Thursday, December 31, 2009

Reflecting Forward

I'm typically not a person that likes to look back at the past. I think I got this trait from my Dad, (John Gagliardi) who has been successfully coaching college football for 61 years and is the winningest college football coach of all time. He has always claimed the reason why he has survived for so long is because he primarily looks ahead - towards preparing for the next game.

So here we are on the brink of a new and exciting year, 2010. The year, 2009 has nearly passed and as I sit here I want to "reflect forward" instead of looking back over the year. I have always been historically challenged in that I really never enjoyed the subject in school and don't enjoy reading or hearing about documented events of the past. I tend to have difficulties in recalling supposedly important events in my life and when they happened. I guess I am more of a dreamer, a planner, and a doer

This next year is going to be different for me because I have chosen to change the way I think about things. I acknowledge that there are going to be good times and not so good times, but I am going to embrace the not so good times as well as enjoying the good times. It is always those not so good times that force the changes in me for the better. I love to challenge my dogs with their training skills, by pushing them to fail in order that they can learn how to be successful.  I am planning on doing the same thing for myself as I push myself forward into areas that can and will cause discomfort, inconvenience, and less of the same thing. Doing much of the same thing because it is convenient, comfortable, and/or easy doesn't bring success and satisfaction into life. Taking myself out of the comfort zone will force uncomfortable changes that eventually create results. I am going to embrace changes that are not easy and will push me in a new direction. Then all I have to do is trust my instincts.

As I reflect forward, I can feel the excitement and the new beginnings just around the corner. I know that the past has nothing to do with my resolutions for the future. The past has only gotten me to this point in my life and I'm glad I'm here. I enjoy making changes to the way I look at life with the ultimate goal of feeling the same natural joy that my dogs feel every day of their lives. So with my personal resolutions for 2010, my focus will be on very specific results. Results are everything. Results make a person feel good about themselves as they give purpose. My driving force will be making myself accountable for the specific commitments that I've made for this next year - no excuses. To do this, I need to change the way I think, change what I say (even when no one is around), and change what I do.

It's all about change. Not changing is easy, but it doesn't bring fulfillment and ultimate success. My goals and resolutions have nothing to do with training dogs and competing, as I feel I have a very good handle in that area of my life. My goals are specific personal goals that are the foundation skills of my life, which (like dog training foundation skills) positively affect everything else in life.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Happiness and Appreciation

This was going to be my topic for today as I have been thinking about this a lot lately. However, Susan Garrett just blew me away with her words on her own blog with the same general topic.

So, since she said it better than I could say it, I'll just point you to her blog entry "What Are You Seeking?".

Merry Christmas to each and every one of you!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Edward Gal's Masterclass Video

The amazing rider, Edward Gal has had some record breaking rides with his horses in dressage the past few years. There are so many parallels between training horses and training dogs. This video, while it is 25 minutes long, is jam packed with training advice which is similar to training dogs. If you come from a horse background, you already understand how much there is in common and for those that ride (or rode), there is a "feel" of rhythm and tempo between the rider and the horse.

In the video Edward talks about the importance of control and reacting to what the horse is doing  to get that control and keep the horse in tempo.  He is constantly balancing the training session with control when the horse wants to run or move faster and out of tempo. When he feels the horse is anticipating a move, even if he was going to do that particular maneuver, he will do something else to ensure that they are still in balance. I love all the analogies between training the horses and training dogs and how he is constantly working on the foundation pieces of each exercise and not going further until the bottom brick of that maneuver has been laid.

My very favorite quote in the video, applies to dog training is this: "When you lose control, you don't have anything.".


Monday, December 21, 2009

Placement Of Rewards

One of the common discussions I have with my students is the proper placement of rewards. They are, of course, very used to hearing me encouraging them to reward in a certain place and a certain way and they do a great job applying the concept. However, when I observe trainers that have described a problem between their ring performance and their training sessions, very few of them are rewarding the dog with food (or toys) at the proper time and in the correct place to help communicate exactly what is wanted at the time.

This happens especially often during heeling or during fronts and finishes in obedience and in agility it happens with start line stays, contacts and weaves. The food or toy is giving totally out of the context and most of the time what is rewarded is the release of that position or something totally different than what is wanted. In obedience exercises, the trainer many times incorrectly rewards the end of the exercise - not the exercise itself. What happens is that the trainer gets so excited about the progress, that they throw a party with tons of praise and release the dog from that position while mindlessly giving the dog the reward for what happened moments ago. The dog never associates the previous behavior with that reward.

It's important for the dog to "feel" the desired behavior and to be rewarded in that position. If you are working on a position (down, sit, 2o2o on contacts, etc) let the dog be in that position for a short period of time while you reward them with food or with a game of tug for 2o2o on contacts. Don't let them release from position just because you are rewarding them (another training issue that confuses dogs and probably another future topic).

So, because many obedience exhibitors train with food (incorrectly) and trial without food and see that their ring performances are horribly different than their training sessions, they think that they need to eliminate the food completely so that the dog gets used to not having food. That will only continue to confuse and stress the dogs because there will no longer by any pay for training and there has not been enough association between the rewards and the required performance in order to get a consistent happy performance. Without rewards, performances become lack luster, slow, robotic, and unenthusiastic by the dog. Most people want a happy dog in the obedience and the agility ring. They don't want slow and unenthusiastic performances because those lead to lots of mistakes, and nonqualifying performances. Games, rewards, and breaking down the exercises into core/foundation issues are very important to success.  Many times once the foundation issue is identified and worked, rewarded, proofed, and polished many of the other problems go away.

Classical conditioning is a very powerful tool to use while teaching obedience exercises, like heeling, fronts, finishes as well as all agility obstacles. It associates a very positive experience with certain positions as well as certain behaviors. If the placement of the reward is not correct, then the dog never truly understands what the trainer is trying to communicate. The dog only knows that their trainer is sincerely happy and get a cookie or a toy away from what just happened. If your placement of reward is not correct, then you most definitely will not have the performance that you want in obedience or in agility. Your training sessions will always be different than your ring performances because you have not properly associated what you want in the various core/foundation behaviors with proper rewards.

Here is an analogy I have used with my students that seems to make the most sense for them. When you get a new puppy, they initially do not like their crate. How to you crate train a puppy? You use classical conditioning with lots and lots of rewards and positive associations with the crate. Puppy goes in the crate, you throw a treat in there.  Simple, right? You would not make any positive association with that crate if you got the puppy to go into the crate and then only gave them food when they came out. You wouldn't send the puppy in the crate, then have a party and let them come out for a treat. The puppy would not positively associate the crate with something good and they would quickly learn that if they go into the crate and then come out, they are rewarded. They would not want to stay in the crate.

Once dogs have a positive association with a position, behavior, or any execution of an obstacle, then it's time to try and proof it by SERIOUSLY trying to get them to fail. Making a game out of making mistakes and getting the dog to problem solve will do wonders for your ring performances in obedience and agility as well as your confidence in the dog. If you are too quick to make things easy when the dog makes a mistake or the dog reacts to failing you are not helping them.  In fact, they are actually training you to help them so they CAN be rewarded. Most trainers don't go through enough steps to let their dogs think and problem solve enough in order to be an team partner. What usually happens is that trainers try to hard to control the dog as well as handle the exercises/obstacles and that is WAY more work than you really need to do. If you teach the dog his/her responsibility by allowing them to make mistakes without constantly intervening to help them, they will eventually learn their responsibility and then all you have to do is handle.  Handling is SO much easier when you don't have to control the dog, too.

Next time you are training an exercise, and obstacle, or a sequence of obstacles, pay attention to what you are rewarding and when you are rewarding. It's fine to play with your dog between exercises or obstacles, but make sure that they have been rewarded many times in the proper place in order to ensure that they are associating it with what is wanted.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Christmas Letters - A Mockery

I have always wanted to write one of those clever Christmas letters to send along to all my friends and family. However, I never get around to it as it is hard enough for me to get cards out on time each year.

I always look forward to reading my sister, Gina's annual Christmas letter each year. Gina is a elementary school teacher, who is taking a break to raise her very active and large family. Each year I think she can't possibly come up with another letter so cleverly done - but each and every year I get a new version with a different theme as she makes a mockery of Christmas letters.

Here is her 2009 Christmas letter:

Joey is a frosh at SJU and has already completed his physics major in his first semester. He will get his math major in the 2nd semester and then choose a 3rd major sophomore year. He won Homecoming kind, valedictorian and most intelligent, best looking and most amazing kid on campus.

Johnny is a junior at Becker and took the ACT test Dec 12th. Of course he aced it, getting a perfect score. He completed the 5-hour test in 20 minutes which was amazing since he took the Chinese version just to challenge himself. He also won best looking kid taking the test.

Tommy is a freshman at Becker and has always loved to shoot baskets. On his basketball team he is 100% shooting from all over the court. He hasn't missed a free throw, a 2-point shot and has already made 90 points on just his 3-point only the first 2 games. (Last game he played blindfolded and was still dropping shots from all over the court.)  He is also the best looking kid in the conference.

Robbie is in 6th grade and is already taller than 2 of his older 3 brothers and is about a 1/2 inch from the last. He loves baseball, football, and basketball and while he is the star of all his teams he seems to be best at baseball. He hit 1.000 again this season as he has since T-ball. Every at bat...Robbie hits a homerun, every batter he pitches to...he strikes out. He is also the best looking kid on all his teams.

Kari is in 4th grade and plays all her sports like she is used to playing with 5 brothers. She is the smartest kid in her school and also had a perfect ACT test. She took the Spanish version and it was in Braille. She used her toes and completed the test in less than an hour. She hit 100% in softball and has not missed a shot in basketball yet this season. Oh, and she is the best looking kid in her school.

Jimmy is in 2nd grade and proves that often God saves the best for last. He was the best flag football player in the league, best baseball player in the state and even though he isn't old enough to play basketball yet, we are sure he is the best at that as well. He is the best looking Benson which is an amazing thing since all the Benson kids are so phenomenally good looking.

So again our kids are better than all of your kids in every way. Enjoy your normal children at Christmas and keep them aiming high by shoing them what they can attain if they strive to be like the Benson children.

Merry Christmas and see you on Facebook.

Gina and Jeff Benson

Friday, December 18, 2009

He's Back!!

Reason, that is...

Reason has been on the injured reserve list since mid August with what we thought was a torn ligament in his right rear toe (the outside/non weight bearing toe). He was rested and had that foot and toe stabilized in a thick wrap and he was on leash and restricted activity for 8 weeks. After another incident where he dislocated that toe in mid October, I got an appointment with Dr. Liz LaFond, who is an orthopedic vet and a surgical specialist at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Hospital. When she looked at that toe she immediately told me that it was unstable and was moving in ways that it should not move.  She felt that if nothing was done that Reason would continue to jam that toe and dislocate it - even in normal day to day activities if he would suddenly turn to the left, he could do that.The quickest and most effective option for his situation was to amputate that toe. So, on October 23rd, that toe was amputated.

It was amazing in that he was never lame or gimpy on that foot after the toe was removed. He adjusted immediately to his situation. He got back to help me with sheep chores after four weeks of rest and then I gradually building up the strength in that foot and ensuring that he was using it.

Last night for the first time since July, Reason ran a standard course and handled himself fine.  I am actually getting more and more confident myself that he is going to be fine.

I am enjoying our training sessions again - working on the little things.  And I look forward to our training and trials we have planned for 2010. Reason is my heart and soul...I love this dog more than words can express. There is nothing better than seeing him smile again because he can run and TURN again.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Failure - It's What You Make Of It

I just love Nike's "Failure" video with Michael Jordan. It's a reminder of how important "failure" is in our life, when it's used to inspire change.

It's also demonstrates how there are two different ways of looking at things - dwelling on failures or finding a way to be successful due to failure.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Own It And Then Let It Go

The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light. --Joseph Campbell

There are times in life where something comes up that causes me to feel negativity (sadness, anger, fear, uncertainty, skepticism, etc). I've gotten better over the years in dealing with these negative emotions and recognizing their value in my life (yes, negative emotions do have value). I can recognize these indicators quickly because of the immediately change in my emotions. What these feelings tell me is that there is an opportunity for me to make a shift and to improve my situation. Each shift and expansion I make, causes me to love my life even more and isn't that what it's all about?

So when life presents those challenges and I look at them and feel negative emotions, I challenge myself to come to terms with them as best as I can - some are easy and others take more effort. I try to look at them differently - and know that it's okay to feel those negative emotions. They are the indicators that there is something that needs addressing in my life. It's not anyone else's issue nor is it my task in life to change people for the sole purpose of making me feel better. I own those negative emotions and they are my own wonderful insights. Once I make the mental shift that everyone is doing the best they can (including me) and I focus on things that bring me joy, I then realize that there is no one or anything in this world that is responsible for making me feel bad - it's my own doing.

Pushing those feeling away, suppressing them, or even defending and justifying them won't help me feel any better. Recognizing those feelings, allowing them, and then making peace with those emotions will always make me feel better.  When I realize that I own the issue that caused me to pay attention to it, I can frame my emotions in a way that allows me to just let it go.

There are so many wonderful people (friends and family) in my life - and I'm surrounded by my simply amazing dogs that continue to help me remain grounded. When I am having the most difficulty making peace with where I am in life, I only have to look into my dogs' eyes.

Then I see just how perfect life really can be, if I just look at it differently.