Once again I am amazed at Suzanne Clothier's gift of observation. I never cease to learn from her and to hone my own observation skills. She really brought home the concept of "ask the dog" who they are. We tend to get caught up in what she refers to as the "frame" of what we already know about the dog and our preconceived notions about what that means. Looking and closely observing the dog without any prior knowledge from the human is an excellent skill to have.
I have always seen and believed in dogs being unique individuals and that "cookie cutter" dog training is not the way to go. My own dogs alone have shown me that, let alone the many others who have come before me for help over the years.
Suzanne is also the master of human analogies that can really help drive home a concept or point she wants to make. This makes her an excellent teacher of the human part of the team. It is important to learn from Suzanne with an open mind and also with a willingness to let go of your prior beliefs and ideas. She may upset you if you chose to go that route or you can thank her for the incredible insight she has shared with you.
This is exactly what happened to me this past weekend in a completely unexpected way. I decided to volunteer one of my dogs for the group exercise of asking the DOG who they are. I brought Tay out for the group. She was her usual happy self and wiggling around to visit everyone. The point of the exercise is to observe the dog and to not seek information from me. Tay didn't stop moving the entire time and she was aware of things in her environment. After several minutes Suzanne came over and observed that she is a dog that we don't get to see all the time but we should notice them more. She noticed immediately her sweet soft eyes. Many of us have seen her "sweet eyes", it is one of the most salient characteristics she has. I don't know of anyone who has met her who hasn't commented on her "sweetness." Well what I learned is that her eyes do lack that intensity and depth that many dogs have. This is so true. What does that mean? Suzanne believes it means that Tay may not be functioning fully cognitively.
Rather than feeling sad for her, I immediately felt relief! Now I had a reason why some things are so especially hard for Tay to learn and other things were incredibly easy. It was a huge "aha" moment for me. What else did Suzanne notice about her? She used the analogy that Tay does "not take notes." Now many of you who have read my posts and my blogs know about the detailed 20 volume set of notes that Feisty has and the shorter more concise notebook series that Sinco has. I have never felt like Tay was a note taker but I did feel that she would generalize some behaviors very easily. Tay at the seminar greeted everyone in the circle the same whether she knew them or not and she would repeatedly cycle through the group.
So for the past several days I've been pondering the kinds of things that Tay learned easily and the kinds of things that she still struggles to learn and I struggle to teach her. She learned the agility obstacles with incredible ease, even weave poles. I waited until she was 15 months old to start weaves. She learned 2on/2off very easily. She learned the cone exercises and hoop exercises I did with her from when she was a puppy. She has an awesome recall. She is awesome with targeting. She generalized agility obstacles with amazing ease and she generalized targeting from a lid on the floor to tape on the wall with amazing ease. She can play "101 things to do with X (fill in box, pedestal, etc.)" with the cue "show me something else." She learned to run and jump in a chair (be careful what you teach your dog!). She loves crate games and is wonderful in a crate anywhere. She has a very good automatic sit in front of any door and will turn toward me automatically when going through almost any door.
What kinds of things have been hard for Tay? Stays... - even though when I tried to video this she did one of the best stays (I was only a couple of feet away). She tends to keep moving her feet constantly on a stay whether in the house, by agility equipment or anywhere else. She has a marginal stay on a mat - it takes a lot of work to maintain. She has trouble with heel position. I teach all of my dogs to "choose to heel" with a clicker and treats and I do it on both sides of me. As I refine for obedience I set a distinct body posture and hand position to cue the heel position as well as the word. She can not orient to my side - she is a bit random and is often out in front curving around me. My other dogs have learned this with relative ease. She does not understand hand signals at all in spite of lots of use of them. She does not appear attentive at all to my body cues. My other dogs are very attentive to subtle changes in my body position - one twitch and I can send them off anywhere. I believe Tay does not understand obstacle names for discrimination. I am starting to believe it is 50/50 for her. It is something I work on with all of my dogs and she has the weakest skills in this regard and requires a lot of work on my part. Suzanne said she would have a hard time with distance. She has a lot of confidence on individual obstacle performance that she can do obstacles at a distance with ease. What she can not do is take direction AND do obstacles at a distance. This is what I'm discovering with her. In training I break things down and in pieces she can get it but when put together she has trouble keeping two ideas/thoughts in her head to be able to change direction or do discriminations at a distance. She will either head to what is in front of her but if she is derailed I can not redirect her at all unlike my other dogs who will redirect. The other thing she has a hard time with when outside in a field is "auto check-in." She can do it in familiar surroundings that are not too distracting if my treats are good enough. At the livestock arena and outside in a field she would not both keep an eye on me and be able to keep sniffing. I work on this with all my dogs when they are puppies and take them to different places. When off leash I will make sharp turns away from them and when they catch up with me they get a treat. Then they can go off sniffing and anytime they check-in they get a treat. My other dogs do this with ease but Tay often has to be called and then she turns on a dime and comes.
I have also in the last three weeks been working on her doing front paw lifts/stretches as part of her rehab. I knew it would be easy to shape it but what I didn't expect was how difficult it is to refine it. I want to try to teach her to do one paw a few times and then switch to the other paw. Even after three weeks she still will offer each paw equally and wildly and can not seem to repeatedly offer the same paw over and over in spite of reinforcement to try to shape that. I am using my hands as the cue. I am considering teaching her to touch an object to see if that will make it clearer to her rather than touching my body part.
For comparison I decided to train my dogs who had not ever been asked to do this trick to review how they do it. Two of the dogs had very strong right paw preference and I had a hard time getting them to offer the left paw (Sinco almost fell over a couple of times trying to do it!) One dog had a strong left paw preference - Feisty ;) Tay does not have nearly such a strong paw preference. Suzanne said that both in dogs and humans that lack of handedness/pawedness is associated with a lack of bilateralization in the brain. This may also be linked to my difficulty in teaching her left and right which I train all my dogs to do.
On Friday afternoon I set up a session to video for Suzanne. I had been trying to come up with different scenarios to show what Tay does. We did one thing which is the start of teaching a dog to find someone or something. I showed her where I was hiding a treat. We went out of the room for 3-5 seconds and came back in and allowed her to search for the treat. She had a really hard time with this and after 45 seconds or so needed help. We repeated this two times each with two different spots. Each time she needed help after a long time. She was wondering around sniffing but seemed to have no recall where the treat was. Then I had someone else hide the treat in one of the two spots and brought her in and she could not find those either without help or after a long time searching. This was interesting so I wanted to see how my other dogs would do with this exercise. I used all the dogs I had who had never been taught any tracking or scent discrimination. Sinco remembered the treats right away and ran to them every time. Amigo the JRT did as well (especially after a potty break). Then I did it with Spring and Tobie. They both did better than Tay but took a bit more time than Amigo or Sinco but caught on pretty quickly. After a break we brought Tay back and tried it again with different treats and she did much better the second time and was more like Tobie and Spring on the second time. Tay is a highly food motivated dog who also if very smell sensitive and uses her nose constantly so one would think she could find a hidden treat easily.
In a few days I am going to try it again with Tay in the same place to see how she does. If she does well then I will move it to a new place.
I have a theory about Tay. I think she can learn behaviors quickly when there is a clear large physical object (stimulus) involved. All of the behaviors she does well involve some object that is pretty visible. The behaviors she struggles with involve body cues from me or no physical objects at all. I knew early on that obedience would not be a good sport for her and clearly that is true - the precision and awareness of my body cues is not a strong suit for her. Agility is a good sport for her.
Tay is very high functioning on the spectrum. But she is here to remind us that there is a spectrum of cognitive functioning in dogs like there is in humans. We have seen ranges in emotional functioning in dogs (i.e. reactive dogs). We often overlook the fact that some dogs may not be able to learn what we want to teach them, may have difficulty learning the way we are teaching them or may not have the innate cognitive ability to do it. I am very glad that I taught Tay with a clicker early on - I think that may have been the smartest thing to do for her. She does not do well with luring - but the clicker is very powerful for her. I have been learning that clicker training works well with autistic children. I don't think Tay has trouble socially, she is very non-reactive and friendly but she does mediate well between people she knows and those she doesn't know. I am busy reading resources that Suzanne has given me to brush up on cognitive psychology.
The good thing for me about Tay is that she is taking me back to my college and grad school psychology studies and now I'm getting caught up on the latest research in the last 20 years since then! It is very exciting for me.
Since this has happened in the last week a number of top trainers have shared similar stories where they thought it was the owner not having a clue about training the dog so the trainer took the dog home to try to work with it. The top trainer also had a hard time with the dog. So remember it is not always the owner's fault when a dog is not understanding a concept. Sometimes it is part of who the dog is.
So when first looking at a training problem - open your mind and ask the dog "who are you?" There may be physical reasons, mental limitations or relationship with the owner problems that are affecting training the dog.
Open your minds as well as your hearts and you will be amazed at what is out there!
Annelise who never ceases to learn from her dogs and her dogs never cease to teach her!
PS For those of you who want some light reading (or listening) - Suzanne and I recommend the Sapolsky lectures available at http://itunes.stanford.edu/ or at http://www.thegreatcourses.com/.