Friday, April 22, 2011

Bird Dog

IMG_0379 As I’ve written about before, Cadence’s biggest training challenge is overcoming his desire to chase motion.  Impulse control and focus have been major areas that we have been working on together.  Recently, I think we’ve had a bit of a breakthrough using a classic psychological principle – the Premack Principle.

Many dog owners learn about Premack in their first household obedience classes, though they may not always know the term.  The principle states that more probable behaviors can reinforce less probable behaviors.  So, you can train your dog to sit politely at the back door while it is being opened (a low-probability behavior) by reinforcing it with the reward of running and playing outside afterwards (a highly-probable behavior).  It is a wonderful tool in the trainer’s toolkit, yet one that I, at least, often forget to use as much as I could.

I have been working on heeling more with Cadence, and have been starting to add increased distraction by working in new locations.  A couple weeks ago, we went to the park at the end of our block to work some heeling patterns, but it started out as an exercise in frustration as he could heel for about three steps, then would charge forward to stare at some robins on the ground many, many yards away.

I tried upping my rate of reinforcement, clicking and treating every step, being more exciting – all the things they tell us to do.  Finally, I reconsidered my strategy:

IMG_0375 “You really want those robins?” (Cadence stares into the distance blankly, as he has been doing.)

“Heel.” (Cadence looks up and heels four steps.)

“OK – LET’S GET THOSE ROBINS!!!!” (He and I charge off like maniacs across the park toward the totally oblivious and unbothered robins.)


“Heel.” (Cadence heels several more steps).

“GET THE ROBINS!!”  (More crazed running.)

We repeat this maybe three times, and by the last repitition of running, he is turning his head back to me, getting that we are playing some sort of cool game now, and more interested in what I’m doing than he is in the robins.  We then resumed our heeling session, now able to do bigger heeling patterns and no longer gazing off in the distance at the birds every few steps.

IMG_0380 I began using this along with Leslie McDevitt’s “Give Me a Break” Game to start our park training sessions.  Rather than immediately asking for attention, we play a bit, then I tell him to “Go Sniff” or “Get the robins” and stand about while he does his own thing.  He very quickly starts turning back to me to see what is up.  I reward him, then send him back to sniff.  It only take a couple reps now before he is standing at my feet, wanting to work.  We are both much less frustrated and having a lot more fun.

Plus, now on walks if he sees a bird, he turns to me as if to say “Do the thing, Mom!!”  I usually call him to me, ask for some behavior (hand touch, sit), then we take up the chase for a few feet.

We probably look a bit odd, but the robins don’t seem to mind.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Who’s Shaping Who?

When he was just a young Noodle, Cadence, like all puppies, could get a little “busy” and needed close supervision to keep him from finding his own entertainment around the house.  Often, if we were unable to watch him closely, or if we just needed a few quiet moments to read, we would crate him in our extra crate in the living room with a chew treat to keep him happy.  We keep a constant supply of frozen stuffed Kong toys in the freezer for just these occasions.

Now that Cadence is two and much more reliable around the house, he doesn’t require as constant supervision and is allowed a lot more freedom.   Lately, however, we have noticed an interesting chain of behavior.  Frequently when Lowell is working from home, or at the end of an evening when we sit down to read for a little while before bed, Cadence will start with a series of activities. 

Cade waiting First, he will start “poking” the other dogs and the cats, trying to get some attention.  We call it poking – he basically makes the rounds barking at everyone a couple times as they lie there annoyed, trying to ignore his pleas for attention.  He will then run to the crate, and stand there looking expectantly at us.

If this doesn’t elicit a response, he will then go to the mat by the front door, grab it, shake it a few times, then run to the crate again and wait. 

As we are just hoping for a few minutes of rest, after a few rounds, this is the typical result:

Cade Kong Hmm, what have we been reinforcing all this time?

Always humbling when the ones at the other end of the leash demonstrate how much more skilled they are at the art of shaping behavior than we are.  He has not yet reached the skill level of my first cat though, who had Lowell and I both trained to give him his water in one specific coffee mug, which needed to be dumped and refreshed with clean water every couple hours, under his close supervision.  If he didn’t come with you to the sink and watch it happen, it didn’t count.

I notice two things about Cadence’s behavior chain that interest me though.  One, we clearly were not just rewarding resting quietly in his crate, but actually reinforcing the “naughty” behavior that would precede being given some quiet crate time.  Also, it is interesting what the greater reinforcer is here.  I had assumed that the value would lie in being allowed to hang out with the whole family, but clearly if we are going to all sit around and be boring, then sometimes a crate+Kong is preferable to our company.  Of course, Border Collies like their structure – all of ours do welcome crate time as an opportunity to slow down their too-active brains.

At least they are content with payment of Kongs and fresh water.  Here’s hoping they don’t start wanting the keys to our cars, or a beach house in Maui.  We’d be doomed.

cade nose lick

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Spring Cleaning

django on deck After taking the month of March off from agility competitions, due to ClickerExpo and various other commitments, we were happy to have a half day on Saturday to take Maebe and Django to a CPE trial for a few runs.  We entered them in three games Saturday morning, and both dogs left running a perfect 3/3. 

My goal for this trial, and for all trials these days, was to identify the best handling strategy for each course, and stick to it even if it presented some challenges – no more babysitting areas where we have weak spots.  In preparation, I have been spending a lot of time this spring working on Django’s weaves and contacts, trying to brush them up before CPE Nationals in June.  The courses on Saturday included many off-side entries, which are a weakness, and in one case, rear-crossing the weaves, which I don’t believe I have ever tried with him.  Our work seems to be paying off, as he hit all his entries perfectly.  Not as fast in a trial as in our backyard yet, but certainly continuing to improve. 

Cade jump Sunday we spent a beautiful spring day outside cleaning up the yard and getting the camper ready for our first trip in a few weeks.  We will be attending a “Learning About Border Collies” workshop with the always entertaining and brilliant Kay Laurence.  We’ll be taking all three BC’s, and are looking forward to learning more about what makes our favorite breed tick.  I’m especially excited to have the opportunity for Cadence to see sheep for the first time.  I’m hoping that Tristan will be able to give herding a try also, but T has been nursing a shoulder injury after a slip on the ice a month ago, so we’ll see if he is in good enough shape by then.  If not, Django will be along as a “back up” working dog for the seminar.  I’m sure it will be a great time. 

Django ball We wrapped up the weekend doing one of our favorite spring/summer activities – enjoying a meal on our patio while the dogs played in the yard.  Rather than being a day of chores and cleaning, we viewed it as a day of preparation and excitement – bringing back fond memories of previous summer fun and building anticipation for the good times to come in the months ahead. 


maebe patio