Stella and I had a working spot this past weekend at a Michelle Pouliot seminar. Michelle is a top-level competitor in Canine Freestyle and is also Director of Research and Development for programs at Guide Dogs for the Blind. I saw Michelle at Clicker Expo and really liked her presentions plus once I viewed a few of her freestyle routines I was blown away. Anyone that can complete a long routine like that with no food or toys and a happy working dog has my utmost respect. The focus of the seminar was freestyle but she also has a strong obedience history and adapted her information for both types of participants.
I came away from the weekend with two "aha" areas that I want to focus on going forward over the next little while. The first was working attention. The second was the importance of visual cues. This really isn't new information for me but I feel that life has a way of slapping us upside the head with information when we need to revisit something.
Michelle feels that we need to train more attention and focus less on training skills in other environments. This makes a lot of sense to me because once I have great attention behaviours in all sorts of areas then the dog will naturally be able to perform the exercises I request. This doesn't mean that the exercises don't still need to be trained, generalized etc but the biggest first step is just to get the working attention on cue and with duration.
I worked attention with Stella as a puppy but realized that it had fallen away as we moved onto "sexier" stuff. When we competed our pre-novice rounds a few weeks ago we passed but I wasn't happy with her heelwork as she was fairly sniffy and distracted. She is capable of much prettier work than we gave. I tend to have a mindset where I still think of her as a puppy and excuse things like distracted behaviour . She is still a young (14 months) dog but I now recognize that I need to set and maintain some better standards when we are working together.
When training attention we have the following progression of goals:
1. Have the dog offer attention.
2. Get duration attention.
3. Get attention on cue.
4. Have on cue attention fluent.
5. Attention is reliable in goal environments.
Attention is a trained, reinforced behaviour for most dogs. We want our dogs motivated to want to work with us. We need to have a strong history of reinforcement (food, toys, play, interaction etc.) and a mutual trust and respect with our dogs to be successful. We can't take food or toys in the ring so the relationship will be what gets us through. We can classically condition praise by using it after we click but before we treat/play. Stella has a few pretty good non-food/toy reinforcers in that she likes when I clap my hands and she gets to jump/bounce but that can get her a bit over-stimulated for a ring environment so I'm going to also explore other reinforcers. Michelle believes in using the dog's favourite natural behaviours whenever possible as rewards. One of her dogs loves to jump straight up and down and the other loves when Michelle is laying down on the floor. Stella does love when I get down on my hands and knees with her so that might be useful for us.
Michelle believes one of the biggest problems we have with attention is that as humans we self-sabatoge by checking out on our dogs. We do this to talk to our trainer or friends, to think about what our next trainings steps will be, to set up stuff etc. This teaches our dogs to dis-engage with us and move onto other self-rewarding behaviours like sniffing. Attention is a two way street and we need to give our dogs 100% when we are training with them. When we get attention on cue that is our "ON" switch so when we cannot offer our dogs 100% of our attention in return then we need to use our "OFF" switch. Dogs need to be taught to shift into a neutral off that will allow us to do things like talk to trainers/set up. This is not the same as an "all done" situation. With young dogs she recommends placing them in a down (sit or stand also ok), give a cue like relax etc and then step on the leash so it is very short and prevents the dog from exploring the environment. This is generally not a rewarded behaviour as the object is to teach the dog that we are not going to interact so there is no point in doing anything other than just waiting for us to turn them back "ON". If you need to remove your attention for an extended period then it is better to crate or tie your dog somewhere.
I did the "OFF" exercise with Stella and she went down nicely and then I stepped on the leash. She got bored quickly and wanted to explore but while the leash would allow her to stand it wasn't a very comfortable position for her. She struggled a bit and I totally ignored her so she didn't think this was about me. She wasn't stressed or freaked out, it was basically a discussion between my dog and the floor and eventually she flopped down and settled. We've done this a few times since then and each time gets better. I can see how this will lead to a better understanding of when we are working and expect engagement. Michelle actually takes the whole thing further and uses a set routine where she crates for a short period before and after each training session and uses a specific leash on/off routine. This pattern becomes a strong cue to the dog that work is about to start and is also useful in a trial environment when our dogs are often crated. It certainly works for her! We were lucky enough to watch her work her dogs and it is impressive. Her dogs obviously love to work with her and equally obvious how much she loves and respects them.
I've rambled on long enough now so will talk more about visual cues another day.