50 Shades of…. Play (HA HA)

Since attending Sharon Nelson’s workshop last summer, I’ve been keenly aware of my dogs’ energy/ arousal levels.  Since Takoda enjoys tugging at a wide range of energy levels, I’ve been using the game of tug to explore Energy Matching with him.   Energy Matching while tugging would not work with Jake, who IMO tugs like a typical terrier… “all or nothing.”   He looks and sounds like he is trying to kill the toy, growling and intensely tugging with me.  Its fun to tug with Jake like this but if I bring my energy down a notch, Jake will immediately drop the toy.  Over the years I’ve had a number of people ask me what cue I’m giving my terriers to get them to release the toy since they both go from “all to nothing” in a heartbeat.  My only cue is that I lower my energy level, which they read as disengagement and they both immediately drop the toy in response.

In contrast, Takoda appears to enjoy tugging at a variety of energy levels that range from “a polite conversation between friends” to “YAHOOEEE!” but it never feels like he is trying to kill the toy.   When tugging like “a polite conversation between friends” we are both very low-key and the style of engagement is soft, like two little girls playing with dolls or Breyer horse models (my favorite kind of “doll” when I was a kid).  Takoda and I each hold one end of a tug toy and move it gently this way and that way while maintaining eye contact for the most part.  Takoda can tug this way forever and its a nice relaxing way for us to interact when I don’t feel like doing anything.  Its a perfect evening activity while I sit on the sofa with Takoda at my feet or in the morning when I am drinking coffee and not quite ready to start my day.

Takoda also seems to enjoy tugging at a medium arousal level which works well for loose leash walking around distractions (people, bicyclists, traffic…).   When we engage in this type of tugging, he is holding one end of the tug toy lightly in his mouth and I am holding the other end lightly with my hand (we use a long tug toy so I can remain totally upright).  There is just a slight amount of pressure on the tug toy and his leash is entirely loose.   In this situation, I think the tug toy pretty much functions like a head halter in that I can redirect Takoda by moving the tug toy but he generally does not need to be redirected when we use a toy in this manner.   He seems perfectly content to walk a little ahead of me, beside me, or a little behind me while holding one end of the toy in his mouth.  When the distraction is too great, he might drop his end of the toy but quickly reorients and grabs the toy again.  When this happens, which is not very often, I tend to increase our energy levels a little more for a few seconds of active playing/ tugging before continuing to move forward.

The thing I like about using a tug toy with Takoda when out on walks is that tugging is a duration activity and it is easy to match his energy level and then increase or decrease it based on what is happening and what I want to have happen. Treats worked really well for Lil, even when she was a puppy, but she has always been highly food motivated.  Takoda will take food when out on walks but that is because its the first thing I trained him to do…. take food when offered.. sort of like how my ATs were trained to always tug when a toy is offered… due to training vs. natural inclination.

So far, Takoda does not love food enough for it to be a jackpot when confronted with the range of distractions we encounter in the 2 block radius around our house.  You name it, we have it…. runners, bicyclists, kids, dogs, loud trucks, buses, cars, etc.  But when I have a tug toy, which BTW is tucked under my arm when not in use, 99% of the time Takoda quickly reorients to me (and the toy) and then I am able to match his energy level until the distraction is far enough away that it is no longer a distraction.   Its actually very fun to go for walks like this and it generates a lot of smiles from passers by because who doesn’t like to watch a puppy having fun and an adult acting like a child.  HA HA

The past few walks we’ve started going back and forth between a minute or two of obedience style heeling (with frequent kibble rewards) and a moving game of tug played at a moderate energy level (as described above).   I love the way this combination feels because its all about teamwork.  Takoda is focusing his attention on me when heeling and then he gets rewarded for all that great impulse control (not being distracted by what passes by) by playing tug.. with ME.  But just so no one thinks walks are 100%  all about ME (HA HA), I let Takoda do his own thing for short periods of time, which for him means trotting along at an easy clip with his nose lowered to take in all the interesting ground scents.

Since I don’t have any video of the above, I thought I’d share a few short videos from last week.

(above) Group Mark Session.  The reason I set up this “test” was to see if Takoda would be able to stay on his Mark while  Jake and Lil moved from Mark to Mark.  He did pretty well but it was interesting to see how much greater a challenge Jake’s motion was compared to Lil’s in this session and others as well.  I plan to practice this now and then as I believe it will help Takoda learn that he doesn’t NEED to bound towards Jake and Lil whenever they are in his sight.

(above) Takoda running between 2 Marks with a hoop in between.  We have only played around with hoops once before but since the hoops  were still out in the yard after Jake and Lil’s session, I figured it would be fun to see what Takoda would do.

https://vimeo.com/127947460

(above) I was so pleased with his performance with one hoop, I moved the Mark further away so there were 2 hoops between the Marks. I also added more handler motion and ran a little beyond the Mark to see if he would stop…. which he did!

(above) another rep with more distance and me driving slightly beyond the Mark.

Takoda is different than Jake and Lil in many ways but they are all so much fun to work and play with due to their differences.. and similarities.. the biggest similarity is they all seem to really enjoy working!

Takoda doing a little Mark practice at 13 weeks old.

(above) Takoda running to a Mark bucket on a flat DW plank.

When we returned home Sunday evening after Takoda’s first outdoor trial I decided to do a little training with him since he had been such a good boy all weekend long while spending a lot of time just hanging out.  A DW plank was sitting there so we did some Mark practice.  Apparently between the last session and this session, Takoda learned HOW to collect and “stick the landing” on small Mark buckets.   He must have learned it while he was sleeping because the last session he was not running nearly this fast (I always leave speed up to him).   I love how well he appears to understand he should keep his front feet on the bucket and his rear feet on the plank, even if I am behind him.  You can see him turning his head waiting for me to catch up vs. spinning his rear feet around to face me.  Good boy!

I didn’t plan to run him in the other direction but it was fun to see how he targeted the first bucket with his front and rear feet, and then how he ran to the very end of the plank vs. leaping off.  I think this was because I started with Mark buckets at both ends of the plank.   I’ve written about the Mark buckets in previous posts.  They are the most amazing training tool I’ve ever come across.  The way I’m using them is based on Sharon Nelson’s foundation training.

Takoda at 13 weeks

Takoda turned  13 weeks old today.  I can’t believe how much learning has taken place over the past 5 weeks.    He continues to astonish me with how adaptable his is and how quickly he learns.  Every day is an entirely new day in terms of what he wakes up capable of doing.

Here are a few very short videos shot yesterday that show his progression with Silvia Trkman’s super fun game “Put the Spool in the Bowl.”   It was the first time I asked him to put the spoon in my hand vs. in a bowl and he had no trouble transitioning, likely because he really seems to enjoy doing nose touches to my palm.  The other possible factor was the retrieving breakthrough we had with his favorite fuzzy yellow chicken toy, which I wrote about a couple of days ago.  He pushed the toy into me when giving it in a very intentional way.

I’ve played the spoon in the bowl game outdoors without being in the Ex-pen.   I’m not sure why I did this session inside it but I’m glad I did because this morning we returned to the Ex-pen to see if he was able to place other things in my hand… and his answer was a resounding YES with three different objects.   I attribute part of his success to having worked in the exact same environment the day before.

(above) putting the spoon in my left hand

(above) transitioning to the other hand by using both hands.  I really should bend the spoon a little (and not with my mind HA HA).  It’s really hard for him to pick up when it’s facing down but he sticks with it and gets the job done.  Good boy!

(above) putting the spoon in my right hand

(above) putting the spoon in my hand while I am standing. One thing I love seeing is Takoda offering variations of heel position vs. choosing to stand in front and facing me.   The reason he does this is because I have pretty much only rewarded him in heel position from Day One because of his strong, natural inclination to “herd from the front” like his daddy.   While that works really well with cows and sheep, it does not work well with people or other dogs.   I’m sure Jake and Lil agree entirely!

(above)  Prior to working with the spoon, we did a few mark buckets.  4pm is not the best time for “active” work because it’s usually Takoda’s nap time.   But whenever my videographer is available, I try to take advantage of it.

(above) I also like to mix in different types of recall games.  Today I led out, released him, and had him catch up to me.  But most of the time we practice recalls,  I am not moving when I release him or when he is running towards me.  Takoda came out-of-the-box with great natural chasing instincts so I don’t feel he needs to improve or even practice that skill.  I also think too much chasing with a dog who naturally LOVES to chase might be counter-productive in terms of my long-term goal of having a confident dog who understands that when I take a big step or two big steps while indicating the path with my body language that he should RUN AHEAD of me in the direction I am indicating.   I don’t want him to think his motion is tied to my motion as is the case when a dog is chasing the handler.  Being able to GO ON without handler motion is a necessary skill for dogs to do big distances in NADAC which I hope Takoda will eventually be able to do… following in the footsteps of his big (little) sister  Lil.  🙂

On a side note, I also use toys for practicing recalls but since Takoda’s toy drive is naturally stronger than his food drive, I like to use food as much as possible.

 

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.

🙂