Friday, September 30, 2011

Changing the Approach

I have been struggling on and off for a few months in my attempts to teach Cadence a formal retrieve – the type where he waits to retrieve the object, then brings it back and sits in front position holding the object until I ask him to release to my hand.  He does play fetch with enthusiasm, and happily brings his frisbee right to my hand so we can tug a bit before I ask him to drop it, but it lacks finesse and is anything but “formal.” I taught Django a formal retrieve years ago when I had a broken arm and could do little else with the dogs.  Though I haven’t done obedience, it is one of the coolest things he knows, and lends itself very well to a lot of useful behaviors and fun tricks, so I think it is a great skill for them to have.

Cadence and I have been working with a dumbbell, which he will bring back to me, but then chucks it at me as he approaches.  I have been attempting to fix this by back-chaining the behavior, so I am first trying to teach him to hold the dumbbell for a second and release it on cue.  He quickly will grab hold of the dumbbell if presented to him, but spits it back at me immediately.  I have been unable to raise my criteria to much more than a nanosecond of tooth gripping.

begging When I start shaping behaviors, I often am sitting on the living room floor with Cadence as we work.  This was the case again the other night as we struggled with another session of “Please just hold this for half a second before chucking it at my lap.”  After a couple minutes, I stood up for some reason, maybe just to stretch, and presented the dumbbell from a standing position.  Now, seated to look up at me and with his head tilted upwards, Cadence gripped the dumbbell in the back of his mouth, and legitimately held it for a second before I gave him the release cue and took it.  All he needed to help him out was a little change of position that made the desired behavior feel either more natural or more comfortable, or just more obvious.  In a few more repetitions, I was able to have him get a good hold on it, still only for a second or two, but we now have a behavior to build on.

It reminded me that in training when we are hitting our heads against a wall, we need sometimes change our context a bit and start again from a new perspective or a new approach.  If something isn’t working, even if it is the “right” way to do something, we need to be willing to be creative and figure out what the dog needs from us to understand.

The next night, I experienced this myself.  I have been taking swim classes and lessons for the last year trying to fine tune my freestyle technique, and improve my form in the other strokes as well.  This week, we worked on breaststroke.  I have been told that the front half of my breaststroke is actually pretty good, but my kick is . . . well, it wouldn’t be considered legal in competition.  It resembles something more like an inverted scissor kick.  And unfortunately, breaststroke is mostly about the kick.  My former instructor even got in the water one day and tried to guide my legs through the correct motions, but it was as if I had some neurologic deficit that I simply could not reproduce the correct motion on my own.  I started to kind of hate breaststroke. 

Last night, a different instructor gave a new tip - “Start by focusing on bending your knees together straight toward the bottom of the pool.”  That mental image helped me suddenly start to put together something more closely resembling an actual breaststroke kick.  I mean, swimming being what it is, I still need to do it about 8,000 more times before it is going to look at all respectable, but I stopped feeling like I had no connection to what my knees, ankles and feet were doing.  I also finally had a behavior that I can build on.

All of my instructors are good, and all have helped me tremendously.  I don’t think that the new instructor was necessarily better than the previous one, but she happened to have the lesson for that particular skill that helped me have an “aha!'” moment in the pool.

So, this week, as I start to make a very small step towards progress in these two previous sources of frustration, I am reminded of the importance of creativity, and the need to respect the individual learner and figure out what is going to work best for them.  It is easy in both swimming and dog training to get so concerned with the ideal method for learning a flip turn, or learning weave poles, that we can become unwilling to step back if that isn’t working, and try a new approach.  But sometimes that slight flexibility is all that is needed to make something fall into place.

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