Monday, July 9, 2012

Training in the ring - using it effectively

Having just been to a couple of NADAC trials in the last couple of weeks, I have had a number of students ask me at the trial "what should I do if _____ (dog's name) does _____ (misses contact, misses weaves, doesn't stay  - fill in the blank)?"  I found my answer is almost always the same:  "what have you tried already in a trial setting and how did that work?" 

I always want to know what if anything has been tried and how it worked.  Often I do know the answer but I like to hear my student articulate it.  In classes when students are getting ready to trial we often talk about training in the ring options with NADAC, ASCA and UKI.  So often "training in the ring" is associated only with punitive consequences for dogs who do not perform the desired criteria.  However I encourage a lot of training in the ring for positive motivational purposes.

To use training in the ring effectively you want to have a plan before you step to the start line for the "what if _____" scenario.  My long time students know this and will often discuss this with me before their runs.  I think this can be invaluable.  I encourage students to keep a log of some sort so they can track their progress.

Now there are almost as many possible plans available as there are dogs and handlers.  When discussing a training in the ring strategy for a situation with a dog who may break a start line, miss a contact or miss a weave entrance,  I will ask my students "what is the lowest level of correction you can give your dog and still be effective?"  Usually I know the dogs pretty well by this point and have some thoughts.  While some will tell you that you want to make a punishment strong enough so it never has to be given again I will argue that in a trial setting there is a level of stress on the dog already.  I will never start at the highest level of correction (which is a time-out) but start at a lower level.  We are not perfect and sometimes I still have started at too high level (like Oops!") was too much under stress for some dogs.  Other dogs that is of no consequence to them.  

My favorite personal story of training in the ring was when Sinco was just starting out.  She launched an aframe contact at an ASCA trial.  I marked it and made her come back and repeated the sequence before it and asked for it.   She stopped perfectly.  I praised her and then made a big loop of obstacles out to the exit (didn't attempt the rest of the course).  As she saw us approaching the exit she took off away from me and ran over to the aframe (at least 50 feet away) and ran up and stopped in a perfect two on two off.  She was trying so hard to convince me that she knew what I wanted and she really could do it.  I was so proud of her and if I had tried to stop her at that moment I would have shut her down.  She never ran off like that before so I knew she had something on her mind.  I want my dogs thinking out on the course.  I learned too at that moment that she would never need much of a correction and she has very rarely made a mistake like that since then.  

While I have a lot of individual variation with how to execute training in the ring, I do have a few hard and fast rules about training in the ring (and in class).  This applies to NADAC, ASCA and UKI.

1.  I never ever let my dogs get on the down ramp and put themselves in to the two on two off.  That is not a correction (the dog is doing what they know how to do and have been doing since they were puppies - I no longer want that behavior by the time we are trialing). I redo the entire obstacle.
2.  If I can repeat the sequence before the contact with speed I want to do it - it is usually the speed that "kills" the behavior.  I know my dogs can do it from a standstill.  The test is can you do with speed in a trial setting.  
3.  With weave entrances it is crucial to get the speed and angle when training in the ring.  Doing just one obstacle before it will not generate the same speed as you had when the dog missed it.  Even if I have to create my own set of obstacles in to it for flow and speed I will.  i know my dog can weave from a standstill - but that is not how they need to weave at a trial.  They need to weave with full speed heading into them. 
4.  I NEVER mark in any way shape or form a missed weave entrance if the dog is in the act of weaving.  I have learned over the years that this can be the single biggest cause of weave pole stress in dogs.  Our timing will never be perfect enough to mark the missed entrance and a negative marker when a dog is weaving can set you back a lot.
5.  I try never to pull a dog out of the poles when weaving - missed entrance or not.  I want them to learn to always go to the end of the poles.  We can go back to the beginning.  If we don't Q because of it I don't care - It is too easy to shake a dog's confidence on the weave poles.  
6.  When working through some behavior that I've had to use some form of correction in a trial setting I will use positive verbal markers when they do it right like "yes!" Very often if they do something right the first time in a trial and it has been a struggle to get there I will leave the ring to a "party" - high value reward of whatever the dog likes.
7.  ONLY train ONE behavior per run.  I never try to train more than one obstacle or behavior in a trial run.  It is too confusing to the dog.  I also make sure if I'm training it that I get the desired behavior before leaving the ring or that the dog knows that didn't happen when we leave the ring.  This is why I try to leave the ring happy and doing easy obstacles if needed to get out of the ring so I don't set the team up to fail on the way out of the ring when we ended on a good note.  If we are leaving to a time-out then the dog must stay by my side on the way out and not take any obstacles.

The rules that vary by individual dog and handler team are the following:

1.  The level of correction needed.  To some dogs a slight pause in the action and then going on is enough for them to perform great the next time.  Others need a verbal marker, still others need a down before going on, and others need to repeat the sequence and the obstacle, some need to be taken off the course (I save this when the lower level corrections have been used and found to be ineffective in changing behavior).  With young dogs I prefer a low level correction and then repeating the sequence so I have an opportunity to reward.  I try to leave doing some simple obstacles so I don't have to risk another training moment on the same run.
2.  The number of times needed to make a point.  My personal example is that Sinco learned after one broken start line stay that no more action happened.  She didn't break again for many many months.  Her daughter Carmine on the other hand took four times of leaving the ring on a broken stay before she realized she should stay.  Knock on wood she hasn't broken her start line stay since.  Tobie years ago was so predictable that every three months he would break a start line stay - I could almost predict it on the calendar.
3.  How to create a positive motivational run.  It may involve using a dog's favorite obstacles, may involve starting in the middle of the ring, it may involve letting go of specific criteria for a run or two in order to make being out there a fun time and it may involve just stepping across the ring gates and leaving again.  I did this with Leysha for a time or two when she was so stressed at the start line as a young dog.

Sometimes it is harder if a dog who seems sensitive in class suddenly gets really turned on and high at a trial and becomes a completely different animal.  But these cases are very rare.

Then there is the other side of training in the ring - this side is much more difficult to figure out.  I enjoy the problem solving involved with this and it requires a lot more patience.

I use training in the ring for dogs who are stressed by the trial environment and/or stressed by having to perform in a public setting.  For these dogs it is critical to know the signs of stress in your dog.  The way a dog shows stress varies widely.  Videoing these dogs close up when they are running and then viewing it in slow motion can be very helpful.  This is how I learned that one of my dogs was doing a lot of stress licking in the weave poles.  That told me that he was really stressing about the obstacle and I needed to do whatever I could to reduce his stress about it so he would enjoy doing it and stop trying to avoid it.  When dogs avoid obstacles in a trial but not in training most likely they are stressed about how to do that obstacle in that setting.

This gets complicated because a lot of things can cause this.  Ask yourself these questions when you have a dog who performs very differently in a trial versus training.

1.  Has the dog really learned the obstacle thoroughly in training - the three "Ds" come into play here.  Distance, duration and distractions.  Can the dog in training perform the obstacle with all three of these?  I use a lot of crazy distractions in classes with people, with funny looking things in funny places.  I also do distractions like those found at a trial.   I want the dogs to be able to focus with lots of distractions.  The hope is that the dogs will develop strong mental focus such that when they go to a trial they will be able to focus on the tasks at hand and not succumb to the distractions of a trial.  I make distractions in training harder.  I have found that this builds speed and confidence in the dogs.  I don't like to trial a dog until they can show me they can handle distractions in training.
1 a. A subpart to #1 is that the most important thing about training in the ring is CONSISTENCY!  This seems to be so hard for us and so easy for our dogs.  Our dogs figure out routines and patterns and can stick to them amazingly well.  We have a very hard time requiring the same behavior from our dog's more than once.  We can get into habits ourselves very quickly but we also can accept a lot of variation in behaviors from our dogs and call it "good enough."  Well the dogs know this and know there are no rules and will continue to test the parameters of the behavior and also they will FAIL to learn the desired behavior.  We will think they understand it but what they understand is a LOT of variations of that behavior.  Have a clear picture in your mind of what you want your dog to do and do not deviate from it (unless instructed by your coach to do so).  So be sure you have been consistent in the criteria you have with the dog.
2.  Has the dog had enough exposure to performing alone with the handler in a big ring with people all around?  This is hard for both handler and dog.  I recommend new handlers or handlers with stressed dogs start in classes such as jumpers or tunnelers where they don't have to worry about contacts and weaves and just focus on being out there having fun.
3.  Are you the handler stressed out there?  If so then many dogs will also feel your stress and then become stressed themselves.  If that is the case you will need to find ways to reduce your stress - often I find if the handler focuses on reducing the dog's stress then their own stress will diminish.  There are also many mental management programs available to help handlers overcome ring stress.
4.  Is the dog looking for "mental health breaks" out there?  Visiting ring crew, seeking tunnels and aframes from across the ring, leaving the ring, zooming around the ring, sniffing, avoiding obstacles, trotting or walking through the course or being silly with the obstacles (like jumping on top of a tunnel)?  All of these are ways in which dogs will take a break from the mental stress.  This is why often the dogs will come back after one of these breaks and do a couple more things and then take another break.  I recommend when dogs are doing this that the handlers do only short courses with their dogs.  Make up a course of 4-5 obstacles that takes them easily from start to finish line.  When they can do that well then add another one or two obstacles and build from there.  It make take a few trials.  It is better than trying to push the dog too hard.  There is a fine line between having a dog learn to work though it and shutting a dog down with too much pressure.
5.  Is the dog running slower in the trial than in training? Anytime I have a dog who is not running as fast in a trial as they do in training I do short courses in the trial with them.  I have had dogs like this who are very stressed by the environment.  I don't make the courses longer until they can do short ones fast.  The concept here is that they learn to go fast and the reward (in addition to treats/toys) is to get a release from the stressor quickly.  So they learn they find relief.  Along the way they also build up confidence in their own ability to work through it in short bursts.  It is much harder and takes much more time to do this by making them do an entire course.  In fact many sensitive dogs will get slower and slower and shut down when forced to do long courses under stress.  Dogs like this will get faster on the last one third of the course because they know the relief from the pressure is coming - dogs learn to count obstacles or time out there.  Dogs have a great sense of time and distance.  I want my dogs to be just as fast in the beginning as they are in the end.
6.  Is the handler running the dog the same way at the trial as they do in training?  Very often I see handlers moving closer to contacts and weaves in a trial then they do in class.  The dog is not used to that level of pressure from the handler.  While the handler thinks it helps the dog - the reality is that it changes the picture a lot for the dog and causes confusion.  Videoing runs and training can help a lot to illustrate whether this is happening or not.
7.  Is there a particular aspect of the trial environment causing the stress?  Is it male judges, ring crew, photographers, people with hats, loud voices, buzzers, whistles, clapping, cheering, barking dogs, running dogs, or something else?  It can help in some cases to isolate the source of the stress so you can work through it away from the trial setting.  It can be very hard to isolate a source of stress.  Again close analysis of videos of runs can help this as well as having some attentive friends watch the runs.

I recall talking to Silvia Trkman about ring stress and my Pyr Shep and asking her how she worked through it.  She said in Europe it is not such an issue because in most cases they can turn ANY run into a training run.  So her dogs never learn there is a difference between training and trialing.  I really took that to heart.  While here in the US we have rules against training in the ring in some organizations but so far there are no rules about leaving the course early with a smile on your face because you made a short course with your dog in a stressful place.  I have done this and still often do with my Pyr Shep Feisty.  I leave with a smile on my face and say "Thank you!" as I leave.  That kind of positive motivational training can be done anytime.  I use this a lot of the time for various reasons with all of my dogs.  I think a short motivational run will gain me more in the long run that staying out there pushing my dog harder mentally when very little is to be gained by that.  If I need to build mental stamina - again I can do that in short bursts and gradually ask for more over time. 

The bottom line is this:  I can't ask for it all at once or I will lose more than I will gain every time.