Thursday, December 31, 2009

What did we accomplish in 2009?

What a great year 2009 has been! In December 2008, I found out that Lok was going blind from PRA. In 2009, we trained in Rally and Obedience and Lok got his RL1 title. Then, due to stress, his obedience fell apart and we gave it a break and worked on tricks for awhile. We took up skijoring and got out on skis once at the beginning of the year, and have been out a couple times so far this winter. I'm really hoping this can become something fun and freeing for him to do even when his sight is completely gone. During the winter, we worked on disc in the basement and put together a nice little freestyle routine for a blind dog. Lok competed all summer and even took fourth place (and was very close to third) at a local competition with a pretty competetive field! Lok's eyes got worse and worse all summer, but even so, he ran in a UFO major in Colorado in August, making probably 3/30 catches in the whole routine. He had a blast though, and I was proud of him! He also ran in the Ashley Whippet Invitational World Championships in Naperville in September. Another poor round, but he had a blast again and even got a newspaper article written about him!

Jun officially joined the family in March! Jun, who already excelled in toss and catch, came a very long way in her freestyle disc training. At the beginning of the year, she would not play with multiple discs. After an entire spring and summer of work on this issue, Jun can now do an entire two-minute freestyle round without sticking on a single disc! This has enabled us to start building up a repetoire of freestyle moves so we can do a lot better in competitions next year. Jun learned a crazy amount of tricks, took obedience classes and got two legs of her RL1. Jun also started skiing!

Elo came to live with us in September. He has been doing amazing, learning obedience and tricks, and I'm starting to think he may actually have some drive after all. He will now voluntarily play fetch the whole time we're outside (or until his feet get cold), will tug and chase rollers with the disc, and has officialy made two catches out of the air!

I'm so proud of what my dogs have accomplished in 2009 and can't wait to see what 2010 holds for us!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Paw v. Nose Targeting

Laura recently posted about teaching dogs to distinguish between a nose and a paw target. Lok know both "touch" (nose target) and "step" (paw target), but I'm not sure how well he can distinguish between the two, as I've never really worked on both in one session or with the same target object. Jun knows the two, but doesn't know them as well and I know she can't distinguish between them. Elo, however, was a blank slate, not knowing either command at the time I read Laura's post, so I decided it would be a fun thing to experiment with. In our first session, working with a round plastic lid as a target, I started with a paw target. Elo picked this up right away and we ended up putting it on cue in the first session. In session two, we continued to practice the "step" cue. In session three, we worked on a nose target. It took awhile for E to stop offering the paw target, or the paw and nose together, but we got as far as putting that on cue in one session as well. In the fourth session we worked on both, but separated them by short periods of working on other commands. That's as far as we've gotten right now. So far so good! I'll update after the next few sessions.

In other news, Jun skied last weekend!!!! After a brief period of craziness before we started down the trail, tangling herself up nicely, she calmed down and sat next to me, looking down the trail. At that point I gave her the "go" signal and she did great!! We had to reinforce "no stopping and sniffing every tree" a few times, but once she figured out the object of the game she was a rockstar! There were a few other skiers out on the trails and we pulled over to the side and stopped while they passed. Passing was not something I wanted to work on with a deaf dog in our first attempt. Lok also did wonderful, you would never know he can't see the trail with how confidently and joyfully he runs full speed ahead. Skiing is a great outlet for him, I think!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Jun's New Tricks

Jun has been an absolute MAD WOMAN lately!! She is a learning machine, soaking up as much as I can teach her almost faster than I can come up with things to teach her. Lately she's learned to cross her front paws, to stand with all four paws on a small overturned bowl. She learned a silent bark in about 2 minutes, on cue and everything. Her "bow" has finally really clicked--so cute, she tucks one paw under and leans to the side (now I need a cue for that). We've been doing tons of retreiving and she's learning to put objects in my hand. She will pick up things I drop and hand them to me without even being asked. Just this morning I dropped the cap for the orange juice bottle (accidentally, not as a training exercise) and Jun got it and gave it to me! She's learning to shut doors. She's learning all sorts of jumping and vaulting tricks. We've been trying to work on leash walking and public behavior a bit, and the other night she did a 10 second out of sight down-stay in the dog food aisle at Chuck and Don's as well as numerous other long sit and down stays, even with distractions like employees walking by! The girl's a genius and so much fun to train! This is the problem with having a dog like Jun and a dog like Lok. Some nights, I just want to skip training Lok (see post below) and spend more time with Jun. I feel bad for my boy. I need to find some things that work for him. He seems to enjoy his obedience lately, maybe we will get back into that.

Lok Frustration

Training Lok has been a challenge lately. Thankfully, we haven't been dealing with shutting-down issues on his part. Lok has been unusually happy and cooperative during training sessions lately, tail wagging and such. But he's also been kind of dense. We were working on "limp" for awhile and once again got stuck. I've been working on a "hold" a TON lately and can't seem to get past 10 seconds without Lok spitting out the object. I've also discovered that "rear end awareness" does not translate to "rear foot awareness." That's right, my dog know where his butt is, but doesn't realize there are feet underneath it. I've been trying to get him to stand on a box, but all I've been able to get is a sit on the box. And if the object is too small to sit on, I can't get his back feet on it at all. I'm at a loss for what to work on with him, as it seems one of these issues is holding up every trick I want to teach him. I can't teach him to roll up in a blanket if he won't hold onto it. I can't teach him a multitude of other retreive tricks if he won't hold an object. And his retreive from the fridge trick is decidedly less impressive when he spits the object out in disgust before I have a chance to take it from him.

As his sight diminishes, I'm also having issues with him being overly distracted by the possibility that there might be treats on the floor. He can't see a treat on the floor, but he can hear it if I drop one and he will spend a good bit of time looking for it, even I pick it up or tell him to leave it. I also don't want him sniffing about for treats in my hand. It seems to be a very consuming distraction for him. So I no longer give him treats on the floor. All treats always come from my hand, and I'm hoping he'll figure that out at some point. Additionally, I'm working on teaching him that when he hears a click, the treats will come to his mouth and he doesn't have to sniff around for them.

As a side note, it is unfair of me to ask a blind dog for eye contact? Eye contact is one of my most important default/foundation behaviors. Since Lok can't really make eye contact, I'm trying to reward for other signs of being attentive to me, but sometimes I can't quite tell if he understands what he's being rewarded for.

The only thing that's been going well is Lok's "line out" training that I mentioned I was dragging my feet on a few posts back. I'm using a duct tape target on the wall. I plan to start fading the target soon. Tonight in fact (I WILL do it tonight, I WILL do it tonight . . . ). We had our first ski of the season last weekend and it went well. Lok needs to work on staying on the trail. In his defense, the trail was not all that clear, so I let it slide. Lok also needs to work on listening for direction while he's running. But he did a good job running and staying more or less in front of me. He even started to pull a bit more than last season and really helped me out up the hills. He used to stop when he felt much pressure on the harness. This time it clicked for him that he was supposed to pull hard and he seemed to love it! I need to work on not letting him roll in the snow in harness when we stop. Until his line out is solid, I should really establish a sit at heel as his stopping behavior. Must remember to bring treats. He's just so CUTE though!!

Elo Caught a Disc!!

Ok, ok, so I basically just spun it right in front of his face, but still . . . I'm counting it!!

I don't know why I didn't think of this before. Last night it was really cold so the dogs and I didn't play outside very long. They were still full of energy, so I got out a tug rope to do some tugging with them one by one. Elo was in a crate and was freaking out while I tugged with Lok, and when I let Elo out to put Lok in the crate, he attacked the tug rope! I've never seen him that interested in a game before. (On a side note, what a good boy, he dropped the rope immediately every time I gave him a drop cue. I didn't realize he knew this command so well!) Then I decided, why not try a frisbee again. I got out a hard plastic disc and Elo was not interested at all. But then I thought, maybe he will play with a soft disc?! So I grabbed a softer plastic disc and he was all over it!!! Tugging, chasing rollers, catching tiny little tosses. Oh yeah, and his favorite, laying on his back with his feet in the air while chomping the disc. And in my excitement of course I played WAY to long, but at least I had the presence of mind to quit before he did. So maybe there is hope for Elo to be a disc dog yet. If only he could get the eye-mouth coordination down!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


I used to be skeptical about the value of jackpots (an extra large or extra high value surprise reward) in positive dog training, mainly because I didn't think that the dog would really know the difference between a couple pieces of kibble and a handful of kibble, or maybe that the dog would understand the difference in the value of the rewards, but wouldn't understand that it got a bigger reward for a reason. But they DO!! However, over the past few months I have come to be a believer in the value of jackpots for several different reasons.

Jackpots can help build a REALLY strong behavior. If a dog thinks it's possible that they will get an extra special reward for a particular behavior, they will be more enthusiastic about doing that behavior. When I started working with Lok on going to a mat, I wanted this to be a really strong behavior that he LOVED doing. I free shaped the initial behavior and the first time he got the completed behavior (walking to a mat and laying down on it) I jackpotted him. Then I jackpotted him frequently for the behavior after that. A down on a mat became a behavior that Lok was very enthusiastic about doing, and Lok being enthusiastic about anything in training is a pretty huge deal.

Jackpots can help overcome a dog's fear of or aversion to a behavior. Very difficult behaviors that a dog is hesistant to do can be accomplished through jackpots. Basically, you are making the value of the reward outweigh the negative associations with the behavior. Jackpots have helped me immensely in teaching Jun a back stall and a dog catch. I jackpot for both of these behaviors nearly every time. Not only did it help in overcoming Jun's fear of balancing on my back and her dislike of being caught, but it also produced a very strong behavior that she actually LOVES to do now.

In the past couple days I've discovered the coolest use yet for jackpots in free shaping. I wanted to shape Jun to stand on a small, overturned food bowl. The bottom is rubber, so she doesn't slip, but she has to balance with all four feet within a 5 inch diameter circle. Two front feet on the bowl was pretty easy, but three feet and four feet was more difficult.

Once she was offering me two feet on the bowl consistently, I stopped clicking her for that and waited for her to offer me the next step, which I had defined as three feet on the bowl. I didn't get it. I got her back feet closer to the bowl (c/t), I got two feet on the bowl with one back foot raised (c/t) but I couldn't get that consistently, and I got a bunch of other stuff I didn't want. And pretty soon she got totally confused and just started being silly and licking my face and even stopped offering the behavior of two feet on the bowl, since that wasn't getting clicked anymore.

So I took a step back, quickly re-shaped two feet on the bowl. Thinking about what to do next, not clicking every time, but clicking enough to keep the behavior going as well as clicking for back foot movement. But I still wasn't getting what I wanted. I was rewarding her for effort and for thinking, so I was getting continual variation, but still no consistency. Then suddenly she brushed the bowl with a back foot. CLICK/JACKPOT!!! Handful of kibble thrown on the ground, big party! THAT really got her attention and made her think about what she did that earned that huge reward. It wasn't long before she was consistently offering three feet on the bowl. Four was hard again, but I did the same thing. Continued to click and reward for three, but not clicking every time, so she was thinking and trying things, clicking and treating for getting close. Then once, accidentally, as a product of losing her balance, the other back foot came off the ground and moved toward the bowl. CLICK/JACKPOT again!!! And within a couple minutes I had all four feet on the bowl.

I don't think I would have gotten the same results had I just clicked and given a normal treat for the two instances where she accidentally gave me just what I wanted. Why? Jun understands shaping, she understands that when I stop clicking I want something else, but (a) despite valiant effort she might not guess correctly and then she doesn't get clicked at all, gets frustrated, and things fall apart, or (b) she is guessing correctly but not noticing it or there is enough natural variation in the behavior she's offering that she doesn't understand exactly what is being clicked and so I continue to get imprecise attempts that are not exactly what I'm looking for. The click and treat says she's doing it right, but I think she really understands the jackpot as "YES!! That was perfect and exactly what I wanted." Kinda cool!