Sunday, April 25, 2010

Choose to vs. Have to - that is the question

As a beginner to obedience training, I have read a lot and observed a lot of various methods of training - and probably tried most of them! And, to be truthful, I'm not sure which ones are working. I'm thinking about the lagging behavior here. When I started training, lagging in heeling was a real problem. I was even NQd once  in Novice A at a trial because of the lagging - not to mention the time he decided he'd rather leave the ring instead of staying with me. That was the low point of our obedience career, but, we hung in there and we've come a long way since then.  However, I'm still getting the occasional lagging in the ring, so thought I would revisit my training with that particular behavior to see if we could 'fix' it.

I've done a lot of 'choose to heel' in training with treats and rewards for finding the perfect heel position. Hoping to create that 'muscle memory' thing.  That's worked fine in training when I have treats on me, but doesn't always carry over into the trial. It's not necessarily because I don't have treats in the ring, because I don't think he would even take treats in the ring due to his worry and stress in that situation.

Last week I started working on heeling by holding him in that position. All my heeling for now will be on lead - keeping him close and always in heel position. I especially have a problem keeping him with me when moving between exercises. I am putting the lead on when moving between exercises also.  So, is the problem - that he doesn't know heel position or is he choosing not to stay in heel position? And, will keeping him constantly in heel position while moving help? Who's being responsible now for his position - him, or me? I don't know the answers, but it seems I have tried everything. And, since I've tried different training methods, it may be impossible to tell which one is working for him.

Any thoughts out there ?????


Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

sorry, I like my high drive breeds with the opposite problem! Forging is much easier to fix, although we still struggle a lot.

I think putting him on leash when heeling can be a good thing. It allows him to get constant feedback on what is right and what is wrong. But of course I also agree with your comment that it does take away responsibility from him. so who knows!

My take on your question (not knowing heel position or choosing not to be in heel) is there are 2 reasons I can think of that I would contribute to MY dogs really knowing their job but not doing it.

1. Stress- And a stressed dog isn't learning much at that time. Of course working through stress is one of the hardest things to help your dog with and I wish I had the answer to.

2. Not motivated- As a "clicker" trainer I would deal with this differently then a traditional trainer. With dogs hard to motivate it means a hell of a lot more work to do completely positively. But of course motivation can also come through avoiding aversive.

Pretty sure that my comments didn't help you at all just now, but I just like to think and write at the same time :)

Kathie R said...

Thanks Laura for the comments. I think you're right about the reasons for not 'choosing' to be in heel position. I believe too, it is the stress of the trial. And, that's really hard to overcome by using purely positive training. I haven't figured out a way to do that yet. My hope is that through trialing and training in strange places, he will become more comfortable in the ring and the stress will be less of a factor. At his age though, I don't think he will ever be really comfortable in the ring, so my focus in training is for him to be able to work through the stress, and I'll have to admit - that sometimes means using some kinds of aversives.

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

but at the same time you really have to be careful if you think it's stress and you're going to use aversives which can add to the stress.

It's a fine line of teaching him a dog to feel a small amount of stress and working through it ("positively" or "negatively") which can increase confidence, and accidentally creating too much stress in which the dog starts to shut down.

I'm lucky that I was able to fix a lot of Lance's ring issues by doing tricks in the ring, and backchaining exercises to run out and get super good treats. But he still stress majorly on out of sight stays at trials and I'm not sure how to work through that with him. I've been running the risk of making stays even more stressful then they used to be.

Kathie R said...

Laura, Yes, I know what you mean by creating more stress with aversives. I've seen that happen, and I know Jackson can be soft sometimes so I need to be careful. A good example of the lagging behavior happened today while training at the club. There were several others training, which creates enough worry for him that he just slows down - on everything. I couldn't fix it with treats and play, because he just was not taking treats today. So, what am I left with? How do I get him 'up' and attentive? I'm thinking maybe I'll try higher value treats tomorrow. (That would be McDonalds' hamburgers and french fries :) Might be worth a try!

Honey the Great Dane said...

I have to admit - I love coming to your blog because I feel like here at last is someone who really knows and understands what I have to deal with with Honey and I can so relate to all the issues you are having!

As you know, I also have major issues with Honey being slow and lagging - in her case, I'm pretty sure it is all due to lack of motivation and focus, because the few rare times I can get her motivated & focused, she can Heel tighter than a Border Collie! :-)

This is just my opinion but I think that Jackson's lagging is due more to lack of motivation than due to him not knowing what to do. He has been training long enough now that he KNOWS what Heel position's just that he can't be bothered to put in the extra effort to make sure that he stays in it. Don't forget that stress can be demotivating too - so it could be that the ring scenario is stressing him and thus contributing to his demotivation.

However, I actually think it may be something other than stress: boredom. I have come to realise that that is my problem with Honey - she gets bored easily with repetitve exercises - and once she has mastered something, her performance tends to deteriorate the more I practise it.

I don't know if Jackson is the same but it may be that he is "bored" with things like Heeling since he isn't the kind of breed to find any inherent reward from just doing it for the sake of doing it (like Border Collies do) and so he gets very demotivated and sort of tunes out...but then he also knows that in the ring, he HAS to do this Heeling thing (and other exercises) - and so he sort of plods his way through them, trying to get away with the minimum possible, because he doesn't really find them interesting.

I certainly notice with Honey that she is most animated when she is learning new exercises and she always tends to perform her newest trick or move the best, with the most energy & enthusiasm - and old stuff that I think she should be able to do in her sleep, she gets really sloppy and lazy about.

If you think back, do you remember Jackson being more animated & enthusiastic when he was just learning the exercises for the first time? If so, then maybe he is similar to Honey.

And what you think of as "stress" from the ring is not actually necessarily from the other dogs & audience but rather the stress of having to do something he considers boring but having to do it anyway...if that makes sense? I am certainly seeing that behaviour with Honey in the ring for dancing. She's seeing the ring now as a place where she HAS to do things she considers boring and there isn't even any reward to make it she just shuts down, especially if there are also distractions around the ring as well.


Honey the Great Dane said...


My big challenge now for Honey (and probably same as yours for Jackson) is to make her see the ring as a positive, fun place - and not somewhere she thinks, "Oh God, THIS place again...B-O-R-I-N-G"

I had a very interesting chat with the UK Canine Freestyle trainer at this workshop we'd just been to - and he essentially said that all the training strategies for motivation & drive that worked with his other dogs didn't work with Disco, his low drive dog - he had to abandon all the usual methods and do the complete opposite. So he actually rewards Disco heavily all the time - he never tries to work her without treats and he keeps her out of the ring as much as possible (in a competitive sense where she has to work with no rewards) - so that the few times she is in, she hopefully performs well. Then he leaves a long gap between competitions so that she has a chance to "forget" the one time she had to work without rewards in the competition (he said often 6 months!) and gets back into being very motivated because she thinks he will always reward her.

Essentially, he is saying that you can't work such dogs without rewards - not without them getting very "down" and demotivated (which is what I was finding with Honey) - and so he doesn't even try all the tricks of fading out food rewards altogether, etc...rather, he just builds up a long period of rewarding heavily and getting the dog to believe that rewards will always be coming and therefore getting into a habit of feeling excited and motivated(although he does try to extend the time between rewards) - and then once in a blue moon, he will compete with the dog and chance it without rewards - but the dog is so used to getting rewards that she won't believe nothing is coming and will keep trying harder...hopefully, at least for the duration of the routine (or in your case, the Obedience exercise).

So maybe you could try this advice and rather than try to expose Jackson to the ring scenario constantly in an attempt to desensitise him (what you've been doing) - only put him in every couple of months, so that he has a longer gap in between when he is being heavily rewarded. You CAN go into the ring with him as a training exercise with motivators & you acting silly, etc to make the ring a "fun" positive place - but you know how we act differently when we are actually in competition (serious, tone, 1 command, stiff body language) and I think the dog picks up on that and turns the whole thing into a negative experience. So if you're trialing with him a lot, he might just start to associate the ring with negative experiences (and this feeds his stress for next time - vicious circle) - whereas if he is in competitions less, then the few times he is in there and has to work without rewards are a sort of "novel" experience, rather than him starting to see that as the norm and hating it.


Honey the Great Dane said...


Of course, this doesn't cover the "aversives" aspect - which I agree with you is difficult to know what to do. I didn't have time to reply to your email before we went but I was going to say to you that I agree with you and that I found with Honey that all the rewards in the world (and I'm using REALLY high value treats and changing them all the time to keep things fresh & interesting - and squeaking like a demented mouse!) - didn't do much for her but using a bit of light correction actually seemed to "wake her up" a bit and motivate her. I only tried it as an experiment in the last 2 weeks (as I knew we had to perform at this camp) and I was a bit reluctant because I know it is so un-PC to use correction, blah-blah - but I do think also that it depends on knowing your own dog and their temperament and what level correction to use. It certainly didn't make Honey fall apart - rather, she seemed to suddenly be more motivated and I could *see* her starting to make more of an effort and be more engaged in the exercises...but she actually seemed to be enjoying our training more, with her eyes bright and mouth open & relaxed and tail wagging - it was almost like I gave her a "reason" to find the exercises interesting and jolted her out of her boredom.

So I was going to say that I agreed with you and I think to get the dogs to the level needed for competition - ie. not just "hah - good enough" - but really giving it their all - just relying on positive only may not be least, not for very low-drive dogs like Honey, who are confident and don't have any fear/sensitivity issues about correction. Also, because she was trying harder, I actually had more things I could reward her for - which made training overall a more positive experience, rather than me almost "begging" her for some focus & attention & effort and her and trying to bribe her with treats - and her just looking very bored...

We originally taught Heeling using a combination of rewards & corrections...and then I used clicker to refine the position - but I find that for working under distractions/stress, the exercises learnt using a combination of rewards & correction are much more reliable than the exercises learnt purely positively with rewards...But of course, I know you're not supposed to be training with correction - especially this sort of dog's just so hard to know the right thing to do when the conventional advice doesn't work with your dog! :-)

Oh, and by the way - result of the experiment - I performed with Honey at the camp WITHOUT any treats on me - and she actually gave me much better focus & drive than in the past, when I'd relied purely on rewards - people were commenting on it. She wasn't perfect - she missed quite a few of her moves - but at least her attitude was better! There's nothign worse than when they are just plodding around the ring, looking like a dying horse or something!! :-)


Honey the Great Dane said...

Oh sorry - me again - I forgot to add that this UK trainer also said that such dogs get easily bored doing the same exercise over and over again, once they know it - with his own dog, he actually never practises a move or trick again after the dog has mastered it (other than a few times before competition) so that it remains fresh - and he also doesn't teach anything he needs in the ring too far ahead of competition because with such dogs, the more you practise it, the more bored & demotivated they tend to get and then their performance actually gets worse...

This is very true of Honey - and he actually pointed out that her expression changed during the workshop - when we started with Heeling, she just had her head down and was sort of plodding along, with glazed eyes - but then I started trying some of the new exercises and her head lifted and her eyes lit up and she became much more animated...

Maybe it would help if Jackson had a break? I know you've had a break before but I don't mean a complete break from training but rather a break from these exercises. Maybe spend a couple of weeks doing completely new exercises/commands with him - so you're still training and building focus & bond - but with new things, so he can get out of his mental rut?

What this trainer said is that the danger with competing is that we tend to want to rush through the levels as fast as possible (which means trialing as often as possible) and this tends to make the ring a negative experience for such dogs as ours because it becomes repetitive & maybe extending the gap between your trials and training something totally different in between might help so that when you get back to doing some revision just before your trial, he'll come back refreshed and much more interested.


Kathie R said...

Wow, Hsin-Yi, great post! We really do have the same challenges :) Maybe we need to find a discussion group for training 'low-drive' dogs!!! (lol)

I agree that training the same behaviors repeatedly for competition may create some of the problem. He really does know what's coming and how to do everything, so maybe training something completely different will wake him up and give him a break. I did have him out in front of the house last night with the clicker and treats doing some attention and heeling work. In that situation he was really paying attention and constantly checking in with me. It was such a change from the earlier behavior at the club.

I do have a trial coming up this weekend, but after that I think I will take a break from training the usual stuff and do new and different activities with him. I would like to take longer breaks between competitions, but with a six-year-old Dane, I'm afraid of running out of time. However, hopefully inserting new, fun things into training will give us some motivation.