Wednesday, November 17, 2010

When I am a Dog Trainer...

Although I have always loved dogs, and I love people who love dogs, I am but an adoptee of the dog people. My first home, my people, are Engineers, the nerds, the geeks, the gamers, the wedgerats, the techs, the fraternity of Lamda Nu Lamda. And, once upon a time, I spent a year and a half residing at Worcester Polytechnical Institute, the University of Science and Technology. And Life.The motto of this fine institute of many sciences is "Lehr und Kunst." It is upon these words - Theory and Practice - that my school will be founded.

I will teach pet classes, because honestly you have to, but there will be a Pet track and a Performance track and there will be flow charts and it will be awesome. Some classes, like Clicks & Tricks and other things that can stand alone will be trackless, but entry level pet classes won't see much actual clicker, if any.

Novice A
A Performance class for people who have never titled a clicker-trained dog in Obedience. 8 weeks, 6 teams.
Prequisites: Performance Foundations I and Obedience Foundations

Week 1: Bring Dog, crate, clicker, treats. Review Novice exercises in slideshow and assistant + demo dog forms.
10 minute warm up: Rally-style doodling. Do you and your dog remember the things you've already learned?
15 minute lecture: Dogs in crates. What areas do you need to polish? Most of this class is about heeling and proofing, since sit-down-stand are covered in the preqs. Leashes are a safety net! If your dog needs a leash to stick with you, your rate of reinforcement is too low. Demo footwork and other handling signals with dog, then without for right-about turn. Leave slide up showing footwork while handlers pair up and walk 3 paces - about turn - 3 paces with "dog" watching only feet. Switch. Repeat, watching face/shoulders/upper body.
15 minute practicum: Get dogs out, set up for heeling. Handle about turn as practiced. Treat often, and work at your own pace. It is more important that your dog is successful and is keying in on your movements than keeping up with the class.
10 minute lecture: Dogs in crates. Demo right turn as before. Homework: 300 peck heeling with verbal "Name, sit." Practice right and about turns - not in the context of straight line heeling.
10 minute free-time: Leave, or stick around and get questions answered, a little extra practice, etc

Week 2: Warm up before class. Think about your routine before going in the ring to compete.
10 minute homework check: Who can 300 peck the farthest? When you drop out, stop where you lost and practice sit-stays. Winner gets some kind of credit that can be applied to stuff.
15 minute lecture: Dogs in crates. Left turns.
15 minute practicum:
10 minute lecture: Dogs in crates. Demo linking straight line heeling and turns. Be sure to lower distance/duration since you are making it harder. Homework: Can you work up to where your 300 peck was at the start of class with a right, left, and about turn? Don't add them all at once!
10 minute free-time

Week 3: Slow

Week 4: Fast

Week 5: Figure-8

Week 6: Long Sit

Week 7: Long Down

Week 8: Heeling Off Leash/Run-Through

I got to our Obedience class early tonight, and after letting Gatsby run out a bit of his crazy left him in the car to watch the Beginner Obedience class. I had thought about putting Gatsby in this class instead of Pre-Novice, and I'm glad I didn't. For one, it's MUCH larger and fairly chaotic.

I really enjoyed the chance to observe though, because there were a lot of interesting things I saw.

First of all, you can tell who breeds what around here - there are a fair number of Dachshunds (1 in agility, 3 in Beginner, 2 in Pre-Novice) and the Danes! I think the instructor (same for my class and this one) breeds them, from what I picked up in conversation. She uses them to demo a lot, there was a beautiful Harlequin tonight.

Secondly, because the class is so big, there is a lot of confusion for people and dogs. I don't think more assistants would have helped all that much, the room was too full. People didn't really know what they were doing and were trying to keep up with the rest of the class, when everyone's dogs really needed different things. It was just TOO MUCH. Maybe I'm just sensitized to it, but most dogs needed to come way dowwwwn, not more up happy playful yay! But then there were a few people like the lady with a young Dane who was shutting down under the excitement (I suspect). The dog was terribly confused, she'd barely get herself into a sit before starting off again. Each time she sat slower and slower, I suspect she needed to be told she was RIGHT for sitting, but now we're going to move on.

As a side effect of size, I'm beginning to realize that the standard structure of a training class is all wrong. Nobody knows why (or exactly what) they're supposed to do what they do, so they don't know how to change it if it's not going to help their dog. Understanding the why behind something is a huge soapbox of mine, which is why I'm such a theory buff (and why I can know all this and still have only a half-trained dog, I never did have much use for practice). Tonight they sent dogs through tunnels as a confidence booster. For the Dane who started out apprehensive but by the third time though was bounding? Yes, and it was delightful to see. For the timid Miniature Poodle who slipped through at first and by the end was trotting calmly (if unenthusiastically)? Yes! For the collie mix who had her leash pulled through the tunnel and still threw back her head and dug in her feet? Not so much.

There's too much lumping - because there's so much to cover in a class period (and let's face it, it's easier to get by with lumping in correction-based training) - and not enough splitting. And trainers have been saying for as long as I've been around that short, high energy, successful training bursts are more effective than dragging through for an hour. I know my energy goes all over the place during class, and there's still a lot of downtime.

So that's my rough outline of how I'd do a Pre-Novice class. Obviously there's a lot left to fill in, because this is my first time through an obedience class with an eye towards competition (and I don't know what I'd cover in the foundation), but the structure is the most important thing. Talk - do - talk - do. Split, practice, combine.

Lehr und Kunst.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


The next time I think to myself, "Wow, Gatsby is being a really excellent dog today," I am going straight to the vet to get anti-inflammatory medicine.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Gun Dogs - Part One

My local library has a plethora of gun dog training books. Probably because this is Wisconsin, and if there is one thing people in Wisconsin like to do, it is sit in a forest in the dead of winter in the worst weather imaginable and hope something walks by so they can shoot it. Clearly, this is not my home state.

But, someday I will get my dearly desired Toller and I want to fool around with field training because I think it's neat. And, you know, fulfilling bred-in drives and original purpose and all that stuff. Hey, I took Gatsby to Earthdog, didn't I? Not my fault my dog is afraid of tunnels and rats.

I really haven't found any of the books to be all that different from one another. I get list titles if you want, but they aren't very important. I certainly don't recommend following the training advice contained within. A) They're quite out of date, the two I'm sitting next to right now were first copywritten in 1949 and 1983. They've been revised and rereleased several times, but still. These books are basically giving the same advice you would have been given 60 years ago. And B) They're really, really, harsh. Like Koehler harsh, but without the consistent system that at least makes Koehler fair. Fairly brutal, but fair.

See, gun dog books (I am mostly within retriever books, and I am learning that they are sometimes a separate distinction from gun dog books which are mainly pointers and setters) are working with, surprise, gun dogs. Who are fairly biddable as a whole. Which is kind of the point. These books are a huge purporter of the "he wants to please" myth, because generally speaking sporting dogs are more likely to be reinforced by praise and praise alone. Any dog that doesn't learn by their methods isn't worth training. Which is honestly garbage.

But what I find really interesting is that every book I've picked up starts more or less the same way: start with a good dog. Hunters aren't trainers. They want to get a dog, go shoot something, and have the dog go and pick it up. So speed and ease of training are given a lot of words, as is the futility of working with a mediocre dog. "Get rid of the beast" is not uncommon advice if a dog proves stubborn in the early stages of training.

They're actually really against backyard breeders, because the dogs are untested. Not big fans of bench breeders, but it's less animosity and more of the mind that they're just irrelevant to hunting dogs. Most hunting breeders aren't people I would buy a dog from, but every advice about buying a dog to shoot over I've read really drives home the point that the parent dogs must be proven hunters and other really solid advice about picking breeders, litters, and puppies. Which is really kind of nice to read. Let's get a little health testing in there and some more proactive guardianship of puppies (don't place a pup with just anyone with money and a gun, some more litter socialization, less endorsement of breeding as a money maker) and honestly I think most of them would pass the I'm Queen of the Universe test.

I do wish some of these books mentioned Tollers though. Considering they weren't players in the American scene until recently I'm not surprised, but I wish it.

I think I'll do a few more posts on this topic, because I'm enjoying the reading, and I think there is a lot to be gained from studying tradition. Don't reinvent the wheel, right? Well, in this case the wheel is a very specific shape that only works on one kind of bicycle and on one kind of road with special grooves, but still. It's interesting.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Taking Classes with the Reactive Dog

So Gatsby and I started a new class tonight. Pre-novice Obedience. We also have agility on Mondays. The Obedience class is the first time we've really advanced a level. Skillwise, he's clearly out of the beginner class, which is targeted to the typical out of control adolescent dog who hasn't had a day of training in his life. I've taken that class five times at different locations, I am ready to move on.

Gatsby is... well, himself. Honestly we were barely a part of class, in many cases we opt out of exercises or drastically lower the criteria so he has a chance to succeed. I feel ridiculous. He's one of maybe two other dogs on a flat collar and he gets way more treats that the rest of the dogs combined. And I still don't have even most of his attention. When I do, he's brilliant. We had maybe three really excellent moments tonight, and he has beautiful finishes to both sides. But he's constantly worried about the other dogs and had more than a few reactive outbursts. Heeling is impossible, we're either too close to a dog or he can see a dog approaching or a dog moving away.

Here is what I do to get through a class.

1. Your personal bubble needs to be bigger than everyone else's.
Pretend everyone else in the room is covered in Parvo. If you are in a class to learn skills (vs. a behavior class), your goal is not to push your dog's threshold higher. It is to practice skills. Talk to the instructor and other class members. Let them know you and your dog need more space. Try to be aware of how other people are moving. It can be very hard to split your attention between your dog (who takes more focused attention that most other dogs will need from their handlers), the exercise, and the other teams, so try to stay off the probable path.

2. Keep distraction to a minimum. 
This can be hard because most classes that I have attended have push proofing way too fast. For "normal" dogs they can get by with this, particularly traditionally trained dogs. However, it's really a case of being a lumper, not a splitter. It's also an outcome of the class environment: there's only so much time and so much to cover.

3. Work Ahead
Many classes give handouts at the end of the class. Depending on who is sponsoring the class, they may already have next week's handouts available. Being prepared ahead of time allows you to be proactive and more confident in the handling of your dog. Which leads into the final point...

4. Be Proactive
This is what being the owner of a reactive dog is all about. Watch your dog, predict what might set him off, and avoid it. Remember that your allegiance is to your dog first of all. I am very good at this, but often come off as abrasive or a nervous idiot. Probably an abrasive nervous idiot. Know your goals for the class. For me and Gatsby, I want to start preparing myself for the Novice Obedience ring. I want to learn how to handle. I want Gatsby to start learning to ignore distractions, not react-remember-return. And I want him to start being comfortable while under threshold.

Now, I know all of these. But it's hard putting them into practice. It's hard to manage him while not being obnoxious to the other teams. A lot of the things I do to bring Gatsby back involve lots of high, fast movement like fist touches or running backward.

I'm also concerned I'm starting to use food as a bribe instead of a reward. During the explanation of the next exercise, the dogs are expected to just sit and wait. This isn't really a problem for normal dogs. But Gatsby is, you know, crazy. I'm trying to reward calm sitting behavior, but he'll growl and then escalate his vocalizations if I'm not treating at a rate he finds appropriate. I don't want to reward that, but I also don't want to be the ass in the class.

So I don't know. Maybe I'll drop back down to Beginner. But that isn't really going to solve the problem, he really needs to be in a class of bombproof dogs that won't react to him reacting. I love being in a training class, but the way that most are structured are just not compatible with the dog I have. I really need to work with someone who knows reactivity and who knows getting reactive dogs to trial, and who knows getting reactive dogs to trial with positive methods. I basically need to train with myself from 20 years in the future. I assume by then I'll be a world class dog trainer specializing in getting reactive dogs competition ready.