A blog about dog training and dog breeding…and other sundry matters

Posts tagged ‘obedience training’

A Wing and a Prayer and we Fly

Busta, winner of the October 2011 Novice Obedience Class

Busta, winner of the October 2011 Novice Obedience Class. Owned, trained, handled, loved, and ocassionally cussed at by Debbie Davidson

I write this post about a significant accomplishment exactly one week late because I’ve been insanely busy. Yet I’m pleased to announce that my five-year-old Rottweiler, Busta, who has been in retirement and who hasn’t competed in an obedience trial since 2007 won the Novice obedience class on Saturday, October 23.  He won “high in trial” too with a perfect score.

The decision to enter the dog came from a place of desperation.  Earlier I had made the rather sad decision to retire my white German Shepherd bitch who showed a great deal of promise in obedience.  But, I needed a goal, something that would keep me working with my dogs, and I needed a dog that might, just might, progress through the various classes and earn an obedience title.  I hauled Busta out of retirement.

He had learned all the novice exercises when he was a puppy, but it was many years since I worked him.  Despite my best intentions to prepare him for the upcoming show, our work together was sporadic at best.  Three weeks prior to the show I did no work with him.  We were entering on a wing and a prayer.  Yet, we managed to impress the judge.  Busta remained focused in the ring and did everything asked of him quickly and enthusiastically.

Now I scramble to find time to prepare him for the Beginner’s Class on November 20.  It’s tough when there are so many other things clamoring for my time.  A fellow competitor who used to enter multiple dogs in obedience while working full time told me that she’d wake up early and train during the 5:00am hour, working each dog with one exercise for a total of three minutes.  I will have to try that.

We need to work on the one-minute stand-stay, and the high and long jump.  Busta proved many years ago that he is not a jumper.  He is the only one of my dogs who has never shown any inclination to jump on furniture.  With the Jamaica Kennel Club’s recent decision to lower the jump heights for competition obedience, I just might be able to entice Busta to perform the jumps.  We’ll see….

Intermediate Obedience

After only one month’s preparation, Athena and I will enter the obedience ring once more tomorrow, but this time we’ll be competing in the Intermediate class.   We have not mastered all the exercises perfectly.  For instance, Athena can reliably clear the high jump at 23″:  she must do 36″ tomorrow, and her retrieve is still rough around the edges.  However, her work shows remarkable progress.

Two weeks ago she refused the jumps.  I had to take her back to the beginner’s stage, letting her jump very low heights, rewarding, and raising the heights very gradually.  I also had to change the cue, as I discovered that somehow the old ones got poisoned.   The results:  she offers me jumps now.  Some will say that is not a good thing in a competition dog; however, the fact that she offers the jumps without me cuing her says that she actually likes to jump, and she knows what she’s to do.  And, she’s jumping off leash.  How could I possibly correct that?

We may not be perfect, and I have no idea how we will do in the ring tomorrow.  We may be brilliant, we may stink.  Regardless of the outcome, I remind myself that the process, the journey of getting to where we are, is far more important than the product, the first place, or the trophy.  While those are nice to have, I am more interested in how my dog learned, and that she had fun learning and performing, and that she will look forward to more training and trials.

That said, I sign off for now as handler and dog must be well rested for the task at hand tomorrow.

Teaching the “Stand” using Operant-Based Clicker Training

Gretchen is making great strides now that her training is a bit more consistent.  Her sits and downs are fluent, and she’s much more focused than the last few days.  Today we started, or rather, restarted learning the stand from a sit or down.

We started with the very basics,  and used the touch cue, which is nothing more than having the dog follow my hand.  I do not use a verbal cue to touch because by simply holding my hand out, palms flat and fingers straight, Gretchen knows that she’s to touch my hand with her nose.  She also knows to follow my hand wherever it goes.

So, to train the stand, here’s the approach that I took:

1)  Placed Gretchen in a sit at my left side.

2) Using my right hand with palms facing the dog, I moved my hand straight out from her face, but did not move too far.

3)  As soon as she got up, I clicked and delivered the treat.  The timing of the click is critical at this stage.  Ideally, I want Gretchen to stand up without moving forward.  Only her back end should move out, if she’s getting up from a sit.

For now, however, I keep my criteria very low to ensure her success at this exercise and to cut down on the likelihood that she’ll get frustrated and shut down.  A dog that has shut down, like a human, will not learn, and will dread future learning situations.

Right now, I’m only interested in her getting up.  I don’t mind if she moves around. The click ends the behavior and serves as a “release” signal anyway, so once I’ve clicked,  it doesn’t really matter what she does next.  Once she understands this concept, then I’ll raise the criteria slightly.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: An Inconsistent Approach to Dog Training

So tonight I took Gretchen into the yard to train her for the first time in many weeks.   Since my work schedule went crazy in early April, my poor dogs’ training suffered.  Now that my schedule has regained a bit of sanity, it’s now frightfully hot.  My training is still restricted, but this time to indoor work at night. That’s the joy of living in the tropics.

Although Gretchen has retained quite a bit of training, I’m appalled at how much she has left to learn!  Yikes.  She hasn’t learned the formal recall (her informal one is quite good, at least in my yard), and she hasn’t learned the heel, either.  She’s seven months old.

Gretchen does her sits and downs pretty well in the house.  She’ll sit out in the garden on cue, but is VERY reluctant to go into a down.

It is not uncommon for dogs to perform behaviors perfectly on cue in one location but not seem to understand the same cue in another.  An extreme example would be the dog that will give you a sit very quickly and enthusiastically at home, but once he’s at the vets or in some other new environment, he suddenly has no idea what sit means.

The dog is not being stubborn or “hard ears.”  The real reason for this annoying and sometimes embarrassing breakdown in training is simple:  dogs do not generalize.  “Sit” in your living room doesn’t necessarily mean “sit” in your kitchen, in your backyard, front yard, the vets, etc.

So, with Gretchen I took a deep breath, swallowed my pride, admitted that I am inconsistent with my work, and went back to basics.  When she was a babe of about five weeks, I taught her the down by capturing the behavior.  Now that she’s older and had already learned the down, I decided to root around in my training arsenal and try a different approach.  I tried luring.

Now I’m not a huge fan of luring because I feel that it adds more steps to the learning process, at least the way I use luring; and if it’s not done correctly, the dog could become dependent upon the food lure in your hand.  In order for luring to be effective in the long run, it is essential that the food lure be faded as quickly as possible within the training session.

As it turned out, I had to lure only twice before Gretchen caught on.  After two attempts I took away the food but continued using the downward motion of my hand (as though I had food in my hand), and added the “down” cue.  She performed beautifully and consistently.

Alas, it was late in the afternoon and the mosquitoes descended upon us, threatening to exsanguinate me.  I ended the session and returned to the house with my dog.

A Jump and A Tumble: Adventures in Training a German Shepherd

Athena had a set back today.  Her obedience work has been going quite well.  The jumps, though,  have been a bit of a challenge, and that’s one of the new exercises for the beginner’s class.

The last time we trained, which was several days ago, I raised the bar on the high jump by about a quarter inch.  Athena refused to take the jump.  I gave her a break and took her to the long jump.  She jumped, but knocked the bar.  I thought perhaps I didn’t line her up properly with the jump.  I took her back to the high jump and again she refused.  I quit for the day.

Today Athena took the high jump with no problem at the new height.  I took her over to the long jump.  I lined her up with the jump, and I could feel her eyes boring into my face as I removed her leash.  Good, I thought, she’s focused and will jump.  I gave her the cue to jump, and the little rascal took off like a bullet, completely bypassed the jump, and ran like hell into the house.

I counted to 10 then walked into the house to retrieve my dog while continuing to count.  I must have gotten to a hundred by the time I grabbed her collar as calmly as I could and resisted the temptation to do give her the “come-to-Jesus” talk.

We were outside once more, and again, I set her up in front of the jump, took off her leash, and sent her over the jump.  This time she jumped, but her back legs got caught on the cross bar at the top of the jump, and she fell to the ground.  It was pitiful and scary to see such a big animal, who is usually so nimble, fall.

Athena picked herself up and trotted over to me.  I was concerned and checked her over.  She seemed okay, and I debated whether I should shortened the jump’s length and asked her to take the jump once more.  I decided to err on the side of caution and pack it up for the day.

Tomorrow we’ll attempt this once more.  This time I’ll ensure Athena’s success with the jump by shortening its length.  Once she gets the shorter length, then we’ll move ahead once more.  This is an exercise in patience, and the show is fast approaching.

Preparing a German Shepherd for Beginner’s Obedience: How Hard Should the Trainer Push?

With only a few weeks before the upcoming Obedience Trials, I’m struggling to control my anxiety.  Athena, who won the Novice trial last November, setting a record as being the first white GSD and the first clicker-trained dog to win an obedience competition in Jamaica, will be entering the Beginners Class.

There’s some improvement to her performance.  I’ve finally managed to straighten her fronts, which for the most part were crooked, except for the fluke moments when she did a straight front.  Such fluke moment happened at the last show, but at this level, I cannot rely on such moments.  I need to be sure that she will come in straight regardless of where she’s positioned in relation to me for the recall.

Her jumps, on the other hand, cause me some concern.  She successfully clears the high jump at 24 inches (approximately); however, that’s below the required 32 inches for the show.  The regulation height set by the Jamaica Kennel Club is too high for a beginner obedience dog.  The heights for The American Kennel Club are lower, especially for large breed dogs. 

As no one at The Jamaica Kennel Club seems in too much of a hurry to reconsider the height of the jumps, I have no option but to condition Athena to clear these heights.  I make haste with her slowly, however.  My philosophy with training pet dogs is to go as fast as the dog is willing and capable to go.  I will not risk injuring the dog by raising the bar, literally and figuratively, too high too fast.

Last week I tried raising the jump height a full inch.  Athena willingly took the jump, but her back legs consistently knocked the bar.  That’s an automatic disqualification at the Beginner’s level.  So, I lowered the height once more to the point where she could jump without knocking the bar, and gradually raised it a 1/4 inch at a time until I got her back to the original 24 inches.

It’s hard, laborious work, and requires patience on my part.  Now, patience is a virtue that I possess in limited quantities.  I want a CDX on this dog, NOW.  But I keep asking myself when I’m tempted to push this dog to her limits, “Is it really worth sacrificing this dog’s enthusiasm for training and performing, and sacrificing her trust in me as her handler, for an obedience title?”

Working with a Highly Distracted Puppy

Okay, so Tuvok is a god-sent.  The folks whom I’d promised him to decided they didn’t want him.  Of the three puppies in the litter he scored the best on the puppy temperament test, appeared to be the most stable, well-adjusted puppy, and a wonderful specimen of the breed.  Also, he’s a very smart puppy with natural proclivities towards working.  I am so glad I got to keep this little guy.

Just one problem:  he is very distracted.  Well, he’s only 12 weeks and 1 day as of writing this, so it’s hardly surprising that his flea-like-brain-attention-span-of-a-gnat is so immature.  I would train him in the house, but he’d spend his time checking out the furniture, chewing on a chair, visiting with the pomeranians, playing with his toys, and chasing the humans around the house.

I tried putting a leash on him while training, but that really stressed him out.  He would offer me behaviors, like sits, but when I clicked and treated him, he’d whimper.  Furthermore, he kept trying to get away from me.

We live in this large historic house that my great-grandfather, when he built the house, intended to be a two-family dwelling.  Right now the “other side” of the house is unoccupied, so I converted the kitchen into a training room.  It has nothing in there…absolutely nothing (except, of course, the kitchen sink).

I took Tuvok over there for training and he worked beautifully.  We worked on sits, and I started putting the cue on that behavior.  He began offering me downs, which seemed to take forever before.  We did a spot of loose-leash walking and walking on heel off-leash. 

His lesson was longer than usual, and longer than a puppy of his age should endure, but he didn’t want to quit!  He just kept offering me behaviors and waiting expectantly for that click and treat.

There’s hope for this little guy.

Teaching the “down” to a dog that doesn’t down

How do you get a dog to “down” when it doesn’t want to?  Well, there are several approaches, like shaping, capturing, and luring, and the technique to use depends upon the individual dog.

When I trained my two German Shepherds, I lured them into the down.  It was simple, just hold a treat in your hand and raise it above their heads until their butts hit the ground.  This is not the best way to train a new behavior, but back then I didn’t know better. I haven’t lured in about two years, and apparently I have lost the skill.  There is, however, no need to lure behaviors like the sit and down because all dogs do it.

I love capturing and shaping because it allows the animal to think and offer behaviors that come naturally to them, which in turn will get rewarded.  My training mantra is “behaviors that get rewarded get repeated.”  I did not invent that phase, but I sure like it and have proven its veracity time and time again.

Now I’m training Gretchen and Tuvok the down, and was having a great deal of trouble capturing that behavior for a few days.  Then I  made a brilliant discovery:  just let them run in the yard, hard and fast, then bring them inside when they are absolutely exhausted.  Once inside, they would simply plot themselves down in exhaustion.  That’s when I captured the behavior by clicking and treating (CT).

They got about three small bits of treats in the down position, then the fourth one I tossed away from them so that they would get up for it.  That way I’d set them up to offer another down so that I could click and treat.

Admittedly, I had to wait for them to settle once more, but it was worth the weight.  Again they lay back down and received another CT.  That took me two days to teach them.  They now offer the downs, even when they don’t seem particularly tired, and because they have been rewarded for offering the behavior in the past, they are apt to offer once more.

With my pomeranians, however, I had to shape the downs.  Shaping is the process where behaviors are broken into tiny, incremental steps and rewarded so that eventually the animal will offer the entire behavior.  Here’s how I shaped the down:

  1. CT for a sit.  Did this several times, tossing the treats away from the dog so as to reset the dog to repeat the behavior
  2. Whenever the dog sat and lowered its head, CT.  Rinse and repeat by tossing the treat away from the dog.
  3. Whenever the dog sat, lowered its head AND extended a paw forward CT with a huge jackpot, then toss the treat away from the dog.
  4. By this time the dog will plop itself into a down.  When this happens, it gets another jackpot.

Some dogs pick this up extremely quickly, while for others, such as my poms, I had to repeat these steps over several days.  With Gretchen and Tuvok, who are only 11 weeks old, I’m now doing a combination of capturing and shaping the downs.  I look out for when they offer the downs, and sometimes they are far away from me.  I have to watch them, and have clicker and treats ready.  Sometimes, however, they come to me for training and offer a sit.  That’s when I start shaping them the way I shaped my pomeranians. 

It’s still a work in progress, at least for the puppies, but I know that in the end they will have a fast and reliable sit and down.  The sits were trained by capturing, and I am now adding the cue to the behavior.

Being a Successful Clicker Trainer–Tip 10

Use treats for training new behaviors, and toys/games for motivation after the behavior is learned.  Using treats in the initial stages of teaching a behavior allows for the learning process to progress without breaking the dog’s concentration, and it is faster.  Bring out the toy when you’re training for latency or to provide further motivation.

Being a Successful Clicker Trainer–Tip 9

Break behaviors down into small components.  This is especially true if you are shaping a behavior, which is actually a very powerful way to train.  If you are training a “down,” for instance, and the dog is not readily offering you one, you may click the individual movements that make up the “down.” So at first you’d maybe click and treat the dog’s head moving downwards first.  Then after the dog readily offers you the lowered head, the next thing he’d most likely do is extend a paw.  Click and treat that.  Before long you will be clicking and treating both elbows on the ground.

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