When you hit a training bump…adopt a Solution Focus!

We train many behaviors in our dogs as we move through life and sport.  Often the process goes smoothly, sometimes we encounter a few bumps in the road and occasionally we hit a wall and are left scratching our head, like 9 week old Nick who was trying to figure out the purpose of the tunnel.  This post is about what we can do and how we respond when things go wrong.  It’s about an approach to solving problems and applying one critical question: “What is the one thing I can do RIGHT NOW to make things better?”  It’s about getting rid of “ego” and adopting a Solution Focus.

Let’s take a (relatively) simple behavior like an agility start line stay.   A cue – usually verbal and sometimes combined with a physical cue — is given to the dog to assume a position of sit, down or stand.  The goal is for the dog to stay in that position until released, usually also with a verbal cue.   During the training process, the dog is reinforced for his response to our cues and learns to ignore distractions, stay for longer periods of time and to do this with the handler at greater distances away and while anticipating the excitement of running agility!

As we train this behavior, our mental model goes something like this…Can my dog maintain his stay:

  • as I walk away
  • as cookies or toys are dropped on the floor
  • as I run away or fall down
  • as other dogs or people walk or play nearby
  • as I walk 10 ft away, 20 ft away, 30 ft away, 50 ft away
  • in front of an agility jump while I do all of the above

We heavily reinforce the dog’s stay with praise, cookies and play at each stage and rely on the reinforcement to communicate to the dog that he is making good choices.  Right?

But what if you go to agility class – or worse, your first trial – and your backyard start-line-stay disappears?  “All of a sudden” your dog is self-releasing as soon as you walk away, or as you reach your lead out position, or as another dog walks behind him.

Just as the dog has choices, we have a choice in how we respond.

  1. We can…Respond with Frustration, describing the problem like this “Why is he doing that?  I keep having to go back and reset him and I just want to get out there and run the sequence! He’s perfect at home or in class.  I don’t understand why he can’t just stay there.  He knows this.  Why can’t he just sit there?”.  Note that this rant may be where a little bit of our ego getting in the way.
  2. We can…Accept the dog’s behavior…”he can’t maintain a start-line-stay in this exciting environment” and live with the good, the bad and the ugly of not having a start-line-stay.
  3. We can…Adopt a Solution Focus….by stepping back, objectively analyze the situation and putting a training plan together to strengthen the behavior.

I’m arguing that the third option is the best choice – make the situation better by adopting a SOLUTION FOCUS.  Here is how you can get started:

Step one:  STOP AGONIZING over the problem and endlessly describing WHAT is going wrong.  While it might feel good to complain or vent, it isn’t going to help solve the problem.  Worse, the more you describe all the times the dog has failed and the fallout from that failure, the less likely you are to BELIEVE the problem can be fixed.

Step Two:  COMMIT to the need for the behavior.  This is important because if you don’t believe the behavior is important, you won’t put in the work to train it to fluency.  In the start line example, don’t try to convince yourself that you don’t need a start line.

Step Three: ADOPT A SOLUTION FOCUS. Rather than focusing on the problem, focus on the solution. Even before you have had time to think through the entire training plan, ask yourself:  What is one thing I can do right now to make the situation better?  For example, if you are in agility class and your dog has repeatedly failed at maintaining a start-line-stay, the one thing you could do “right now”, is to apply the first rule for getting out of a hole…”stop digging”.  Have someone hold your dog so the mistakes stop or eliminate the need for a stay by starting your dog from a tunnel or a send to a jump.

Then step back and evaluate the current situation.

  • Video tape your training sessions.  If you haven’t done this before, you will be amazed at how much you can learn from watching your own training sessions.  It’s simply too difficult to evaluate or remember all that is happening in the moment.  Adding a bit of record keeping can be helpful too!
  •  Test the dog against distraction, duration and distance.  Find out where the dog’s limits are and start from there.
  • Evaluate your reward structure and mechanics.  Does your dog value the reinforcement you are giving him?  Are you delivering the cookie or toy in a way that allows the dog to keep his butt on the ground or are you inadvertently training your dog to scooch?
  • Are you only reinforcing when you lead out within 5 feet but never if you lead out 10 feet?
  • Are you marking the good choice to stay BEFORE you turn around and run back to reinforce the dog?
  • Are you releasing on verbal only or sometimes on movement?

Adopting a solution focus can be applied to any dog training or handling skill including contact behavior, weave poles entries, weave pole exits, front cross execution, course analysis, ring nerves, etc.

Sometimes the honest answer to the question: “What is the one I can do right now to make things better” is “I don’t know”.  Don’t accept that answer…gather more information, study, read or seek out an expert.  Keeping your focus on the solution rather than the problem frees your mental energy to work toward positive improvement instead of eroding your confidence and potentially leading to more errors.

Give it a try by remembering this one question:   “What is the one thing I can do right now to make things better?”

For an in-depth discussion of this topic, read “10-Minute Toughness” by Jason Selk.

DOWNLOAD THIS ARTICLE AS A PDF:  2017-11-22 When you hit a training bump

Agility Handling Fundamentals

I’m offering the Agility Handling Seminar…Putting Fun in the Fundamentals AGAIN…on Dec 9th at Five Points Training in Rush, NY. There are just a few WORKING spots left. AUDITORS are welcome!

Mastering the FUNDAMENTALS in any sport is essential. THIS IS NOT A FOUNDATION seminar…it is designed for Novice to Master teams. This seminar will clarify 4 essential basics in Dog Agility Handling: Connection, Commitment, Crosses and Lines. This seminar is for any handling system because the FUNDAMENTALS are the same.

This is not your typical handling seminar… Each sequence is designed to drive home one of the core concepts and you will leave with a much better understanding of how to achieve efficiency and accuracy on course by improving your FUNDAMENTALS.

Auditors will benefit greatly too including going home with a 16 page summary of Agility Fundamentals.

Register today!  Agility Fundamentals Flyer Dec 9th

“Stay focused. Learn to trust a process. The ultimate advantage is doing the basics better than anybody else because most people won’t put in that kind of focused work.” — Agility World Champion and Coach Kathy Keats

Here are some comments from the Oct 8th seminar:

** Thanks again Anne, It was a awesome seminar please do another one soon !!!!

** Fun, fun seminar! Thanks Anne!

** Great seminar…Thanks Anne!

** Thank you Anne! Awesome seminar! Score and I learned more about each other and had lots of fun!

** It was a fun day and we learned a lot. Thanks! Elliott slept all the way home!

** Wonderful Seminar!! Loved seeing the dogs progressed throughout the day!

** It was a great seminar!

**Would recommend to anyone.

The value of videoing your training sessions

Most of us make an effort to record our trial runs.  The video let’s us know with certainty what went well and what could use some improvement.  But what about when you are at a practice session or a class?  With today’s technology options, is there any reason NOT to record your agility training sessions?  With slow motion, stop action and frame by frame analysis, you can learn so much!  In a class setting, when your instructor, says “that was perfect!”  don’t you want to be able to watch that sequence back and see why she said that?  If you are training alone your camera may be the only way to judge your timing, the effectiveness of your handling cues or your dog’s performance.

These days, if you have a smartphone or tablet, it’s super easy.   Accessories are available to put the phone or tablet on a tripod.  And video editing software is inexpensive and easy to use.  I’m not going to provide a review of all the options out there but perhaps you’ll find it useful to know how I go about recording my sessions these days:

Smartphone: iPhone 7 Plus

Video editing: iMovie

Analysis: Coach’s eye  for frame by frame analysis or timing sequences

Tripod: Standard tripod with an accessory that holds my phone.

Storage: Videos take a lot of space so I have an iCloud storage account…yep, there is a small monthly fee.

Here’s how a typical training session might go.  I plan my training session…let’s say I’m working on a double box setup with my young dog Nick.  I setup my smartphone on a tripod so that I get a view of the working area.  I warmup Nick and when ready to begin, I start recording.  A typical session might last 5-10 minutes.  Let’s say the session has gone reasonably well…that is, we haven’t run into any “head-scratchers”, I’ll stop recording and then either immediately or later in the day, I’ll input the 5 minute video into iMovie.  I quickly edit out everything except the performance.  Now I’ll have a 30-45 second video that I can look at within iMovie or inport into Coach’s eye and examine critically, slow down or look at frame by frame.  I can examine my timing, position, footwork and my dog’s response.  I might even see that Nick “scooched” on his startline when I wasn’t looking :-).  This input is invaluable for evaluating our progress and planning our next training session.

At this point, I can either save that day’s shortened training video or delete it.  I always delete the longer 5 minute video…it’s just taking up unnecessary space on my phone.  Often if I save the video, I’ll only save the best bits to look at again.  I don’t want to review my mistakes over and over, I want to review what I did correctly.

Now let’s say I have run into a “head-scratcher” moment within the training session.  Where the dog is responding in an unexpected way.  Maybe a bar is repeatedly coming down or I’m getting an off course that I can’t figure out.  I can break off the training session and immediately go to the camera and review what has happened…simply by opening the video with the Photos app and reviewing.  Often, I’ll immediately see the problem and be able to carry on with my training session with much more success.  Or, if you can’t figure it out, you can bring this video to your instructor for advice.

I hope these ideas have helped…most importantly, get out that smartphone or camera and give it a try!

 

The Power of Placement of Reinforcement

As dog trainers we all know that reinforcement (reward) builds behavior.  “Reinforcement” can spawn deep discussions about primary reinforcement, secondary reinforcement, conditioned reinforcement, negative reinforcement, schedules of reinforcement, non-reinforcement markers, etc.  Setting aside all that complexity…there are a few simple principles that can vastly improve your dog training in agility.  The first is understanding what your dog finds reinforcing (rewarding).  Be a good observer of your dog’s response to what you are offering as a reward and only use what your dog wants when building behaviors.   Read more about this in the post “First Principles Thinking – Reinforcement Builds Behavior”.

Another powerful principle is placement of reinforcement.  Do I want the reinforcement to be delivered while the dog is stationary or while the dog is moving?  Do I want the reinforcement to come when I am close to my dog or when I am far away?  Do I want the reinforcement to be associated with driving to me or associated with completion of an obstacle?  Ask yourself… is the placement of reinforcement supporting what I’m teaching the dog?

So, assuming your dog finds the rewards you are offering valuable, think about where you are placing the reward!  If I’m teaching my dog to stay in a down position, I will deliver the food very low and possibly on the floor between his feet.  By contrast, if I deliver the food above his head, he is going to lift up to get the food.  If I want to teach my dog to be independent in the weave poles, I will deliver the reinforcement on the ground at the end of the poles.  By contrast, if I deliver the reinforcement from my hand, I will encourage the dog to never take his eyes off me while in the poles because that is where he’ll get his reward.   It seems so simple, doesn’t it?  With some thought and practice it can become second nature and will vastly improve your dog’s understanding.

Here is a short video of a training session with my youngster Nick showing how I used placement of reinforcement in three areas on this short course.  Happy Training!

 

Happy New Year!

img_2595The New Year is often a time for self-reflection and resolutions. One of my resolutions is inspired by observing my dogs in Agility. They are always ready to play, they always try hard, and they always seem to have fun. “Be playful, try hard and have fun!” It’s a mantra I’ll try to live by in my 2017 agility life.
For any resolution we set, there has to be a plan to go with it! After some self-reflection in 2016, here are some guidelines I put together for every training session and trial:

  • Be relaxed and don’t feeling rushed.
  • Don’t worry about making mistakes…if they happen, we just got a lesson!
  • Be totally engaged with my dog – we are connected, respectful and playful.
  • Be mentally engaged with the handling or training challenges that are before me.
  • Have a specific goal and a plan in that training session or trial, appropriate for the learning stage my dog is in at that time.

Agility is a GAME that we PLAY with our dogs…be playful, try hard and have FUN! That sums up the attitude of my canine partners and I want to emulate it.
I hope you will consider adopting that attitude everyday in this New Year. You will be happier and so will your pups! If you’d like to explore this topic further, check out this blog post from March 2016.

Agility – Be playful, try hard and have fun!

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