Sunday, June 1, 2014

Rally-FrEe seminar with Julie Flanery, part 1

Back in April, I attended a two day seminar with Rally-FrEe's creator, Julie Flanery. I've been so busy with work that I haven't had to time to write up a summary until now. Chimera had a working spot, and Sherry and Jacques went with us as well.

The seminar took place at a farm with an indoor training building. There were training fields with grass outside, and adjacent to the training areas were alpacas! I was super excited because I really want to raise alpacas someday. I thought that Cai would find it impossible to focus, between the strange dogs belonging to other participants, the strange animals, and the new smells. We have had very few opportunities to work on grass and he's used to an even surface under his feet. I'm happy to say that he surprised me! I had hot dogs with me and started off giving him a very high rate of reinforcement (one treat every couple of steps and after every trick) when we would do our practice runs outside. By the last run on the second day, I was able to lower the rate to one treat every five or so steps of heeling. Considering the circumstances, I thought of it as a big success. Seriously. With alpacas and dogs and smells on grass, staying connected with me for five steps at a time was significant. Everyone starts somewhere.

I have three videos of our runs from the second day:
"thru" course first time
"thru" course second time
full course

Enough about Chimera. Here are Julie's general training tips for those who are interested in Rally-FrEe:

Practice your foundation skills early, often, and on-going ("use it or lose it"). Avoid making assumptions. Video tape yourself and keep notes! Attention is a foundation skill that should be frequently rewarded, and attention/eye contact is always one of the criteria for the reward. Have a plan before you get your dog out for training - be specific on what you want to accomplish during the session - don't practice the same criteria over and over. The dog should be in a relaxed down or a crate when not actively working

When you're practicing at home, replicate the pattern that you'll follow at a show - crate the dog first, get your gear ready and mentally prepare yourself, then release your dog from his crate and immediately start warm up games and work. Keep your dog busy and engaged "from crate to gate." To prevent inattentiveness due to stress, plan and practice every aspect of your performance - make it predictable.

Play music while training so that the behaviors are taught and practiced at the right rhythm (and to create a positive CER). Choose free choice behaviors that are high-value secondary reinforcers in the ring.

Julie's Tibetan Terrier, Kashi, had a long bout of digestive upset and illness as a young dog. She often wouldn't eat, and so Julie frequently rewarded her with toy play, but she also brainstormed ways to get the most use out of the limited amount of food rewards Kashi would eat. As a result, she has become a fan of training props which allow the dog to quickly start performing the desired behavior and get lots of rewards in a short amount of time. She uses x-pens (especially good for shaping a dog to go around the handler or around a prop, and for backing up), target sticks, platforms, and perches for pivoting. This greater amount of environmental management also creates more opportunities for errorless learning, and there is less handler movement to fade out of the final picture. It allows you to avoid NRMs and continued failures, which can cause a lack of confidence and slow, tentative responses. Instead, each successful rep reduces stress in the dog and handler.

Remember to look where you want the dog to go, not directly at your dog. Give multiple treats after your dog performs a trick and then returns to position, to reinforce being straight at your side or straight in center/behind. This is particularly important for the "thru" to prevent the dog from anticipating figure 8s and swinging his butt out. Always do more single thrus than multiple weaves.

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