Poisoned cues and Names...
I've mentioned in previous posts how I had created the word "teeter" as a poisoned cue for Sinco's teeter performance 2-3 years ago. I had to retrain her teeter for the third or fourth time and finally realized that if I changed the name to "bang it" she was much happier about doing the teeter. I think she is finally over it now but it took awhile and she would avoid it or do it slowly if I forgot and said "teeter" - the cue I use for all the other dogs. I do try to remember to say "bang it."
Anyway the poisoned cue concept has reared its ugly head again. I am having another mysterious training issue (I seem to get these with each and every dog I train!) and I am having trouble getting Spring to come when called in many different situations including at home as well as in training or trialing. This is a life issue. Jane Fallander watched me with Spring a couple of weeks ago to help me figure out what was wrong. If I said "go leash" he would come happily to me and put his head in the loop of the leash. If I said "Springy" or "Springaling" he would scoot AWAY from me. If I show him the money by letting him know I have treat in my hand he would come back but he would not come without me showing him the money. However he would do agility obstacles or go to his leash without showing him the money. So the "aha" happened that his name has become a "poisoned cue" and no longer means what I want it to mean.
He is a puzzle because he does like to be petted, to be held, he loves his neck and head scratched and his butt scratched and he likes to play hand games. He is not like some Shelties who don't like to be touched. He really likes the touch. I've seen many Shelties (and many other breeds and mixed breeds) cower when the owner reaches toward them. While we may like to hug and pet our dogs there are many dogs out there who really detest the hugging and petting. Spring is not one of those dogs. He relaxes and sits on my lap very often. I never force dogs to snuggle with me. If they choose to do so then great but if they want to be off by themselves that is fine too and I don't take it personally (I've had Border Collies...).
So I've started to teach him "Bungee" means come to me and is his "training/trialing name". It is not yet ready for prime-time but it is in the works. He seems to really like the name and is coming to it without first seeing a treat is present.
How the cue got poisoned is pretty clear. While I love this dog he pushes my buttons more than any other dog I've ever owned. He barks and spins right in front me in the hallway or at meal time or trying to get him to go somewhere. I've almost fallen over him many times. I spent awhile making him walk on leash down the hallway to go outside to help him stop the behavior. I can try to reward an alternate behavior but it very much has to be lured since it is hardwired for him to do the bark and spin routine. I don't think he is truly aware of what he is doing. So as a result I've said his name "Spring" in vain many times and have probably used a harsher tone with his name which caused it to become a poisoned cue. Usually I'm very careful how I use my dog's name especially as puppies to avoid that. But like I said he pushes my buttons which causes me to forget my training rules!
Now I'm in the process of analyzing his perplexing table issues. I seem to be plagued with table issues in agility these days. I think in large part it is the one obstacle that is not offered at the trials where training in the ring is allowed (ASCA and NADAC) so I can't fix it there like I can most other obstacle/trial training issues. I have also done CPE with him where I can't spend extra time having him stay on the table. Spring has developed a tendency to bounce on and off and on and off and on and off the table at AKC trials. I've been working on proofing it with people around it and people running dogs around it. He doesn't appear to be stressed or worried about the judge. I wondered if it was the judge but lately that doesn't seem to be it. I have a hard time collecting him again - his name is a poisoned cue. Again he is pushing my buttons on the table so I have to work hard to have my happy face on while I try to collect him to leave the ring. I've planned table parties for him many times but he has yet to get on the table and stay there for more than a nanosecond since he entered Excellent A. So the problem was not always there - it is new and getting worse. Now the word "Table" may be a poisoned cue except that in training he gets on it just fine whereas his name as a cue didn't work in ANY location.
I have tried to vary my position relative to the table to try to get success. He has had lots of table rewards in training. He is not a sensitive dog, he is very stoic and he is very tough. He thinks very highly of himself and is more cocky than confident right now. He has learned that I can't do much about what he does on the table at trials. He is ring-wise about the table at trials. I've trained in the ring at ASCA trials with him with the other obstacles but they don't have the table on their courses. There are not enough run thrus at convenient times/days to be able to work through it there. At this point I don't really have a game plan for how to address the problem. It is one I have not ever seen other dogs do at trials to the degree that he does it nor have I seen student's dogs do it. It is a new behavioral problem for me. Lucky me :)
Traveling and perspectives on training...
It has been a few years since I've had dogs ready to take "on the road" to trials outside of Minnesota. This Fall I've been trialing in Iowa and Wisconsin and soon to Missouri in the hunt to qualify for AKC Nationals. We are really fortunate here in Minnesota to have a canine massage therapist at almost every one of our trials. In other parts of the country it is rare or even unheard of to have a massage therapist at a trial. As a result participants are still not as aware of how much physical well-being is affecting their dog's agility performance. Here in Minnesota we are getting trained to "rule out the physical" when a performance problem develops especially with weaves and jumping.
We are also spoiled by the high quality of agility equipment we have at most of the area trials. In Minnesota we are cutting edge with more of our clubs/groups getting rubber on the contacts, smaller slats on contacts, safer jumps, tunnel bag tunnel holders and 24" weave poles. I lived in Wisconsin until 1993 and started my agility training there and for most of the 1990s went back to Wisconsin for trials. I was surprised to see one of the clubs still has equipment that is from the 1990s and has not updated their jumps or contacts. I'm very grateful to live in an agility community where we strive to keep the equipment safe and updated for the sake of the dogs safety and well-being.
Agility Foundations thoughts...
I'm so excited that we have so many puppies up and coming here at Agile Canines. It seems to be a cycle every three years or so when many of us have puppies at the same time. I am always striving to improve the foundation training for the puppies and those older dogs new to agility. Jane Fallander has been incredibly patient as I've tried to train her in for how to work with agility students and how to best prepare their pups for performance sports. She is an excellent clicker trainer and has taught students how to shape behaviors and use the clicker effectively which is something that I value in my training program. I've been teaching her how to teach my favorite agility training games like "Ready-steady" and "Ready 1-2-3" which can be challenging to teach. However because she has more time available we are able to get more puppies started and that has been very good. This is the first year of trying our program this way and there will be "growing pains" and revisions made. But the first group of "novice a" students - those who have never done agility before that graduated from Jane's classes are excelling and progressing so rapidly through agility foundations that I'm really encouraged by our program.
I'm discovering too that while agility foundations is something that has become a jargon term in the agility arena and it talked about a lot on various agility training lists and in various magazines it seems that it is still not actually taught at many schools. I've recently had students come to me for training who started in agility in other parts of the country such as Chicago, Colorado, Arizona as well as other parts of Minnesota. I always want to know how they started their dogs in agility.
The skills I want dogs and handlers to have before starting agility foundations are the following:
Dog management skills - able to get the dog in and out of doors without the dog lunging at the end of the leash and able to protect dog from dog running loose off leash.
Loose leash walking
Send to a target (plastic lid)
Send and stay on a mat
Able to be in a crate quietly during class
Able to play with toys and take treats with distractions
Able to stay and do a recall with distractions
Able to shape new behaviors with a clicker easily
You will see NO tunnels are listed.
The skills I teach in agility foundations:
Front and rear crosses
"Out" and "Go"
Start of contact training with a board
Serpentines, pinwheels, boxes, 270s, threadles and straight lines with hoops
Running with the handler with acceleration and deceleration cues
Puppy jump chutes
You will see no tunnels are listed.
Note: I teach tunnels near the end of the beginning agility obstacles so dogs learn to love other obstacles first and also because I feel that curved tunnels are slippery and can cause injury to young developing dogs as well as adult dogs!
Most of the foundations exercises are for the handlers as much as for the dogs.
Running Contacts or Two on - Two off?
I teach all of my students how to train a two on two off with a board they can use at home. I feel that regardless of how their contact behavior ends up the process of teaching this the unique way that I do it really develops rear-end awareness in the dogs. This awareness I feel is invaluable for agility dogs.
Then as the puppies become fully developed and the handlers assess their physical condition I discuss with each one about the pros and cons of running contacts versus two on two off contacts. Choices are based on size, structure, ability of the dog and the physical ability of the handler. Keeping up with a running dogwalk can be very difficult. It is possible to have one criteria for the dogwalk and a different one for the aframe which many of my students have done successfully. Some of my students have tried the running contacts and found it to really have pit falls and have opted to return to a two on two off which is easy to do since the dogs were taught that on a board initially. Others have opted for what I call a "modified running contact" after a couple of years of doing a two on two off they introduce a "quick release" on the contact. This can be very effective for a running contact and still have the independent performance desired.
Training a "true" running contact that has no sign of deceleration in it on the part of the dog, that hits the yellow zone consistently every time requires hundreds of repetitions. The aframe is usually a bit easier than the dogwalk. While it may on the surface seem easier than a two on two off it is really based on muscle memory and getting the dog to have the same speed and striding each and every time over the contact is much more difficult than it appears.
Dogs taught a two on two off actually need FEWER repetitions on the contacts to train and maintain the behavior than those doing a running contact. When a trainer is consistent the dog will actually do fewer contact performances for a two on two off. I do get concerned about the impact of a two on two off on the aframe for many breeds of dogs and yet a running contact may be very difficult to achieve. I encourage my students to do as few aframes as possible when they have the desired behavior and have a two on two off. I have one dog now who does a two on and two off and she has done far fewer aframes in her lifetime compared to my Sheltie and Pyr Shep who have running aframes and have needed lots of reps. I also will try to avoid the aframe in gamblers if I can and places where I can avoid it I will to minimize the frequency of impact. I also am careful about the surface I run my dogs on.
As an aside, more dogs are being injured in curved tunnels and poorly timed/cued turns on jumps but the injury often shows itself on the aframe or weave poles but may have occurred elsewhere. I have a dog with a running aframe - never been asked to stop and she has a shoulder injury that most likely happened on a slippery turn between jumps or in a curved tunnel. Tunnels are much more slippery than many realize. But the aframe is often the one blamed for shoulder injuries when the turns are more hazardous.
Enough of my rambling thoughts from the last few weeks!