Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Melissa: Restarting a Very Enthusiastic Dog

Ready... Aim... FIRE!!!!!!!

That's how Rowan used to approach tracking. His excitement would mount as we approached the flag, and when I told him "Go Track," he'd throw his head in the air, rear up on his hind legs, and CHARGE down the track... or where he thought the track might be, which was often not where it actually was.

I was tracking on my own and didn't quite realize how unusual Rowan's style was until I tracked with Sarah one day and she handled Rowan. I'll never forget her astonished exclamations as she followed him down the first straight track she'd laid for him. When she got to the end of that track, she scooped him up and tucked him under her arm like a purse to carry him to the next track.

How did this happen? As I said, I was tracking on my own and I was following training suggestions from a tracking book that said to place a flag at each corner. Of course I was enthusiastic with my praise when Rowan got to the article, so my boy quickly picked up that the fastest way to get that enthusiastic response from me was to run at top speed to the next flag. Yikes! Motivation was not his problem, but there was certainly no careful thought, or perhaps any thought.

After a long hiatus, I have just decided to restart Rowan in tracking, mostly because I love the challenge of trying to successfully communicate to him what the game actually is. Sarah always talks about the balance of working on motivation vs. precision. Well, Rowan is clearly not lacking in motivation, so I am focusing on precision.

For now, I want to communicate to Rowan that the start flag is a cue to put his nose down and start carefully - thoughtfully - following the track. I'm trying to figure out a way to separate that as much as possible from all other aspects of tracking, since fixing a problem often is easiest when it is dealt with apart from the context in which it usually appears.

To do this, I laid a simple, straight, short-stepped track with food in every other footstep. No article or even extra food at the end, since I don't want any excitement about an article or the end of the track. I want the track itself to be the most interesting thing for now. I didn't put a harness on Rowan, I didn't talk to him while he was tracking, and I didn't even follow him.

As you can see in the video, by the fourth such track, Rowan's tail stub was at back level at the start of the track (indicating less excitement and more thoughtfulness for him), but went up part way along the track. This is just an experiment I'm doing, and I'll certainly adjust and shift as I go along, but for now my plan is to continue with this sort of tracking until Rowan is thoughtful and careful for the whole length of the track, then I'll add in some other variable-- perhaps following him.

I'll keep you posted - this is absolutely a work in progress.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sarah: Article Indication: Stationary or Retrieve?

Been tracking like mad here in New Hampshire - both enjoying the glorious fall weather and hustling to get as much work done as possible before the heavy snows fall. Since I am developing Pip's article indication now, thought it might be a useful discussion.

There are two main styles of indication in AKC work: Stationary (downing or sitting at the article) or retrieving it. Here are the pluses and minuses of both:

Stationary Indications
Stationary indications are useful because, if you drop the line when your dog indicates, your line is probably lying right on the track itself. You get to move up to the dog, praise there and restart the dog - absolutely confident that the track is right where you are standing.

In training, this is a fairly straight-forward and easy thing to develop. Leave something mildly interesting in the articles  and then reward with something MUCH better from your hand. Since I lure train a down on my pups early, I just walk up to the dog quickly as they nose the article - praising warmly as I come - then put my fist, treat in hand, on the article. I wait. The dogs generally nose the fist for a moment or two and then down. When they down, I smile, praise and open my fist. Yum!

If the dog doesn't offer a down I will gently say the word - as a support - never as a "correction" of any kind. Articles are fun. Articles are easy. We love articles!

As the dog progresses, I take all food out of or off the articles - moving to rubbing them with something prior to placement and then to nothing. Always rewarding with great delicious treats from my hands.

Easy for most handlers to build
Uses behavior most dogs have (or can have quickly)
You know exactly where the track is. 
You get to move up the track to your dog.

Doesn't work if dog isn't food motivated.
Doesn't raise many dogs energy much (which the playful retrieve can).

Retrieving the Article
Here the dog picks up the article and brings it back to the handler, where play or food is given as a reward. The dogs who I have seen do this, seem to really enjoy it. The play that follows revs them up and they go back to work with an excellent attitude.

Fun for the dog.

Relatively few dogs have a reliable retrieve.
Even dogs with a reliable retrieve may not have them on every article used - metal, plastic, etc.

If handler isn't paying attention, can lose the track.

Okay, okay - my bias is showing isn't it? I do a stationary indication for all the reasons above. Mostly because my German Shepherd Dogs just didn't want to play when they tracked. They were w-o-r-k-i-n-g - couldn't I see that? They played long and hard off the track but on the track? Not interested.

Pip, however, is a more open-minded gal - she takes her fun anyway she can find it. So I ask for stationary indications at the midtrack articles that are rewarded with food and then, after the last one, we have a Kong-on-a-rope-fling-a-thon which she adores.

There is no one way and no "right way" - only the way that works for you. As long as you are consistent and relaxed about it, encouraging your dog's every effort, chances are good your dog will develop a decent indication.

There a plenty of games and steps you can take along the way as well as approaches you can take with a track happy dog (Ask Melissa about that one!) I'll cover some in a future blog.