Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Day Two: ClickerExpo

On Saturday, we woke early again so we could keep the same morning routine of exercising the dogs. Grabbed our coffee and headed to the park to enjoy another beautiful morning, and were happy to find once again that the dog park was empty. Cadence and Maebe were especially giddy this morning and were running full tilt all around the field. Cadence discovered the joy of herding robins, and was covering ground fast chasing the low-flying birds. It is such a delight to watch them run, just enjoying that simple pleasure. Afterwards we walked for about a half hour down the path and back, and headed over to the conference.

For our first seminar of the day, we attended a lecture by the agility instructors from Friday, Eva Bertilsson and Emelie Johnson Vegh, this time on Good Agility Practices (also bought their new book, Agility Right From the Start, which is wonderful). They discussed the importance of working with focus and intensity, with short, structured sessions. As a trainer, we should plan what we are going to train, practice the steps before getting the dog, and then only when we are prepared should we start working our dogs.

Afterwards, we attended the learning lab with these same instructors. In groups of three, we would choose a behavior we wanted to shape, plan how we would do it, practice the mechanics and timing, then observe each other working with our dogs. It is interesting what you learn when you have observers. Lowell caught me starting to deliver the reward just before the click, and our third group-mate noticed that I was not pulling my hand all the way back into neutral position near my body after delivering the reward, so I was venturing dangerously close to the dreaded "luring" territory.

Cadence did great with this workshop. There was a lot of movement and dogs working simultaneously, but he stayed on task the entire time. I quickly shaped him to perch on a small, wobbly, overturned box with all four feet. I overheard one of the instructors laugh and comment "Look at the smart little Border Collie." Certainly getting a dog on a box would be a relatively easy behavior to lure, but it is so much more interesting, and still quite quick, to shape the action. I love watching them think and figure things out, and they show so much more interest and excitement for the work when they aren't just following a treat at the end of their nose.

Maebe also had fun in this workshop. It was amusing to watch how different methods of transport affected her performance. At first, Lowell took her from crate to work station by the collar, and you could see the opposition reflex from the slight collar pressure build her arousal so quickly, I thought she would start bouncing off the walls when he let go. The woman next to me made a comment that I have heard repeated before about Maebe: "Wow, she's really a spit-fire, isn't she?" Yes, yes she is.

Of course, the spit-fire turned to princess when Lowell attempted the next time to transport her by carrying her to the station. He set her down, and she looked at him with disgust, clearly telling him, "You do NOT carry the baby!" He didn't try that again.

After lunch, Lowell and I attended Karen Pryor's talk on "Punishment and the Public." Despite pressure to do so, Pryor chose not to address the Cesar Millan phenomenon directly in her book "Reaching the Animal Mind." But, after encouragement to do so, she put together a presentation about the problems with Millan's methods and how to encourage change. Pryor was very diplomatic, and acknowledged that Millan does show that behavior can be changed, and is a very charismatic performer who she does believe cares about dogs. She also conceded that as a compulsion trainer, his timing and skills are very good. She then described watching him demonstrate his training at a presentation in Boston, which detailed the problems with his outdated methods.

I have seen Millan's show only a handful of times. In general, I find it boring and unimpressive, and have never seen him "fix" anything faster than you could with a clicker. Two clips in particular that I have seen though - straight from the Nat Geo website for the show - absolutely turned my stomach, and I thought they should be evidence in court proceedings, not popular television. One involved him dragging a dog up stairs, with much struggle and drama and stress (again, how very quickly can you shape a dog to go up stairs? I myself have done it in seconds with a pup who was afraid of steps). The second was the infamous episode where he basically hangs a wolf-hybrid, then marvels at his "calm, submissive state" as it lies heaving for breath on the sidewalk afterwards.

Anyway, what disturbs me greatly is that Millan may use methods I object to, but at least he follows the principles of using punishment fairly. His timing is good, he gives verbal warning, etc. However, the viewers who watch him and don't fully understand these principles then may proceed to imitate his methods, and ultimately end up abusing their dogs. It breaks my heart to think of the poor, confused dogs struggling to figure out what their would-be-Cesar owners are trying to convey to them.

But I digress. . . Pryor's presentation was very positive. As she pointed out, change tends to face various waves of resistance. She interprets Millan's success as a sign of the final bit of resistance before clicker training fully takes hold and is accepted as the effective, scientifically valid method that it is.

We decided to skip out on the panel discussion that followed, and took the dogs back to the park to enjoy another beautiful afternoon. We walked for a few miles, and shared exciting discussion about all we were learning and our goals for the dogs and ourselves as trainers. It was a very inspiring and motivating day. I could already see a change coming over the Noodle just in a couple days of intense work. He was more focused on me, less distracted by his environment, and increasingly ready to work despite any distractions. He was connected to me throughout the hike, even though I was not asking anything of him. I have this connection with my heart-dog Django already, and it warms my heart to see the bond getting this strong already with Cade after less than a year together. I know he is going to be a great companion, working partner, and buddy as the years progress.

We grabbed some dinner to eat in the hotel room, then crashed. Well, three of us did. Cade still had energy to burn, but his sister was having none of his attempts to initiate play. Finally he wound down and we rested up for our final day of learning.

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