Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Premac at dog park

Although I've been taking Laddie to dog parks lately primarily for socialization, turns out it's also a good opportunity for proofing line manners.

"Premac" is a type of positive reinforcement, in which a behavior being trained is rewarded by the opportunity to perform a different behavior the subject has a strong desire to do.

At the dog park, Laddie has a strong desire at times to sniff the grounds or interact with other dogs.

So periodically I call "heel". As soon as he complies, I reinforce with the release cue "go play". As a variation, I might have him retrieve a thrown or planted bumper or tennis ball first.

Compliance of course must be non-optional.


Sunday, October 27, 2013

More pick-ups, more socializing

Similar to our work a couple of days ago, today we had two training sessions, one focused on pick-up and delivery of birds, the second focused on Laddie once again getting along well with other dogs.

For the retrieve training, I used two assistants, throwing various combinations of a drake mallard, a hen mallard, and a rooster pheasant, all mostly thawed.

Laddie ran five doubles, then a triple with one of the gunners throwing a momma-poppa. Every pick-up and delivery was phenomenal. It's hard to believe the progress from our last event.

At the dog park, Laddie had no problems with any of the dogs who greeted him as we came in, including a Visla, a Golden, and a number of other dogs mostly around Laddie's size. Laddie also did fine as new dogs came in, with two exceptions: a large black male Shepherd, and a grey Chow whose sex I never did figure out.

In both cases, Laddie began to growl a little as the dog came in, and I immediately wrapped my arms around his neck, stoked his neck, face and shoulders and gently reminded him, "That's a nice doggy, that's a nice doggy." Then I slipped on his lead and walked around the park with him, repeatedly approaching the dog he'd had some problem with sometimes and letting the other dog approach Laddie sometimes. Each encounter was calm -- they'd sniff each other, then lose interest and head in different directions. After half a dozen such encounters, I slipped Laddie's lead off and followed him closely as he re-entered the mix of dog activities. Occasionally I'd throw his white puppy bumper for him.

Nothing close to a fight occurred at any time, even when other dogs growled at him, made contact with him, tried to steal his bumper, or made any other move that I feared might provoke aggression. It just didn't happen.

It's interesting that Laddie is learning, or re-learning, to play with other dogs again so easily. I had been led to expect that it would be difficult, perhaps impossible, for him to get over his fear and fear response after having twice been attacked. I'm hoping our progress continues until it ceases entirely to be an issue.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Practicing pick-ups and returns

Laddie is entered in another Master in two weeks. Since his performance last weekend was strong on marks and strong on handling, but weak on pick-ups and returns, I've decided to devote these next two weeks primarily to strengthening those skills.

This is not the first time we've done this, and you can probably find posts on the same subject in this blog if you go back a few years. But for the record, this is how I'm approaching it this time.

For Laddie at this time in his development, it seems that the optimum set-up is a short single mark with a gunner using an enthusiastic duck-call (for excitement), a high throw (for excitement), a gunshot (for excitement), and a fresh duck (for excitement). The handler then sends the dog, and as soon as the dog is on the bird, the handler whistles come-in, pauses a moment to see if the dog picks the bird-up, and if not, uses some cue with a known high assurance of getting the dog to pick the bird up. In Laddie's case, that's "pick it up." If the dog makes a quick pick-up, either after the come-in whistle or after the verbal cue, the handler then goes into a game of chase with the dog when the dog gets back to the line, finally takes the bird and instantly throws it again. Here again, as soon add the dog gets to the bird, it's tweet-tweet-tweet, slight pause, "pick it up," chase game, and another throw. After 2-3 of those happy throws, the handler sets up for another throw from the field.

If the dog does not respond with a quick pick-up even after the verbal cue, then the handler says "no, sit," walks out to the dog, slips on the dog's lead, walks back to the start line, and sends the dog again. If that still doesn't work, I wouldn't continue this drill, because at that point the dog should be highly motivated, and if the dog still isn't picking up the bird, the dog doesn't understand the game and needs a more basic level of training than I'm discussing here.

Some notes on the design of this drill:

- The mark is short so that the positive reinforcement for picking up the bird, namely the game of chase and the happy throws after delivery, occurs almost instantly after the pick-up. The longer time between a behavior and its intended +R, the less effective the +R trends to be.

- All of the excitement has two purposes. One is to make the training session as enjoyable as possible fir the dog. The other is to simulate as much as possible the emotional state of the dog in competition, which is high excitement, so that competition retrieves, to the greatest extent possible, are "like" these practice retrieves in the dog's perception.

- The mechanism of using a come-in whistle immediately followed (if necessary) by a cue that's known to work followed by a high value positive reinforcer is a general approach to transferring a known (or strong) cue to an unknown (or weak) one. What happens the first few times is that the dig hears the unknown cue, doesn't know how to respond, hears the known cue, responds correctly, and is quickly rewarded. After a few reps, the dog, wanting the reward as soon as possible, realizes that the first cue predicts the second one, and so begins to respond to the first one without even waiting for the second one. This is called anticipatory response, and is the same reason a tennis player looks away from the ball before the ball has made contact with the racquet. Anticipatory response is often a disadvantage in sports, but using it to transfer a dog's understanding of one cue to another is one situation where anticipatory response is a helpful mechanism.

- The reason to walk out and get the dog if the dog did not respond correctly to either the come-in whistle or the verbal cue is that that deprives the dog of something valuable, in this case, both the opportunity to carry the bird and the opportunity to play a game of chase. These are extremely valuable to the dog, and losing them is something the dog hopefully greatly wants to avoid the next time the dog is in that situation.

- The reason for running the dog again immediately after a failure is so that dog can immediately compare the outcome of an incorrect response versus a correct one.

A note about today's session: I am under the weather and did not feel up to doing all the running around that my training plan called for on the part of the handler. So I went out in the field and did the throwing, and let my assistant, Annette, do the handling. I think it's good for Laddie to have several handlers anyway because I think it strengthens his understanding of the skills by abstracting them from the handler/dog relationship. So having Annette handle hopefully strengthened Laddie's understanding of his pick-up and return skills, and at the same time let me be a bit less active. 

I think this is the kind of drill you won't read about in a traditional field-training program because the ecollar is such a powerful tool that traditional trainers don't need a drill like this one. It may also be that training these skills with an ecollar makes a more powerful impression, eliminating the need for remedial training later on in the dog's career. I  guess positive methods tend to be more work.

Anyway, now for a nap.


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Laddie's second Master pass

After a two-day Master test that ended this afternoon, Laddie qualified for his second Master ribbon.

The judges were great and offered a number of suggestions, which I'll incorporate into Laddie's training immediately.

A brief description of the test:

Series A. Walk-up land triple, with long flyer go-bird on center; then double land blind, both blinds inside the outer marks

Series B. Land/water triple (throws land-water-water): then water blind

Series C. Momma-poppa (flower pot) water double with honor

56 dogs entered
51 dogs ran
44 dogs called back to Series B
42 dogs called back to Series C
40 dogs qualified

Laddie: No handles on marks. All blinds tight with few handles. Terrible pick-ups. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Another handler lesson, another training task

Laddie and I were out after the first series in today's Master test. :0(

Lessons learned:

Handling - Prepare yourself mentally in advance: If the dog is about to get into the same trouble you've seen several other dogs get into, don't let him get that far. Blow the whistle before he gets in trouble and spend the handle, live to see another series.

Training - You need to be able to use your come-in whistle when the dog gets into woods or high cover, he can't just wander around in there. Planned drill: plant a bird, have gunner blow duck call and fire shot but not swing arm, send dog past the fall into woods or high cover, use come-in whistle to bring dog back to fall.

So much to learn!


Sunday, October 6, 2013

Specialized socializing

Yesterday, Laddie was dropped from a Master test. I had the opportunity to ask one of the judges why, and he assured me that it wasn't Laddie's work. Rather, it was "trainability", specifically line manners. The judge commented, "For example, on the first series, you said 'here' to your dog 12 times before you got to the start line."

Well, as far as I know, we've never been dropped for line manners before, but it was certainly a legitimate criticism. Laddie had locked his eyes onto the honor dog while he was still on lead in the holding blind, and my wrist fear wasn't that he'd have trouble with the retrieving, but that he'd decide to visit, or even charge, the other dog. Obviously a dog fight would be far worse than getting dropped from the test, so as I always do these days, I focused with all my energy on keeping Laddie under control when another dog is nearby and taking my chances that the judges would allow it, and this time I lost. 

It may never come up again, but it is something new to work on, so I put some thought into how I might address it, and in correspondence, Jody made several excellent suggestions, including making use of a dog park.

Laddie has been j going to dig parks a few times a year all his life, and has never been in a fight at one. However, he tends to spend most of the time running around sniffing other dogs, especially females. Whatever learning is going on seems to have little to do with coming to the line in a competition with other dogs nearby.

However, I thought I might be able to set up a scenario more similar to competition. So I brought Laddie to a dog park with lots of dogs, including Labs, and brought him in in his lead with his favorite puppy bumper in my other hand. I did not try too char any dogs away, and told owners who asked that I didn't mind their dogs being near us, but I didn't let Laddie engage with any of them. If I thought he or another dog was getting tense, I hugged him close to me and held him immobile by the scruff, saying quietly, "It's ok, it's ok." Soon the other dogs lost interest and Laddie and I had a corner to ourselves.

I slipped off his lead, cued "sit",  tossed the bumper, and sent him. He faced to pick it up and brought it back, we played a little tug, and then repeat.

We played that way for about half an hour. Many variations occurred. For example, another dog might approach Laddie's toy or Laddie himself. If I saw any possible danger, I rushed to Laddie and got him under control as described above. Sometimes we didn't play tug, I just threw the bumper again. Sometimes: didn't keep him steady and let him run as soon as he saw I was throwing, which is more exciting for Laddie than having to watch the throw while sitting. We also moved to several different locations. And another variation was that sometimes Laddie would get distracted and not complete the retrieve. Again, I would rush to him, cue "pick it up" if he had dropped the toy, and get him involved in the game again.

As luck would have it, : found an excellent reinforcer for staying in the game. Temps today are in the high 80s, and someone had brought a child's wading pool and placed it near the faucet and host. It was ready teaching Laddie to step over the rim of the pool, and once in the pool, he lay down to cool his belly and lapped the water. Great way to cool off!

So after that, when Laddie would bring back the bumper, in a single motion, I'd grasp the rope, swing it away from Laddie as he released it, and toss it into the wading pool. He'd get in the pool, lie down, and sip a little water. In a few seconds, he was ready to bring the bumper back for another retrieve. This scenario was especially useful for immunizing Laddie to other dogs who might try to engage him or steal the bumper. He'd simply step out of the way, tiff his head away from them, and continue his jog back to me so I could throw the toy back into the pool.

I hope to have quite a few more such sessions with Laddie, with different locations and of course different mixes of dogs. One goal is to improve Laddie's behavior in these situations. But another goal is for me to learn to read the situations, so that I can trust him to perform well without my intervention whenever possible. Between those two processes, I think I may have a realistic shot at being able to bring him to the line in competitions with far less risk and tension than at present. That's the hope, anyway.


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