Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Have You Seen My Blog?

This is a Laev-specific blog, for the most part; I occasionally post other topics here but I try to limit such. I have a newish blog at http://blog.caninesinaction.com where we publish general training tips, soapboxes, anecdotes, interesting stuff we find, and more. Feel free to stop by if you haven't seen it!

Laev Throws Me a Bone

I was sorely tempted to skip Schutzhund practice tonight, after my last post, but I went. And it was a good thing I did.

(Long post, so here's the summary -- 300 Peck rocks, Laev nearly breaks my neck, and I am happy about it all.)

I cut up 3 hot dogs to use on the field. I'm not a big fan of hot dogs -- I don't like the smell or the texture -- but they do count as high value rewards in Laev's book, and I was starting fresh. Some of my very first Schutzhund research included a Gottfried Dildei tape in which he conditioned dogs to love the training field by simply walking them onto it and feeding hot dogs, until they were rabid field addicts. Say "classical conditioning" all you want, I couldn't quite bring myself to throw hot dogs for free :) but I had another plan.

(After all, Bob Bailey tells me that Pavlov is always on my shoulder -- so any wiener-intensive activity would have the same conditioning effect.)

After my NRM article came out this month, I received an email asking about building duration in heeling without using an NRM. I recommended the "300 Peck" program. At ClickerExpo a few weeks ago, I heard Alexandra Kurland explain 300 Peck more accurately than what is often bandied about on the internet. (The name "300 Peck" comes from experiments training a pigeon to peck a lever 300 times for a single reinforcer.) Her version is very useful for training duration -- or, in my case, re-training. I opted to try it tonight.

So I started toward the field, set up, and waited for Laev to give me attention. (I could have asked for attention, in normal training, but one of my goals tonight was to see what Laev was capable of gathering and offering me without any extra prompting.) When she put herself in heel position, cued by my posture, I cued "heel" and took a single step before halting. Laev moved with me and sat. I gave her a bit of hot dog.

Next, two steps and halt. Treat. Three steps and halt. Treat. Four steps, halt, treat, and then when I was shooting for five steps, she glanced away from me to look at another team nearby. Looking away is not a part of correct heeling behavior (we train for eyes-up, attentive work), and so I simply stopped and stepped back a bit. Laev realized she was not only out of position, but had missed her opportunity, and she flung herself back at heel with a sharp bark of frustration. I cued "heel" again and made it our five steps.

(The most common misrepresentation of 300 Peck is that when the learner makes a mistake, the trainer begins again at the count of one -- and this actually reinforces errors by making it easier to earn reinforcement after failure! Instead, I simply started where we'd left off; Laev had successfully completed four steps but failed with five, and so I reset and asked for five steps again, not one.)

Laev didn't make another mistake while entering the field, and then I stopped 300 Peck and doodled for a moment with simple things. When I took her to the setup for the heelwork down the center of the field -- the gunfire danger zone -- I restarted 300 Peck with a single step. Here Laev was a bit conflicted; she was quite vocal, barking sharply if she made a mistake and occasionally just for the heck of it, and there was even some intermittent whining. I ignored all the vocalization; I know it's just a symptom and not worth addressing. It will vanish if I fix the real problem. Still, with all that, she stayed focused and intense in her work. Between reps, she glanced away and sometimes seemed to have a hard time refocusing; I let her work through her own conflict, refusing to prompt or help her. I wanted a baseline, and I'd rather not have her rely on outside help I can't give later. And she always managed to pull herself back to me, giving me attention so I could cue the heel again (and thus reinforce the attention).

As I recall, in the original pigeon experiments, researchers noted that as the ratios became longer (say, 200 pecks for a single feed instead of ten pecks), the pigeons took longer to initiate the behavior (procrastinated) but then worked intensely once they'd started. This was very like what I saw with Laev; her ratios were much smaller, but the challenge was greater at center field than at the side, and she delayed probably 5-8 seconds at her worst there. Once she turned her head back to me, however, she worked well.

Several times I took a break, doodled, and then restarted at lower ratios. We got as high as 20 steps of correct, intense heeling for a single bit of hot dog tonight, a feat I think we achieved thrice. That's not very impressive when I recall that she did about 500 steps of heeling for her BH on this field, but it's an order of magnitude better than Saturday's session, where she simply shut down in the middle of the field and told me she'd rather not play, thank you. So I think we'll be sticking with this plan for a while. We might not ever add the gunfire again, but maybe I can at least get our old level of performance back.

So it was a good session already, even if we'd quit there, but I stayed on for bitework.

I'm trying to give prime training time to the dogs who are actually trialing in a couple of weeks (I have a schedule conflict, which is why we're not doing tracking or protection titles instead of a full Schutzhund title attempt). So Laev went last tonight, and I asked the helper to give her suit bites, something we're playing with as I consider other sports. Laev gets a bit hot on the jacket, as it's a different type of fight than on a sleeve, and when she was glowing in the Tolkienesque forge-fires of glorious battle, my helper suggested teaching her the ringsport Defense of Handler.

The complete exercise is this: The dog and handler heel forward and encounter a couple of decoys, one of whom greets the handler and shakes hands. They move on, and the handler cues the dog to heel backward and keep an eye on the suspicious characters. One of the decoys sneaks up behind the handler and strikes him, and the dog is to bite in defense. Key points are, the dog may NOT bite the non-threatening decoy as he shakes hands, waves his arms, etc., and the dog may NOT bite before the handler is struck, even if he sees the decoy coming.

Laev doesn't know how to heel backward (well, actually, she has a lovely heel in reverse as I walk backward, but she doesn't know how to heel facing the rear as I travel forward), so we started her just in a sit facing backward. The helper (R---) came up behind me, raised his arms, and then struck me with both hands. I shouted, and Laev launched in a gorgeous black-and-mahogany fireball of avenging fury. It was perfect.

Except for the fact that Laev logically went for R's arm on my back. And en route, she grasped a large hank of my long hair. So as she stuck the decoy and knocked him backward, fighting furiously, she yanked me around rather violently by the neck.

Once I got free, I teamed up with Laev to beat on the helper for a bit :) and then collected her for another try. Laev grasped the game very quickly. On her third or fourth rep, she tried moving early when R started sneaking, but he simply stepped backward and I just blocked her with the leash so that she couldn't reach him, and we reset. It was an honest question -- "what's the actual cue for biting, the approach or the hitting?" -- and she did not make the mistake again. We did it probably 8 times or so, I didn't count, and the last time R tried to psych her out with some feints toward me, and she remained coiled like a cobra until he made contact with me. Good girl! and we both had a lot of fun.

That was it for the night, and we packed up and started home. It wasn't until the drive home that I realized how much I hurt from getting yanked in a downward spiral by my head -- and that was only a half-hour later. I am gonna HURT tomorrow!

But, even if I do, it was worth it -- we had a good obedience session and a rip-roarin' bitework session. Laev will be easier to live with for the next couple of days, and I saw some progress toward regaining what we'd had. Yay!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Disappointment, and Reevaluating the Dream

It's been coming on gradually, but this weekend I finally said it aloud -- I'm not sure I'm ever going to title Laev in Schutzhund.

This is really rough for me. I bought Laev (the first dog I've ever purchased, as opposed to adopted from a shelter or rescue group or off the street) specifically for her genetics, developed specifically for this sport. We started sport-training at 8 weeks old and have never stopped, except for the occasional time off for a minor injury or such. I've worked hard on this, sacrificed other activities to make training time, etc.

But we're just not beating this gunfire thing, and without that, nothing else matters.

It's not that we've made no progress at all. My theory was that what was learned (Laev didn't show any trouble with gunfire until age 2, and no serious trouble until 3) could be unlearned, and I started desensitization. Our low point was a shaking, whining, drooling dog; our high point was Laev heeling beside me while I fired a cap gun in my right hand, without losing her. So we have definitely seen progress.

But it's not steadily-forward progress; hunting season and the neighbor's target practice started again soon after the aforementioned high point, and we backslid horribly. There are a lot of chemical processes attached to this kind of sensitized emotional reaction which we've only barely begun to understand (see Mr. Hooper's Sketch for a great essay on this) and a major complication is the fact that I don't know when neighbors might practice, which means I'm not always prepared or even aware that my dog is being exposed to her trigger without any counter-conditioning whatsoever.

The locals use a variety of guns, including some big ones, and they may shoot for a few minutes or a couple of hours. Some of you may recall that I once came home to find my kennel empty with a hole through its roof and blood smears on my front door, with my panicked dog in hiding. No desensitization program can stand up to that kind of intermittent experience among the positive associations.

Saturday I was sitting on the edge of the training field, watching other dogs work while Laev relaxed in the car, when someone started firing in the distance. I had just been talking about Laev's progress and backsliding, describing how her relaxation protocol had enabled us to achieve long downs again in the "scary" part of the field, but how we couldn't pull off heeling and relaxation (involving matwork) at the same time, and so her obedience work in center field was still abysmal even though she hadn't heard gunfire there for a year. I went back to the car when the shots started (probably someone practicing or hunting coyotes) and took Laev out. She seemed relatively calm, and I started asking her for basics, but after a moment she began to whine and then fall apart. I moved to one side and asked her to down, and she immediately went chin-down (part of her relaxation series) and calmed. Good news: the relaxation protocol does work, and she will choose it if she has a chance. Bad news: it still only works in a down. She hopped back into her crate and was fine.

That's how it always is; that's how it took me so long to recognize a gunfire problem when it began to develop. Laev doesn't bolt at the first sound of gunfire if we're working; she tries to keep working through it, with the most subtle stress indicators I've ever seen, until it finally reaches her threshold and she explodes in either running or freakish barking, jumping, and general physical displacement. (Her initial stress signs really are subtle; people have told me she's not stressed at all, that I'm just imagining things, and then seconds later she's bolted.) So it may be a good ten or twenty seconds between the shot and her apparent reaction, but it's the gunshot which caused it.

Laev is otherwise nearly fearless; she shows a modicum of common sense regarding snakes and larger animals like horses, but she barely blinks at most things which typically alarm her species (I once caught her turning on the vacuum cleaner as a puppy so she could play with it, and the occasional attempt of an uneducated houseguest to intimidate her into compliance results in Laev blissfully continuing to do as she wants). While working on this issue, I tested other types of noise, filling a steel bucket with chains and asking others to rattle and bang them obnoxiously all around us as we heeled. No sweat; she never took her eyes off mine. And recorded gunfire has no effect, either; only the real thing matters.

(I have found a drug which, if given in time, will abate her more panicked reactions -- but even aside from the ethical issues of trialing a drugged dog, I'm not sure that it doesn't interfere with her ability to do the work of tracking, obedience, protection. So it's not a solution.)

Laev has so many good points, and her /cough/ less-stellar qualities have been so good for me as a trainer. But this, this is killing us. If she can't hold steady during gunfire, she is disqualified from obedience and the entire trial, as happened to us last time. We've put a lot of work into her protection behaviors, and we've gotten a lot of good comments on her bitework. When I started with Laev, I didn't know many clicker bitework trainers, and I won't pretend that what we made up as we went along (some of it unique to us, as far as I know) was always the best choice -- but I am personally proud of what we've done, and I do believe that we have some good training among the mistakes. And I'll never get to show it, because unless she holds steady during gunfire in obedience, she can't even enter the protection phase.

I'm not retiring her. Ye gads, Laev is only 5, and she would never be happy to be just a pet dog! And I don't want to drop protection sports entirely, as she adores the training. I'm going to keep doing Schutzhund club training, and I'm going to shop around for other venues where we can use our skills.

When I started this blog, I gave it the subtitle: "A professional dog trainer raises a puppy with lofty working goals.... At least, that's Plan A. But anything can happen." That seems rather bitterly appropriate now. Plan A was to get her BH and then title, and even when we had /cough/ BH issues I still fully intended to train on through Schutzhund 3. Now, I don't know what the plan is. Still exploring....