I took Lyra to do a little work in public today.  Specifically I wanted to work on her signals at a distance.  My goal was 50 – 100 feet, using a treat and train next to her for reward. (if you’re not sure what a treat and train is, make a quick search of google or watch the video).

I placed Lyra next to the treat and train and use the remote to reward her for any eye contact – so far so good.  She’s done a lot of this so nothing new here.  Lyra succeeds reliably at this task up to about 100 feet at home and up to about 50 feet in this new location.

But then something interesting happens.  After about a minute and when I am about 70 feet away, she leaves the treat and train to come in towards me.  Repeatedly.  When she arrives, I reassure her for a moment and then send her back out to her treat and train.  She goes happily enough, but then again, she leaves her treat and train to come in to me.  I make a point of activating it as she starts to come in to see if the sound will keep her there.  She hears the food drop into the bowl, but she continues towards me.

That means that food dropping into a bowl behind her is not enough to keep her there.  What would be the explanation for this?  She likes the food and I’m not offering anything when she comes in.

She is nervous.

I do not know why she is nervous.  She performs this task perfectly at home.  She performs perfectly up to about 50 – 70 feet away in this new location.  But after that distance – not so happy.

Interesting fact two – once she starts to leave the treat and train at 70 feet, she continues to leave it even as I move in up to 40 –  50 feet, even though she was fine at that distance before.

Now she has been sensitized and is developing a habit of leaving the treat dispenser.

That is bad – it means training is going in the wrong direction, but it’s also common.  It’s the opposite of good desensitization – instead of gradually making her more comfortable at slowly increasing distances, I’m making her gradually LESS comfortable at shorter distances.

Recognizing what is happening is critical.  Lyra is uncomfortable and is becoming sensitized rather than desensitized.

Here’s my plan:

1) Increase her acclimation period.  On this day I gave her about five minutes in this location.  I will increase that to about ten minutes.

2) Spend a couple of days working at a much shorter distance to develop a habit of staying with the treat and train.  No more than about 35 or 40 feet coming in regularly, regardless of her success.  It’s important to me that she not come back in since that is a habit I really don’t want to see.  I may or may not ask for signals at a distance, depending on her behavior.

3) Shorten the length of the “focus” lesson dramatically.  Once behavior modification is on the table, it’s important that training increments be extremely tiny and low stress. We’ll play our attention game for no more than a minute or so. At that point I’ll go get her, switch activities to something she can do easily and close in (heeling, retrieves, play, etc), and then return to my distance work after another minute or so.

4) Increase the distance as she shows competence and comfort over a week or two.

5) Work this exercise at very great distances, high expectations, and with a variety of proofs in her “normal” training space, so anything else seems trivial by comparison

6) Evaluate our progress after a week and make adjustments as necessary.

I’m convinced that 95% of the problems that I see in the obedience rings are the result of a dog who would prefer to be anywhere else than there.  When your dog performs perfectly at home without reinforcement and then fails to perform in the ring, take a moment to ask yourself what would explain that.

Here’s Lyra’s first “revised” lesson away from home.  She never leaves the treat and train, so I feel that we were successful: