Sunday, August 26, 2012

Trick Training - The Leg Weave

More than anything, I love training my dogs to do tricks. It cements our bond as we engage in a positive & fun activity together. Here is one trick my dogs find particularly fun: Leg Weaving!

You don't need to be involved in agility or have a set of weave poles in order for your dog to strut some fancy moves. How about training your dog to weave in and out of your legs?

Here is Poppy demonstrating:

Here she is again in slo-mo:

And Ollie strutting his stuff:

This isn't a hard trick to train - I train this one completely by luring and working step-by-step over several days time. I've been working on teaching this trick to Hokey for a few days now.

The first step is to have your dog sit & stay in heel position. Hold a treat in the hand on the opposite side from your dog. Step forward on the leg opposite your dog and stand still. Release your dog and, using the hand with the treat, lure them between your two legs. Make sure they end up next to the forward leg. The dog should be pointing forward as if it was going to move on ahead. This is where you want your "reward zone" to be - i.e. the place where you give the treat- do not reward for any other position. Here is Hokey demonstrating this first step:

The next step would be to take another step so that the dog is being rewarded for going in between your legs twice before it gets the reward. Again, make sure your dog is next to the forward leg and oriented so that it is pointing forward before giving the reward. Here is Hokey demonstrating this 2nd step:

As your dog begins to understand the game and is consistently moving into the correct position, you can add steps. Here is Hokey starting to put it all together. I am still luring her with my hands and she is hesitating between each step. As we continue forward in her training, the movement will smooth out and I will be able to fade the luring hands.

As your dog gets more experienced and smoother at this, you can add a turn. Here is Poppy demonstrating what this looks like.

And Ollie demonstrating the leg weave with turn:

And for the lazy trainer - how about just standing still and letting your dog do all the work? Here is Poppy demonstrating a figure-8 leg weave while I stand still.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Training the Sniffer

I recently embarked on a new activity with my dogs. Nosework. I highly recommend it to anyone with a dog. Unlike agility, it doesn't require hours and hours of training. Nor does it require lots of expensive equipment or the need to learn any fancy handling moves. In my experience so far, dogs LOVE this activity. And just about any dog can be trained to do it: young, old, big, small, even so-called special needs dogs - deaf, blind, deaf AND blind, even those in a doggy "wheel chair" - can participate. Nosework is a completely dogcentric activity where you are simply fine tuning your dog's primary sense and learning how to read his body language.

I came to nosework after it was recommended to me as a way to help Poppy build some confidence. She has a lot of issues with stress and anxiety and these are sometimes amplified in agility, particularly in a trial setting where she feels the increased tension in the general atmosphere around the ring and where her sound-sensitivities kick into a high gear. Nosework is a low-pressure and rewarding activity for her. It's also a quiet, one-dog-out-at-a-time activity. Although it is not physically demanding activity, the mental stimulation and focus required helps to burn off the over-abundance of energy contained within Poppy's body even better than agility ever did. She sleeps soundly in her crate on the drive home after every class.

Nosework is an activity completely led by the dog's sniffer

As it stands now, Poppy is the only one of my dogs that actually goes to formal nosework class, but, since it's easy to train at home, Ollie and Hokey are being home-schooled right along side of her. Ollie has been doing this since I started taking Poppy to nosework class. Here is a video I made of Poppy and Ollie doing their nosework homework roughly 3 weeks after I started taking Poppy to class.


The primary focus of our level 1 nosework class was merely to build enthusiasm for the game. Building enthusiasm for the game was NOT exactly hard to do in Poppy's case. She gets so rev'd up over it, she starts barking as soon as we pull onto the highway near the veterinary hospital where we go for class and, other than when she's actually doing the search itself, doesn't shut up until I put the vehicle in drive to head home. It's all I can do not to have her launch herself down the stairs to get to the basement where the class is currently held.

We started out using ordinary open cardboard boxes where the dogs would search for food (the object of the search is called "the hide" in nosework) and then self-reward when they found it. I would then swoop in with additional treats to throw in the location of where they found the hide to reinforce the behavior. Later searches involved adding objects other than boxes to the search field (e.g. plastic pots, buckets, toys, tunnels - just about anything that was handy) and adding elevation, but no higher than the dog's nose level (e.g. putting the hide on a chair or low shelf). The hide would not always be contained in something, but might lie next to an object. Toward the end of the 6-week session, the dogs were starting to learn to push through minor barriers such as box flaps and carpet remnants to get to the hide.

Currently we are part way through level 2 class. In this class we no longer use boxes. The hides are done in more "real world" settings, such as in various locations around a storage room - on shelves, behind objects, etc. We are varying the rooms in which we work in, gradually working in tighter spaces, which can make locating the scent a little more tricky for the dog since the scent may fill the entire enclosed space. This allows the dog to hone its skill by narrowing the possibilities down to the area of highest scent concentration. The second half of level 2 class will focus on the other extreme; we will start doing searches outside where there is wide open space for the scent to dissipate, surfaces that affect the scent differently than those found indoors, and, of course, different air currents that carry the scent away from the hide. So far Poppy is a superstar in class - she works diligently and fast - and I'm looking forward to seeing how she does when it comes to the outside searches.
Poppy stylin' in the new harness I bought her specifically to do nosework in

Right now the dogs find food rewards, which is very motivating while they are being taught to build enthusiasm for the game. However, nosework titles require dogs to be trained on specific scents. The 3 scents used are sweet birch, anise & clove. When we get to level 3 class, the first of these odors (birch) will be introduced. I will write more about that down the road as we train for it. The National Association of Canine Scent Work  sanctions both odor recognition tests where you dog can be certified in recognition for the scents listed above and nosework trials where the dog can earn titles. Local organizations/clubs may also hold mock trials for the purpose of practicing under trial-like conditions. Each trial has 4 components that a dog must pass: container search, exterior search, interior search and vehicle search. Obviously, my dogs are in the very early stages of training and scent trials are far off in our future yet. However, it's nice to have a good idea of what we're working toward.

Here are videos showing each dog doing nosework. Forgive the somewhat gravelly narration - I've been struggling with a bad case of bronchitis for the past few days.

First up is Hokey. I started her on nosework later than the other two dogs, but she is showing a lot of promise with it. Today was the first time I've ever worked her without any boxes, so she wasn't quite as fast as she can be, but she did an excellent job!

 And Ollie:

And finally, Poppy, my speed demon who needs to be challenged:

Friday, August 17, 2012

Welcome to Hokey's Place

Another stressful week with little time to write any posts. However, the training goes on despite my lack of time to sit down and write anything about it. Here is a post on a behavior I'm introducing into Hokey's repertoire: "go to your place". This is a very convenient behavior to have if you are busy doing something and want your dog to stay out of the way, especially if you don't happen to have a crate handy.

The most common tool used to teach this is some sort of mat, but a towel, small blanket or even a dog bed, which is what I use for Poppy, works fine. It just should be something reasonably portable and easily recognized by your dog as "their" object. Every dog in the household should have their own designated "place". I bought Hokey a small cheap utility mat with non-slip backing for this purpose.

I am primarily training this through shaping and am currently in the middle of training the full behavior. It started with me laying out the rug in the middle of the living room and hand-flashing (my "clicker" since Hokey is deaf) her for interacting with it, eventually working up to reinforcing her for standing with all 4 feet on the mat. This actually turned out to be a speedy process as she was already used to putting all 4 feet on an object lying in the middle of the floor due to the shaping work we've been doing with the frisbee. From there, I gradually shaped her to sit and maintain good eye contact with me.

Next, I taught her to lie down on the mat. This was the only time I did not use pure shaping. This is because down is not a very natural behavior for Hokey to perform while we are interacting and was, in fact, the hardest of the basic obedience commands for me to train her to do. I felt trying to completely shape a down on the mat would take a long time and might try the limits of patience for both of us. Therefore, I did spend some time giving her the hand signal for down and reinforcing the resulting behavior on the mat. 

The end behavior that I'm working toward is for Hokey to respond to a hand signal telling her to "go to your place" by going to the mat and lying down and staying there until I release her. For example, this could mean when I'm ready to sit down at the table to eat dinner, I would be able to signal her to "go to your place" and she would make a bee-line to wherever I've laid her mat down and she would then lie down and remain there until I've finished eating and have given her a release signal. I could also bring the mat on the road with us - say to visit a friend or hang out at an agility trial. I could set the mat on the floor and she would have her own space to hang out. In such situations involving unfamiliar surroundings, having a default behavior such as this while making use of a familiar object (i.e. the mat) offers some security to a dog. 

As of today, my training of this has progressed to the point where Hokey is offering a sit with eye contact on the mat and going "down" on my signal. Eventually, I want her to recognize that when the mat is out and I'm busy doing something, she should be going to it and offering a default behavior. Right now, that default behavior is a sit, but I am working on turning it into a down and today I took steps to begin to shape that. 

I decided to get the mat out and place it on the floor right next to where I was sitting and working on a jigsaw puzzle. I made sure I had LOTS of treats close at hand to reinforce any desired behavior. Since this is new to Hokey, at first I reinforced her a few times for getting on the mat of her own accord and sitting. She was free to move about and I gave her no information about what to do other than to reinforce her when she got on the mat and sat down. 

Next, I gave her a short refresher on going down while on the mat by giving her the down signal a handful of times and rewarding her for responding correctly. 

Then I stopped giving her any information to see what she would do. She spent quite a bit of time standing or sitting on the mat and staring at me waiting for information that just wasn't coming. A couple of times she wandered off the mat, but she kept returning. She wanted to find out how to earn those treats! Then slowly the light bulb started to go off. You can see her working it out in her head in the following video.

Slowly she started to get the idea of what she was supposed to do. 

As Hokey gains confidence, her speed should improve. I did want to make sure I don't let her get into the bad habit of constantly getting up to repeat the behavior - i.e. I do not want her getting into a pattern of lying down, getting reinforced with a treat, then getting up and repeating the behavior in order to receive a constant stream of treats. The goal behavior is to have her down/stay on the mat for a period of time, so it is important to build duration in. Normally I build duration into a behavior very gradually, but as she was already showing some signs of falling into the habit of repeating the behavior for extra treats, I decided to mix it up a bit by randomly and generously rewarding her for staying in the down position and, every so often, not reward her immediately upon her going into the down position. This seemed to help her hold the down position. Also, it is important to make sure the delivery of the treat is given in such a way that it does not encourage the dog to rise from the down position. Give it quickly and just below the nose while they are in a down position. If the dog starts to rise in anticipation of getting the treat, make sure they go back down into position before releasing the treat.

Hokey and I will continue to work on this and before long she should be heading to her mat to relax and chill out while the world buzzes around her.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Shaping Up(date) & Bonus Trick

This past week was not my best (to put it mildly). And it was a busy one at that. I have lots of ideas for new blog posts, but the chaotic nature of my life is getting in the way of bringing them to fruition.
Finally taking a break from the chaos of this past week. As always, my dogs are there to lend support.

In the meantime, I thought I'd write a brief update on Hokey's progress with shaping. Last month, I recorded Hokey's first free shaping session and wrote a blog entry about it. In that session, I was shaping her to simply put two front feet inside an upside-down frisbee. Since then, we've progressed to 3, then 4, feet in the frisbee. Here is a demonstration of us working through the process. Again, since she is deaf, I use a hand flash as my "clicker". I have to be fast and try very hard to make sure she sees it. Here, I start by hand flashing for putting her back feet on the frisbee. Next I reinforce for movement of one of her front feet backwards so that eventually there are 3 feet in the frisbee. Finally, the fourth foot moves back - the goal - and she is generously rewarded.

As usual, Hokey catches on to the game quickly and offers the behavior consistently and repeatedly as shown in the following clip.

Soon I will be moving to a smaller frisbee.

In the meantime, I am teaching Hokey a TON of other things, including some tricks. Here she is learning to roll over. I teach this by putting her in a down then using a treat to lure her into the behavior by letting her nose follow the treat I'm holding as I slowly move it over her back. As soon as she completes the behavior, I release the treat.

And yes, I talk to her a lot even though she's deaf. It's part of the bonding process for me and I'm sure she can "hear" me, or at least recognize my intent, in her own special way.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Pieces of the Puzzle

I love puzzles. All kinds of puzzles. Jigsaw, logic, word puzzles, sudoku. You name it, I love to try to solve it.
Just a portion of my jigsaw puzzle collection

I also love keeping my dogs active both physically AND mentally. There are many "dog puzzles" out there that stimulate the canine mind and help develop the dog's ability to think through problems.

A couple of years ago I invested in one of the crown jewels of canine puzzles. This is but one of several varieties of puzzles put out by Nina Ottosson of Sweden. These puzzles are NOT cheap, but I like them because they are durable - my dogs can be hard on a toy - and because they offer variety of potential problems to solve, from simple to more complex, in just one puzzle. I selected the one called "Dog Brick" especially because of the different possibilities it offers.

It consists of a wooden board with sliding plastic panels under which treats can be hidden. The dog needs to slide these panels (2 per groove) out of the way to get its reward.

Basic board showing black plastic sliding panels

It also comes with two different types of pegs that can add difficulty to the puzzle once the dog has mastered the basic board. There are two large wooden pegs that can fit in any empty space except the two in the very center of the board. There are also 2 small, relatively flat, pegs that only fit in the two center spaces.
The two plastic pegs (top) and the two wooden pegs (bottom)
Board showing the insertion of  a wooden peg and a plastic peg
You can modify these pegs to make the task simpler by putting a knot in a thin rope and threading it up through the center hole in the peg so the dog has something easier to grip in order to pull it out. Because of the shape of his mouth, Ollie has a very difficult time getting a grip on and pulling out the plastic pegs. Ideally, I would need to modify them for his use.

So, as you can see, there is a range of possibilities for both board set up and levels of difficulty. I've been using the board with Ollie and Poppy for awhile now. Poppy isn't very refined. The strategy most often employed by her is to pull out all the pegs and slide the panels, eventually finding the reward. Sometimes she gets lucky and finds it right away, as in this clip:

At other times, it takes a few flying pegs before she finds what she's looking for:

Ollie usually rips out both wooden pegs first, then starts scratching at the panels until he happens to find the treat.

However, I see both Poppy and Ollie using their noses to better effect since I've been training them in nosework. Their "attacks" on the puzzle do seem to be a little less random than they previously had been.

Only a few days ago, I started working Hokey on the board once a day by feeding her her dinner, a little at a time, underneath the sliding panels. The first session was pretty much relegated to her learning how to slide the panels in order to get to the food. Once she got that concept down however, she was on a roll. So far, she seems to work the board in a more deliberate fashion than Poppy or Ollie. I am in the early stages of training all 3 dogs in nosework and all 3 love it and are good at it, but Hokey is showing herself to possess a superior raw talent. I wonder if this is because her sense of smell is a little more refined due to her deafness. When she works the board, she generally tends to home in on the odor first and then starts to slide the panels in that general area until she locates the reward.

She doesn't always get the right panel on the very first try, but she rarely seems to slide the panels that are far from where the food is hidden. Here you can see the difference between her searching around the board for odor clues, slightly sliding some tiles and tapping others in the process, compared to when she picks up on the area of highest odor concentration and goes into "I found it" mode.

I had not used any of the pegs with Hokey up until now. I thought it would be interesting to document their introduction into the game to see how she would respond. First, I thought it would be useful if I somehow helped her figure out that the pegs are objects meant to be removed from the board. To do this, I put treats directly inside a wooden peg and inserted it into the board.

Underside of a wooden peg. It is hollow inside, so can be filled with treats and then inserted into an empty space on the board

Here is a clip of her first attempt. At first, she looks around the board for where the treats might be hidden under the sliding panels. Then she catches the scent of them under the peg, sizes up the situation, and removes it. What a smart girl!

She picked up the concept WAY too fast. Here is our second attempt. Obviously, she gets the object of this step of the game.

So now on to the final challenge. I've hidden treats underneath a sliding panel and then inserted a wooden peg into the empty slot next to it in such a way that the peg needs to be removed in order for her to slide the panel to get her reward. Can she figure this one out??

Wow! What an awesome job. As you can see, Hokey doesn't just immediately head for the peg and pull it out like Ollie and Poppy do. She actually sniffs around and finds the area of greatest odor concentration first, then, realizing the peg is in that area, she pulls it out. Seeing that there is no food hidden underneath the peg this time, she immediately chooses the correct panel by using her nose and slides it open to reap the rewards of all that hard work.

Puzzles. They aren't just for humans. Let your dog give them a try and get those synapses firing!