Monday, April 6, 2009

To Refresh or retrain

I often hear people talking about retraining their agility dog to do this or to do that (usually some contact performance behavior). With the greater emphasis being placed on training foundation skills for our dogs in agility I hope that there will be more emphasis on "refreshing" a behavior rather than retraining it.

To clarify: in my mind retraining a behavior means that a new behavior is going to be trained that will replace a behavior that is no longer serving the team. For example if a running contact were taught originally on the contacts and that behavior has eroded into a leaping over the contact zone then one might want to "retrain" the dog to do a 2 on/2 off behavior with a stop on the bottom of the contact. That would be replacing a behavior that is no longer working for the team with a new behavior.

On the other hand "refreshing a behavior" means that a behavior that had been working well in lots of situations has started to deteriorate. This is usually due to a lack of reinforcement or enforcement of the behavior. Sometimes this may happen due to some sort of confusion that has developed on the part of the dog which again would be due to lack of reinforcement or enforcement of the desired behavior. In this instance it is usually best and fastest to go back to how the behavior was originally taught and "refresh" the dog on what is desired. A complete retrain is usually unnecessary in these cases.

This is another reason why having a good foundation on which to build is so important. It makes training and "fixing" problems so much easier!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Focus on/and Foundations

So it has been an interesting couple of weeks as a number of things have come together for me and have come full circle. I've really started to solidify my foundations classes and training more than ever. It has always been a work in progress and will continue to be so. I think each session/year it becomes better and more robust as a program. Students who come back with a different dog often remark that we are doing something we didn't do before. If I kept it the same then we wouldn't improve our skills in this sport. The sport is becoming increasingly technical and speeds of the dogs are continuing to increase so to stay competitive we need to continue to improve our training skills. I know some students who have started dogs with me 2-4 years ago and are starting new dogs now with me are finding some things are different.

The things to keep in mind about foundations training is that it is not a one-time thing. I continually revisit the "basics" of foundations with my older dogs. The beauty of having a foundation is that you have a structure or a set of exercises to go back to and review with your canine companion. There are things we as humans forget how to do and if we have resources to use to review how to do it then we are ahead of the game. If we have to figure out how to learn it all over again it can be much more time consuming.

One situation in which it is really beneficial to be able to go back and do foundations exercises with your dog is when the previously unfocused dog starts to gain focus in agility. A number of students are currently experiencing the fun of having a dog who is now mature and focused after spending 1-4 years working in agility with a very distracted dog. Dogs vary greatly in the time it takes them to mentally mature. Dogs who are sensitive to their environment i.e. easily distracted by movement, other dogs or smells are not going to be able to focus on learning new behaviors. Often with these dogs the first year or so of training is spent concentrating on improving the dog's focus. It may seem like the dog is learning some things and they may be learning by rote repetition. However the concepts that involve more thinking and problem solving will not be learned by the dog until the dog can stay focused on tasks at hand. This includes learning how and when to collect for a turn, learning how to collect to stop for a 2on/2off, learning how to collect for weave poles and learning how to stay at the start line. These are difficult behaviors for dogs who lack focus to do.

In the last few weeks I've had about 4 students who have noticed that their dogs who are now ranging from 2 to 5 years old are now able to be more focused in agility. Recently the dogs are able to do the obstacles in a sequence more reliably than ever before. These are dogs who have had a history of not being able to stay at the start, not being able to sequence obstacles reliably and not being able to perform contacts to specified criteria reliably. Most of these handlers have worked very hard with their dog by taking "Focus in Motion" classes, by working with behaviorists and independent consultants, by setting realistic expectations for the team and by having a lot of patience. The handlers are now able to start really handling the dog instead of managing their dog's attention span. Many dogs will gain the ability to focus when the leave adolescence but there are many other dogs who are not able to focus for extended periods of time until they are much older.

Some of these students have on their own and others at my urging are now going back and working on foundation exercises with these dogs. I believe that the foundation exercises will now make more sense to these dogs because they are now able to think and focus more in training than they could before. It shouldn't take long to go back to these exercises and it will help the dogs to really learn about collection, about stays, about weave entrances etc. It is an exciting for these teams because I believe they will see their rate of progress in agility begin to increase exponentially.

Working with dogs who are easily distracted (and all dogs go through this - it is the state of all young puppies) is like trying to teach someone to knit while they are standing perched at the edge of a cliff with a sharp 100 foot drop off onto rocks. It is hard for that person to concentrate on something new and complex like knitting when they are also having to focus on maintaining their balance. If that person is afraid of heights it will be absolutely impossible. So when you have a dog that is fearful or easily distracted you are not going to be able to teach them very much.

Dogs do learn some by pattern training, meaning they recognize patterns of behaviors and can learn these by sheer repetition without a lot of conscious cognitive activity. This can give us the false sense that the dog has a deeper understanding of what we want them to do than they really have. When you take the dog to new places and ask for these behaviors often the behavior will fall apart indicating that the dog really doesn't truly understand the behavior. One of the reasons for the behavior (and there are others) to fall apart is that the dog never really thought about the behavior but was in a sense "going through the motions" when doing it. New places will often really magnify the degree of inattention these dogs have. Agility requires dogs to be able to think and problem solve at speed and in different and distracting environments. Every course is different and there are a lot of different obstacles out there requiring different and specific skills. It is a complex activity for our dogs. It is not an instinctual activity for the dogs. It is really important to be sure that our dogs understand what we are asking them to do in a lot of different settings in order to be successful in agility competitions.

Foundations - not just a one time only thing... foundation exercises are for life.