Yesterday’s training session was such a failture, but I learned so much from the experience, and I’m beginning to appreciate the role that photos and video-taking play in my training sessions.
I took Athena out to a spot that’s nearly 30 miles away from home in order to work her. It’s a beautiful park with flowers and tall trees against a backdrop of mountains. In this heat, I have to seek out spots with shady trees to train, if I train during the day. Before we got there, though, I had several stops to make.
Athena had been in the car for about two hours before we finally arrived at our destination, and she jumped out of the car eagerly (on leash, of course), and began sniffing and pulling on her leash. That should have been my first clue that this dog was way stimulated. Then she began running circles around me as she watched people and cars pass by. Her responses to my cues were slow, or sometimes non-existent. It was as though she was working on autopilot that wasn’t working too well. She was not too interested in her favorite treats: liver.
But I had my plan for the day, and wanted to get on with it. I planned on letting her “read” the pee-mail then doing a spot of training, and finally videotaping a short instructional clip on clicker training basics. A great plan, I thought, but one that lacked focus, detail, and a plan B. Animals are unpredictable: sometimes they’ll work for you, sometimes they won’t.
One thing I recognized, and I’m glad I did, was that Athena was not being slow and distracted because she was disobedient. She was overstimulated–too many things demanding her attention. I expected her to work while she was way over threshold. I expected to run through the Novice sequence with her, but she was pulling on her leash.
As I look back, I should have focused on “fixing” one issue: the pulling on the leash, and not worry about precision heeling, or moving sits, or recalls. Goal-oriented that I am, I persisted, then to add insult to injury, whenever she didn’t do what I wanted, I said “No,” or “Eh eh”—those well-worn NRMs (no-reward markers) that adds stress to an already stressed out dog.
In the photo you can see signs of stress in Athena. Notice how her ears are back and she’s licking her nose. Move your cursor over the image and click for a larger view.
Here’s what I could have done differently:
- Concentrate on fixing one thing—pulling on the leash, and using the Premack Principle as a reward (letting her do something she really wants when she does something I want)
- Work in a smaller area instead of trying to walk the entire park with her.
- Ditch the NRMs, especially in this situation.
Sometimes in training, the trainer must shelve, at least temporarily, his agenda and attend to the immediate needs of the animal.