Monday, June 29, 2009

Is my dog really focused?

Focus? Is my dog really focused on the task at hand? How do I know if they are?

We as humans tend to try to "multi-task" and do more than one thing at the same time. How well we can do more than one thing is debatable. Our dogs are capable of doing the same thing to some degree.

There are signs that we can easily recognized when our dog has lost focus - they go off sniffing, they run over to something interesting or they take off running 90 mph in large circles. However the times that we don't often recognize are when the dog is still doing obstacles in sequence. The dog may be sniffing as they are doing them or they may be looking over their shoulder as they do them or they even may be looking ahead but their mind is elsewhere.

Having just competed in an AKC trial where my Pyr Shep by all accounts appeared to be focused on agility however to a very keen observer she was most often not totally focused on the job of running agility. On our first standard run of the weekend she was running quite well until we got to the table. She slammed on the brakes two feet from the table. I felt the judge's presence behind me and knew instantly that she and he had made eye contact. It took me three tries to get her on the table. This is a recurring problem that became very bad last year at an AKC trial with a male judge who had a loud voice. This time, once I got her on the table - I just asked her to get on it - we left the ring and had treats to reward her herculean effort to work through a fear and get on the table.

The next day in that same ring with the same judge on a standard course she ran slower but fine until the table again. She went up and put one foot on it and then backed away from it. It only took two tries to get her on it and she went down easily. I decided to keep going on the course this time and she flew through the rest of the course and we had a party. On day three the male judge was in the JWW ring and we ran there first. She was distracted on the start - I could tell her mind was elsewhere. She came off the start line slowly and then as we turned toward the weaves she veered off them as if there was a strong magnetic field on the weaves pushing her away from them. I knew instantly that her mind was on the judge. Now Feisty is a very interesting dog, she has a lot of concerns in her life but she also likes to work through her fears. I've said all along with her that she doesn't like to be afraid - she likes to feel tough and be in control. So as we were renegotiating the weaves (I don't like her to think it is OK to avoid an obstacle - I made that mistake once and it took a while for me to train her that she must do each obstacle) she was wanting to approach him albeit reluctantly. I knew she was concerned about him. He was being quiet and still. I tried to get between him and her and help her out. She did the weaves but then as the course curved back toward him she squirted away from him again. I just kept running as if the course went that way.

My point in sharing all of this is that so often we think a dog is focused on us just because they are looking in our direction at the start line. However just like humans we can look at each other when one is talking but our minds can be elsewhere. A keen observer or one that knows their dog well can tell the difference. I know when Feisty is slow to come off the start line that it is not a hearing problem but a listening problem. Her mind is not really listening for my release but is thinking of something else. She scans the ring and scopes out what equipment is out there and who and where the judge is. In Feisty's case stress and lack of focus are often combined.

I saw the same things in Tay all weekend, she was not focused on the tasks at hand however hers was not tied to stress as much as Feisty's. Even though I run with her at the start line I can tell when she is not focused on starting with me. She is the queen of going through the motions and looking like she is doing agility when in reality she is not paying attention to my cues and she will turn wide or miss an obstacle. Hitting the weaves at speed requires a lot of concentration for green dogs and she could not handle it all weekend long. At home with minimal distractions she can do weaves with speed from anywhere. Trials are very distracting for her. She can do weaves in group classes and with set-up distractions that I create. I'm finding I have to be more vocal and I have to make my signals more exaggerated at trials than I do in training in order to keep her attention. It is not in my comfort zone.

I realized that last year when I pulled Tay off the start line for not staying and when I corrected her for not stopping on her dogwalk contact that I created stress on those two things. I did so because she had lost focus and didn't realize what she was supposed to do. I should have, in retrospect, addressed her lack of focus/attention instead of lack of performance of a behavior. I can see now when she is not focused on the task at hand and I've been able to shout at her (again not in my comfort zone) and I've seen her visibly startle and then she performs the behavior. That tells me that she really was not with me thinking about the task at hand but her mind had wandered off. It also explains why she often will take tunnels way out of the way on a course.

I used to think Tay may be suffering from ring stress but I believe it is lack of focus. There have been a few times when she has been stressed due to other factors (scary smells etc.) and I can tell she is stressed because she has "whale eye" when running and often she will visibly shake. But when she is not focused her nose will be on the ground when running or she will be looking at obstacles instead of at me for direction. She does best on complicated courses where I have to keep moving and doing a lot of crosses - it keeps her attention. The wide open flowing courses (of the lower levels in agility) give her too much time to let her mind wander. She is talented though and she can do long sequences by going through the motions but I can tell she is not giving me 100% of her attention.

Tay and I ran two days of a seminar (half days actually) and she ran great - she was fast and focused. I know she has the skills to do agility and she is well trained for the game. Something about trials causes her to be distracted. Many years ago I used to be a nervous wreck showing my dogs but since then I have learned that I can survive just about anything that happens in the ring. I think just about everything and anything that can go wrong on course has happened to me and I've survived. So I really don't worry about things at trials. I try to be the best I can for my dogs. It is a continuing challenge to read my dogs and I wish I could anticipate how they will be before we step to the line instead of having to adapt to the situation as we run. So far I have not found any precursor clues to let me know how focused my dogs will be before we step to the line. But just like us, their moods can change the minute they step into the ring. They feel the energy from everyone around them and even if I'm not stressed there are plenty of stressed people out there. The judge could be stressed, the ring crew could be stressed, the exhibitors waiting are stressed, the dog that just ran could have been stressed and left a trail of stress pheromones - many things are possible that are beyond my control.

At this point all I can do is know the signs of lack of focus versus stress in my dogs. Sometimes the two are related and sometimes they are not. We have to learn to become excellent observers of our dog's behaviors and of our own behaviors.

I recommend if you have a dog that performs inconsistently at trials that you keep a detailed journal of every run at a trial. Feisty has kept a detailed journal and my goal is to keep one that is more detailed than hers so I can learn to recognize patterns of behavior and signs that will impact her behavior on course. I'm slower to learn than she is about these things. This weekend I came one step closer to the solving the puzzle known as Feisty and the puzzle known as Tay.


Monday, June 8, 2009

Herding and Learning styles of dogs

I consider myself still having a lot to learn about herding even though technically I've been doing it for many years. When I first started with Leysha I really didn't have a clue what I was doing. I didn't have a chance to go for regular lessons and at the time I didn't have access to sheep on a regular basis. I knew I had a dog who knew a lot more about it than I did. We some how managed to earn our ASCA started sheep and ducks titles with very little training, in retrospect. We earned our last sheep leg when I opened the take pen and the sheep used me for a launching pad. I seriously hurt my back and became afraid of take pens after that.

When we moved out to Stacy I had use of my neighbor's sheep for the first year or so and then I got a few of my own for awhile. Then Nancy bought some sheep and wanted to keep them there. Having access to sheep I learned a little more - I spent more time observing sheep behavior. I also got some ducks.

Then Nancy introduced me to Marc Christopher clinics. I audited my first one and learned a ton. I finally started to figure out what we were doing. I had read some books on herding but it didn't click until Marc drew pictures and demonstrated things. While his methods are very different from what most Aussie people use I have found that the technique of using a line to help the dog be correct in learning flanks and learning walk-ups has been invaluable. Instead of using a line just to keep a dog under control, the line is used as a training tool. It helps slow things down for the people and for the dog. Being able to work with Nancy on teaching foundation herding skills using March's methods to Sinco has been great.

For my "thinking dog" Sinco, the line method of training has made a huge difference. She likes to be shown what to do and doesn't like trial and error learning. A lot of the Aussie training methods, of which I learned more about this past weekend, seem to use trial and error learning. But unlike a clicker that marks the correct behavior, in herding the wrong behavior is corrected by the handler/trainer putting pressure on the dog. I think this would have been a very hard way for Sinco to have learned her flanks. Using a line and helping her to be right and releasing pressure when she is right seems to have worked well for her. This may be in large part to her learning style. She doesn't like to be wrong and she likes to be shown how to be right.

Now that we are progressing in her our herding training I see that there is a need, maybe just for my dog but I suspect for other dogs out there too, for a combined training method. Again like in agility there are different learning styles and there are different ways to train things - the same is true in herding. We are starting to use some of the training techniques the Aussie folks use with Sinco to help her learn to cover her sheep. When she knows what she is supposed to do and a correction is given she responds readily to it. Just as in agility, when she is corrected for making a mistake in a behavior that I know she knows how to do she can handle it. However being corrected when she doesn't know how to be right is very stressful for her.

I think there is room for lots of training techniques and the one size fits all approach just doesn't always work.

The other thing that I've been learning about in stock dogs is that there is a trend favoring the "tougher" stock dogs. I think part of the idea is that these dogs will handle cattle better but I also think part of it is that they will handle correction based training better. I've learned that many of the older Aussie lines from which Sinco comes (on her dam's side) had softer temperaments. Apparently many of the ranchers didn't know how to work with a softer dog even if that dog was keen on stock. So they bred away from these lines and are breeding for harder and harder dogs. When dogs are tougher on stock it means that they will need a handler/trainer who is equally or more tough. I've seen these dogs in agility and herding with people who are not up to training a dog like this. I know I've learned that I don't do well with a very hard dog. The sensitive dogs can still move stock and run fast in agility. It may take more finesse and more thoughtful training to get to that point. As many of you have seen Sinco in agility - she started out very slow and careful in her learning and now is running quite fast. I will say that she is not an easy dog to train and she may not have done well with a novice handler/trainer. Sensitive dogs are often not easy dogs to train either, they may not be very forgiving. A harder dog may be more forgiving but they can be harder to get a point across if they find things self rewarding.

I honestly think that a softer thinking dog can be a fine stock dog and can be just as tough on stock if trained properly. So much of moving stock is about the confidence and presence the dog has. The handler also has to have confidence in their dog too so that it goes down the leash to the dog.

I've had hard-headed Aussies and BCs and give me a softer dog any day - they are much more fun to train and do not require the 2 x 4 to get a point across. I'm not into physical violence :) If every training session is going to be a knock down drag out battle then it is not at all fun for me - I've been there and done that and it is just not enjoyable for me.

So knowing the kind of dog you like to work with is very important when selecting a dog. The kind of dog that works well with one person may not be the kind that works well for you. I know many people who do not do well at all with the softer dogs. Sometimes we have to try on different types of dogs before we find the kind we like to work with.

The main thing is that just because a dog is soft/sensitive doesn't mean that dog can't be fast and successful in agility or be tough enough to work stock.


Learning styles of dogs

Well it has been quite awhile since I've blogged. May was pretty much of a blur for me with all of the family stuff to do.

I just spent three days with Gail Winnick at a herding clinic in Wisconsin. It was very fun and a nice break from agility training.

Having read Stacy's blog many months ago about "Thinking dogs" versus "Doing dogs" and "Thinking-Doers" as she calls them I have really liked that way of looking at dogs. I was talking to a friend yesterday on my way home from the herding clinic and talking about how dogs have different learning styles just like people do. So I asked why do we feel the need for a "cookie-cutter" approach to dog training? We seem to recognize that people don't learn the same way so why should dogs?

I used to think (and I still do sometimes) that I would like to try to train different breeds of dogs from "different groups" such has sporting, hunting etc. so I could experience different learning styles of dogs. However as it turns out I have two dogs who are 10 weeks apart in age and the same breed with two completely different learning styles.

I discovered they were different early on when I was trying to teach them things as young puppies. I love to use the clicker when working with young puppies and to do a lot of shaping of behaviors. Tay, my black tri girl just loved the clicker. She could offer me behaviors at a rapid-fire pace as if to test my timing and miraculously she would know exactly which of the behaviors I had clicked. She was and still is very fun to teach new behaviors to. She just loves it. As a result I do have to be careful or she will offer me some of her favorites such as jump on any nearby object and sit. Not always a good thing. The down-side is that it has been extremely difficult to teach her to stay - being still is very hard for Tay.

However Sinco my little red girl had a really hard time with the clicker. The absence of a click seemed devastating to her. Both puppies were raised the same and I have never made an issue out of making a mistake. I always teach all my puppies that it is ok to make a mistake. However internally Sinco is very much of a thinker and she thinks making a mistake is just horrible - she wants to be right with every fiber of her being. So she would rather offer no behaviors than risk being wrong. At first I worried a lot about how she was learning but then I adapted. I started using luring. She loved it - I could show her what I wanted and she could be right. She is very smart and she is easy to train as long as you show her what you want. She was also very easy to train to stay.

Her breeder took her for awhile and was going to teach her to lie on the couch on her side or her back for a photo shoot. At first she tought it would be easy because she is clicker trained. However she soon discovered that Sinco did not respond well to that. As soon as she started luring her and showing her what she wanted then Sinco got into the training session. She did it perfectly for the photo shoot as it turned out.

Different dogs do learn differently. I have seen this in my students' dogs but often it is hard to tell how much of it is the dog's learning style and how much of it has to do with timing on the part of the trainer/handler. But in my side by side real-life situation I can say with confidence that dogs do learn differently even if they are the same breed and living in the same environment. I can also say that Sinco's littermate is much more interested in clicker training than Sinco is and that is two closely related dogs.

I believe that the "Thinking-doers" do best with clicker training. The "doers" are often too busy moving and not paying enough attention to what their body is doing to catch what the click is marking. The "Thinkers" are analyzing the situation or worrying about making a mistake to want to just "do" behaviors.

Just like with people, when we impose a particular training style on to a dog and it doesn't match the dog's learning style then we create stress for that dog. The more stress the dog experiences the less likely the dog is to learn anything.

In college I studied a lot about operant and classical conditioning and I worked with rats and pigeons quite a bit. I went to a mini-Bob Bailey chicken camp. I enjoy capturing behaviors when offered and I enjoy shaping behaviors however I appreciate that it is a difficult skill to acquire and I appreciate that not all dogs enjoy learning that way. It is too easy to blame the trainer for poor timing but it may be that the dog doesn't really respond to that kind of training.

The irony is that the idea was that using clicker training created "thinking dogs" because dogs could figure out how to get reinforced - solving the puzzle. I think that is an illusion. What it does is make dogs think it is their idea to earn the food reward. I think some dogs want that sense of control of the situation and operant conditioning does put the dog in control. This is very effective for many dogs. Many times when the trainer is slow to put a cue on a shaped behavior then the dog truly does establish control by exhibiting that behavior a lot of the time when it is not desired. There is a fine line between putting the cue on a behavior too soon and waiting too long.

With a dog who is worried about making a mistake it may be too much pressure to be in control of the training session. There may be a correlation between the dog's social status and the desire to control the training session. In the case of Sinco, she tends to be very submissive to people and dogs so she may have no designs on controlling any situation that involves learning new behaviors. Once she understands what is required of her then she is very willing to go do that behavior - like in agility and herding - she is not shy about stepping up to the plate for that work. But when we first started and she was first learning she was very cautious.

This is why I continue to offer training that is individualized. Even the beginner class is set up to progress at the rate of the dog and handler team. If a method doesn't seem to be working then we can try something different. I have preferred methods but often I've had to suggest different methods in order to help a dog and handler progress. Training handlers and dogs is very challenging because there are two learning styles involved as well as many other factors that can influence training progress. I have had many "teams" train contacts and/or weaves in ways that are different from the others in the class. The main thing is to try something long enough and well enough to see if it is working.

Annelise and the Aussie girls