11 November 2009

Thinking different to make a change.

Last night I taught a different group of agility students than I normally teach. One great thing about their class, major rounds of applause every time someone ran a sequence correctly, or made their front or rear cross happen. A momentous occasion! Right on! Weave poles-party time, excellent!

A couple people in the class, challenging, frustrating issues with their dogs. Kinds of things that can really fry your brain. Dog out of focus and blurry and maybe going off to sniff things, or not stay with the handler, and the more fried the people brains, the more fried dog brains. Some pent up brain frying, coming out in that class.

Here's a thing I noticed though. The handlers that didn't let their brains fry, kept trying and kept it together for their dogs, rewarding for the little things, big successes. The handlers that handed me a laundry list of all the things their dog couldn't do or why it always did this, who had their dogs so pinned down as to why they were such failures, their dogs didn't much improve. Just got more fried, to the point they didn't really notice their dogs got better when they upped the reward schedule and made it easier.

Or else they just flat out wouldn't increase the reward schedule, and just kept trying to shove their square dogs into round holes out there. Shove and shove and shove, instead of backing up, and thinking creatively. I know whenever I have training trouble, I have to really think about it and come up with a plan. I may not always exactly solve the problem, but I know when something isn't working, you have to think different to make a change. But some of their dogs, thought they were doing chores. Agility shouldn't be a dog's equivalent of cleaning the bathroom.

I asked them to try a homework assignment. Teach their dog a funny trick they could use to regain focus, and signal fun. Emphasis on the fun part. Use it to rev their dogs up, use it to fix a blooper of a run and reboot with. Lighten things up, get their dogs' tails wagging again and make the agility really fun. Maybe no more sad, draggy, robotic weave poles. Use it during class time to keep the dogs' attentions. Because, HELLO, this is supposed to fun. And I think not all the dogs in that class got the fun memo part.

Some of the students, thought this was a great idea. Some of them, told me why it wouldn't work. A lot of reasons why. Some of them, just thought that was a dumb and useless idea. Didn't have anything to do with agility. Doing a funny trick? Hello, they just need their dog to get over that first jump. Who has time to do a trick?

I wish I could show them all, each one of my dogs that took so long to get from square 1 to square 2. Ruby, the dog that hated other dogs, and thought agility meant run across the field to steal food out of people's purses and sniff in the grass. I spent a lot of brain fry time in Ruby's very first agility class, then someone showed me that whole clicker training thing, and BINGO. Good god. Ruby, Steeplechase Queen, the dog that anyone can run now and who runs always at lightening speed. A different dog morphed out of the evil, feral terrier I started with and her whole life changed for the better. Otterpop was mean and wanted nothing more than to bark her head off at each and every person that came near her. She'll always be a little crotchetdy, that's just her nature, but the power of the fun dog training created an agility dog that tries her hardest and amazes me with her ability to know exactly what I'm asking. Maybe not when I'm spazzing out during Masters Gamblers, but our goal is that she outthinks my spazzing out now. And can be near people without batting an eye. Usually. A work in progress. But who thinks training is more fun than anything else she knows, and always tries her hardest.

Training Gustavo has been unlike any kind of dog training I've ever done. I may have called untrainable. Under my breath. To myself, maybe sometimes here. Poor buddy. I feel bad when I think that and just need to go wash my brain out with dishwashing liquid. When I think that, it's my brain starting to fry and I'm just not being creative enough. Have to make training u-turns all the time, and I know he'll keep challenging me at every stage in his career and make me find better solutions again and again. But he has never, ever thought that anything in his training is less than one giant frat party and the beer never stops flowing.

Every different dog, always different. No one training solution going to work with everbody. And to stay one step ahead, always have to think different. What's most important for the thinking to work, is that the dogs think they're at one helluva knock down, drag out fiesta every single time they step out there, and that the party never ends. Agility can be hard sometimes for people to learn how to do. But if the dog's tail isn't wagging, it just ain't going to happen.


Paul Anderson said...

Bravo! Right on!

Anonymous said...

I love what you just said. It's so true and often times so ignored. Truly words of wisdom.

steve said...

Yes, yes, YES!!! Super, big, going-crazy, happy party, thanks to you Laura.

This post is spot-on and wonderful advice. Everyone who trains or teaches agility should read this.

Lisa B. said...

Beautifully said! I had to learn these lessons the hard way, with my lovely, patient little Lucy. I wish someone had just told me all this, exactly the way you did, right from the get-go! Lucy would have been very grateful!

I feel like printing this, laminating it and hanging it by the entrance to the ring at the trial I'm competing in this weekend. Because the same people who brain fry in training are possibly the same people who bitch about how their dog screwed up their runs at a trial (that's become my latest pet peeve!)

team small dog said...

It makes me sad to see sad dogs. I like to see tails wagging!

Alaska said...

Those people that already know your ideas won't work? They're not all being stubborn. Some really do believe they've already tried everything, even though you know they haven't even come close. What sometimes works, if they're willing, is for you to borrow the dog and plunge right into fun mode. People like that are often shocked that the dog they KNEW would never run fast or tug or whatever is suddenly transformed into a gleeful maniac. And then they sit up and start wondering, "How did you DO that to my dog?" Not always, but sometimes. It's like you open a door for them that they had no idea was even there.

Am I right? Hasn't anyone ever done that for you? I know it's happened to me.

team small dog said...

Yeah, the borrowing the dog thing is hard.

With horses, we do this ALL the time.

"Get off. Bring me your horse."

It's always helpful for them, even though it can be a little demeaning if you're the one that has to get off. But a lot of people learn better by seeing. And sometimes the horse needs to be rebooted by the trainer.

With horses though, the trainers are riding their horses all the time, regularly. So people are used to that concept.

In dog class, I do this every once in a while, but way, way less. Sometimes people like seeing their dog do it differently, I think sometimes it's a little too humbling or even soul crushing for some people to see that. I know I like to know the students better. I I have some regular students who love to have me or someone run their dog a little, and what goes differently. Sometimes, if it's just that the student was making a front cross late, or whatever, the dog is so relieved and happy for the faster timing. Sometimes, seeing a different type of animation from the dog is very telling, like you mentioned.

I don't think I'd have confidence, as an agility instructor, to just ask for the dog of someone I just met that night for the first time in class. Mostly I'd want to know the person a little better. Even if it's just to see if I can get the dog to play with me or shift it's focus. It just seems different with dogs.

And I think I'm a way more sure that I'm going to get the result that I think I will with a horse!

Elf said...

I see the same syndrome often, myself. It's a puzzlement. And sad for the dog.

I like the idea of someone else running a dog who "hates agility" or "won't go fast". I actually asked someone to run my dog once for the first time, and it opened my eyes SO wide to "it's me, it's not my dog!" Some people it would not open their eyes. I've seen it happen--another handler runs with the dog and the dog is a superstar, but regular handler says that's just because [fill in crappy excuses]. But it did tell the REST of us that we could probably stop wasting our time giving advice that wouldn't be followed.

Anonymous said...

I am 100% sure (based on experiential evidence) sure that Ariel would run just about perfectly for a long list of handlers more experienced than I if said people worked with her for about an hour.

This has proofed me against ever blaming Ariel. If I want to keep her to myself, well, I have to accept that all imperfection -- for this particular dog -- lies in my handling.

Thanks for two great posts, Laura.

We started working on the trick thing so that I wouldn't be completely embarrassed at the upcoming Sylvia Trkman seminar. I hated training tricks, but now I'm convert. Our tricks are completely lame, but the process really has improved our overall teamwork.

Here's Ariel's best trick. "Wait" *without moving your paws* in the livingroom while I feed Yoda (canine) premo wet food ('cause he's old and doesn't have a lot of teeth)and Sycorax (evil kitten) gets in there to steal Yoda's food. "Back" if a paw moves. I know it's basic training -- but, somehow, when I started teaching her to balance on a yoga ball, I started back-tracking and teaching basic manners as "tricks."

And she is pretty good at "Bang you're dead, now." And she will keep a treat on her nose: we're working on catching it.

It's now a lot more fun than I thought it would be.

Elf said...

Good work, Mary! But the thing is that you actually listen to other people and take their advice. Which = you keep getting better and better. You're definitely not whom Laura's talking about.

Alaska said...

Well, when I've seen it done well, it wasn't the instructor saying, "Here, give me your dog and I'll show you how it's done." It goes more like this:

Student tries something with the sad dog and it doesn't go too well. Instructor says something nice about the dog "Spot's such a well proportioned dog, aren't you Spotty?" while approaching the dog. Gives Spot a scritch. Sad Spot leans gratefully into the instructor, who is putting no pressure on Spot whatsoever. "Yeah, you're a good dog, aren't you Spot?" Tail starts to wag. "Have you taught Spot any tricks?" Not really waiting for an answer, instructor reaches into pocket for treats and starts casually shaping any old thing the dog offers. Spot perks up some more and (in this script) is pretty soon bouncing around, at which point maybe the instructor asks "Can I try something with him?" and there's your opening to go run a short sequence with Spot in fun mode. Afterwards maybe the student says "Wow, look at that!" or maybe not, but the instructor justs returns the dog with another positive comment like "He does a really nice job collecting himself before a jump."

Instructor does not say "See what I did? Now you try it with him." Instructor moves directly on to the next student. The teachable moment has happened, and the student who was open to learning will know it has and be mulling it over, inwardly if not outwardly. The other kind of student won't have got a thing out of it, but that's life, and at least you have the satisfaction of knowing you gave the dog a chance to smile for a couple of minutes.

I get that it's hard to do this with agilty students in general and ones you don't know well in particular, and that you're not all that sure you actually can get the dog to relax and make your point for you, but the nice thing about the script above is you can terminate it fairly gracefully at any point if it's not working or you're not comfortable with the reaction you're getting from the student.

Disclaimer: I'm sure you have at least 1000x more experience teaching agility than I do. What I'm describing is not what I do but how I've seen it done, from the perspective of a student observing an instructor handle a tricky situation with a clueless student.

team small dog said...

aha! very sneaky and good idea!

Anonymous said...

Alaska, I once saw Guy Blancke do EXACTLY in every particular what you described with a very, very snail-slow dog -- if I hadn't seen that dog, within just a few minutes, start running at least ten times as fast obviously having 100x the fun, I wouldn't have believed it. And that dog's handler was able to learn from it because Guy was so respectful of her. (And that handler now has one of the fastest, best-trained, happiest young Border Collies around my neck of the woods.)

And I've seen other gifted teachers using essentially the same strategy, the key components of which are respect for the learners whether they are hominid or canine. This requisite respect, I believe, is not a precursor to teaching success, however; it is actually a *consequence* of a deep focus on the thing itself (whether the "thing" is music, math, surfing, writing an English composition, Halo, etc.)

Humans and dogs alike seem to derive great pleasure from deep focus -- the moments of losing of "self" such that the game being pursued is *all* there is -- in such a state there is simply no room for a petty need to show off to or put down others, or a sad need for attention from others in the middle of the game -- the off-focus neurotic needs that interrupt progress towards excellence.

Many humans and many dogs spend tedious days devoid of joy because their environments mediate against focus -- think about the child, just for one small example, who has just gotten into the building of what would have become the ultimate Lego spaceship of all Lego spaceships, and brrrnnng, "Johnny, it's time to brush your teeth."

Over time, if it becomes risky to focus -- because interruption during deep focus is so painful, one learns to give up the pleasure of focus so as to avoid that painful interruption, that lack of respect for oneself and one's serious interests and endeavors. Then all is drear. Nothing is fun.

I was very struck by Denise Fenzi's description in a seminar of the life of her dogs at home -- she makes sure that her dogs know that at any moment something interesting *might* happen. At the kitchen table, while she is reading a newspaper, or while she is walking down the hall on the way to make a bed, it *might* just so happen that the ball or treat in her pocket *might* come out, especially if a dog thinks of an interesting behavior to offer. Those dogs stay focused all day long. Happy all day long.

Elf said...

Mary--I could use a little LESS of my dogs thinking that something exciting could happen at any moment while I'm at the kitchen table or reading the newspaper. Those eyes boring holes through my brain get to be a bit much after a while.

Amy Carlson said...

Right on, sistah!! Are you my sistah?

Um, saw it today at a CPE trial. Lady really ticked me off. I asked her if she also did USDAA. Her dog and my dog came from the same puppymill bust and I couldn't wait to chat with her (that was then, this is now). Told me she does only CPE because she just does this stuff for fun. Um........ I guess I must do USDAA because it's TORTURE???? What was interesting is she said USDAA was too competitive for her. Yet, she told me to back up about a foot from her dog, he was having a cookie and had space issues. I was about 8 feet away already! The dog barely noticed me. :O Then she explained that she really needed to concentrate on her notes before she forgot. Notes? She makes notes about her runs, recording mistakes, mis-cues, and such, she said. Hmmm, sure seemed "competitive" to me. I don't even take my ribbons. But, remember, I am not having any fun. I watched her through out the rest of the trial. She never once congratulated another person, just sunk into her little world, all 10 feet of her bubble around her chair/dog crate. I don't think she has any friends.

Her dog didn't know any tricks. I asked earlier in the day when I first met her and showed her how Spur is learning to limp. It's WICKED cute!!! Her dog trotted around the courses, but she was in level 5! She told me that, he was in level 5. I kind of feel bad for him. He isn't getting any help from her to over-come his previous puppymill life. My Spur was doing tricks and having cookies, even within 10 feet of other people and dogs! I know, torture!!!

Misa said...

yessss! How timely and amazing. THANK YOU!!!!!

Unknown said...

YES! Just YES!

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