ring with him.  Still, he managed a VERY nice submission to a video Rally FrEe event about a month ago!

We moved back to the Alternate Novice division and I am hoping to go all the way through Advanced with him in the Alternate division.  He only needs 100 points to qualify in that division, so he should be good to go!

And, of course, he still loves the class.

I also took Dean along to do Innovations when Tessa and I went up to Frackville a few weeks ago.  I really just took him to play.  I am not planning to ever try to compete with him again in a live Freestyle event.  So this was just for fun and he was beyond pleased!

In a way that was another fulfillment moment.  He performed in front of a live audience and loved it.  Can't ask for more than that!

We haven't given up all titling, however.  I have decided to form Dean and Tessa into a new Dogs Can Dance Challenge team - Team Dessa Dog - and take them all the way through the Challenge together.  We didn't have to do Entry Level because I already did it with my original team, but I did prepare an Entry Level video.  I was just having fun with some of this.  I don't plan to perform with Dean and Tessa as a brace . . . but you really never know!  Most of the video is of Tessa but Dean comes in as part of the brace at the end.

Dean thoroughly enjoyed a trip to the beach with us at the beginning of September.  We only got to go for a long weekend, but, as always, he had an absolute blast playing in the surf in the ocean and swimming in the bay.

The biggest delight of Dean's life over these past few months really was raising the puppy.  He turned into a little Mamma and just took Bandit under his wing and showed him all the ropes.  It was so incredibly sweet!  Even now he is not as nurturing as he was when Bandit was still a baby, he plays with him almost every night and they truly seem to be bonding as Border Collie brothers.

Dean Dog and baby Bandit in early summer.

Dean is doing well - better than he has done in years.  I am hoping there are a good many good years ahead for him.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

My New Dance Partner!

Bandit has started his Freestyle training!!  I am taking Intro to Rally FrEe/Freestyle through the Fenzi Academy with him.  Yesterday we dove in!

We started with teaching circles around the handler, and then circles around a cane, using short gate barriers.  Bandit did AWESOME!!!  I was concerned he might jump the barriers, but he didn't even seem to think of it.  I guess a dog who has not been trained in jumping won't think to jump like the ones who have been.  Dean and Tessa hop those things constantly!

Here is a video of his early work!  These may be on cue and out of barriers in record time!!

We need to start working position with the pivot platform because that won't actually be part of the class.  He is already shaped to put his paws up on it and we have worked the pivots a little.  Time to really jump in with that.

Bandit has actually already been in the ring at a Freestyle event!  A couple of weeks ago when Tessa and I went up to complete in a WCFO event in Frackville, I took both Dean and Bandit along to do the Innovations (non-titling) class.  I took Bandit out with a toy and we played to a song he chose.

I did get a video!

This is a brand new start and I am very excited about it.  So far Bandit seems to enjoy what we have done with Freestyle and I think he has the potential to become a very engaged, skilled, and eager dance partner.

I am very much looking forward to the future with him.  I have plans to use the song he chose to create a little routine with him.  I plan to make two fish props so he and the two props are the two "fishes".  I plan to make it simple and cute, but - hopefully - entertaining.

I am hoping we will actually have little bits of it completed by the first weekend in November, when we are doing Innovations at Barkaritaville!  We shall see!  In any case, we will have fun together.