Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Agility class round up.

So my agility class finished up last night. To celebrate we were able to run a mock course a few times. Adrian was kind enough to come along and was able to record some of our work. I'm really happy to have a recording of Cohen's and my runs since I lose track of things pretty quickly when I'm out there on the course.

I'm quite happy with the progress that I've been able to make (Cohen's making progress too... but it's my two left feet that are the biggest problem). Of course there are huge opportunities for improvement, so in the spirit of constructive criticism, here I go. If you're reading this, feel free to offer some advice too.

First, holy crap I need to stop using the names of the next obstacle as a release from a contact. What a rookie mistake. I will say break I will say break I will say break...

Lately Cohen has been having trouble with good tunnels if the entry is in the least bit confusing, so I've made a mental note to reward them more thoroughly (which you see a bit here... while I drop a treat and everything). I think tunnels, being so simple, are easy for a handler to overlook for rewards.

Holy moly we're slow! I think I'm going to have to start running flat out to encourage a bit more speed. But I'm also going to have to get in better shape. The excitement paired with the mild exertion have a bigger effect on my body than I care to admit.

I will stand up straighter, I will stand up straighter, I will stand up straighter.

I won't cue a "back up" to re-get a broken contact. I'll focus more on getting a nose touch on the contact -- right now she's 50/50.

I want to see if I can get Cohen's teeter and walk speeds higher. She has a pretty good a-frame performance -- I'm told she just sails over the peak. I think it's a matter of revving her up more and moving faster myself.

With all that said, these are things I like:

I like Cohen's focus forward at the start line. She's doing it when cued. I've not yet gotten into the habit of pairing the verbal with a gesture, but I'll work on that soon.

I'm feeling more confident in my ability to control her on a course. I'm starting to learn more handling techniques through the class. Hopefully I'll be able to increase Cohen's already-pretty-good impulse control via the e-course I'm taking. Previously I'd thought that competition wouldn't be in the cards for another year or so, but I might revise that and say we'll be ready in a few months.

I'm re-taking this course (ahh, the benefits of working at the place you're schooling...) and next time I hope to use more tug rewards to build that drive and energy. Cohen's tugging has come along really nicely recently, so I'm hoping she'll respond to it as a reward in Agility from time to time.

With all that said, I'm really having a blast. It's been a lot of fun for me to learn, and I'm really enjoying the challenge. I just need to work on my flatwork more often at home.

Monday, March 28, 2011

One of the more bizarre habits...

Above: a shoe on my pillow

One of Cohen's more bizarre habits is she loves to move shoes around. More specifically, my shoes. She'll go into the closet, pick up a shoe and carry it up into my bedroom. Sometimes she'll get distracted part way through her project and I'll find shoes strewn along the path she normally takes from point A to point B. Sometimes she'll invest herself in this project rather earnestly and will bring up multiple shoes in quick succession.

A few days ago I came home to my runner sitting on my pillow as if lovingly placed there by some sort of confused secret admirer.

She doesn't chew them, or slobber on them. All she does is move them when she's bored.

It's endearing until I go to put on a shoe and realize that the one that matches the one currently on my foot has been brought upstairs and left in my room. Sometimes, if I'm lucky, she'll bring up pairs of shoes -- for some reason it feels slightly less crazy to go upstairs to retrieve both shoes, instead of a single one.

The photo below is from a few hours worth of work. Note that she has brought up full pairs (circled in corresponding colours), plus one chew-shoe that she got her teeth on as a pup that has been relinquished as a dog toy.

Above: a dog on a mission.

I probably only have myself to blame, as I'm the one to taught her to retrieve, and then began amusing myself by introducing her to various other retrievable items.

Above: it's all my fault.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Too smart for her own good?

Yesterday I had the 2x2s set up where I normally have them and was running drills with Cohen, attempting some more complicated entries and switching up my positioning a bit.

I thought, "I wonder if she'll go through them backwards?" We only ever worked on going through the poles in the one direction.

So I set Cohen up right in front of the line of poles, but at the opposite end she's used to starting. I cue "weave!" and she gets up... and runs all the way down the line of poles, finds her "proper" entry and does the line with enthusiasm.

I can't tell if this is a good or a bad thing, but it sure as hell was amusing.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Pets in Things

My contribution to a "Pets In Things" thread, Dog in Boxes of various sizes.

Dog in box.

Dog in box -- cute edition.

Dog in smaller box.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Common recall mistakes

This is a list of common recall mistakes. In an attempt to begin diagnosing my problems with recall I've marked some that I seem to have particular problem with.

Cohen is a good dog, and I would say 80% reliable off-leash. My standards for behaviour are very high and I try as hard as I can to strive for perfection. The issues I run into time and time again are a) getting too pushy during play, intimidating other dogs and not recalling, and b) finding something vaguely edible on the ground and, again, not recalling.

So without further ado, the list.
  1. Weak history of reinforcement associated with you.
  2. A strong history of reinforcement from the environment. (Very guilty of this!)
  3. Reinforcement value of having an owner chase the dog that doesn't come.
  4. History of recall equating to a loss. (Guilty of trying to call Cohen off when she gets too involved in rough play.)
  5. History of being "tricked" into coming when he doesn't want to.
  6. Dependency on confinement, tethering or a long line.
  7. History of punishing the dog upon return.
  8. Lack of opportunity for freedom to run and explore.
  9. Lack of exercise.
  10. The "poisoned" recall cue.
  11. Too much freedom too early in life and a lack of awareness from you where the balance lies. (Again, this might be an issue for me. Cohen has always been allowed off leash since she first arrived home. It's a minor issue, if anything.)
  12. A history of positive consequences when the dog chooses not to come when called. (This ties into my other issues.)

Poor strategic use of reinforcement -- lack of time or knowledge. For me, I fear it's lack of knowledge. Hopefully this will be rectified during the course. I fear I reward too often for mediocre behaviour, and use too low-value reinforcers. I use kibble often since Cohen will work for it 95% of the time.

Lately I've been wondering if I use food rewards too habitually, and the constant expectation for reward lessens their impact overall.

The most important thing to remember is to "be the cookie" as in, make yourself intrinsically valuable to your dog.

Sorry for the jumbled nature of this post -- it's more to serve as a reminder to myself than to educate those having trouble with their own recalls.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Weave poles, celebrating our successes. Week 2.

Weave pole training has hit an impasse with only 6 poles to work with at home, and the almost-constant rain. I think progress will be slow from here on out. However...

Last night we had our agility class and there were 12 poles set up in a corner. My eyes lit up!

I sent Cohen through them and whoops, she popped out 3/4s of the way through. Sent her through again and she missed the tenth pole. So I slowed down, sent her through and rewarded 2 poles in. Restarted, rewarded 4 poles in. Restarted, rewarded at 6. At that point I think Cohen kind of "got" it and was able to finish the rest (slowly) while watching me out of the corner of her eye. After that she was doing the full row of twelve as long as there were few distractions. She would do the full row with me a fair distance away as long as she could hear me encouraging her.

Ideally in true 2x2 fashion there would have been a space between the two sets of 6 poles and she would have been introduced more slowly to keep her confidence higher. The weaves weren't the focus of the evening so there wasn't really an opportunity to introduce them properly.

So, Cohen can do 12 poles in ideal circumstances. Confidence is still a bit low (she's great on 6 though) but we're definitely making progress.

Last night was a good class.

On other class-related news, the last agility class I took there were only 4 dogs. Now there's 8 and class is noticeably slower and more chaotic. It's frustrating. Especially when it takes other dogs 2-3 minutes to get through a mock-course that takes Cohen 30 seconds. Ah well!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Being reinforcing to your dog

Someone recently asked me,
"How long should I use treats for reinforcement?"
This is a question that gets asked a lot when training dogs. Obviously you don't want to ever have to be reliant on treats whenever you need to ask your dog to do something. Many a positive trainer has weighed in on how best to ensure your dog's behaviour be reliable regardless of whether you have a pocketful of chicken or not. I feel like there's another question underneath the first, which is,
"How long should I be reinforcing to my dog?"
People use treats for dog training because they are a primary reinforcer, that is, they are intrinsically valuable to a dog. They all need to eat, and most enjoy eating a great deal. But food is not the only reinforcer available to you -- there's play, praise, access to the environment and more. I almost always start training with food due to its intrinsic strength, but if food was the only reinforcer available in a trainer's arsenal then the trainer would find themselves very limited indeed.

The way I look at training is that you use a high level of reinforcement to lay the groundwork for behaviours, ideally so much so that they become ingrained in a dog's behavioural patterns. For instance, when I ask my girl to sit she complies almost instantly, and almost subconsciously -- we have done so many drills that compliance is almost guaranteed. Once that initial groundwork is laid then I'm granted more variety in the way which I choose to approach reinforcement, but I will always. reinforce. my dog.

There is a constant mathematical formula running in my head evaluating where my dog is being reinforced and by how much. (Remember, behaviour that is reinforced is more likely to be repeated.) Is going after that scrap of garbage more rewarding than listening to me? What about running after that squirrel? What about that small child smeared with icecream? The jogger? The puppy? These mental calculations may sound like a lot of work, but they're easier than they seem, especially with practice.

This is where training and having a good relationship with your dog really shines. Training is the ultimate bonding experience. It teaches both you and your dog to communicate with one another and strengthens that special relationship that exists between a person and their four-legged best friend.

As you spend more quality time with your dog you become intrinsically rewarding to them. Your dog will look to you for guidance and feedback because that is the pattern you've created over the months and years of hard work. If your pup is anything like mine, it will enjoy spending time with you and earning your attention because listening to you is both entertaining and fun. And if your pup is not like mine yet you can certainly create this type of relationship if you're dedicated to building it.

This to me is the true payoff for training. All those long hours spent running drills for off-leash recalls and heeling eventually pay off by teaching both you and your dog how to listen to each other, and more importantly, enjoy doing so. My presence is rewarding to my dog, just the same way her presence is rewarding to me.

So, let's again look at the question, "How long should I be reinforcing for my dog?" By now I'm sure it's obvious what my answer is. You should plan to always be reinforcing to your dog.

When you first get your unruly puppy it might be tough to win out over all the distractions of the world without waving a piece of tripe in front of your dog's nose. You'll find yourself frustrated and wondering if you'll have to rely on these methods forever. But through being consistent and building up a positive relationship with your dog (one free of intimidation and physical punishment) you'll find that less and less you'll have to struggle to keep your dog's attention. It's a beautiful day when you realize that your dog is voluntarily giving you its attention because it wants to, and enjoys doing so. Building this reaction is a lifelong process, and is probably the most worthwhile pursuit in building a relationship with your dog.

Of course, everyone enjoys the occasionally cookie too.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Building a solid tug

Cohen is a very food motivated dog, and 95% of her training has been via food reinforcement. She's a breeze to handle with food, for which I've always been extremely grateful.

However, now that we're beginning to dabble in sports it's becoming increasingly apparent that she would benefit from a strong toy/tug drive. Last week my agility instructor approached me and said that I would essentially be selling myself short if I wasn't able to get Cohen motivated for a tug on the course. Oh my.

The problem is that Cohen loses all interest in playing when food is around, or when she expects food. Her tugging was also quite weak (more bite and slash instead of tug and hold). And more irritatingly, she's always adored playing keepaway. She can always be called back if she's playing with people, but with dogs her recall turns to mush as she leads them on a merry chase. So when we're working with tugs in class her eyes are always on her neighbour's toy which is of course more appealing than her own.

I've been aware of this problem for a few months now and have been working on improving her drive to tug. I'm really starting to see an improvement, but she's not ready to tug in the distraction and toy filled sports class.

I bought a special tug toy that I keep above my dresser that I use for the most exciting tug games. Cohen's eyes get wide and her tail starts to wag when she sees me reach for it. The increased frequency at which we tug has helped immensely with her grip and she's now much more capable of holding on instead of constantly biting at it. I also played around a bit with shaping a tug, which Cohen did well at to start but both her and my interest waned before we progressed too far.

Now I'm faced with the challenge of weaning her off food rewards in agility class. The problem I have is that I'll have a toy and throw it ahead after she's completed a line of jumps, but she doesn't give it a second glance -- she'll circle back to me for a food reward.

With certain obstacles I'd use the toy as a secondary reward -- if she ran to it and played with it I would reward her with food. But I felt as if this approach meant that I was rewarding the going for the toy, not the behaviour on the obstacle.

Any ideas on how I might start switching from one type of reward to another? Right now I'm focusing on getting Cohen more comfortable tugging in class, but we've still got a ways to go yet.

Also, here's a video of a particularly fun quasi-tug session. If only she were always this into it! (You can really see how shiny her coat is here too!)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Weave poles, celebrating our success. Day 6.

Here we are, 6 days into weave pole training.

It's pouring rain outside, the dog is stir crazy and I have a video camera. Time for a video of our weave pole progress this week.

Now, before you watch it I know it's RIFE with problems. I'm posting it because I feel it shows good progress on my two goals -- 1) training the behaviour with Cohen and 2) building some confidence and value.

So I'll link the video, and afterwards I'll try to go over everything I think could be improved.

Yes, I'm using food. I've opted to use food during the initial stages because it was key in getting Cohen to focus. She values food more than play at the moment so I opted to use it to build that initial value.

No, this isn't where we normally practice. I have a slightly wider but darker area in the house where I've set up shop that allows me to practice more challenging angles of approach. In my opinion Cohen is doing quite well finding her entries in the environment. I moved the poles here because there was better light for filming. We've not worked outside since it's March, and when it's not snowing it's raining, so working outside hasn't been an appealing option.

Yes, she's going through pretty slowly. This is partially because I'm using a food reward, partially because I'm working indoors on slippery floors and partially because Cohen is still building her confidence in the obstacle. Previously she'd been rather stressed when faced with the weave poles and never properly understood them.

Yes, I see her looking over her shoulder at me looking for her reward. My timing sucks. Hopefully it'll get better outside with more space to move.

Yes, I see the poles skidding around the floor. I swear she's capable of doing them straight, even if they don't always remain so.

So, with all that said, I'm quite pleased with myself. And my dog.

The next week will probably consist of further indoor work (ugh rain) while I try to improve her speed. I might try to transition her to a tug reward if possible. We'll see. My agility facility tends to only work with the 6 weaves since it's mostly focused on foundation work, so right now I'll work on having the best 6 weaves I can shape.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Weave poles, trials and tribulations. Day 5.

Progress is good. I added the 5th and 6th poles this morning. The first two set are positioned straight-on, and the last set are at 1 and 7 o'clock.

At first the last two were missed a few times so I went back and opened them up a few degrees (should I not have? I don't know.) and then tried again. Cohen succeeded without incident. The barking came back, but I think this was enthusiasm and not stress. It was also quieted down much more easily, as I don't want to encourage it any more.

Later today I will try to move at least 4 poles outside to test Cohen's understanding of the exercise. There's fresh snow on the ground covering ice which is in turn covering mud, so it's not the most ideal place to practice, but I need to switch up locales to help her generalization.

Class is tonight. I wonder if we're going to be working on weaves. I would be absolutely flabberghasted if Cohen manages to do a line of 6 tonight (gotta keep expectations appropriate -- new location, stressful environment, etc) but I hope...

[Edited to add: Cohen did indeed do the 6 weaves in class!!! HURRAY!!! It took her one try to get them the first time, then did them successfully 3-4 times in a row. We took a break and reapproached them and had a few failed attempts before we had to move on. They're still a tiny bit complicated for her, but I'm totally psyched. By next week she'll have the 6 poles down no problem. Woot!]

Monday, March 7, 2011

Weave poles, trials and tribulations. Day 4.

I spent most of the weekend being lazy and feeling sorry for myself for having a cold. But I'll maintain that I had to let weave pole training ferment in Cohen's head before I could proceed.

We're up to 4 straight poles with very few mistakes from some pretty tough entries. Mostly I think I'm just patterning her right now however. I still don't think she really "gets" it. I'm hoping that that will come with time.

Cohen gets obviously frustrated after 2-3 failures in a row. I try my best to keep her motivated while not making the challenge any easier for her. I'm getting a bit better at this. I can see through Cohen's reactions to frustration that I've made a habit out of answering the tougher questions for her. From this point onwards I'm going to be trying to maintain criteria a bit better in all her shaping sessions.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Weave poles, trials and tribulations. Day 3.

Did some exercises this morning in the living room with a high rate of success. Cohen has difficulty (less than 50% success rate) in entries around the 9 o'clock mark. Will focus more seriously on that from here on out.

Moved the poles outside again to utilize more space, but neither Cohen nor I were really "feeling" it. I was using food rewards (lazily) with the ground being pretty sopping wet so I was passing them from my hand. Not a good tactic. Incidence of barking increased, but was still manageable. It's difficult to really find a line when stuck with using food, and it's frustrating to not have enough indoor area to utilize distance in any way.

Entries from the 9 o'clock mark resulted in her repeatedly skipping the 2nd pole. I think Garrett would say this is due to her not gathering her body before entry. Should spend more time working various angles of approach.

Cohen is slow through the poles and can easily get stuck and frustrated. I realize this is an effect from me not having clearer criteria when shaping behaviours with her in the past.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Weave poles, trials and tribulations. Days 1 & 2.

First, some background. I'm taking a 3rd-level agility class and Cohen and I are doing pretty well all things considered. (Things to consider: my unathleticism, my disinclination to flail, Cohen's disinterest in tugging in public...) However, we're falling behind in our weaving. Cohen and I never really "got" the weaves when we did them in our last level class, and this class is not set up to accommodate us slow folks still stuck on teaching via the 2x2s.

So, in an attempt to make up the gap I picked up some 2x2s (6 poles) and borrowed Susan Garrett's 2x2 training DVD from a friend. It's recommended that I keep a training journal, so that's what I'm doing.

It's recommended that you not do all your weave training days in a row, so, if there are gaps they're probably equal parts break-taking and laziness.

DAY 1, Wednesday 2 Mar 2011

Building and testing value, poles set to 2 and 8 o'clock.

Since Cohen had already done some 2x2 weave pole training previously there wasn't much time required to build the value. I started out using food as a reward with a marker word readily. Testing the value was successful as well, with a good rate of success.

I angled the poles to the standard 2 and 8 o'clock position and kept my rewards on the reward line. Problem: Cohen will sometimes look back to me after having gone through the gate, not at the reward line. Solution: I need to use the rewards more accurately.

DAY 2, Thursday 3 Mar 2011

Working the arc, adding two more poles.

I thought I might power through multiple steps today since Cohen had done these steps previously. As a result I feel as if today has been rife with frustration.

I attempted to move locations into my back room to have more area to work the angle of approach, but I still did not have sufficient room. Foolishly I also added a second set of poles, giving me even less room. Rate of success in difficult approaches was 50% at best.

For some reason I thought maybe having more room to work would help, so I moved the poles yet again (two sets), this time outside. Because the ground was wet, and because the DVD warned against using food in the grass I opted to attempt to use Cohen's soccer ball as reward.

She was incredibly aroused by the ball, so much so that she lost sight of what it was I was asking of her. I was pleased to find a toy to which she responds so well, but there was no progress to speak of.

The biggest problem is her arousal barking. I feel like this barking was initially developed as a response to the excitement and stress of learning the poles initially (in Agility Level Two) and now this emotional reaction is tied to the training. Sometimes I opt to ignore it, but sometimes it grates on my last nerve. I did not cope well with it today.

I think I'm going to reduce Cohen's arousal level despite Garrett speaking of how important it is. As soon as Cohen begins barking her ability to be receptive to commands and her capability to learn is diminished.

For our last session today I plan to move back indoors, remove the second set of poles, and use food as a reward while I work angles of approach. I feel like this step might be worth sticking with for additional time depending on how Cohen reacts. It is always my tendency to want to push past training the basics to more flashy behaviours, so I'll have to remember to slow down.

The snow, cold weather and wet ground also make it difficult. Weave training really seems best learned outside, but I make due with what I have.

Edit: Later in the day we revisited the process. I was indoors and was working with food. Cohen had a high rate of success with all entries (though being indoors and crowded we didn't have as much room to work as I would like). So I re-added the second set of poles and had greater success. There wasn't one instance of barking. I consider it a success. Tomorrow (or later tonight) will be more of the same. Obviously I'm getting a bit ahead of myself here, but I really need to pace myself.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Weave poles, lesson plan.

12 stages of 2x2 weave training

1. Building value
2. Testing value
3. Swing shift - 2 o'clock to 8 o'clock
4. Working the arc
5. 2 more poles
6. Moving the poles closer together
7. Turning poles to 1 o'clock and 7 o'clock
8. Now we're weaving
9. Overcoming obstacles
10. Rollin' a six
11. Rollin' double sixes
12. Fancy footwork