Wednesday, February 8, 2012

7 tricks in 7 days

For some reason when it's been a couple of days since I've blogged, I find it easier to post here than on boots and saddles.  Perhaps because boots and saddles has so much history and I feel an obligation to produce quality, entertaining pieces for that audience.  I feel less pressure here - and freer to just write. 

At the end of last week it became apparent that Tess was showing signs of over-training - lack of motivation, lack of relationship, and just generally "checked out".  I have a tendency to focus on a list of 5-6 things every day and when I get "focused" on something, to do it every day until we have it down.  I'm just a little OCD (just a little I swear!) and feel the most comfortable when I work through something in a very methodical, systematic way.  However, I have a dog that enjoys spontaneity and new things! 

Tess is very good for me. 

So....I set a challenge for myself.  In the next 7 days I would teach Tess 7 new things.  No repeats, no practicing what we learned the previous day, and no drilling what we already know.  Just 7 brand new tricks and skills in one week. 

At the end of the day, even if that particular "trick" isn't finished - IT'S OK!!!!!!  We can go back to it at a later date (days or weeks later) and finish the behavior.  This works for Tess much better than drilling.  I have to keep reminding myself how damn good she was after the 3 week winter break.  Not only did I take a break from school, I took a break from any serious training. 

Sometimes giving Tess time to think about a task is better than any drills I could devise.  The handstand trick is a perfect illustration.  I introduced the handstand by having Tess back up onto text books, and after 2 days quit before going to the next step:  transitioning her to placing her back feet on the wall (higher than her head).  Ten days later I was at school with a friend picking up some supplies and on a whim I asked her to back onto some books against a wall......and BAM! she totally avoided the books and hit the wall with both back feet!  She had transitioned to the next step.  For the last couple of weeks Tess has consistently performed a handstand with a wall for support every where and anywhere - against trees in the park, lightstands in the parking lot, walls at school, the xpen in the house.  It's been about a week since we've worked on the handstand trick (I'm senstive to the fact that doing a handstand if a fairly strenous trick and I don't want her to over do it physically).  Yesterday I was shaping a different behavior and she started offering a handstand without any support of an object! 

I think much like our muscles get stronger after exercise during the rest and repair phase, Tess's mind makes new connections when she is allowed some time to connect the dots.  So many of the behaviors I want for agility and our other activities require her to figure out how to synthesize information and training for the task at hand.  I can't do it for her, I can only make sure she has the foundation training for task, support her while she tries to figure it out, and let her know when she's close, and then go wild when she nails it. 

We are on day 4 of "7 new things in 7 days".
-Day 1 she learned how to go through a cavelleti grid of irregularly placed poles.  (Agility foundation behavior, paw awareness.  She was so excited by the site of poles on the ground she was bouncing 5 feet in the air trying to get to the poles while I was setting up.  It reminded me how much she LOVES new things and figuring stuff out for herself). 
-Day 2 she learned how to go around an upright pole (agility foundation behavior)
-Day 3 I shaped her putting her head between her front legs and her forehead on the ground.  (Trick, stretching, flexibility behavior.  The start of a yoga position trick....downward facing dog of course!)
-Today I'll be teaching her to bounce in and out of a PVC square (foundation behavior for running an A-frame in agility)
-Day 5 plan is to shape her to put 2 paws (hind and fore on the same side) against the wall.  This will eventually turn into a waltzing behavior of us dancing together.  
-Day 6 plan is to shape her to jump over my leg
-Day 7 plan is to teach her to shake (she knows how to high 5, but everyone who says hello wants a shake)

I've been so impressed with Tess over the last 3 or 4 days.  I had forgotten how smart and engaging she is.  Her focus is incredible when suitably motivated.  It doesn't' take more than 10-15 minutes for her to pick up any of the tasks listed above.

The training principles that I HAVE to remember with Tess are:
1.  It needs to be her idea
2.  Drilling does not work with Tess
3.  Hands off approach works best (see number 1)...
4.  She may be stubborn and willful, but paradoxically is very sensitive to any sort of negative reinforcement - But it won't show up right away.  It seems to slide right off her without any sort of impact.....but over the course of several days I will notice a deterioration in the relationship.  Is positive training more work? Yes - it requires me to have patience and make sure there aren't holes in the foundation work.  BUT, in the end it's LESS work because Tess ends up training herself, with my support, rather than me trying to lecture her on the proper way to use her body. 
5.  When teaching a multi-step behavior, Tess does best with several days off between introducing new stages.