Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Sonic at 9 months

How can my baby girl be 9 months old already???

The past month has been spent almost entirely on field work-related training. She only got to swim once in April, and she had apparently forgotten how to swim horizontally. She is still splashing some, and it seems to worsen as she tires, but it is mostly relatively efficient. We've been working 'progressives' in the water, which means someone is throwing a series of single marks farther and farther away from her. I think she's gone between 50 and 60 yds in the water on her longest swims. Here she is on her longest water mark last Sunday. She had some problems at the end of it because we had thrown 4 ducks into the strip of cover, and the duck scent was attracting her. She did work it out in the end, which made me happy.

We are still mostly working on her swimming straight out with as little chance to cheat (for you field newbies, cheating refers to a dog who runs around water instead of taking the straightest path to the bird through the water) as we can manage. She's had several lessons on 'get out on a point and get back in the water beyond the point to get the bumper, then get out and back in again.' She's only required a couple of gentle reminders from the gunner that, no, she shouldn't try to take the land route back. I'm not fooling myself. She'll figure out that it is an option at some point.

I've only been at home one of the weekends since I wrote about Sonic at 8 months. Lots of travel. I presented a seminar in Texas, which meant I flew, so the dogs stayed home under the care of my husband and 19 year old son. The next weekend, we - the 3 Flat-Coats and I - drove to Maryland to present my On Beyond Novice seminar for the Catoctin KC in Frederick. I hadn't done this seminar in a while, and it was fun for me to be able to concentrate on the advanced exercises. It was gratifying to have so many people in attendance who have attended previous seminars.

The next day, I had the privilege of getting to field train at Pat Nolan's grounds, Lily Pons. Unfortunately for me, Pat wasn't there, but it was very fortunate for him because he was presenting a dog training seminar in Korea. I trained with Linda Reynolds, who I had first met 3 years before doing some field training at a FCRSA National. She told me about Pat back then. We were joined by two others, one with FCRs and one with a Lab and Golden. I've watched YouTube videos of Lorraine with her dogs as young puppies demonstrating several of Pat's early puppy training ideas. I talked to Linda about more of Pat's ideas, and I learned some new drills that I've been putting to good use with Sonic. My favorite is Pat's "M & M" drill, which stands for marking and memory. It turns out my yard is a gold mine in terms of this drill. Essentially, you throw multiple bumpers at different objects in your yard - a tree, a bush, a chair... - and that helps the dog remember where to look for memory marks. Sonic enjoys it and it is helping me stretch her out a bit on her ability to do doubles and triples without anyone helping.

We have been working quite a bit recently on Sonic's Force Fetch. We are up to working on 'Walking Fetch', though I keep debating with myself whether we should be there or not. When she is picking up a bumper that someone else throws or that I throw fairly far away, she mostly picks it up nicely. Doing up close ones, she often seems to go for an end. But all in all, I think we are moving in the right direction. Last month, she was reaching down to the floor for a bumper at meal time. She'll now pick one up and deliver it to my side. Sometimes, her pick ups are good enough that she can deliver it without dropping. Other times, not. She has had several chances to retrieve birds, both pigeons and ducks, and she thinks they are splendid. She is more willing to hold onto a duck when exiting water than a bumper, so we might be able to manage the required delivery to hand in the Junior test at the National next month.

Three weeks ago, when I finished the two sections of Maneuvers I was teaching, I had Sonic out and had her do what the class dogs were doing, which was checking on their ability to do the various directional maneuvers they'd been learning without a treat in the trainer's hand. I was pleasantly surprised at how well she is understanding most of them. Her ability to side step to the left when in heel position is poor when my hand is empty, though it was improved Thursday afternoon as compared to Tuesday evening. She can do all of the others with my left hand empty, and some of them with little or no hand guidance at all.

We've done a bit of work on a formal Novice recall. I pulled out a platform to use for her to come onto to front, and that took some reminding. She learned to get on a platform at 8 weeks, but I guess I haven't had her on one for a couple of months, at least not for fronts.

I am including her in the stay groups in my 3 sections of Novice Practice each week. While her sit stay is still wiggly, her physical changes that have happened in the past month - being far less cow-hocked - means it is much easier for her to keep her back feet set wide enough to hold a sit. She still likes to flop over, though it is far less frequent. Her down stay is decent, though she does like to flop over on her side and streeeetch herself out, or turn upside down. But that is something I've seen before:
Ty in the Open B down stay at the 2009 FCRSA National
Photo by Cathi Winkles Photography

We've done my 20 treat exercise on multiple occasions in several different locations. She is very interested in her surroundings, and it usually takes her several minutes to voluntarily look at me 20 times. I've also started doing a bit of heeling in other places. I showed Ty in obedience at the Midland KC trial last Saturday, and I hauled T3 there to get it dewinterized, as well as to try out camping at an obedience trial. The hauling is a PITA, but I do like having it at the trial. Friday evening, I did some obedience work with her outside the trailer. The video isn't very good - I couldn't figure out any better way to prop up the iPad - but you can see a bit of what her heeling, fronts and finishes are looking like. In the section on fronts, some people walked by with several dogs, which distracted her in a major way, but not for too long.

I am planning to enter her in 3 different field events at the National - the JH, the WC, and the Unsteady Singles, a club event that just happens at most of the FCRSA Nationals. I think she'll be considerably better prepared than Gryff was at his first National field events, when he was 11 months old. I'll also show her in the Puppy Sweeps and regular puppy class. Last week, I briefly flirted with the thought of entering her in Rally Novice at the National. When I had her out to do a bit of work at the obedience trial Saturday, I quickly changed my mind about that hare-brained idea. I'll be busy enough the week of the National - I'm running Gryffin in the Master test and the Steady Singles. I'm showing Ty in the Veterans Sweepstake, Open B & Utility B, and possibly the regular Veterans 7-9 month class. I'll probably enter Gryff in the Veterans obedience class. Maybe the Veterans Sweeps, though I'm not sure I want to show that many times.

Last Tuesday, after doing all of the demonstration work in my Heeling and Come & Stay classes, when we got back to the house, she seemed like she was getting the zoomies. I took her out in the back yard, and she ran and ran and ran and ran great big circles. It was like all the concentrating on the demoes was making her brain explode, and she needed to run it off. Tonight, I took her out after class was over and let her have her run. She is fast... and it is a bit unnerving when she is coming at me full speed ahead. Her accelerator works great. The brakes... well, we are working on them!

My plan for the next month is to stretch her out on her land and water marks, keep exposing her to different concepts in the field, make more progress on her force fetch, do some conformation practice, throw in a bit of obedience work, and keep enjoying her for herself.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Food Delay

I think I first heard the term 'Food Delay' in one of Dawn Jecs' books. I read her books a long time ago, so I'm not sure if what I am about to describe was based on something she described or not.

One of the biggest hurdles for many trainers who use food to train their dog is weaning off the food sufficiently to get reliable obedience ring performances from their dogs. I want to describe at least some of the ways in which I work on this process with my dogs.

When I first introduce an exercise, I often have food in one or both of my hands, and it is often in sight, used as a lure or magnet. My first step in the weaning process is to increase the number of repetitions my dog must do or the duration of the exercise (such as attention, heeling, or stays) with the food readily visible. I start out with a one-to-one ratio of action to CR (conditioned reinforcer) and treat. As my dog's understanding grows, I raise the ratio to 2-6 correct responses per CR/treat, still occasionally treating 2 in a row. When I can get several responses in a row with the food in my hand, I give the treat on the last one of the series, and without reloading my hand (I usually just hold one treat in my treat dispensing hand at this stage), I ask for one more repetition without the food in my hand. I use all of the other cues I was using when the food was there, such as hand position and leash pressure. After a single response, I CR & treat. My dog needs to do many repetitions when the food is obvious and a single one when it is not.

I gradually reduce not just the visible food cues, but also any other extra cues I'm using, such as leash pressure and extraneous hand cues. I am striving to have my dogs respond to a simple verbal cue or a single signal. Most dogs learn via successful repetition, and lots of it. If you have a dog for whom repetition either bores him or confuses him, you will need to spread your reps out over more training sessions.

Food Delay is the process of working you dog with no physical reinforcers - food or a toy - in your hands, in your pocket, in your mouth, or tucked under your shirt. In short, get it ALL off your person. If your dog has been very used to food and/or a toy always being readily present, you might discover these are part of your dog's cueing system that you were unaware of.

Before I start the Food Delay exercise, my dog should have a good understanding of my Find Heel exercise, including distraction resistance. If you aren't familiar with this, take a look at these videos:

I have also typically done several months of heeling work with my dog, but I return to Find Heel as the starting point when I start Food Delay. I'm going to describe a formula of food on you and food off you, but it is critical that you do NOT do this exactly this way more than a couple of times in a row. Let me repeat: do NOT do this exact formula more than a time or two. Dogs are very good at counting, so you need to be more random than that.

After you have removed all reinforcers from your pockets, etc. - take that bait bag off! - take 9 treats with you to some place high enough that you can leave the treats without your dog being able to reach them. A counter or windowsill can work well. Leave 6 of your 9 treats on the counter, and begin your Find Heel work. The first three times your dog gets to heel position, CR and treat him from one of your 3 treats. You may start with one in your left hand, but be aware you want to become more subtle about it before you are done. After giving the third treat, continue walking without making any fanfare that you have no food on you. When your dog catches up again, CR, and with a phrase such as "Let's go get a cookie!" run or walk briskly to your treat stash. Give him one, and leave empty handed. Some dogs hang out near the treat supply, which is why it is critical you put them somewhere your dog can't steal them. It's almost as though the dog is saying, "Hey, dummy, the treats are HERE!" Repeat this 'dog catches up, CR, "let's go get a cookie!"' routine two more times, which should have you getting to your stash of four treats. Give him one, take the remaining 3 with you, and finish up by rewarding him for catching up directly 3 more times.

So now you've done this formula of 3 on–3 off–3 on once. The next time you work Food Delay, you need to change the formula some, such as 2 on–1 off–1 on–2 off–3 on. Plan to work on a ratio of two treats on you to one treat off for a while, but be as random about it as you can be. It can also be important with certain too-clever critters that you are subtle about when you take extra treats with you vs. when you leave empty handed. You can do this by tossing a treat for the dog to chase while you reload (or don't) vs. simply delivering a treat directly and then reloading (or not).

As you practice this, start requiring your dog to heel with you for longer periods of time before you deliver a treat or run to your stash of treats. Over time, you will work your way up to an entire ring performance for a jackpot at the end.

You can do a similar exercise using a special toy instead of food. I will practice with a toy on the floor to which I release my dog when he is concentrating and performing a given exercise well enough.

Food Delay is critically important to start to work on early enough that the lack of food doesn't turn a switch off in your dog's mind. Start early, practice it often!

Let me know how it is working for you.