Visual cues are something I have obviously been aware of but did not give them the respect they deserve. Michele spent a lot of time discussing how easy it is to sabotage our training with confusing signals and body language. The seminar convinced me that this is an area I need to pay more attention. Visual cues for me break down into two main areas. The first is the importance of clean training. The second is the importance of environmental cues.
Michele's handout describes "Blocking" a marker (clicker etc.). Blocking is anything that distracts the dog from its awareness of the behavior that it is performing. Any action, noise or visual incident that occurs before or during the marker can prevent the dog from understanding what is actually being rewarded. Handlers can easily block their audible marker with hand movements, a food pouch, body movenments or words spoken before or during the intended marker. Michele only uses a bait bag when training new behaviours where she would need a high rate of reinforcement and even then makes sure that the bait bag is on the opposite side of the body. Treats are normally hidden in her pockets and she uses toys that are easily hidden. A favourite trick of hers is to use those flat road kill toys for tugging and she hides several on her body. That lets her pull one out, play and then put it away where the dog can see. She then surprises the dog by pulling another toy off her body. Her theory is that she wants the dog to think she is the source of endless good stuff even if it isn’t right in front of the dog.
Clean training involves keeping neutral body language when teaching behaviours, marking the behaviour cleanly and THEN moving to reward the behaviour. Dogs are very visual learners and it is sooooo easy to unconsciously give body cues that end up being the lure to get the dog to do what we want. Haven’t we all have had those moments where we think our dog knows a voice cue but instead stares blankly at us when we ask for the behaviour? We need to remember to keep our bodies neutral (i.e. hands at side, standing casually straight etc.). Mark the behaviour with a clicker or other marker and ONLY then we may move to reward the behaviour. It is fine to praise in between the marker and the treat and that will classically condition the praise which can be beneficial.
My mechanics have really improved over the last year but I still find myself with my hands in the treat pouch before they should be or my body in some sort of luring position. It’s fine to use our body language as a cue for behaviour (and many freestyle moves are cued by body) but we should only be using the position that will be the final clean cue for the dog. Lures that become habitiual visual cues for the dog will evolve into required cues. The good news is that I am recognizing my bad habits now which is a good step to stopping them. This seminar just reinforced that I need to be constantly vigilant about keeping things clean.
The second part about visual cues is to be aware of environmental cues. Michele spoke of watching dogs compete the first few times in a freestyle or obedience routine and the moment where dogs that are heavily rewarded with food figure out that there is no reward coming. Dogs learn very quickly that the presence of ring gates indicate long working patterns with no rewards. When we throw in stressed out owners it quickly adds up to not much fun for the dog. She believes in training the entry into the ring as a regular behaviour that is rewarded. One exercise we did at the seminar was to enter through a set of ring gates with our dogs as if we were to start an obedience round or freestyle routine. If you have access to someone who can act as a ring steward and usher you in and take the leash that is even better. Do those types of actions and then stop and have a play party with your dog. Mix up the reinforcement schedule by sometimes asking for a few behaviors and then having the party. After the party return to exit the ring gates quietly, leash up and exit the ring. Repeat often so the presence of ring gates becomes a strongly reinforced cue to start work and also have fun.
These fun party moments are important ways to reinforce our dogs without using food or toys. Be sure to note how your dog likes to “party”. Some dogs don’t like their owners being all crazy and they should be rewarded with calm petting or other things they enjoy. Stella loves to bounce around but that can also sometimes get her over stimulated so depending on her mood I should mix that up with butt scratches and goofy talk. It was quite impressive to watch the seminar participants work this exercise. Many dogs enter the ring very slowly the first time and then look totally confused at the “party”. Pretty much every dog showed significant improvement in attitude by the third attempt.
These environmental cues are everywhere in competition. In obedience think of two people standing with crossed arms for the figure eight or a judge following you around with a clip board. Consider if we dress or move the same way in competition as we do in regular training? Be aware of those sorts of things and work them to our advantage because if you don’t the dogs will figure out they are cues that another boring time in the ring is ahead for them.
I would advise anyone to take part in a seminar with Michele. I very much enjoyed my time and hopefully these posts represent some of the information acurately. If not it is totally my fault because she was fabulous!