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Muscle Memory vs. Conscious Thought

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Many trainers (including myself) use a variety of props in training.  Sometimes we use them to “teach” a dog how to perform but more often than not we are trying to create muscle memory.

For example, I will teach my dogs how to sit straight in front position by using a small platform.  Over time, my dogs learn how to hop up and sit straight when they get to front.  This is not something that they have to think about (sitting straight and square) because the platform forces the matter – it’s too small to sit crooked.

Training fronts and finishes this way has some real advantages.  It allows the trainer to practice other behaviors without considering the fronts.  For example, if I want to work on my dog’s speed of return on the retrieve and I want to include the front, then a platform allows the dog to practice coming in fast and straight without really thinking about it.

When used in that manner, the dog is not experiencing operant conditioning at all – they do not have to think about their front or make any effort – the platform does the work.

That doesn’t mean that learning is not occurring; muscle memory is still learning – it’s just not operant learning.

At some point we have to get rid of that platform.  Some dogs will continue to nail fronts even when it is gone.  Those dogs are highly susceptible to learning through muscle memory and they probably have a naturally tight sit.  That’s wonderful!

Other dogs, however, dont make such a smooth transition.  Once the platform is gone, they sit however they might arrive.  Maybe straight and maybe…not so much.  If this is your dog, it’s time to train your dog to be conscious of sitting straight.  How you do that is up to you but the important thing is that you start by recognizing that sitting on a platform is not an operant learning event (except actually getting on it) so one cannot assume that just because a dog is correct on a platform that they will be straight without it.  Some dogs will and some dogs won’t.

So after the aid (in this case, a platform) is gone, I move into another phase of training for precision behaviors – I use small movements of my body to help the dog become aware of what they are doing.  In the following video, I will give some simple examples.

With Brito, I start by showing him moving towards me as I back up.  Dogs that are walking straight usually (but not always) sit straight.  I reward that – first just the walking straight and then adding in the sit.  If the dog is crooked, I try to catch it a second before the butt hits the ground and make a tiny adjustment of my body to make the dog just wrong enough that they will not complete the sit, will move with me a tiny bit more, and then will sit straight.

Once I can do that (with my movement generally backwards and easy) I will add in other movements like sideways or partially backwards and partially sideways, or fully sideways, or on a circle.  When working like this, I’m watching the rear of the dog for effort – if I see the dog make an extra effort to get straight, then I stop moving and hope for a straight sit.  If I get one – dog gets a cookie.  If I don’t I praise and then try again.  If my dog fails twice in a row (getting praise for both efforts) then on the third attempt I’ll do something easy like going to straight back so that I can hand over a cookie.  Or I just move to something else altogether while I think about my challenge.

I would probably benefit from using platforms longer than i do, but I find them awkward once I start more “drive building” training because I am always moving, and rarely are the platforms where I want them when I want them.  At that point, they hinder my ability to flow with my dog in training.  At that point, I have to switch over to the use of games or quick drills (as described above) to get the straight sits.

Over time, the sits get straighter and straighter, both as a result of muscle memory and also as a result of conscious thought.

Some dogs benefit greatly from a series of fronts on a platform immediately before a show, so if this is your dog, by all means bring out the platforms before your competition and help your dog regain their muscle memory!

Food Play – “Prey Hand”

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In my new book with Deb Jones titled: Dog Sports Skills Book 3: Play!  we discuss a food play technique that uses food called “Prey hand game”.  Those of you who have taken seminars with me may recognize this as “Wiggle Wiggle”.  You can find it on page 198.

To help readers visualize this food play technique with movement, here is a video of Brito and Lyra.

This is one of my favorite ways to get a dog moving and it is extremely well suited to dogs that are tentative or who have lower food interest.  With the emphasis on quick finger movement, many dogs who enjoy prey activities more than food options really enjoy this.

Note that this is a technique for building drive and energy, not precision.  Pick the reward strategy that makes sense for your dog!

This video shows the technique.  You might want to give it a try; most dogs love this!

If there are other techniques from any of our books that you would like to see demonstrated in video, put a comment below and I’ll see what I can do.





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Acclimation means allowing your dog to become familiar with an environment.  This takes place before any engagement or work starts.

How important is this to me?

It’s one of the three most important things that I’ve learned in the past ten years.  The other two are honoring a dog’s emotional state above all, and allowing for choice in work.

Combine knowledge of acclimation with teaching your dog to drive you to work and match your dog’s overall energy when you interact, and you may well find that your dog’s attention to you and ability to focus and learn SKYROCKETS.  Is that worth an additional ten minutes of your time?

I’m not exaggerating.  Let your dog breathe and you will be shocked at the return on your time investment.  That small courtesy is non-negotiable with a nervous dog or a dog with low working drives, and it’s just generally respectful with stable dogs or dogs that always try to work hard.

Can you imagine taking a human child-student to a new place, blocking their view of everything around them, and then aggressively insisting that they work on their spelling while we shoved food or dangled toys in front of their face to prevent them from looking around?  Or put them back in the car if they still tried to get around us?  Whatever gave us the idea that this makes sense with dogs?

Do not force your dog to interact with you; you’re making yourself a misery!  It doesn’t matter if your use of force involves a high value cookie in front of the nose, or a tug toy waving wildly around your dog’s face, or a collar correction, because the end result is the same – the dog is compelled to work without choice regardless of whether they are ready to be there.

Think about it.  The last time you decided to train, how much time did you give your dog to walk around, explore, sniff, sightsee, etc?  Without badgering?  Just letting your dog breathe, settle in, and enjoy the general working environment without interruption?

Historically, I have tried to be an “efficient” trainer because I am often training under time limitations.  That means I would set up my working space, get my dog, let them pee and look around for around one minute, and then I’d go to work regardless of the dog’s level of offered engagement.  That worked, sort of, but with some dogs I spent an awful lot of energy trying to keep them engaged.  I’ve learned that I was wrong to do that.  It made training much harder for both of us.  I’m done trying to be more “more interesting” than the environment.  I created a lot of unnecessary stress in some dogs and outright avoidance in others.

And now?  I fully expect to spend just as much time acclimating as I do actually training.  So…ten minutes of exploring.  Maybe even twenty minutes, depending on the dog.  And at the end of that time, guess what I have?  A dog that is excited, focused and eager to work for me.

And if after all that time that dog is still not interested in working with me?  In spite of the fact that I have classic motivators somewhere, know how to interact with my dog in an enjoyable manner, and provide interesting and fun activities?  What will happen if I start begging and bribing?  I’ll get the dog’s attention AS LONG AS I HAVE COOKIES OR CORRECTIONS FRONT AND CENTER.  How many competitions are allowing for that these days?

Wouldn’t it be smarter to blow off training at that time, and find places with more suitable conditions for training while you grow your dog’s love of work?  Then you can see what happens over time – your dog begins to internally generate the focus needed to work even when conditions are trying -because you have trained them to use their intrinsic interest instead of applying external motivators.

I didn’t even realize that my way of thinking was “unique” until the emails started showing up after I introduced this idea in my current online class.  Apparently, many people subscribe to the “force interaction instantly from the moment the crate door opens” philosophy, and if that doesn’t work, then “push harder!  Tug harder!  Get more intense!  Crate longer!”  In effect, if it’s not working then more must be better.

Since when in life is “more” of whatever is not working the right answer?

Since never.

The following video is three minutes long.  In the first two minutes there is NO indication that Brito wants to work.  When he’s ready, he lets me know.  This acclimation period is edited down from about ten minutes so be prepared to wait much longer than two minutes.  Note that Brito finally indicates a readiness to work without my showing a cookie or a toy.  I don’t need to beg with motivators because he understands the entire process from acclimation to engagement to work to a classic food or toy reward, or to more engagement in a more advanced version.

Heeling in Tight Spaces

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If you want to polish your dog’s heeling and clean up your handling at the same time, try heeling in a very small and cramped space.

If your dog can show you a left turn, right turn, about turn, fast, slow and halt – working in close to walls – you’re in good shape.  The ring will feel downright spacious for both of you!

Use this to test your dog’s strong and weak points.  When you identify areas that need attention, work on that outside of this testing mode.

As I look over the video, Brito needs to learn to stay closer to me even when my right side is against the wall – the pressure of the wall pushes him out.  I also see that I’m not holding a straight line as I come out of my about turn.  As a result, I have inadvertently taught him to go wide after about turns.  I will work on that and once I straighten up my handling, it is likely that he will work closer with no additional effort on my part.


Default Behaviors

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A default behavior is what your dog does in the absence of a specifically cued behavior.  The most ‘desired’ default behaviors vary by sport and activity.

For example, in AKC obedience and rally, we expect our dogs to default to a sit in heeling when we halt (technically one could argue that this is not a default since our body language – halting – cues the sit, but let’s ignore that for now).  In freestyle dogs are taught to stand at a halt.

In AKC obedience, most of us teach our dogs to default to heeling if we move forwards without a cue.  But in IPO, dogs default to a “stay” unless cued otherwise.

Defaults can be overridden by alternative cues, so an IPO dog will heel along with their trainer if cued to do so, and an AKC dog will stay instead of moving with their handler, but only if specifically cued.

There are benefits to training specific defaults.

Brito is learning to come “find front” as a default when he is moving and facing me at a distance.  I want him to come to front, unless cued otherwise.

I am doing this to help him with a few exercises:  to distinguish the drop on recall from the straight recall – keep coming unless cued otherwise! For the broad jump – come to front after you jump, unless cued otherwise!  Bring dumbbells, scent articles, and gloves to me, unless cued otherwise!

There are different ways to teach a default behavior.  In Brito’s case I set him up for success-  I just called him to front when I wanted that.  It gave him confidence and sureness.  But eventually, my “silent staring” when he is moving towards me needs to mean “come to front”.

To work on this, I start out with my normal amount of chatter, but right before he gets to me I go silent – and then I reward the front.  First without objects, and then with objects.  Over time I substitute “silent staring” for the recall cue.  (Remember, he is moving, so there is no issue with his stay).

When that is going reasonably well, then I add alternative cues.  So…when he is reliably returning to front with my “silent staring” as his only cue, then I need to add something like “down”.  Or “stay”.  and then release him from that alternative (I could say “ok” or “come” – either would work) to return to his defaults.

The default part – that is usually easy.  The hard part is when you start adding in the alternatives.  For example, after I drop Brito with a down cue, on the next repetition it is likely that he will try dropping without a cue rather than performing his recall default.  That is normal!  He is learning and working it out in his head.  I am patient. I do many many more defaults than alternative cues as he works it out.  And I look for ‘signs of learning and processing’ such as – almost dropping but then coming to front.  Those make me happy because I know that he is thinking!

Here is a video.  Note that standing quietly and still is the default body cue to tell him to come to front after a cookie toss.  Note how I handle error!

Note:  This video is edited.  I included all of the errors, both before and after the actual errors, to give you context, but I removed most of the correct repetitions to keep the video a bit shorter.  If he were making this many errors as a percentage of the total than something would need to change in my training program.

12 sec – first error – I cued down and he came to front.  That was my error – at this point Brito only knows how to down if I ask for the behavior as he is picking up the treat – here I was too late and two things had happened – he was returning but more imporant I was moving my foot back.  That is a clear cue for him to come to front at his stage of training.   So – he gets a screw up cookie and I let him finish as if he were perfect, since he believed that he was correct.  That was on me.

Correct drop at 29 sec – earned his ball; a higher value motivator here than a cookie.

1:45 note the tiny pause here.  He wasn’t sure if I was going to ask for another drop. Good boy Brito for coming in!

2:10 Drop is slow – that doesn’t worry me at all.  The distance was greater and he’s working it out.  He will speed up when he’s ready.  I can also use reward placement (reward behind him) to hasten that process.

We’ll work on this hundreds of times, until I can do multiple drops in a row and he still defaults to a recall when I do not cue another behavior.







Guest Video: Loretta Mueller

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Today’s guest video is provided by FDSA agility instructor and 2015 Agility World Team Coach, Loretta Mueller.

This is an unedited video of her young dog Gig’s first time on the teeter totter.  This is the entire session.

I love this video for several reasons. First, note the foundation work that she did before ever introducing her dog to the teeter (listed in the first seconds of the video). Second, note how she takes her time to express her appreciation and excitement for Gig’s hard work – each rep is generously rewarded. And finally, note her handling of errors.  They’re no big deal!  Gig is still rewarded (albeit slightly differently)  even when she comes off the end.  Loretta doesn’t express disapproval or try to prevent the error; she knows that she can work on any issues that come up when the time is right, and away from Gig’s first attempts.

Super, Loretta.  Thanks for sharing with us!

Loretta will be teaching her popular class, Introduction to Agility; Handling Basics at FDSA starting August 1st.  This class is perfect if you’re new to agility but not new to dog training, or if you want to clean up your handling or…if you want to try out the sport without buying a ton of equipment!


Guest Video: Laura Waudby

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Today’s guest video is provided by FDSA instructor Laura Waudby and her 9 month old Toller puppy.  This video is an excellent example of foundation work.  Note the pace of training, handling of errors. and emphasis on attitude and movement over finished behaviors.
Laura will be teaching Confidence Building for the Obedience and Rally Ring at FDSA for the August 1st Term.  This is an excellent option for dogs that perform well at home but shut down as soon as they enter the obedience or rally ring.

Thanks Laura, for your excellent video!


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