Saturday, January 27, 2007

Real Progress

Today was a very good training day.

After tracking, we went for club bitework practice. Laev did two sessions today, and the first was some of the most fun ever. Our helper wanted to do some "stress work," which is presenting the dog with new and unusual distractions, obstacles, etc. and let the dog work through them. I asked for a few seconds to let Laev know that she was allowed to climb onto the two tables we'd use, and then the helper put on the sleeve and the game was on.

Laev was sent to perform a hold and bark with the helper on an oversized pause table. (She has to jump up there with him.) She was sent over a jump to him. She was sent over a jump and onto a table. She was sent over a jump, onto a table, and to hold while he inched around the table, making her rotate, with him both on the table and on the ground. She was sent through an agility tunnel. She was sent to the helper behind a metal folding chair, where we required her to balance herself carefully on the chair seat as she held herself for the bad guy. The chair tipped unless she hit it just right, so I braced my knee against it from the side and sent her to it, where she then had to deal with the chair and my proximity to the helper.

It was phenomenal fun, watching her work through the situations and figure out how to fit on a crowded table or on the small, slippery chair. And here's the best part -- in all the situations we threw at her, NOT ONCE did Laev get dirty. She performed a clean hold and bark each and every time. Awesome! So very proud of her....

While it was very tempting to do that again for our second session, I knew we really needed to work on obedience for the bite, so we did some of that.

- I take Laev's 2" padded leather collar
- I ask for eye contact on *me*, not the helper
- I reward by telling Laev to alert on the helper, who moves and agitates
- I lift Laev by the leather collar and call, "Sit!" as I drop her
- Laev lands, bounces, struggles, gets into a sit instead of charging for the helper (I have a leash on in case she doesn't make it)
- my assistant clicks for a complete, honest sit (I have trouble seeing if she's sitting or crouching from my angle) and Laev is rewarded by being sent to the helper

We started with a latency of four seconds from my cue to land in a sit, and she was taking the slack from the leash a lot before she hit the sit. By the end of the session (10 min?), she was sitting in under two seconds without hitting the end of the leash. I think it's finally coming together! And only once did she not sit within the four seconds, requiring a reset. We'll train again on Monday, where I expect she'll be sitting very quickly.

Then we'll make it harder, varying the cues given and making her concentrate harder while in hyperdrive. Fortunately, Laev likes a challenge. ;-)

Snow Tracking

Yesterday I laid a long track in one of our snowy fallow fields. It had been a while since Laev tracked, and I was concerned about keeping her head down and in the footprints -- she would like to track at a trot or even at a slow run -- and so I baited the track very heavily, leaving food in every single footstep at the beginning and then at irregular intervals and strategic points during the track. Where the track paralleled a fenceline where I knew I'd have barking dogs, for example, I baited every footstep again, to reward Laev for staying on task during such a huge distraction. I laid right angles, acute corners, serpentines, everything I could think of. And since I was told that older and colder tracks would help Laev slow down, I thought we'd be pretty good.

Well, I made a mistake in bringing Laev directly from her kennel to the track, on leash and without any energy-venting. She was HIGH when she saw the flag and oh-so-desperate to get started, so our heeling to the flag was, um, not pretty. :-) Then she dove onto the track like a coyote catching a mouse, and I just couldn't get her to stop and take scent at the scent pad. She flailed and dug trenches in the snow and, when I blocked her with the tracking line, got frustrated and just lay down as she used to when she was 10 weeks old and I wouldn't let her track at a run.

I gave up and let her move forward, hoping she'd stop for the food (good stuff, by the way, chunks of Pet Botanics Lamb Roll and a few Charlie Bear treats) and slow herself. Nope -- Laev had nothing at all to do with food on her track. She'd hesitate long enough to give it a cursory sniff and then move on. I watched her paw a piece out of the snow and then skip it. I blocked her with the line, picked up a treat from a footprint, handed it to her, and she ate it with the air of, "Can we get on with it, please?"

Okay, you win. Go track.

Once I stopped arguing with her, she did slow a little, but she was still faster than what a judge would like to see. But she was incredibly accurate, staying right in the footprints and cornering as if on rails. She even tracked on as if there were not two dogs barking at the fenceline, completely on task. She ate nothing. :-) She picked up her head a couple of times briefly, but overall it was a beautiful track for the first time ever in a new field and a long break from tracking.

*I* was much more comfortable in the snow -- instead of worrying about keeping the dog right on the track and thus worrying about where my track was exactly, I could just relax and let the dog work. I could drop back further and still see that she was exactly in the footprints. I was a better handler, and that might have something to do with her success.

I approached the end of the track with some concern about how I would finish it. Tracks don't "end" except in our mind -- it's not like the scent just stops when I reach the end of what I wanted to train! I wasn't using articles on this track and I'd left a large pile of food at the end, but if she weren't eating, would she pause for it? I didn't want to pull her off the track, nor did I want her to track me all the way home...! But Laev apparently decided that a pile of cubed lamb roll on top of the snow was more worthy of her attention that single pieces or small handfuls buried in footprints, and she stopped and ate, and I praised and released.

I still had a long track with lots of food on it, though, so I brought Shakespeare back to it. The track was now double-laid and had an extra Doberman's scent, so it was probably an easy one to follow, but he worked with much greater enthusiasm than normal. No pausing for him, either, and I went all the way to the end of the 33' tracking line without any change in his behavior. There was not much left for him to find at the end of the track, so I simply praised and released when he paused to check out the munched area. :-)

This morning I arrived first for club tracking practice and snagged the best remaining snow on the field (that wasn't my intent -- I simply laid the first track in at the side, to maximize space left for others -- but it was a nice benefit, I realized afterward!). Tracks weren't so long, but Laev settled more quickly this time, after another over-eager start. Again, she ate almost nothing.

I was given advice to use something extremely over the top for snow tracking food, as the thought was that she didn't want to go through the snow for it. I have a tough time imagining Laev being too delicate to go through something (and that was *before* our training later today!), but I'm game to try it, even though I was already using a favorite treat. So when I stopped this afternoon on the way home, I bought a big package of hot dogs. Blech.

Shakespeare did very well on his track this morning; apparently yesterday's easy and rewarding track was a big motivator for him. Very nice.

Now freezing and slicing hot dogs is on my do-list. I hate hot dogs....

(By the way, the dogs don't seem to notice that they can follow the footprints visually. They still checked briefly at corners. The fact that the snow was patchy by now may have helped, but I've been told by more experienced tracking handlers that many dogs don't ever seem to see the footprints. Maybe because the visual line extending to the horizon isn't so obvious from a few inches above the ground...?)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Vision in Dogs

A friend sent me this article on canine vision. Really fascinating, that members of the same species could have such drastically different physiology....

On the other hand, the generalization at the end is clearly bunk. The average Doberman (even allowing for my bias) is no less and probably much more observant than the average French Bulldog. Part of that may be other genetics -- a protection breed might naturally be focused on human expression and behavior than a lapdog breed -- but I don't know of any trainer who would agree with that generalization.

(Now I sit back and wait for flames from French Bulldog owners.... That's not what I said. They're perfectly nice dogs, I know. I just don't believe that they are more attentive to humans than Dobermans, or Greyhounds, or....)

Anyway, it was interesting information, especially concerning our new project -- but more on that later. :-)

A First From Laev

This morning, Laev laid her head in my hands and leaned quietly against me for an ear and cheek rub.

You wouldn't think this was such a big deal, but this is the first time she's just quietly relaxed for petting like this (when I didn't catch her already tired) since she was about 14 weeks old or so. I think she probably was still a little sleepy from the nap she'd taken earlier, but we'll take it. :-)

I don't mean to imply that she's hard to handle at all; she's not. She just doesn't slow down from doing laps for mundane things such as petting. This was a big step for here. She turns 2 in a couple of weeks; is this maturity coming?

Not a chance.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


This has nothing, nothing to do with training, but this email exchange was kind of fun, so I'm preserving it here.

Mark: Wii! I managed to grab one from Amazon. It'll be here Thursday. :-) Got it and Twilight Princess.

Laura: Whee! A Wii! We weel wait wonderingly. On Thursday, will Mark cry, Wii! Wii! Wii! all the way home?

Melissa: If there is a party wii will be in attendance. This wiill gave Dave the opportunity to do something wiitarded or wiilly wiilly stupid. At least, I'm hoping for a wiipeat performance.

Alena: But since Mark's house is not set up for large groups, whiire wiill wii wiire up the Wii? (hey, it's getting hard to come up with new words at this point!)

Melissa: Wii can simply meet at Laura and Jon's and wiiplace the Playstation wiiith the wii. Wiimember, they have the large bwiiiutiful big screen!

Laura: Hmm. Wii wiir dowiing wiil, but wii wiil lose thwii points for "bwiiutiful," I fewiil.

Dave: Wow, I've been wiicalcitrant with my email for only a few minutes, and I'm already behind on my wiiplies! Taking the wii to Jon and Laura's wiith wiide scwiin projection wiill be wiiquired eventuallwii, but initialwii, wii should let Mark wiiveal the wonders of his wiimarkable hospitalitwii.

dave (:

Better Than Expected, Part II

Tonight, Laev showed me how our training is really starting to stick.

We set up two blinds in the barn, and I set up Laev before the first. Now, we'd done this for the first time in four months or so last Saturday, and Laev had made a single mistake -- she'd lost control of herself during the hold and bark and taken a shallow grab at the sleeve, for which she was removed (P-) and taken away for a restart. The worst punishment ever, losing the bite! Aaargh! She did not make another mistake on Saturday.

If I'd really thought about how we hadn't done a blind search in four months, I probably wouldn't have graduated her to doing it offleash, too. But Laev did a fantastic job of pretending that she'd been off the long line for a long time, never hinting that she would skip the first blind to go directly to the second, and stopping when I asked before going on. Beautiful, absolutely beautiful.

Tonight, I sent her around the first blind and called, "Laev, sit" as she whipped around it. Nice, tight turns, probably because we're indoors, but very, very pretty. Laev skidded to a halt and managed to give me eye contact, and I sent her on to the second blind. Yay!

The second time, Laev tested parameters, deliberately bumping the sleeve with her nose during the hold and bark. Her mouth was closed, but that's still outside my definition of a correct hold and bark, so I came around the blind, took the tab on her collar, and removed her. Even though the P- was late by 10 seconds or so, Laev apparently understood it, because it did not happen again in her first or second session tonight!

And then the funny instance, where I called for a sit as Laev came around the blind and she CHEATED, running right by me to the second blind. I made an annoyed "aart!" sound, marking the moment she failed and alerting the helper that she could not be reinforced. I collected her and returned for another try.

(Note: Laev does not, by all appearances through her lifetime, find such a sound to be punishing of itself. It can, however, serve as a marker for P-, after conditioning; a sort of anti-clicker, if you will. If someone wants to call this P+, I won't argue, but I would say that it's been conditioned to be punishing rather than being a primary punisher.)

Correct response, the next time. And the next. Whee! Laev is a one-rep learner in many things, and it seems that she was also learning in one rep which actions were mistakes which would not pay off.

And here's where it gets funny. Laev whipped around the blind and I called her to front. Laev started to blow by me, and I marked the error. Laev skidded to a halt, sliding in the wood chips, and BACKED UP to face me. Picture this -- a Schutzhund dog, offleash, in full drive for bitework, interrupting herself and backing from the helper to the handler. Whee! I was so proud of her. I marked the corrected behavior and sent her on for a hold and bark and then a bite.

My mistake tonight was that I sent her around me in only one direction, so I'm going to have to remember to alternate directions next time.

We followed with some escape bites, Laev's first; these confused her slightly ("I'm allowed to break position and go after the bad guy?") but she did all right, and she'll gain confidence with time. We also did some obedience for the bite, which was much less impressive than her blind searches, but she hadn't seen that in several months, either. I've got to come up with a training plan to get that cleaner.


blind search -- dog circles blind as directed, returns to handler, is sent to next blind

escape bite -- dog is left in position, helper attempts to flee, dog stops him without cue from handler

hold and bark -- dog searches blind, finds helper, alerts by barking intensely but may not bite helper. Laev was trained without P+ or R- for this, which just might be a first; see her blog entry "Look, Mom, No P+!" for details.

obedience for the bite -- dog is fully charged and ready for action, handler cues incompatible behavior, dog is rewarded by being sent to helper; this is great for teaching reliability and focus under heavy distraction)

Better Than Expected

Schutzhund training tonight, and we have mostly good news to report.

I started with retrieve practice, because I've made a silly error with that; I began training the retrieve from scratch with my plastic AKC dumbbell. Now, you'll hear people say that's a horrible idea because then the dog has bad associations with the dumbbell, but of course that's only if you're training with aversives. Laev loves the retrieve and in fact has a full formal retrieve with that same dumbbell, but I hadn't tried the behavior with any other objects, and I discovered one day to my horror that she thinks "Take it" means "bring the white plastic AKC dumbbell and nothing else." Oops!

So tonight I took a Schutzhund 1 dumbbell (650 g or 1.5 lbs) and asked Laev to take it from my hand. She did, but messily, as I've rarely asked her to take things from my hand. I wised up quickly and put it on the barn floor. (We were training indoors due to frigid temperatures and snow outside.) Laev picked it up a couple of times and then decided that the wood chip footing was *very* interesting. She had a tough time leaving it alone, so I abandoned the retrieve for a couple of minutes and did some heeling, just focusing on movement so she could work some wiggles out. Then I came back to the retrieve.

Yes, she could do it, but the wood chip buffet of smells was just too tempting. It was taking her a long time to perform the retrieve, and she was just missing the dumbbell and going to sniff the chips as often as not. She'd now been reinforced for bringing the new dumbbell a number of times and I could tell that she'd entered The Question Phase.

The Question Phase is something most clever dogs go through with a new behavior, but Laev has perfected it to an art form I've rarely seen before! She will come up with several -- many -- dozens of variations on a behavior and offer them all, testing what the *exact* parameters are. For a simple nose target, for example, it might look something like this:

  • touch the target with the nose

  • touch the target with the left side of the nose

  • touch the target with the right side of the nose

  • circle the target, face the handler over the target, and touch it

  • nudge the target

  • rest the chin on the target

  • circle the target completely, returning to the original spot, and then touch it

  • touch the target with front paws in various positions

Laev doesn't offer a new variation after a failed repetition which did not result in reinforcement; it's not lack of reinforcement producing variable behavior. It's as if she's just trying to imagine all the ways it could be done and testing them. It's funny, interesting, usually amusing, and slightly creepy.

This time, however, it was mostly annoying, because it was clear that Laev wanted to know if we could just possibly include wood-chip-sniffing as part of the dumbbell retrieve. I went to an NRM, marking the sniffing as the end of potential reinforcement. (The No Reward Marker is something that I recommend rarely, but which I can use occasionally with this particular dog; she understands it, is not suppressed or punished by it, and it usually works well.) The NRM didn't do much, though, as it was clearly a lie -- sniffing was providing its own reward as Laev sifted through the scents of barn cats, mice, birds, horses, other dogs, etc. So I escalated to some mild P+, taking a handful of loose scruff skin when she wandered away from the dumbbell to sniff. Again, I very, very rarely recommend or use positive punishment, but this was not a new behavior, it was pretty mild P+, and I'd already reduced criteria to a level below which she had already been performing in the same session. I didn't want to end by reinforcing backsliding. I couldn't reduce the distraction -- removing the floor was not an option -- and I judged that mild P+ was ultimately better than continuous nagging, a sudden lack of reinforcement for retrieves during environmental reinforcement for sniffing, and my own frustration which would certainly affect her.

Laev finally gave me some eye contact and appeared to think through the math involved. She went and collected the dumbbell, and I reinforced with cheerful praise, petting and several treats in succession. One more repetition, through which I coached her, and then similar reinforcement. Ah! Okay, Mom, I get it; no sniffing. We did 2-3 more clean retrieves and I quit. Huzzah!

On to bitework. Actually, this is getting long, so let me make a second post....

This is Kinetic Energy

My sister Alena was sitting on a wooden chair in my great room. Her laptop computer was, fortunately, not on her lap at all but on a table before her.

Down the hall, I released Laev from her crate. She'd waited politely at the door, as required, but now was happily burning energy. She raced down the hall at her usual breakneck pace, skidded skillfully about the corner on the laminate flooring, and set off through the great room.

I heard a loud sound, a cry from Alena and then much laughter.

Laev had not expected Alena to be there, apparently, and had barreled into the chair with enough force to knock it from underneath Alena and flip it upside down as it bounced away. Alena, suspended for one instant without a chair, fell to the floor. Laev thought this was all hilarious and pounced on Alena.

I think I may have mentioned that the dog has no body sensitivity? Yeah.

Sunday, January 14, 2007


This weekend we had a local trial -- huzzah for short drives! -- for APDT Rally Obedience and, for our first time, St. Hubert's CDSP Obedience. It was much fun, but I've discovered that trialing two dogs in multiple runs in each of two venues (15 runs/day?) and working the trials is just a bit much for me. I'm not sure how other people do it.

On the other hand, we had a successful weekend. Laev and Shakespeare each earned a CD-H today. Shakespeare achieved his highest ever traditional obedience score, 196 -- which is pretty good, considering that he's always disliked it to the point of hesitating before entering a ring. This weekend, though, he was actually prancing into the rings; Rally sure changed his outlook on trials! He also took High Scoring Rescue Dog on both days of APDT Rally, with scores of 209 and 210 respectively. (APDT Rally Obedience has a perfect score of 200 with a 10-point bonus exercise. I'm not sure why the single bonus exercise is large enough to make up for 10 points of errors, but there it is.) No placings in CDSP Obedience, but I didn't care; I was happy with his scores!

Laev didn't score so impressively -- we're still working on straightening those crooked sits, because she likes to heel sideways so she can look up at me -- but I was very pleased with her performance. She had marvelous focus all weekend, even when tiring, and behaved quite well with the crowding of other dogs, etc., which she rarely or never sees. Once she did lock eyes with another dog, barking at him, but he'd poked her in the butt while she was in a down at the gate and it took her a moment to forgive him. We walked into the ring, and she was able to focus on me and leave him out of it, though. She even placed once, which was quite nice in a trial which had some pretty nice Rally dogs (Sam and Syn are #3 nationally, for example). She got some nice compliments, even if she wasn't winning.

The handler didn't do so well! I cheated Shakespeare out of a 205+ round by touching him during the run, which is illegal -- bad Laura! I also had neglected to prepare for heeling around treat-filled food dishes, which is a standard part of Rally that I had simply neglected to practice, so Laev NQ'd twice on that. Dogs, yes, people, yes, food, no! The second time, it was the first station, so when she went for the food I simply grabbed her and asked to be excused. No heeling, no ring time, and she was actually quite disappointed to lose the opportunity to work. I got to go in and train a bit while trial paperwork was finished, and within three minutes or so of clicking, she was heeling with focus through the food bowls. It's not that she can't learn it -- it's that her mentally challenged handler needs to tell her what to do before the trial!

All in all, it was a good weekend, and we'll try to hit those venues again. (I was especially pleased since I'd spent almost no time training with the dogs for this trial -- maybe a couple hours' total over the last 4-6 weeks. I was relying on their good memories.) I also want to look for a smallish AKC trial for Laev.

(In other news.... The primary reason I'd been neglecting the dogs was preparation for a con last which took place last weekend. At the risk of publicly proving I am a geek with no life, I will proudly announce that our cosplay group took Best In Show at Ohayocon against a very respectable array of entries. This made us very happy.)