Why Lil does those funny little head bobs and nose touches while waiting to be released.

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.

Lil standing on the Mark
Jake standing on the Mark
Lil sitting with front feet on the Mark
Lil sitting with front feet on the Mark

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.

🙂

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Lil practicing Forward Focus with choices.

I woke up wondering how “Forward Focus” might be useful beyond traditional Start Line Stays and Freestyle, so this morning I set up a couple of simple sequences that allowed me to ask my dogs the following questions:

1) Can you look where I’m looking…and pointing with my body language vs. look at the obstacle I’m standing closest to, or behind, even if that obstacle is a tunnel?

2) Can you perform 180 turns away from me and a tunnel, and run through a sequence of hoops behind you, with me standing next to or behind the tunnel?

Lil and Jake answered YES to all the challenges I presented them with.  I think Australian Terriers are exceptionally smart but I also think dogs naturally look where we are looking (and where we are pointing towards with body language) so it’s just a matter of rewarding their natural response to look where we are looking enough times to be able to then use Forward Focus to enhance the performance of what many would call “challenging” behaviors.

An added benefit of practicing Forward Focus with choices might be for dogs who like to decide for themselves what the opening sequence is vs. waiting for their handlers to show them the correct opener.  I suppose another benefit could be for dogs who self-release as soon as they focus on what they think is the first obstacle.  Regardless of those benefits, I see this game as another fun way to reinforce solid Start Line Stays while upping the ante in new and unexpected ways.

A few more of Jake and Lil’s runs from DAPPR’s NADAC Trial last weekend

Black Forest Regional Park is a great trial site.

 

 

DAPPR NADAC Trial Site.

Gorgeous trial site!

(above) a couple of Jake and Lil’s runs from Saturday.  These are the only runs that were video-taped on my high-res camera but they present the general vibe of both dogs running in long, dense grass.  I think running a bit slower may have helped Jake keep his wits about him 🙂  but both dogs YPS were 0.5 to 1 YPS slower than typical.    Not an issue in terms of qualifying since they both typically come in well under the Standard Course Times but it certainly felt a lot different running them in such thick grass.

Watching the videos, I think my dogs looked perfectly happy running those courses but they also looked like they were working a lot harder than they usually do when running on other surfaces.   I’m not complaining at all though.  It was just weird for me to feel my dogs overall “vibe” being different from what I’ve gotten used to since switching to NADAC.  I was reminded of the years we competed primarily in USDAA.  Sure, my dogs were happy to run USDAA courses with me, but the overall vibe was “chase me around this course” vs. “run this course with me as my teammate.”  I personally prefer the vibe I feel from my dogs when running NADAC courses and I think they do too!    I also think they love running over lower A-frames, rubberized contacts without slats…… and lower jump heights!  I’m not saying USDAA is bad….although some of their obstacle specifications are arbitrary and not fair to small dogs… but rather that my dogs and I prefer NADAC.  🙂

(above) I dug up this video from fall 2011 of Lil running a USDAA Grand Prix course.  I think you can see what I am referring to re: her overall vibe looking like she is working vs. having a blast.  Gosh… I just realized Lil was 2.5 years old in this video!

I Want a Do Over !

Jake, Lil and I attended our first trial in Colorado last weekend, hosted by “Dog Agility of the Pikes Peak Region” (DAPPR).  The site was gorgeous and everyone was so nice and  friendly, it made for a very fun weekend.

I think this might be the first time I attended a trial with “real” grass vs. what we call grass in the NE.. which is more like cut grass-like weeds.    Plus this was the thickest grass I’ve even seen.  Lil had to really work to plow through it, which slowed her down quite a bit (as evidenced by her YPS) but that didn’t seem to dampen her spirits too much.

Lil ran a whopping 14 courses, and attempted 4 bonus boxes.  No Bonus Qs but she ran very well all three days Q-ing 9 of 10 non-bonus runs.

Jake also had a great weekend.  He Q-ed 6 out of 9 runs but more importantly his start line stays were impeccable.    I had really let them slide over the past couple of years (for no good reason) and decided a few months ago to get Jake’s SLS back on track.

Sharon Nelson demonstrated a fantastic Start Line Stay game at her Distance Seminar at Yellowstone Dog Sports in July which I now play here and there at home and last weekend I played the game before each of Jake’s runs and it worked brilliantly.  I had no question that he would stay and when released he blasted off the start line.

Now onto the main topic of this post:  Why I want a do over.   I screwed up and said OVER LEFT when I should have said OVER GO ON and blew what might have been a successful Bonus Run with Lil.  Here is my excuse :)….  I was mentally and physically exhausted.  Its been a long time since I ran 2 dogs at a 3 day trial.. up to 9 runs a day to boot.  Plus the site was very large so all the treks to my tent, RV, bathrooms, ribbon tent, and 2 rings took its toll on me.

But actually the “do over” I wish I had was not related to the actual run… although I would love to run that course again someday to see if we could have gotten the bonus from behind that tunnel.  But my bigger wish for a do over was based on a short conversation I had immediately following that run.

A fellow competitor came up to tell me that her instructor encourages her students NOT to use verbal directionals (left and right) because people make mistakes with them.   My response (while having a post-run party with Lil) was “I rarely screw them up.”  What I wished I had said was:  “I rarely screw them up….but when I do, my dog doesn’t know I screwed up because I follow through as though everything went perfectly well.  Granted I was a total bumbling idiot with my directionals in the opening sequence of this particular run, but Lil didn’t seem bothered by even this extreme level of confusion on my part, as evidenced by her confidence and speed… and this was the 2nd to the last run on day 3 so I think we were both tired.

(above) the video that shows my bumbling idiot moment in the opener.  At 0:40 seconds, I redeem myself re: verbal skills and Lil does a great job with what I considered to be the trickiest part of the course.. an interesting serpentine-like distance challenge.

Even with an occasional mistake using LEFT and RIGHT, I think the benefits far outweigh the negatives for me and my dogs.. not that I’m suggesting everyone should use LEFT and RIGHT.   I personally love that there are as many different ways of handling as there are different types of handlers!

 

Filling Holes

Video Link if video screen above is not visible: https://vimeo.com/104427017

At Sharon Nelson’s Distance Workshop last month, I realized Lil and I had a few holes to fill re: working at big distances.   One was sharp turns (pushes) away from me after the weave poles and contacts (with me at lateral distance and with a discrimination straight ahead).  With Champs coming up, I decided it would be fun…. and worthwhile to fill the  training holes I am aware of, knowing there are surely more holes that will appear as we attempt more and more bonus boxes down the road.   Since I don’t have access to contacts right now,  I decided to start by working on sharp turns away from me after the weave poles.

On a side note, my weave poles (Versa-Weaves) allow me to leave a slightly open channel so I can do more reps than I would with straight-up poles.  I also only used 6 vs. 12 poles because the focus of this session was on exits and not weaving itself.

I was (and am) very pleased with how well both dogs responded to pushes after the poles to the far hoops.  I can see room for improvement with my timing but one thing I noticed with Lil is I can say WEAVE RIGHT or LEFT before she enters the poles and she seems to know that I mean “weave ALL the poles and then turn right or left” and she does not pop out of the poles.   I repeated RIGHT or LEFT at the moment her nose crossed the plane of the last pole so I’m not sure if she is thinking about the verbal pre-cue while she is weaving but it certainly didn’t appear to hurt.. and who knows… it might actually help her anticipate an upcoming turn.  Time will tell.

Jake blew me away with his enthusiasm and I loved seeing how far he was willing to drive ahead of me. His confidence is so much higher than it was even a month ago and as a result, I am asking for more and more distance.  I think he is diggin’ it as much as Lil.  What a GOOD BOY!

One last thing…..I’m starting to do something new with both dogs when working at bigger distances.  I  will sometime ask for a WAIT and then redirect them to the correct path vs. always letting them run the path they are committed to running, even if it is not the path I had intended.   The reason I had previously let them continue on was to instill full confidence when working away from me but at this point I think both dogs are confident enough that I can ask for an occasional WAIT and redirect when practicing skills that are within the realm of what they know or just slightly more challenging.  I don’t have a strict rule about when I ask for a WAIT but I only do it occasionally since I think if I interrupted their flow too often they would become cautious when working at bigger distances.

So far, so good.   Both dogs appear to have great attitudes before, during, and after the occasional WAIT and redirect.

 

Great New Game to Play with a Manner’s Minder

MM behind BarrelsThis morning, I set up an 80′ long loop of obstacles:  5 hoops, a short tunnel (because I only have 5 hoops) and a barrel at each end with a Manner’s Minder behind each barrel.   I drew a red line around the far barrel so it is visible in the photo).

I had 3 goals in mind.   The first was to create massive acceleration away from me (and back towards me) without the use of a visible lure.   The second was to build more value for seeking out and running around barrels.  The third was to have a massive amount of fun.  This set up worked splendidly for all three goals!

With Jake, I focused on him running a super fast line along a curved path vs. skipping obstacles and running straight towards the MM hidden behind each barrel (something he will do sometimes).  It was also great to practice Jake’s start line stays with him being totally amped up due to using a MM and him knowing the path ahead.   I also did some big sends and recalls with Jake and he aced them.

With Lil, after a few rounds of full-out running around the loop, I started mixing in WAITs, redirects, and 90 degree turns off the path with me in various positions.  She was also very amped up yet aced every challenge I presented her with.

The thing I like best about this set-up is even after I removed one Manner’s Minder early on (because it stopped working), both dogs continued to drive full speed ahead towards that barrel and continued driving hard back towards me… and this was after only a rep or two with a MM behind both barrels.

I am definitely going to use barrels and MMs like this in other types of sequences in the future.  What Fun!

Thinking (and working) outside the box

Box set up, June 29, 2014What a fabulous early morning backyard training session we had this morning.  The weather was perfect and the grass was freshly mowed.  The set up included one more hoop to the left and I started some reps running my dogs down the DW ramp off the set of steps to the left of the out-of-frame hoop (if this makes sense) so they entered the box at full speed.

I tend to set up symmetrical sequences so I can work with dogs on my right and left without needing to reset any obstacles. I really liked this particular set up for testing how well my dogs respond to my body language (upper and lower body cues) for GO ONs, LEFT and RIGHT turns by using a box consisting of 4 jumps surrounded by hoops.  I stayed well outside of the box (at positions like the 2 red Xs) in order to test distance skills while layering other obstacles.  Boxes sure are great for proofing handling at a distance since they provide very tempting off course options.

Lil totally aced the GO ONs through the box…..super fast, 100% confident, and not even a tiny glance at the off course obstacles. Lil’s OUT skills (turning away from me) were also stellar.  The only skill we/ I did not ace the first rep was OVER RIGHT (turning towards me)  when I just used a dramatic shoulder pull.  So the next rep, as Lil approached the first jump in the box,  I took a couple of small steps backwards while rotating my upper body and feet to face the path ahead and she totally GOT that I wanted her to turn towards me…. and she did it at full speed and with 100% confidence.  No question about it.

I also did some reps sending her through the 4 hoops around the perimeter of the box while I took just a single step to push on her line when needed (along with appropriate body rotation). That was quite challenging since 3 of the hoops were quite close to the edges of the yard but Lil GOT all 4 of them after a couple of tries.

Jake was also super fast, confident, and aced the GO ONs but when I send him ahead, he tends to think he knows the course based on whatever he did the last rep.  He had a blast and so did I but since I don’t plan to do BIG distances with Jake at trials… I am not worried about his creativity 🙂  when I am not using motion (running with him) as my primary cue!   Jake is such a fun dog to run!

Compared to just one month ago, I feel so much clearer about how to best use physical body cues for distance handling thanks to the ongoing guidance and feedback from my good friend Lynn Smitley.   She showed me my NEW backing-up “dance move” at our last trial and it worked perfectly to turn Lil towards me off a beckoning tunnel straight ahead which was part of the distance challenge in an Elite Chances course, which Lil aced.  This cue is so effective it has to be a natural cue for dogs.  Today’s session seemed to confirm that.

Below is a link to a video of Lil’s 2nd and 3rd ever BONUS BOX attempts and the Elite Chances run I referred to.

I learned something new about my dogs this morning

 

Image

I learned something new about my dogs this morning re: sends through a slightly open serpentine.

When I stayed back and sent Jake ahead over the four jumps, it was clear that he saw the four jumps as a series of turns / switches.  He would only take the jumps vs. turn back to me with a ? above his head or run through one of the hoops to the left  if I said OVER RIGHT, OVER LEFT…. while also supporting each turn with motion that indicated a change of lead.   He ran a nice line but was definitely dependent on my communicating each turn / switch.   Had there been no off-course options, I suspect he would have taken the four  jumps with less support.

With Lil, when I said OVER RIGHT, OVER LEFT… she took the jumps but did not run particularly fast and her ears were floppy which is what happens when she is not 100% certain of what I’m asking of her.  So then I thought…hmmmm Maybe Lil does not see these jumps as a series of turns and rather as a straight line of crooked jumps.  So I brought her out for another short session and just said GO ON and she took the four jumps with full confidence and speed…. and her ears were up!

Of course I then had to try that with Jake and GO ON totally confused him.  Apparently Jake and Lil are different in how they SEE a slightly open serpentine.  However, earlier, I had placed a very tempting tunnel off to the right (not visible in the photo) and Jake was very receptive to me sending him ahead through the serpentine and not taking the off-course tunnel.  Lil, on the other hand, took the tunnel a few times…. so I’m not saying Lil is better than Jake… but rather that they are different (and I love that!)

New and Super Deep Doggie Luge…..sigh

(above) Jake: Round One

Jake started off offering Paw and Shake which was so cute, I left it in the video.  The snow is so deep, it’s the equivalent of running through a very long tunnel since Jake cannot see me while running along the far side of the track.  A year ago, I don’t think he would have been willing to run all the way around with me out of sight for so long.  What a fun little guy he is!

(above) Jake: Round Two

(above) Lil: Round One

Lil will work with enough distance for me to stand on the porch to get a better view of the luge track.. but the snow is so deep, you still cannot see her half the time.  If it was not for the luge track, I don’t think Lil would venture off the porch at all.  She is a total “princess” when it comes to deep snow… so the Doggie Luge is the first thing I dig out after every snow fall…. did I mention this has been almost a daily occurrence lately? BIG SIGH!

(above) Lil: Round Two

I’ll end this post with a Funny Story.  I shoveled the luge track and the front path to our house 5-6 times yesterday but this morning I needed to deal with a huge amount of overnight snow in stages.  I had the front 2/3 of the luge shoveled when I let the dogs out this morning and they were very YAHOO and both took off running…. and I remember thinking…..hmmmmm what will happen with they hit “the wall of snow”…..

Jake jumped right over it… and bounded through the snow following the slight indentation where the previous luge track had been and then did another lap around the entire luge  for good measure. Lil followed Jake for a few strides in the deep snow and then turned around and came back to the porch.

Both were somewhat predictable “performances.”  🙂

Jake and Lil “Moon Walking” which is what I call Paw & Shake while backing up

Moon Walking consists of a difficult combination of movements so I keep sessions super short (the video contains the entire session from start to finish).  I also do not practice this combination of tricks every day… just once in a while.  I find it fascinating to see how each dog performs the combination of movements differently.. how they get their front legs super high, while rear feet shuffle backwards.  I leave  “how to do it” up to them and just reward what I consider to be their best efforts.