For those of you who have purchased the second book I wrote with Deb Jones (Dog Sports Skills Book 2: Motivation), you’ll recall that we talked extensively about the cheerful interrupter.
To make that concept even more clear, today’s blog will demonstrate the cheerful interrupter technique with Brito. In this case, it’s not to help him learn the skill; it’s to help him build motivation to heel correctly from start to finish (a behavior chain of heeling)
Brito knows how to heel reasonably well and indeed, I’m starting to see moments of brilliance in his heeling, even in the front yard when squirrels are about. But his heeling is not always correct. A few specific things seem to derail us, so I’ll show them to you in this video, along with my reactions:
When we first start working, Brito is more likely to be distracted by both sights and smells. So while his first 10 seconds of heeling here are relatively nice, you’ll see that after I throw a cookie I lose him mentally. Instead of calling him back I probably should have released him to take a break.
Brito recovers well enough and works nicely until the 30 second mark. I’m talking to him a fair amount because I feel like he needs the support.
On our next start (30 seconds) he drops his head relatively quickly (31 seconds) so I back up, show him the cookie as a cheerful interrupter and restart him.
37 seconds – again he begins by dropping his head and I restart him.
When we get to our third failure in a row – I tell him to “take a break”. That means – you’re free. You can be a dog or let me know when you’re willing to try harder. I only use this cue if I’m pretty sure that Brito really will return to work, but needs a moment to realize that what I’m offering is better than what is out there.
48 seconds – his choice to sit and stare at me tells me it’s time to try again.
53 seconds – he stops to sneeze. Fine. Another break. (by the way, he often sneezes a minute into training. I think it is caused by either the first few pieces of food creating saliva in his mouth or going from a darker house into a bright outdoor space)
1:00 much better effort! I acknowledge this both verbally and with a generous reward.
Brito then works nicely until 1:25, at which point he lags slightly (hard to see on the video so take my word for it). I use a cheerful interrupter and we restart at 1:29. Again he does not put out maximum effort so I restart him at 1:32. His lack of drive forward to the cookie tells me that he’s just not completely in there.
That’s ok. I offer him a chance to take a break.
We restart at 1:40 and I’m happy with his work up to about 2:05 at which point he is SLIGHTLY slow on the about turn. Not enough that I want to interrupt our flow, but enough that I make a point of trying it again. he does a better job with the repetition starting at 2:09. We finish this up with nice work and move on to different exercises.
It’s a bit of an art to know when to use a cheerful interrupter, when to verbally encourage, when to take a break and when to simply end altogether. Just remember that your goal is to have success very soon after failure so that your dog can identify the difference.
This method will only work if your dog values what you have and working with you – if not your dog will cheerfully opt out of training so make sure you have that foundation first. Your dog must want what you have and be willing to work hard to get it!
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I am a great believer in ‘breaks’ for less than perfect work. But I see them more as a ‘least reinforcing stimulus’.
If the dog says, “Fine, good I’m outa here,” then it is time to reconsider my training methods, place or reinforcers.
However, speaking as a body with an arthritic neck, I see poor Brito walking for extended periods with his head held up and his neck at an unnatural angle. I would think that he probably needs the rather frequent short breaks for his neck 🙁
I never ask my dogs for this “head up, look at my face while heeling”. I prefer what is now considered a slightly lagging position (ear by my knee) so that the dog always has my leg in its field of view but is at the same time looking where s/he is going. This is far less tiring on the dog.
I’ve heard this issue debated quite a few times. For me the answer is I love heeling with my dog with our eyes locked together. It just thrills me, but I wouldn’t do it if it caused pain. Does it?
I don’t think so, for the following reasons: 1) My dog offered it as he was looking to me for treats and I rf it. It feels like a collaboration, not a forced position. 2) I take precautions: I work on both sides in heel position, I built up heeling from just a few steps gradually, and still I don’t heel for more than about 30 seconds without a break of a spin or fly or other move and 4) I tried it myself, looking up to the right steady on and after 3 minutes my neck still didn’t hurt. I guess our muscles are pretty strong from carrying around our head all day long. Try it yourself and see.
I expect that it really does depend on the dog — but I saw poor little Brito with his head not just bent, but looking up at an angle.
For myself, yes it *hurts* — I have osteoarthritis of the neck (old gymnastics injury) and it is incredibly painful. In Ob Class the other day a new instructor insisted that I look up while working my dog (Don’t look at your dog!) — and yes just lifting my head to look at other people’s faces (we’ll I am height challenged, too) long enough to do the Ob Figure 8, left me with a stiff neck. I have had one dog with spondylitis in the neck and he was frequently in serious pain. So I never ask for a dog to hold any unnatural position for any length of time, because until your dog is in serious pain, you are unlikely to know it.
I used to work with a friend with a Blue Cattle dog, who loved Agility — but used to take himself of for regular breaks when trialling (I’ll just go sniff here for a while before I take that jump!). We eventually discovered that Blue was arthritic and could not maintain the full course comfortably.
So I did consider it possible that Brito was needing frequent breaks because her was being asked to hold his head in an uncomfortable position. It is something to bear in mind.
Denise — You mention that you only use the “take a break” cue if you’re fairly certain he’s going to choose to return to work. If this happened and you *weren’t* fairly sure he’d return, would you end the session or is there something else you’d try?