Today was day 2 of the Clicker Expo. I started off the morning by going to "The Education of Today's Trainer" with Aaron Clayton. This talk was an over view of the benefits of going to the Karen Pryor academy and becoming a certified trainer. I just wanted to get a general feel for what the program was about. I went out of curiosity. I thought it was an encouraging talk and hit very generalized questions. I don't really have anything in particular to say about it that mostly can't be found on the web site.
Following that was "What a Cue Can Do" with Kathy Sdao. I've never heard Kathy Sdao talk before (which is actually true for all of the presenters at this conference) so I thought I'd give it a go. This was a foundation level class (each class is given a difficulty level to better help people choose what's right for them), so it covered the basics. Sometimes it's good to go back over the basics. One of the first things she mentioned was the curse of knowledge. The longer you've been training and the more experienced you get, the more difficult it is to remember what it was like when YOU were first learning.
Kathy is a very animated and enjoyable speaker to listen to! She had some great video clips to go along with her slides. One of which was about Einstein the African Grey parrot where he tried out for some televised pet trick competition.
In general, the whole talk was about the basics of what a cue is. Cues tell you when you may do the behavior productively. They do not cause behaviors, reinforcement does. Cues should not be added until you have the behavior that you want and it's consistent! Each of the cues we use should be salient. They should leap out from the background. As such, they should also be distinct from other cues. It is also best to minimize compound cues. Her example was asking for a down. Often people not only do the verbal and the hand cue, they also tend to bend over. How do you know which of the three cues the dog is actually going to think belongs to the down?
Following Kathy was "The Right Touch" with Michele Pouliot. Her talk was great! There were two focuses of her talk. Using collar pressure and using body pressure to get behaviors. This was an advanced level class and the reason was because you are technically using negative reinforcement to get a behavior. If you are not careful it is all to easy to turn collar pressure into collar drags or corrections and body pressure into just physically moving the dog around. Her goal was to build this negative reinforcer into a positive opportunity for the dog and use just the lightest amount of pressure. Ken Ramirez touched on what she's done with Guide Dogs for the Blind, so I had a pretty good idea going into this of how she was going to cover it, but it was still great to hear in depth how she goes about things.
In order to train collar pressure, you start by having the dog tethered to a stationary object. The use of a stationary object is to avoid the handler actually pulling on the leash versus applying constant pressure, which is what you want. You have some sort of mild stimulus that causes the dog to lean into their collar. What you are looking for is the instant that they let up on the pressure. For this it's helpful to have your hand on the leash so that you can actually feel that moment when it happens and quickly click and treat. Gradually you get to a point where the dog chooses to not pull into the collar. This is advantageous when using collar pressure as a directional cue. You can use the lightest amount of pressure and the dog automatically yields.
Body pressure is trained in a similar manner minus the stationary object. The amount of pressure you use is just enough to be annoying to the dog. Not heavy handed pressure, but just enough. She used multiple examples related to freestyle for getting the dog to start volunteering behaviors. One of which was a paw cross. The dog lifts a paw into your hand. By the lightest of pressure on the side of that paw you are able to guide it into a position across the other paw. After a few repetitions, the dog may start to automatically put that paw into your hand if you open your palm up in the intended position.
After Michele's talk it was time for my favorite talk of the day! "Top OTCh" with Cecilie Koste. Her talk was about the basic skills that you need in order to be a top obedience competitor. This is important to keep in mind for the first recommendation that she makes. She recommends starting off with a serious obedience dog if you want to be a serious competitor. That's key. If you want to be a top OTCh competitor, then you should pick a dog that will get you there. If you just want to compete as high as you can with the dog that you have, that's totally fine. But if your goal is to be a world class competitor, you need to pick the right dog for the sport. I know that this can be a little disheartening sounding if you have a non-traditional breed, but she isn't telling you that you can't succeed with that dog, just that the dog you get should be dependent on the level at which you want to compete at. I actually really appreciate her honesty on this, since she had to have known that a statement like that isn't going to sit well with at least some of the people.
She then went into the 18 basic skills that you need to train your dog for in order to have a solid foundation for obedience. I know that it sounds like a lot, but it really breaks down well and you find these skills in the various exercises. I'll first list the skills then I'll go into the notes that I took on some of them that better described what to aim for for me personally. The skills are: look at you, targeting, sit, rear end control, sit at heel, gallop towards you, walk and look up, down, stand, stay, doggie zen, hold, let go, bark (her caveat was that if you are going to only do obedience, you don't necessarily want to train this), jump, scent discrimination, tracking, and go to person. And throughout her talk she had FANTASTIC video clips to perfectly demonstrate what she was talking about. Like I said, her talk was absolutely my favorite!!
Before I get into the individual skills, she emphasized the fact that you are getting the dog to OFFER these behaviors. You are not getting them by luring, cuing, or verbal encouragement. These skills are all things that the dogs are capable of offering up, you just need to set the dog up for success and then capture the behavior that you want. And while you are capturing and reinforcing these behaviors, you are NOT adding a cue in at all. The cue doesn't come until the dog is getting close to being competition ready and you are putting these basic skills together to create the exercises.
Rear end control. For this you are capturing hind leg movement and building from there. For backing up, you are clicking when the dog moves a back foot. Gradually you build up until they are actually walking backwards. To help the dog along, start out by having them positioned in between a wall and yourself. For teaching backing up while turning use corners. Gradually you fade away the wall and use lower and lower barriers until you aren't using any barriers at all. At that point, the dog will hopefully realize that your leg is what they are to stay in contact with and that is what will tell them the direction to go in. For coming into heel position (and this is something that I am absolutely going to start doing with my dogs) you start by using a box. You begin by moving in a clockwise motion around the box and click the dog for moving their back feet in a similar direction. Gradually you build up to the point where you remain stationary and the dog has to move into heel position to a point where they are in contact with your leg.
Gallop towards you. Start by training this skill when the dog is fresh and excited. Say when you get home from work and they're all happy to see you. You need a helper to hold on to the dogs collar while you walk 50 ft. away. Once you are in competition position away from the dog (it's important that you start by presenting the dog with the picture that they are going to see) the helper releases the dog. You click when the dog is at the speed that you want. Slowly you decrease the distance, but always clicking when the dog is moving fast.
Walk and look up. You start with the dog making eye contact with you. Click and treat. Then you reward for them making eye contact with you while you're moving backwards slowly. Then you increase the speed with which you move backwards. Then you start moving sideways and click and treat for the dog moving with you and making eye contact. Finally you move into heel position and reward the dog for being in position and making eye contact with you.
Stand. You start by simply capturing a stand. Then you capture the stand while you are slowly moving backwards. How do you get the dog to offer this behavior without you giving some sort of encouragement? You reinforce multiple stationary stands first. Then you start moving. The dog is not getting rewarded for just moving, so obviously that's not what you want. Maybe they'll try a brief stop in standing position. Bang! Click and treat. You've got to be ready to reward that possibly small hesitation so that the dog has something to go off of. Gradually you shape for speed.
Stay. First choose your dog's most probable position. Click and treat your dog rapidly just for being in the position. They are getting multiple rewards for simply remaining in this position, so why should they move? Always bring the treat to the dog. Gradually you increase the time before you click and treat. It's also a good idea to train this exercise when the dog is relaxed so they are less likely to spring out of position or move. That way you have plenty of stationary behavior to reward. Once that position is solid. You train the stay from the next probable position. The caveat being that you must get the dog to first offer this position before you start working with it.;0)
Doggie zen. I had never actually heard of this term before Cecilie's talk. The basis of it is that the dog gives something up in order to get it later. For example, you put a bowl of dog treats on the floor. The dog cannot eat it until give the release to do so. You put the food bowl down. The dog ignores it and works with you. Then you release the dog to the food bowl. The way that you add the cue in to this is that you wait until the dog is digging in. The dog then has to wait for the cue in order to go for the bowl.
At some point in your competition career there is a possibility that your cue will become broken. In other words, you'll give a cue and your dog will not respond appropriately. For this, Cecilie says to simply go back to these basic exercises and work on the ones for the competition exercise that broke down. Start small and build back up. It's then from these basic skills that you start to put together the competition exercises. Your dog therefore has all the tools to accomplish these tasks.
She mentioned that you could be thinking that this is rather overwhelming and now you potentially have a dog that is throwing all these behaviors at you. If you break things down again, you'll realize that there isn't really that many behaviors that they can throw at you all at once. When the dog is in heel position, what behaviors can they throw at you? Sit, down, stand, or go out. That's pretty much it. They can't exactly offer jump, because there's no jump. They can't offer a dumbbell, because there's no dumbbell. It's not as overwhelming as it seems. Through your training the dog also learns the difference between you in a position where it's okay to offer behaviors and you in a position where there are specific behaviors expected. Specifically, it's okay to offer behaviors when the handler is facing the dog and/or moving backwards (things are also a little different in Scandinavian obedience because they don't have a front position). When the handler is in "normal" position (i.e. heel position) the dog must wait for a cue.
When you start to train for the competition exercises, it's important to back chain them. The dog is most likely to perform the most recently reinforced behavior, therefore you're making your job that much easier and less frustrating for the dog. Once the exercises are good to go, you start training for actual competition. She was pretty much out of time when she started touching on this and didn't really get to go too in depth. But her recommendations were to use a variable rate of reinforcement and to train with distractions. The distractions should actually be a part of the basic skills training so that you can continue to build on them. You aren't really ready to compete until you and your dog are capable of succeeding at the exercises on the first try. There are no second chances in the ring. You should also increase the quality of your reinforcement.
Following her awesome talk, I went to her "Top OTCh" lab. In the lab the handlers were working on the basic skills that she talked about in her talk. I actually ended up leaving the lab early because I wasn't really gaining new information from the lab.
So there you have it! Two days down and one left to go!