Wednesday, January 2, 2013

More on less is more...

Seems a fitting topic after the holidays when we tend to overindulge ourselves with food, drink, socializing, family etc.  It is our human nature to do things to excess very often.  Well very often I find the same is true of dog training.  

Less really is more in the case of dog training and trialing.

There is a fine balance and where the science of dog training can become an art - of balancing the need to build/teach new skills and the need to break things into small pieces and keep training sessions short.  

The other mantra that applies to dog training as well as to many other areas of life - quality is much more important than quantity.  A few well timed, well rewarded exercises will be far more valuable than many repetitions with no reward or late rewards.  This is why experienced trainers can often attain more with a specific dog in a much shorter amount of time than a novice trainer can.

Areas where I really see the "less is more" lesson needing to be applied are the following:

Open ring time/run thrus...  Very often I see sessions go on too long, beyond a dog's ability to comprehend mentally, go on too long past a dog's desire and enthusiasm,  and/or too long for dog's stress level.  When I go to open ring time/run thrus I go with a specific goal in mind for that dog.  We all have things we would like to see our dog and ourselves do better.  Open ring time is a chance to work on something specific that is often not addressed in a group class setting.  Things like speeding up contacts or weaves, tighter turns, proofing contacts or weaves, executing front or rear crosses in specific ways.  Three minutes is generally enough time to address one or two specific things.  

"Lumping" is a term referred to in shaping/learning theory when too many pieces of a particular skilled are included together as one behavior and rewarded and it is too much for the body and brain to absorb.  Running an entire course in training and rewarding only the end of the course is a really good example of "lumping."  You run 20 obstacles, in that course of 20 obstacles you dog did three perfect contacts (fast and accurate), 1 perfect set of 12 weaves (fast and accurate), executed 3 tight turns, kept all the bars up, stayed at the start line and ran fast from beginning of the course to the end of the course.  You are happy and play with your dog at the end of the run.  Think about what your dog has learned?  What does your dog think it has been rewarded for doing?  Keeping in mind that the last obstacle/behavior before the reward is most likely what will be associated with the reward.

Now picture this - running 20 obstacles, your dog releases before you release them and you go on and then the dog did one perfect contact (fast and accurate), one less than perfect (fast but inaccurate), one less than perfect (slow but accurate), 12 weaves but missed the entrance and had to restart and then finished, kept all but one bar up, did one tight turn and two wide turns and you are happy and play with your dog at the end of the run much like in the first example.  Now think about what your dog has learned?  What does your dog think it is being rewarded for doing?  

Both of these scenarios happen all the time every weekend at a trial and all too often in run thrus and open ring time.

Now picture this - a course of 20 obstacles is laid out there.  A dog is left at the start line, handler leads out, dog releases when the handler released it and runs fast and clean over two jumps, does a fast and accurate contact and releases from the two on two off and does one more jump and the handler plays with the dog.  Now what does the dog think it has been rewarded for doing?   This scenario can be broken down even further to isolate even more precisely what the dog is learning.

Now picture this - a course of 20 obstacles is laid out there.  A dog is left at the start line, handler does a difficult lateral lead out, dog releases when the handler released it and dog does the obstacles in the lateral lead out and comes in to a nice tight turn and the handler rewards the dog.  What has the dog learned here?

So I am giving you these scenarios to help you think about your training of dog more analytically.  You will get more of what you want from your dog if you isolate and reward what you want from your dog.  

Rewards...  I run very high drive dogs and very high energy but moderate drive dogs and moderate energy, moderate drive dogs.  No matter which dog I am running, no matter how much I think they love doing agility obstacles I have instilled in them that the best rewards will come directly from me.  The only time that going on to the next obstacle will be a reward is at a trial because if things go downhill at a trial I will usually leave early.  In training I never use the next obstacle as a reward - what if that next obstacle turns into a missed contact, knocked bar, run by etc.?  I want my dogs running agility because they enjoy doing it as a team with me.  There are a small percentage (less than 1%) of dogs who will literally run agility without a handler because they have become obsessed with it.  I have only ever seen 2 dogs like this in the 20 plus years of being in this sport.  These dogs are at the other end of the spectrum of difficult to train and handle.  I do not ever want my dogs to value agility obstacles, livestock, obedience dumbbells - whatever it is - more than the working relationship with me.  99% of dogs out there are really doing agility because we have made it fun for them to do it and they want to please us so we need to value that and acknowledge it with rewarding their efforts to do what we want them to do.  Some dogs intrinsically love doing it more than others.  It is important to know where you dog is on that spectrum.

Distractions... Proofing  This is something that really needs to be done and open ring time/run thrus is such a good time to do it.  Having people unfamiliar to your dog standing or sitting about the ring like judges and ring stewards is so good for dogs.  I watch a lot of novice agility runs at trials of all organizations.  I see 50-60% of young/green dogs having stress issues in a novice class - sniffing, stopping and looking around, barking at things/people, zooming around and/or jumping on ring stewards or leaving the ring all together.  You can have the strongest set of agility skills but without the proofing piece they tend to fall apart in a trial for about 75% of the dogs out there.  Yes I think it is that high.  Proofing includes all kinds of distractions - people, dogs, food, toys, noises, lights, etc.  We can do some of it in a class setting but the dogs get to know those people and they can learn "it is a set-up here" so it really needs to be done at open ring time/run thrus/matches or even at a friend's house or at a busy park or be creative...  The more environmentally sensitive your dog is the more proofing you will need to do.  The vast majority of dogs need this level of proofing in order to do well right from the beginning.

I have personally trained and handled close to 20 dogs now and I will say I have had 3 dogs of my own who really did not care about the trial environment at all.  Those dogs were/are hard wired to love competing in front of people, they were/are quite sure everyone wants to see them and they are also so self confident that they think 99% of the mistakes are the handler's and not theirs.  Carmine is one of those dogs.  This is something that is hard wired.  It is a combination of self confidence and a love of being in front of a crowd that is hard wired combined with solid foundation training.  These dogs make good dogs for the breed ring because they exude that air that they are the best.  These dogs come with a price though - because these dogs also tend to be pushy, tend to need black and white rules enforced 24/7 and so need very consistent training to reach their full potential.  They need experienced trainers/handlers with impeccable timing and clear criteria.  

I am mentioning this because dogs like Carmine can make trialing a young dog look so easy and yet they have their own set of challenges.  Most dogs fall into the middle of the spectrum where being in front of a crowd creates a level of stress.  Some dogs work through that faster than others.  There is a wide range on the spectrum but one needs to plan for having a dog who WILL be distracted the first few times they trial and WILL need proofing exercises to build self confidence.  Some dogs will need  a few sessions and some will need MANY. 

I took Feisty not to one but two group classes in two very different environments for 4-5 months when she was just getting ready to trial for express purpose of working on proofing her for environmental distractions - one class was in a dirt horse arena and one was indoors on mats.  I anticipated that the environment would be hard for her.  I didn't go to the class for training help but for distraction work and I asked instructors to be like judges and asked classmates to be like ring crew and rewarded her a lot anytime she did something brilliant under environmental pressure whether or not it bothered her.  I don't wait for it to bother her - I reward her FIRST!  So if she ignores someone I reward it.  I don't wait for it to be a problem and then work through it - IF I can help it. Sometimes I am caught off guard and I have to be reactive.  But try to be PROactive in your training and one or two steps ahead of your dog.

Anyway these are things to think about when training on your own in open ring time/run thrus or even in your regular class time!