A while back I noticed that Lil was doing a little head bob or quick nose touch to the ground now and then at the start line when training. I also noticed that I often inadvertently rewarded those behaviors by releasing precisely at those moments. While that was unintentional on my part, I didn’t see any harm in those quirky little behaviors… until recently at our first trial in an active horse arena, a couple of times nose touches morphed to sniffing at the start line, which certainly caught my attention.
Once head bobs and nose touches were on my radar, I started noticing how often Lil “offered” quirky little head movements in her day-to-day life.
When I ask Lil “Where is Jake?” She whips her head quickly in Jake’s direction and then whips it back again (and I reward her for that). She also whips her head to the Right and Left in response to those verbal cues. She offers quick nose touches when she is waiting for me to put on my shoes and knows we are going for a walk. I suspect those nose touches are the equivalent of twiddling her thumbs in situations like this one. I also think the quick nose touches morphed from a slight lowering of her head when I added the duration to Forward Focus while Lil was looking out into space… at nothing in particular.. which I inadvertently rewarded her for doing.
So I had to ask myself: “Where did this come from?” My first thought was that they morphed out of Forward Focus games (examples in earlier blog posts).
(above) a little head bob at 0:46 but overall nice forward focus!
While I still believe those games contributed to her offering head movements more frequently over time, since I have been rewarding Forward Focus when she offers it on walks or when standing in front of agility obstacles, I never thought I needed to put Forward Focus, a seemingly benign behavior, on stimulus control.. until recently. And when I looked back even further… all the way to puppy hood, I realized Lil played a lot of “Look at That” games which create the ultimate foundation training for head whipping.
Once I recognized that head bobs can lead to nose touches which can lead to sniffing when a little trial stress is added to the mix, the next obvious question was how to remove them from Lil’s bag of tricks. My plan is to approach this training puzzle in terms of process… a long-term goal.. not an OMG I HAVE TO FIX THIS ASAP.” Afterall, for Lil, head movements have been part of her life since puppy hood and they are not an indicator of stress for her so I don’t feel a huge sense of urgency to get rid of them. Plus I think they will always be somewhere in her…lurking under the surface… and I’m OK with that. I also love her cute head whipping tricks like “Right,” “Left” and “Where is Jake” head whips.
My current plan is:
1) Reward only when Lil’s head is not moving in her day-to-day life. In other words, put all head movements on stimulus control….. if I don’t ask for it, I won’t reward for it.
2) Change Lil’s start line position from standing to sitting (at least for the time being).
3) Change Lil’s start line routine to avoid the behavior chains that currently include head bobs.
4) Make nose touches nearly impossible for her to do through the use of position and a perfect prop I happen to have (more on this prop below).
5) Maintain steady eye contact when leading out. Pause when Lil bobs her head when practicing. Start moving again and praise when her head is still. So far, this has been working very well because when I look at Lil, she looks right back at me which tends to keep her head still. My current plan is NOT to pause at trials because I do not want to cause any stress related to the start line since I think Lil’s head bobs are just a habit she has formed over time vs. an indication of stress.
6) Ask Lil to SIT a lot in day-to-day life (and reward sitting) since she has been heavily rewarded for standing (my personal preference to date but that may change) but not for sitting. Mark and reward SIT before she has a chance to move her head, then gradually add duration. This is working very well too!
7) Sometimes ask for a quick Sit Pretty (begging) when Lil is sitting then go back to another quick sit, which positions her front feet deeper under her body so her sitting position is more tucked vs. slouchy. Release quickly to start.
And now back to the PERFECT Prop. I personally love using props because learning takes place so fast with the right prop…. faded quickly (I’ve never had a problem fading a prop). The perfect prop which I happened to have on hand is a rubber feed bucket turned upside down, which Sharon Nelson uses for training foundation skills….brilliantly!
So why are feed buckets so perfect you might ask? When Lil places her front feet on a Mark bucket, the angle of her body is like a “standing sit” (HA HA but true) plus she is able to push off from her rear legs with a lot of power, due to her weight being shifted back, which is great for punchy/ fast releases. The other BIG benefit is that Lil’s head and nose are farther from the ground when she is standing on a Mark bucket. One more benefit is the behavior of front feet on a Mark bucket (or front feet on anything for that matter) is a new behavior for my dogs so they are both starting off with clean slates.
A couple of days ago, I decided to take the “Mark Show” on the road and took both dogs to an active livestock barn. We started off with some easy reps, sending the dogs back and forth between 2 Marks (like in my last post). Later in the session, I mixed in some SITs (in the dirt) and the first couple of reps were great.. head perfectly still and really nice punchy releases. After couple of reps she started doing a little head bob as soon as I took my first lead out step. I said a very happy WHOOPS and paused for a moment then continued leading out, praising as I walked or ran… and her head (and body) stayed perfectly still and then I released her. I ping ponged back and forth between starting her on the Mark and on the dirt (already starting to fade the prop). Her speed was best when we were both running. Her speed dropped to moderate but still respectable when I added 15′ or so of lateral distance or sent her to the far bucket which tells me something for sure.
Jake does not head bob or nose touch so his reps were all about focus in a new and highly distracting environment. He totally ROCKED.. running full speed ahead between 2 Mark buckets placed as far as 30+ ‘ away.
The following text is worthy of a separate post but since it is also about Mark buckets I decided to combine it with the text above.
The next day I found yet another amazing benefit to using Mark buckets when I met a friend at a local outdoor facility where she practices. $50 buys a 30 day unlimited pass (when classes are not in session) so I signed up for a month. Even if there are some snow days, it’s still a great bargain and only a few miles to drive. Thank you Julie!
The ring has a sandy dirt surface and SURPRISE SURPRISE there were sheep and horses in 2 adjacent pastures. Jake goes totally bonkers when he sees sheep and freaks out if a horse looks at him so I thought OK THEN this will be an opportunity to see what Jake can do surrounded by HUGE distractions. As it turned out, he never even glanced at the sheep or horses. I attribute a lot of his total focus on teamwork and a total lack of interest in the sheep and horses to my having the Mark buckets in my car, which I had brought primarily to use with Lil at the start line.
But once I saw the sheep and horses, I decided to start by warming up each dog’s brain by running them back and forth between 2 Marks (started 10′ apart and increased the distance to about 20’). Then we took a short break and started up again with a Mark, then 3 jumps followed by another Mark. I gradually increased the number of jumps in the sequences, while also expanding the area we were working in. Neither dog had ANY issues with distractions in any part of the ring. I think starting and ending most sequences on the Mark buckets worked incredibly well with Jake. It really kept his head in the game, even when driving straight towards the horses or sheep with me behind (and thus out of sight). His focus never wavered.
Then 2 BC teams showed up and I realized one handler was going to let his dog run around unleashed with a ball between reps. But after observing that dog interact with a less social dog who approached him, I felt this BC would be safe IF Jake ran up to him (Jake is not aggressive).. but I also asked the handler what his dog would do IF… and he said “nothing”. The other BC was being micro managed but I also asked his handler what her dog would do if approached by a YAHOO terrier and she said her dog would run away.
Now with 2 BCs off leash in the same ring, with pastures with sheep and horses on 2 sides of the ring, each of my dogs had one more very long turn consisting of a mixture of short and long sequences. Both dogs had unwavering focus, really nice drive and confidence, even when running straight towards the BC practicing running DWs. They drove hard and landed on the Mark buckets wherever I placed them… or came running back to me when I ended sequences without the Marks. YEY JAKE! YEY LIL!
For Jake in particular, finishing sequences on a Mark appeared to have a very positive influence. I think it was because he always had something visual to drive towards and he always knew where he was going next, even when working at a distance or driving ahead of me. I think it kept him from even thinking about looking to see what else might be going on. YEY Jake again!
The Marks were also great for practicing independent weaving. I placed one mark at each end of the weave poles and alternated sending, recalling, running along side close and with lateral distance and Lil ran fast and confident every rep. I didn’t get around to working on weaving with Jake but plan to do that next time.
Marks are incredibly versatile training props. One more advantage I’d like to share before signing off is that Mark buckets are helping Jake transition from 2o2o to 4on the dog walk naturally. No retraining needed! I can say with 100% certainty, the reason he is now often stopping with his front feet an inch from the bottom edge of the dog walk ramp is because of all the reps he has done with his front feet on the Mark.. while also learning how to drive fast and then shift his weight back enough to stop on the Mark bucket and not knock it over. These are important skills to have in terms of contact performance. The best thing about is, is he is learning all of this away from real contacts minimizing physical stress.
It’s amazing to me now much one training prop can do. Sharon Nelson is one smart cookie and very generous to share her training “magic” with all who are interested.