Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Working Bandit's Foundation

Bandit is at an awesome place in his development as a learner.  He truly has become the "sponge" that puppies are often said to be.  I actually didn't find him to be a "sponge" as a puppy, but now he is learning at a fast and furious rate, and his interest in training has skyrocketed.

And I am absolutely loving where we are at!

Recently I took some private Agility lessons with a friend.  We really were working on foundation of foundation - games off of the equipment that will give Bandit the pieces of skills that he will need when he is on the equipment, particularly contacts.

We had a lot of fun in those lessons.  The absolute best part for me was seeing Bandit curious, eager, and engaged as he was introduced to the exercises.

We also discovered a few holes that I hope to spend some time filling in over the winter.

One hole that we discovered is the fact that Bandit tends to release off of motion.  This makes sense when I think about it.  With one exception, I really have not put much effort into teaching him to choose to remain stationary as I move away from him. 

Back when we took Basic class, the whole situation was overwhelming to both of us.  Bandit really was at a point where he needed to just take it all in, and I was puzzled by the learning style of my brand new puppy . . . who is something of a unique learner.

At that point I elected not to work the "stay" exercises that were being introduced in class, really considering them to be above Bandit's puppy pay grade.

Later on, we started the exercises for the "stay" class that I took at bronze through the Fenzi Academy, but, again,I found the whole thing to be a bit beyond where Bandit was at right then.

When we took the Intro to Agility class, I did do some work with him on this when he was in a splat on his mat.  He was very successful with that.  I believe the visual boundary of the mat made a great deal of sense to him, and he quickly learned to maintain the position as I moved away from him, and to remain there until released.  However, it has been a while since we worked with the mat.

This past Sunday we found that Bandit really has no sense of holding a position for any duration if the person working with him begins to move away.

So, today we began some work on this.

I grabbed a handful of treats and had Bandit sit.  Without giving him a "stay" cue, I started to shift myself away from him just a bit.  He got right up!

No problem!  We tried again.

I had him sit and just gave him a few treats while he was sitting there.  I shifted away slightly while continuing to feed him.

After just a few reps, I was able to shift backward away and he was remaining stationary in the sit!

And just a few reps after that, I was able to take one step back and one step to each side in front of him.

The thing that I loved best about this little training session was that the whole thing was built on Bandit making the choice to remain stationary.  When he broke, which he did do a few times, I just asked him, in a neutral fashion, to sit again, and then lavished the treats on him once he was sitting again.

To avoid the default sit, we will work this in different positions - down, stand, perhaps with two back feet on something and his front feet on the ground.

The thing that was so much fun about this training session was that the whole thing was centered on building Bandit's desire to hold the sit for duration - even though it was the tiniest duration - as I moved a little.  When he broke, it was a valid choice on his part.  But when he maintained the sit, it was very reinforcing for him.  Soon he was choosing to stay there.

I love this type of work!!  I don't know why I think filling in "holes" in a dog's training is so much fun, but I really do enjoy it.  And now Bandit and I have plenty to do . . .



Monday, December 14, 2015

Speed in Agility

Coming off of an awesome Agility weekend with Tessa, I want to comment on something that struck me in particular at this trial.

I am grateful to be able to take part in an Agility venue where speed is not the be all end all, and where a more moderate paced dog can succeed.

Let me be clear about one thing right off - you absolutely can NQ on time in CPE Agility.  Tessa and I have done so on numerous occasions.  This can happen in Standard and in every game.  One of the biggest challenges that Tessa and I face in the point games is having time to collect enough points to qualify.  And in Standard, if she does not run the entire course in perfect flow, we can easily NQ on time now that we are in the high levels.

But, Tessa is firmly a moderate paced dog.  She just does not run super fast.  She was faster when she was a bit younger, but even then I never saw her run full out unless she was chasing a rabbit across the yard!

And her weaves are slow-moderate.  They are reliable, they are steady, but they aren't fast.  She takes her time and precisely places each foot as she weaves.  I am convinced that there is actually nothing I can do to get her to go through the weaves faster.  Tessa is weaving at Tessa's pace.

Typical Tessa weaves - sometimes they are a tick faster, but sometimes a bit slower.

Tessa and I would be completely up a creek in a venue that consistently requires tighter times.  We would be continually frustrated in a context where success is almost always just out of our reach, no matter how beautifully she might run.

I am not saying that I believe that dog Agility should be easy enough for all dogs to qualify at all times.  And CPE Agility is not that easy.  Anyone who might make that claim has obviously never been present for a traditional Jackpot where only a handful of dogs out of many qualified!  (I have NQ'ed with that bunch on numerous occasions).

What I am saying is that I am grateful to have the opportunity to participate in a competitive Agility venue where Tessa and I have to work very hard together for our success, but where that success is attainable for us when we put in that work together.

Sure, there are times when I miss the speed.  Sometimes I watch the really fast dogs - especially the Border Collies, and I wish Tessa had some of that "zooooom!" to her. 

But, I have also come to realize that speed can present challenges of its own.  I see fast dogs knock bars far more often.  And where I can run into trouble getting Tessa to send (although she has improved a great deal), the handlers of the faster dogs can have trouble getting them to stay in closer.  Fast dogs tend to run off more and take equipment that is off course.  Tessa has done that, but only a handful of times.

Where Tessa lacks speed, she has beautiful consistency.  I can count on her to keep bars up most of the time.  I can trust her to pay attention to what her body is doing as she is running.  And she is far more forgiving of handling errors because she isn't flying so fast that the error is far in the past before I can make any effort to rectify it!  I don't have to worry as much about equipment that is straight ahead of us when we need to make a turn.

And . . . Tessa and I have the joy of running together.  I can't even describe how amazing it feels to be out there running side by side with my dog as she leaps the hurdles - especially those magnificent spread jumps!  Even though she will send out some, and she can often get some very nice lateral distance, she is never very far away and we are always connected mentally.  I am not a runner.  I never have been.  I have hated running my whole life.  But I will remember running side by side with Tessa as one of the greatest joys of my life.

I have come to this personal conclusion - dog Agility is not just about speed.  Yes, speed is part of it.  But, so is the dog's ability to complete each obstacle in a safe and correct manner.  So is the dog's ability to keep one part of his or her focus and attention on the equipment and another part on the handler.  Agility is just as much about teamwork and a desire, on the dog's part, to be a contributing member of the team on the course.

Through my work with Tessa and the four years that we have run in competition together, I have concluded that trust and teamwork are at the heart of dog Agility.

CPE is not a perfect Agility venue.  There is no such thing as perfection in a dog sport organization.  But there is one thing that I wholeheartedly say CPE has gotten right.  They have provided the dog sport world with an Agility venue that is both challenging and do-able for the majority of healthy and fit dogs.

I am so grateful to have the opportunity to participate in this venue with Tessa.

The video above is our Level 5 Fullhouse run from this past weekend.  No problem earning the points we needed this time!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A New Class for Bandit!

Bandit and I are actually taking two classes through the Fenzi Academy this term.  Bandit has taken over from Tessa in Part 2 of the Conditioning and Fitness class.  We are doing that one at gold level.  I am also taking a class with him at bronze level called "Cookie Jar Games".

The purpose of the Cookie Jar Games class (hereafter referred to as CJG) is to build the dog's capacity to work for delayed gratification.  Since the class is appropriate for dogs of all ages and skill levels, I thought it would be a good fit for Bandit.  And so far it definitely is!

As I said in my post about Rally class (just below this one), I have been struggling with Bandit in the one room with his intense sniffing.  This is sniffing that goes beyond the typical interest in scents that most dogs have.  And there might be an element of stress to it, but I do believe it is actually nose driven for the most part.  The scents in that particular room seem to be driving him over a threshold, leaving him in a place where he literally can't focus on anything else.

I have been at my wits end trying to figure out how to work on voluntary focus in that context.  I flatly refuse to demand focus from a dog because experience has taught me that the strongest capacity for focus and attention is built when the dog does the work of choosing to offer it in the training process.  But, in order to work on voluntary focus, you actually need to get at least some glimmer of it.  I was, very frequently, not getting that.  The Give Me a Break Game, which is my standby for building excellent voluntary focus and duration of focus, was not working with him because he couldn't seem to get his brain engaged enough to actually play the game.  He can play GMAB very well at home, and in less difficult contexts, but he couldn't seem to make the transition from those lower level distraction situations to this one.

I am certain that Bandit needs a specific structure that makes sense to him that will allow him to bring his brain into working order in that context.  But I was stuck trying to figure it out.

Enter CJG.  I believe I just may have found the answer!!

One of the first week exercises is to "load the cookie jar".  Bandit actually got to watch me open the lid and put treats into the jar.  We were doing this at home, by the way.

That piqued his interest in a major way.  It got his Border Collie brain working and I could see it in his eyes - what are we going to do with THAT?!!?

Bandit's "Cookie Jar"

After that I kind of went off on my own.  I often go "off manual" when I am working with my dogs in online classes - much as I often do in regular classes!

I put the jar down on the ground and of course Bandit's nose was plastered to the lid with the holes in it.  I let him push it around on the floor for a few seconds and then I clicked.

The purpose of the click was both to mark his choice of interacting with the jar and to indicate that he should turn to me for a treat.  In doing this, I kind of turned the exercise into a "Sniff That" structure, similar to Look at That from Control Unleashed.

At first he couldn't take his nose off that jar!  Just as he often cannot take his nose off the floor in that room in the training building!  I let him figure it out because in this context I knew he would pause and look to me eventually.  When he did, I gave him a treat from my hand.

He immediately went back to the jar.  Perfect!  I let him nose it around a bit and . . . click!  Again, he continued to push at the jar a bit, but again, he looked to me, and got a treat from my hand.

And then . . . . I saw the lightbulb go off!!  He got it!!

I would release him to the jar and he would sniff at it, nose at it, get involved with it, and I would click and he would immediately turn to me for a treat.

Success at last!!

This was a major breakthrough!  Bandit finally figured out the piece that I believe has been missing for quite a long time.  He can choose to engage in something and get involved with it, and when he hears the click, he should immediately engage back with me for reinforcement.

I am so excited about this!

What I am hoping to do is to continue to work with this at home for a bit, but then take the jar to the training building and play the game with him in that room.  I believe that, in spite of the floor, Bandit will be able to get involved in playing this game.

And I think this may be able to serve as the bridge that will communicate to him, "you can pay attention to me and work when we are on this floor!"

Granted, I don't really know exactly where the class is going to go, nor how we are supposed to use the jar.  I have a feeling I am going to learn a lot more that is going to be of big help to us.

But I can already say I've gotten absolute gold for my work with Bandit so far.

I am looking forward to where we go from here!

Friday, December 4, 2015

We're Going Back to Rally!

Bandit and I, that is!  Although I guess it's "back" to Rally for me and "to" Rally for him.

I have been getting frustrated with Bandit in Rally FrEe class of late.  We really are working way above his skill level.  That was actually working out just fine until he developed a recent problem - sniffing.  Sniffing, sniffing, sniffing, sniffing the floor in the room where we have Rally FrEe class.  I don't really know what is catching his attention so thoroughly but the allure of the scents on the floor is so tantalizing to him that even high value treats like chicken or roast beef are of no interest to him.

While I am all for working through distractions, we have come to a point where that is all we do during Rally FrEe class.  Forget about working actual skills, or course work, or anything - the entire class has been centered on trying to get him to choose to take that nose off the floor.

Bandit is at a critical point in his training.  He is maturing very nicely and, outside of that particular room, I am seeing great interest on his part in learning.  I really do need to take some time to work on some Control Unleashed type work with him to really build a nice foundation of focus, and to cultivate the work ethic I know he can have.

So, a shift!  Just for a while.

First, the Rally class is in the other room.  Thus far, he has not had the same level of difficulty with the scents on the floor in the other room.  Second, there is more room on the sidelines in that room for me to sit and work with him on foundation games like Mat Work while we are waiting our turn.  He really needs that sort of work right now to build the mindset that he will need on the sidelines at competitions.

Finally, Rally is much simpler than Rally FrEe.  In conjunction with a less challenging floor, I believe that if Bandit and I can focus on mastering performance of Rally skills, he will start to develop as a performance partner.  When the time comes and he is ready to start doing courses "for real", we can start with Cyber Rally-O (by video, with treats that can be fed at many places on the course), then transition to World Cynosport (live, with treats that can only be fed at a few places on the course), and then consider going back to Rally FrEe (video or live) where we will need to be performing food-free in the finished activity.

Ever since I made this decision, we have been working on some basic Rally skills and he is taking to it beautifully!!  I really do believe that the drop in criteria is exactly what we both need right now to grow as a team.

And . . . Rally has been good to me.  After Speedy and I had to abandon our Agility hopes (brief though they were) and Speedy went through basic desensitization and counter conditioning to get a handle on his fear and reactivity, we went into Rally and we really found a niche' there.  Speedy and I entered the dog sport world through Rally.  My first Q's and titles were in Rally.  Dean excelled in Rally after much struggle with noise phobia.  And Tessa just adores Cyber Rally-O.  Her first Q in any titling event was in Cyber Rally-O.

I am hoping that with Bandit the tradition will continue!