Wednesday, March 14, 2012

My New Favorite Quote

I posted this on Facebook, but I love this more than anything else I've ever read, so here it is:

"There is a big mix out there, and there's lots of different things going on, and there is not one way that was intended to be the right way. Just like there's not one color or one flower or one vegetable or one fingerprint. There is not one that is to be the right one over all others. The variety is what fosters the creativity. And so you say, "Okay, I accept that there's lots of variety, but I don't like to eat cucumbers." Don't eat cucumbers. But don't ask them to be eliminated and don't condemn those who eat them. Don't stand on corners waving signs trying to outlaw the things that you don't like. Don't ruin your life by pushing against. Instead, say, "I choose this instead." "
--- Abraham and Jerry & Esther Hicks

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

If I Knew Then What I Know Now - The Stress In Training Dogs

The topic of "If I Knew What I Know Now..." is one that many bloggers are writing about today as a topic for agility bloggers as part of a Dog Agility Action Day. Thanks to Steve Schwartz for organizing this great group of bloggers and this topic.

There are so many others that have more experience than I have in training agility dogs. I have only been in this particular sport for a little more than 10 years, so I have not seen the trends and changes in the sport over the years. However, I have been training dogs since the early 1980's and I have lots of experience training dogs in other performance areas - especially in obedience where I was an obedience judge for over 20 years (judging many national tournaments) and put OTCH titles on the first 4 dogs that I trained for competition.

Coming from an obedience background, it took me some time to learn the handling involved in agility, but what took longer was to make the gradual change in how I actually taught my dogs the different behaviors that are needed for agility or obedience from the traditional/correctional training to reward based training. For a long time, I actually resisted the change myself - getting caught up in the "you can't train a reliable xxxx without corrections". What I have learned is that you can not say "never" or "can't" or "won't" when it comes to accomplishing something. There is always a better way to do things as it proven continuously in our world as athletes become better trained, products become more creative, technology becomes more amazing, so why wouldn't training dogs be the same way?

My first dogs were all taught by luring with food to get behaviors and then gradually trained to know the behaviors in both obedience and agility (Reason was the only dog trained this way in agility). What happened to all those dogs is that the "proofing" or "distraction" phase cased the most stress for them and the most mistakes. The learning came easy as there was always that helpful lure to keep them working properly without mistakes. But struggles started happening when they were required to understand what they were supposed to do when that went away. Don't get me wrong, my obedience dogs were amazing working dogs. I motivated them and rewarded them for good choices and they looked wonderful in the ring when they trialed. I was a very good trainer and understood what I wanted in terms of performance, so I got it. However, there are definite phases of training - with corrections - that I never enjoyed. I can admit this now, but I absolutely never enjoyed correcting my dogs for their mistakes. Even though I was never unfair (although I might disagree now) with them, they always responded in a way that caused me to be able to reward them. The more I trained dogs in agility and the more I did my private obedience lessons and saw the meltdowns and stresses that were being caused by corrections from my students, the more I was inspired to do things differently to help make it more fun to train and for the dogs to learn how to actually think through mistakes, rather than being helped or corrected by the trainers.

Reason was an amazing obedience dog and he was my first agility dog. By the time I trained him in obedience, I was very experienced and knew exactly what I wanted in the obedience ring. I think I got pretty much what I wanted as he is the epitome of a cute heeling dog, with great drive and amazing speed into fronts and finishes. He qualified for the 2009 AKC Obedience Invitational when I was rarely doing obedience trials because I was trialing so much in agility and in herding with him. I had a weekend off and trialed him in a 3 day local obedience trial, which without my knowledge was an AKC Obedience Invitational Regional Qualifier. He was the top dog out of the 3 days which allowed him an invitation to that prestigious event. I was never really inspired to campaign him for an OTCh, since I was just more drawn to herding and agility being those activities were juicing me up because they are ALWAYS different and required me to learn knew things.

Before Reason retired, he did accumulate a bunch of OTCh points and also 9 UDX legs. I loved trialing him when I had a few weekends off, but as I started to train Score differently than my start with Reason, I started to recognize some of the stresses that Reason actually had while trialing in both agility and in obedience. When he would get stressed (because of a mistake) he would freeze up or when he was moving in agility, he would go around obstacles because he lost focus on his job. He would also do that in herding, when he made a mistake - he would start looking at me and he would lose his sheep. I was able to solve this issue in herding because the reinforcement is so much greater, but I was never able to fix it in agility and obedience. Probably no one, but me saw this side of him. He didn't act stressed because he was still speedy and still seemed like he wanted to work. But now I know better and he would have probably finished his MACH (he was retired with 19 QQ's) if he would have been able to handle the stresses of making mistakes and recovering. The stress issues caused me to get frustrated as well, which also contributed to more stress and focus on me in the ring.

Score was trained mostly with reward based, but I was still in a phase of trying to figure this all out. My obedience training with him was very minimal because I was doing so much herding and agility. Most of my learning and skills using reward based training was done with my students as I started making changes and seeing some really amazing results. Both in the dogs and also that people were actually having so much more fun training their dogs.

Enter Schema. Schema changed my world dramatically as I was committed to training both agility and obedience totally with reward based training. I have learned so much with her with the foundation Crate Games, circle work, and other games which taught her foundation concepts where she could learn how to struggle and make mistakes while dealing with stress issues away from the bigger picture of training. We learned a better communication system that probably seems very complex, but is actually very simple because it is built on very simple foundation games that she knows and understands. As more and more complex tasks are learned by her, if something breaks I know how to get her to understand what I want. She has learned to focus under extreme distractions and she is probably the most distracted dog I have ever worked with, since she has so much prey drive and she is so reinforced by motion. Her obedience training has been done completely by reward based, including her retrieve which was done totally by shaping and rewarding. She will eventually have BETTER heeling than Reason and her retrieve will be just as nice. But what she will have that Reason did not have, is the confidence to make mistakes and reconnect and refocus, which is very different than most dogs that trial in obedience (including my own).

The one thing that I know now, is that I had to go through this entire process of trusting my instincts and desire to train differently. Many people have quit training dogs - especially in obedience - because they don't enjoy it. And some people still do enjoy it, but get frustrated because of the issues they have in trials. I wasn't really enjoying the entire training process either, but that has changed. I enjoy EVERY aspect of training my dogs now and I love working with my students that trust me in creating a different approach for training. I think they enjoy training more now than ever. 

What I also know is that while I feel strongly about this, others will feel just as strongly opposed to it. I know that I was at that point in my history as a trainer and I have great respect for trainers that feel comfortable in how they train. It is a journey that we are all on and everyone is in a different place. 

Sunday, March 4, 2012

I'm Still Here

I have been remiss in updating my blog. Mainly because I've not really been on my laptop at home very much with agility trials on the weekends and teaching or going to classes in the evenings. Both Schema and Score have a little over a month off from trialing and Score is going to have some time off so he can work different muscles and rest those repetitive jumping muscles.

The last time I posted an entry here was back in September. So many things have happened since there - in and away from trialing and training. Schema has been trialing (AKC) and training with jumps up to 24" since the end of August. In USDAA, she is jumping her height at 22". I never practiced her at 20" and I was not happy with how she was starting to tick the 22" USDAA tire (which is smaller) as well as a few other issues because of the differences between AKC & USDAA. Since moving her to 24" in AKC, I'm really happy with the way she is handling herself over the jumps as she is so athletic. 

The tire height in AKC is set to 20", which is just a 2" difference instead of a 6" differenc. Also, putting her in the 24" AKC height class, puts the table height the same in both USDAA and AKC. I plan on eventually jumping her at 26" in both organizations when I feel comfortable with how she is handling herself. I might also wait until she has all her QQ's for AKC Nationals before I move her up to 26". She is a very powerful and long striding jumper and I have done some training at 26" and it seems to be an easy transition for her. I'm going to see how this all plays out and just adjust it as we go. I realize I will have to make a choice for AKC Nationals jumping her either 20" or 26" eventually. I am pretty sure we will do 26" instead of going down.

How low can you go!!!
This year, I also want to get Schema in the obedience ring and get her CD. I love her heeling style and she knows her job of holding onto position, once she is at my side. I've actually taught her to heel nicely on both sides (right and left) and I will continue to work her on both sides since It keeps her balanced and it's easy enough for me to do, since I don't pattern train heeling anymore. She knows that once she is in position, no matter what I do, she must remain there until I release her. The only thing that needs to be taught is a more precise front. Actually she needs lots of training and reinforcement for front position as this is something I just have not worked on and she has had much more value for being at my side.

Also, more herding for Schema as she is very talented and keen on stock and I've just now figured out how to incorporate what she knows from agility (in terms of working with me and handling pressure) into herding. It has made a huge difference in our relationship and work on stock and now we need to keep moving towards more advanced work.
Schema watching the sheep

My goals with Score this year is to get him healthy enough and strong enough to finish his MACH2 and his ADCH as well as his HC (herding championship). We have had very little work the last 2 years in herding because of health issues (Lyme disease and Cryptosporidiosis) which has held him back physically with various endurance skeletal/muscular issues. I feel good about his current state as he is getting stronger and more balanced each day and my primary goal with him is to continue that trend as spring approaches.

Score driving after the turn at the post on the AKC A course

Go Score....Go!!
Reason is healthy and happy and enjoying his retirement. I periodically bring him to the trials that are close by so he can visit and do a few practice jumps. He is an amazingly resilient dog and I am just so thankful that he's still as vibrant and full of life now as he was one year ago when he was still trialing in agility at full height. Things changed quickly and I am forever thankful to have him still here. He rocks my world and always will.
Reason - sitting in the kitchen watching me

For some of you, it might be a surprise to hear that I am training and will be eventually running a Papillon in agility. Brink is owned by one of my long time obedience students, Dorie Madsen, who had some physical challenges in Brink's early life that prevented her from training him in obedience. So, I started working him with the foundation training (which is the same for both obedience and agility early on) and gave Dorie homework to do. Brink had been trained and completley understands Crate Games and It's Yer Choice games and so it was easy to give Dorie some homework to do as Brink could be left or sent to his kennel easily so Dorie could move to various places. I continued to work Brink over the past few years and now Dorie has taken over the obedience part and I am doing the agility training. He is such a sweet boy and I'm having lots of fun learning how to handle a small dog with different issues than I am used to in handling and training my Border Collies.

For me, I am doing many more private lessons and really enjoying working with people and dogs that want to use more reward based training. It removes the frustration from the handler and hence the stress from the dog and makes training just so much more fun. I'm also teaching more classes in both obedience and agility and really enjoying that as well. The most fun I have had as an instructor is doing a recent class, called Advanced Impulse Control, which were about 6 very experienced trainers/instructors with young dogs that took my popular Impulse Control class. It was a blast to see these young dogs start to learn how their choices would lead them to reinforcement if they would respond appropriately and if not, they were not rewarded and/or removed in a way that made sense to the dogs. Very fun to see the lights go on and to see how working impulse control in various places could actually be fun for the trainers. 

For me, training dogs has been an evolving growing experience of learning how to find foundation training issues and pick them out and work on them separately from the big picture. I truly love working on details and setting up games to help the trainer (which might be me) address a particular issue with the dog and also to help the dog understand their role in a simplified game. Then the fun is added to try and see if we can get the dog to make mistakes to further clarify their understanding. It is WAY more fun training this way.

That's it for now! I'll update more regularly now.