Friday, February 15, 2013

Agility lesson 1.2 recap

I went into class not having much of an idea of how Chimera would do. I was prepared for him to be barking at the other dogs and needing extra space and management. I was prepared for him to be very distracted by being in a new environment with new dogs and people. (Remember that lesson 1.1 was a people-only orientation.) My goal was to cultivate any engagement and joy of working I could, without putting too much pressure on him. If he spent most of the class distracted and not eating the boiled chicken I brought, fine, I'd do my best to work with what he gave me.

Well my crazy adolescent was an angel and blew me away with his attentiveness and joy! Holy cow! He alarm barked at another dog in the parking lot, but when I carried him into class (being carried reduces his reactivity), he showed only calm curiosity toward the other dogs. He had friendly body language all during class, and wanted to greet them, but did not get frustrated that he couldn't. He happily ate the boiled chicken as well as some Zuke's treats from the instructor. He was attentive about 80-90% of the time, and during breaks he often solicited attention from me or calmly lay down and looked around. (I've been rewarding default downs.) He would get more distracted when other dogs were moving, which was understandable, but if this great behavior keeps up I don't think it will be a big distraction for much longer. I think that the biggest reason he did so well is that this was a similar environment to the last agility class we were in, where there were only 2-4 other students and we were quite spaced out. That earlier practice is paying off!

The first exercise we did was heeling/circle work. The instructor had us go three at a time in parallel lines, walking straight, doing a front cross, walking back, and repeat. Chimera has already gotten lots of reinforcement for heeling, so he quickly recognized what I wanted from him and fell into position. Here and there he stopped to watch the other dogs. I kept the leash short enough that if he moved away from me, he wouldn't get within greeting distance, but I made sure to put slack into the leash once he stopped at the end of it. This is in line with Kay Laurence's "connected walking" technique, which has helped us make progress in his leash walking skills, and the slack leash with my body turned away from him is now a cue for him to check in with me, when he's ready. Once he reengaged with me, I would continue forward and reward him (with treats, praise, and smiles) for choosing to work with me. I reminded myself to relax my body and not hold my breath or otherwise become tense when he was distracted. I told myself that my goal was joyful engagement with my dog, backed up by yummy treats.

Of course the instructor did not know what my goal was, or our training history. Her advice was that if the dog stops, you should keep walking. She said "you're the leader" and that in the sport of agility, the human is the leader and the dog follows your directions, or something like that. Also that the reinforcement will build the behavior that you want (walking next to you), so just keep moving and keep rewarding and the dog will learn. At first she said this generally to everyone, and when it was clear that I was ignoring her and purposefully stopping and waiting for my dog to look back at me, she came over and patiently, kindly, repeated herself. I mumbled something about how he needed the chance to look around, and she said that he didn't need it, that "he's amazing", and that I shouldn't play into his game. I tried to say other things in between this, but she must have recognized the "yes, but..." expression on my face. Finally I looked her straight in the eye and said, "I think of it differently." She said, "okay" and left to help other students.

I was proud of myself for sticking to my guns under pressure, but I was quite adrenalized immediately after this exchange, even though it was polite and she certainly wasn't advising me to do something horrible. However I felt that physically forcing Cai to walk with me would have created conflict and frustration in him, and I want a willing partner who has decided, on his own, that it's not worth looking at distractions, because it's more fun to engage with me. Putting more pressure on him would have sucked the joy out of the work, for both of us. As she kindly said, he was already "amazing" in his level of attention. :)

The next exercise was standing next to a wall and giving our dogs treats for simply standing at our sides, between us and the wall. She said that this was classically conditioning our dogs to want to be at our sides. Here I took the opportunity to reward Cai for maintaining eye contact instead of glancing at the other dogs.

We reviewed the It's Yer Choice game that the instructor is using to teach our dogs their start line stays. I am doing a stand stay, since she pointed out that little dogs sometimes have a hard time doing sit stays on cold, wet grass. Dragon had a killer stand stay, but he was a less fidgety dog. Cai has surprised me though, and is getting the idea quickly. She discussed using treats and toys and funny handler movements as distractions to play the IYC game.

I had another "butting heads" moment with her when Cai wanted to sit in front of me, since that's a stronger behavior for him. We hadn't practiced getting into a stand much, and I didn't expect him to do it on anything other than an obvious hand gesture that was just shy of luring him with a treat. She wanted me to let him offer the behavior, which I normally would be happy to, but I wasn't holding my breath for it happening in this context. I didn't want to let him sit and stare at me because he would get frustrated, and also lose confidence in the sit. (That's okay at home, frustration can be part of learning, but I want class to go smoothly for him.)  She warned me that giving another cue after he sits is reinforcing the sit because it's an opportunity for more rewards. I agree! That can often be the case, and I don't want him chaining the sit-then-stand behavior. However the way she suggested getting him to stand was to put my hand under his belly to prompt him to stand up. I admit that I probably made a face at this, but I nodded to her. This would be a poor choice for Cai, since he has some handling issues -- I would expect him to either lean strongly into the pressure and resist standing up, or jump up and move two feet away from my hand.

Here's the odd thing -- later in class, the instructor was demoing collar grabs and how her dogs enjoyed them thanks to the classical conditioning she was having us do, and she showed how she used her hand to prompt her little dog to stand up. She put her hand under his belly, and when he stood up, she gave him a treat. So... the handling she was doing was just as much a signal for reinforcement as my big hand signal had been, and the dog could just as easily chain the behaviors together! I thought that was bizarre. Anyway, I'm working on putting the stand on a verbal cue...

Both of the suggested pieces of advice reminded me of one of my favorite Kay Laurence quotes: "Don't put positive reinforcement on top of traditional thinking."

After the instructor walked away, I look at Cai and thought about all this, and he ended up offering a beautiful kick back stand twice!! Geez, proved me wrong. But he didn't offer it again after we took a little break, so he does need more practice with that. I know I do tend toward giving my dogs a bit too much help, but I think of it as erring on the side of caution.

We played the name game -- call your dog's name, then immediately give a treat.

Then we did the collar grabs -- take your dog by the collar, immediately give a treat. The instructor will use this to create drive toward the obstacles without messing with stays, which is nice clean training. I wonder if I'll have logistical problems with this as Cai's fur gets really long...?

The last thing we did was start to build the behavior of our dogs putting their toys (or food pouches) in our hands, by enticing our dogs to pick them up, quickly putting our hands on the toy, and immediately giving a treat. This is something that I should do more with Cai. I've been shaping a dumbbell retrieve, and he makes an effort to bring it toward my hand. I've also done some fetch training, where I throw a toy down the hallway and interrupt him on the way back with a treat. (That was how I taught ball-obsessed Dragon to bring his ball to my hand.) I should also do shaped retrieves with more objects. I need to tackle this skill from all these different angles, because he's a resource guarder and he wants to run away with anything he has in his mouth. We've come to a truce with his tug toys -- he will drop them on the floor and lift his head toward me when he is ready for me to pick the toy up and play tug. If I reach for him while it's still in his mouth he runs away. On top of this I regularly trade him an object for a treat when he steals things. So the quick trading that the instructor is having us do would be helpful for him. I had a little trouble in class when he would pick up one side of the toy in his mouth and stand on the other side, making it difficult for me to put my hand on it. But if I were to switch to a smaller toy, he would guard it more. Sigh. In our last agility class, I avoided this by using toys on lines, so I could reach for the other end without him feeling threatened.

After the class was done, we walked around the cars in the parking lot, to decompress and practice leash walking. He did very well, probably because of all the attention and heeling work we'd done in class. A dog suddenly barked at him from inside one of the cars, and he barked back but was able to reengage and calm down after just a few seconds.

What a good boy. He'll be a fine working dog when he's mature enough to ignore big distractions and is past the reactivity. Someday...

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