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!

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Practicing “Forward Focus”

If you live in the Northeast, you learn to dread the term “wintry mix.”  Well, that is what happened overnight and now we have a thin layer of ice on top of 1/2 inch snow.  YUCKO!  I didn’t intentionally train Jake and Lil to understand what I mean when I say EASY or CAREFUL but luckily through sheer repetition, they both  know what those words mean.  Both dogs made it safely down (and then back up) the steps to the yard this AM.

I’ve not been video taping training sessions lately but I was inspired to pull out my video camera in order to capture a couple of training sessions with Jake and Lil practicing “Forward Focus” to share with a friend who wants to train her dog to look forward vs. at her.

(video above) I didn’t initially use a Manner’s Minder to train Forward Focus but thought it would be an easy way to do it.  I also thought using a platform would make it easier for a dog who was just beginning to learn this skill to WAIT before being released.

(video above) The next day I used a toy instead of the Manner’s Minder and moved to a different location in the living room.  I decided to include all repetitions so my friend could see that it is OK to make mistakes as long as we get it right more often than not and are fair to our dogs when we screw up our training mechanics.   I think Jake and Lil are quite forgiving of my screw-ups and are happy to keep playing with me.

The second video is long, so you may want to skip ahead to 6:35 where Lil does a few 180 turns away from me and waits while looking forward, before I release her to a ball tossed over her head.  This was the freestyle trick that inspired me to train “forward focus at nothing” in the first place.

One more quick note:  The reason I kneeled down for some reps was to change the “picture” my dogs see when lining up at my side.  For me, the benefit of kneeling is to experience what it would be like to work with big dogs, whose mouths are right there for easy feeding vs. way down near my feet.  It sure makes delivering rewards easier.

A theoretical model for training running contacts

I developed this theoretical model as an exercise in how I might approach training a running dog walk using back-chaining.  There are already proven methods for training fast and consistent running dog walks.  My intention in posting this is to generate ideas and share thoughts about training RCs with other agility enthusiasts and see where it leads.  I see it as an experiment in collaborative, creative thinking, and a way to use what we know about dog training and the behavioral sciences to see how good a plan we can come up with as a group.

Participants read the rough draft below and posted comments (plus I received some private emails) about what they would do differently and why, or posted their personal experiences with their dogs, or asked clarifying questions.   I have made changes based on the great feedback I received. This is still a rough draft so please excuse typos, potentially unclear descriptions, and inconsistency in formatting.

The following concept is based on back-chaining.  I would train this away from any “real” agility equipment to test the theory so no harm would be done to my dog’s contact performance.

STEP 1) Since this is based on back-chaining, training would start with the last behavior:  Dog knows how to GO ON, turn RIGHT or LEFT over jumps or cones…
*Foundation Skills:  an independent and fast GO ON, and RIGHT and LEFT directionals.
*Criteria: Handler should be able to send the dog, run with dog, run ahead of dog, peel away, hang back, do FCs, RCs, and… gasp… even blind crosses :).  Handler should be able to move to every imaginable position at a distance, up-close, and mid-range.  Performance should be  fast and consistent in at least 2 habitats.

STEP 2)  Use shaping to train the dog to step onto a small mat or board with all four feet and then jackpot when the dog steps off the mat/board with front feet into a 2o2o.
*Foundation Skills: dog has a ton of value for seeking out, walking over and standing in 2o2o on a small mat/board.
The reason using a short length mat or board is to encourage the dog to really think about the mat or board.  I’d try to come up with an unusual surface that the dog can really feel when they step on it.  Examples: a  yoga mat wrapped around a thin, foam “pillow,” or a mat on a board that wobbles slightly, or a yoga mat crinkled up and glued onto a board so it forms ridges, or any of these items glued to the top of a “hit it” board (with volume turned off to start).   If I used a foam “pillow” I would fade it over time by making the foam thinner and thinner until it was using just a plain yoga mat.  If using a wobbling board, I’d fade the wobble over time and end up with just a thin board or mat.
*Criteria: The dog is clicked and rewarded first for putting front feet on the board or mat, then for standing with all four feet on board, and finally jackpotted for stepping off the board into a 2o2o.  Dog is “reset” after each rep by releasing forward to a thrown toy, MM or food reward.

STEP 3) Adding motion: Dog runs to the mat/board and as soon as the dog hits the 2o2o, release forward to a toy, MM or bait bag.  I might mix crate games by putting a crate 5  front of the board, then gradually increasing the distance to 30′ or more (why not add speed and distance early on?).
*Foundation Skill:  Same as STEP 2.
*Criteria:  Click and reward 2o2o and then release forward to a manners minder or throw a toy or bait bag about 5 ‘ straight ahead of the board.  After a bunch of successful reps in a row, I’d sometimes send to the dog forward as soon as the dog hits the 2o2o position vs. rewarding the dog on the board every time.

STEP 3a)  Add a jump after the mat/board on the reward line so the dog takes the jump on its way to getting the reward.   NOTE: The reason adding a jump is so important is because it turns the mat/board into a directional “obstacle” so that you can send your dog ahead to the mat/board and it knows to continue focusing forward.  If there is nothing in front of the mat/board, the dog would be correct if you sent her to the mat/board and she did a 2o2o facing back at you.  Progress to using three jumps: one straight ahead, one ahead to the right, and one ahead to the left to practice GO ONs and directionals.  Cue the dog to GO ON, RIGHT or LEFT as the dog is approaches the mat/board.
*Criteria: Dog still hits the mat/board with all four feet, briefly pausing in 2o2o.

STEP 4) Get rid of the slight pause so the dog is striding over the mat/board and continues over a  jump to a toy or MM without pausing in 2o2o.
*Foundation Skills: a dog that will GO ON and go RIGHT and LEFT independently and has enough value built up for standing in 2o2o on the mat/board that the dog strides across the board with all four feet  touching the board but does not stop.
*Criteria: All four feet hit the board.  Due to the short length of the board, this will be a very compressed stride and should be easy to see.

STEP 5) Gradually add more extreme turns to  jumps including 90 and 180 degree turns. I’d repeat all the variations from step #1.

STEP 6)  Increase the distances between the starting point and the mat/board so the dog is running a full speed with long strides when approaching the board.  A “hit it” board would come in very handy here (especially with my small dogs since their short, fast legs are hard to see in real time.
*Criteria: Dog approaches the mat/board running at full speed and then compresses its stride so that all four feet come in contact with the board.  I’d continue to increase the distance until the approach is at least as long as the length of a dog walk.

STEP 7)  Add a 8-12′ long x 12″ wide plank about 5’ in front of the mat/board and gradually move the new plank closer to the original mat/board until they are touching and finally place the mat/board on top of the plank.  The reason I would not start with the mat on the end of the plank is because my dogs already run over a plank and I wouldn’t want to suddenly change the rules.  But I think by gradually reducing the space between the plank and the mat, they will not be confused when they are faded together.  I would paint the new plank a different color than the mat/board so I could easily see where the mat/board begins.  I might even add more planks until the dog is racing across the entire length of a DW on flat planks at top speed. Handler moves to every imaginable position listed in Step 1 mixing in GO ONs and turns.

STEP 8)  This step could be done before step 7 too on just a plank (no mat/board yet).  Train angled approaches to the plank by setting up every possible scenario for dog and handler, using a small object placed at the front edge of the plank to encourage the dog to approach the plank straight on (like Silvia Trkman does).  I would keep switching between using different small objects placed at the corner of the plank and I would also sometimes not use any object to mark the corner so the dog did not become dependent on the object being there to have a straight approach.

STEP 9)  Not sure this would be necessary, but I might also run the dog over a plank on a gradually increasing angle (like Silvia Trkman does), with the mat/board at the end.

STEP 10)  Transfer the behavior to a real DW by placing the mat/board at the end of a DW.  I’d start every session (early on) doing a few reps with the dog starting close to the mat (on the down ramp) like Step #2 to reinforce the behavior.  I might start with a lowered DW (if I had access to one) but I’d quickly increase to full height since a DW is not very steep and doesn’t affect a dog’s striding like the extreme angle of an A-Frame does.

STEP 10a)  Fade the mat/board.  If the dog is running fast across the dog walk and hitting the mat consistently,  I’d quickly start alternating between using the mat and not using the mat so that the dog’s performance on the DW did not become overly dependent on the mat.

ENDING NOTE:  I don’t think this theoretical RC training method would create as fast a running DW as Silvia Trkman’s method, since it creates a very compressed stride at the end, but perhaps training slight collection to maintain the criteria of 4 feet running through the contact zone (vs. 2) would result in a more reliable performance.

Please post ideas as comments on this blog vs. posting on a closed Facebook Group page so that everyone can read your thoughts, insights, comments.  Thanks!

Finding the balance

Over the past couple of days,  I have started working on improving my mechanics in order to reward my dogs by flinging a toy on a rope forward to initiate a game of tug.  Silvia Trkman makes is look so easy but there is a lot going on and it all happens while she and her dog are running super fast.  Based on my observations, here is a description of what I think she is doing:

Silvia drops the toy out of her hand at a precise moment to mark a behavior (such as her dog turning tightly while wrapping a jump at a distance).  She continues running with the toy flying behind her while her dog chases her and the toy.  The split second before her dog can grab the toy, she flicks the toy forward so her dog accelerates past her and grabs the toy as it flies forward.  Then they play a game of tug while walking back for the next rep.  Silvia’s timing is always perfect.  Her dog gets the reward while it is running super fast vs. the dog having to slow down to grab a toy dangling at her side.  It makes perfect sense to reward in this manner since dogs can run faster than people.

I have practiced the mechanics without my dogs for a few minutes here and there.  I run while glancing over my shoulder to see my imaginary dog, then I drop the toy out of my hand and let it fly behind me while I continue to run and my imaginary dog chases me and the toy.  Then I fling the toy forward so my imaginary dog accelerates to grab the toy.  After doing it a handful of times, it seemed to work well… but that was without a real dog.

When I tried it for the first time with my dogs, it didn’t work nearly as well. I thought the problem was solely with my timing and mechanics, but after a short session of just playing with my dogs and a toy on a rope yesterday, I realized that I had inadvertently trained my dogs NOT to run past me when I am also running.   Jake and Lil do a lot of freestyle tricks in heel position on both sides so they have been heavily reinforced for being at my side.  We also play “recall to side” games with distractions ahead (like the Manners Minder) and flat work where they know the game is to stay at my side no matter what I do, whether I am running fast and stopping abruptly, doing front crosses, post turns, or circling with my dogs on the inside and outside of the circles.  They both really enjoy these games, but I am fairly certain that when they are chasing me while I am running with a toy on a rope, they think they are doing the right thing by staying at my side vs. driving ahead to grab the toy when I fling it forward.  They are just being good dogs!

There are a lot of awesome dogs in Silvia’s Foundations class, including some amazing high-drive, herding dogs.  As I watch those dogs drive out of turns or tunnels in pursuit of a thrown ball, I am amazed at their speed and toy drive.  I suspect if I had a super high-drive dog, I’d make sure I played a lot of games that reinforced the dog for coming to side to keep the balance (like the games I have been playing with my dogs).

But with Jake and even more so with Lil, their natural tendency (combined with past training) is to respond to my movement (acceleration/ deceleration/ shoulder turns) so instead of running ahead to grab a toy that I fling forward on a rope, they will pace themselves to stay at my side.  This tendency has caused us to almost trip over each other and get tangled up with the rope a few times when I’m forced to decelerate to avoid running into a wall or something.  Not a pretty site and potentially dangerous.

Now that I am aware of this, I am going to shift the balance by playing more “Race Me” games and GO GO GO games (which are already part of Silvia’s Foundation class) so I can reinforce my dogs for running past me until each dog has a good balance.  I’m not saying I want my dogs to think it is OK to run past me when I decelerate or stop when I am calling their names, but when I say GO ON, GET IT, or GO GO GO, I want them to know it is OK and GREAT to race past me to whatever is in front of them, whether it is an obstacle, a toy on a rope, or a thrown ball.  I can envision this being a lot fun for all of us!

In the mean time,  I will continue to reward mostly by throwing a ball, while I play with toys on a rope as a separate activity until my dogs figure out how to play this new and fun chasing/ tugging game.

Update: I just used a toy on a rope to reward Lil for a few quick Loops and Wraps around a pole in the backyard and she flew ahead of me and grabbed the toy every single time.  WOW!  That didn’t take long for her to GET!  Now.. onto Jake…

I am enjoying this class so much.  It is challenging and I love learning how to become a better trainer and handler. Plus Jake and Lil’s enthusiasm for Silvia’s games keeps going and going…. they are like Energizer Bunnies.

Below are Silvia’s responses to comments I posted relating to my dogs and toys on ropes:

My Comment:  Gosh! Sorry to be posting again about toys on a rope but I just successfully rewarded Lil with a toy on a rope doing Loops and Wraps around a pole in my backyard. While I was running, she raced by me and grabbed the toy every single time. This new game certainly didn’t take long for her to get! Then she tugged like there was no tomorrow! Her best tugging ever. She wouldn’t even drop the toy like she always does when I say drop it. I think this is a very good thing for my normally very obedient little girlie. Prey drive won out! YEY!  She did eventually drop it and I immediately flung it out again for her to chase.  Sorry if I’m being overly gushy here but I can’t believe Lil got so crazy (in a good way)! I promise this is my last post about Toys on Ropes!!! :)

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LoLaBu’s avatar

LoLaBu on March 6, 2012 at 19:13

Yay for Lil! Not dropping a toy is always a good sign, I agree!!! :)

Very good observation, it’s probably in fact the reason why they won’t drive after a toy! But if they will drive after a ball, that’s a good start already. I never understood why running past me and throwing balls would be bad – only heard it’s a bad thing a couple of years ago anyway :) – I think it’s great!!! I want my dogs to drive ahead as hard as they can – and when I want them to stay close, I just tell them so :) I want them to really understand both, handler and obstacle focus. Works great for me!

My Response:  Silvia, One of the things I love about the way you coach your students is that you suggest different approaches for different dogs vs. sayings stuff like: “All dogs in this class must do X, Y, Z and if you cannot get your dog to do X, Y, Z, then there is something wrong with your training or (worse yet) you have a bad relationship with your dog…” which is so ludicrous!

I heard chasing a ball is a bad thing to do with agility dogs so I stopped playing fetch with Lil for about 9 months (and Lil loves to play fetch). Silly me for not questioning that statement!

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LoLaBu’s avatar

LoLaBu on March 6, 2012 at 21:46

Very often, finding ways to work around NOT-having X, Y, Z builds the best relationship :) I noticed that with my dogs – letting them be who they are and working around their weaknesses, focusing on their strengths instead, makes us a real team. I think they really appreciate I appreciate just how they are.

Silvia Trkman’s long-distance Agility Foundations class begins

Agility Foundations began February 27, 2012 and will run for 15 weeks with new lessons added every 2-3 weeks.  The way it works is that Silvia posts a lesson and participants upload videos in order to get feedback.   In some ways it is better than being in a traditional workshop because we can work on things over time and get feedback as we progress.  Silvia has been responding to videos and questions within a few hours and I’ve already picked up some great training tips by watching other participants’ videos and reading Silvia’s comments about them.

The purpose of uploading videos is to present an accurate representation of whats going on so I am not editing out “failed attempts.”  Below is my first video upload with a description:

Lil’s first session doing cik & cap over a 4″ bar. Until now, we’ve been using a 2″ stride regulator.  I noticed on the video that I was sometimes setting up Lil so she had to jump over the wing support AND the bar when wrapping to the right. That didn’t work so well.. and caused her to hit a few bars. Next time I will start a little more forward so she doesn’t have to also hop over the support on the ground… unless this is something you think she needs to learn how to do?

RE: Weave poles:  My changing directions was way too distracting for Lil when weaving..as you will see on the video. I am thinking that I should start by just slightly turning my shoulders while standing stationary at various locations along the poles for our next session, and gradually add more turning, and later adding movement????

Silvia’s response: Cool, getting there! Slowly add more distance to cik&cap and try leaving earlier&earlier. And yes, use an angle that doesn’t make her jump the jump support! The weaves are going well, but yes, slowly add more&more extreme entries and more&more extreme distractions. I think a “soft” distraction you did at 2:16 was a very good start, so I would continue like that and only make it more extreme through several sessions. Running hard and turning around was too much for now, but you could try sudden stops, gentle turns and similar to slowly prepare her for everything.