Monday, July 19, 2010


Fina has been slowly coming together. Little by little we have been working through her worries, gaining confidence at a distance, and most importantly learning that she has to keep trying and keep listening. Fina is a bit independent and does not handle pressure well. She also loses confidence fast when working at a distance from me. Not a great combination. However she is also blessed with a quiet and direct way on stock. That talent and the fact that she was a gift from my friend Darlene gave me the determination to continue working with Fina. I decided to work her through this summer, and if by fall we had not gained some significant ground I would find a home more suited to what Fina could give.

We had a tough spring. Fina would get to the top of her outrun, lay down and watch the sheep run to the setout. Or she'd get them down the fetch, start the drive, then get flustered, lay down and quit. She frequently became the flankless wonder, walking her sheep beautifully on a line, but not the line to the panel and not willing to flank to correct it. These problems showed up at home, and even more on the trial field. Her half sister Song delights in new sheep and new fields, not at all bothered by trial environment pressure. Fina is more fragile and gets worried about such pressure.

Fina was training up rather well this spring at home, but periodically went into the avoidance mode when under pressure. Add trial pressure and she quickly closed her mind. By mid May and many retires I was pretty frustrated. The problem manifested as the dog losing confidence at a distance, stopping taking commands, and often just laying down. I started picking people's brains on the problem. I got lots of good traing suggestions. It was Barb Armata that got to the heart of the problem. Fina's solution to pressure was to avoid it. So she closed her mind and either lay down or just blindly followed the stock. Barb told me to work through that avoidance first, make Fina listen. Not in a harsh way, but get her in situations where I could be right there to make it happen. So I put a short line on Fina, and when she stopped walking up because she was flustered I took the line and got her started. I worked her in smaller areas and subjected her to bursts of rapid fire commands, moving in and insisting when she tried to opt out. As I removed the avoidance option Fina learned that she really can do what I'm asking. Little by little she is gaining confidence in herself, in me, and in our ability to work together. She can handle some pressure for compliance now, knowing that the moment she does what is being asked the pressure will lift.

Fina placed at the Ames' Cascade Farm trial on the July 4th weekend. Nothing fancy, 9th in a field of 35 dogs or so. But a decent run. The July 4th Cascade trial was the last trial that Darlene was well enough to attend last year. The next weekend at Merck Forest was not always what I wanted, often hesitation before giving me the (oh so difficult) flanks I wanted, but she was with me. This past Saturday I had a dog on my whistle the entire run. She won the trial. Sunday she had to set out for some time early in the afternoon and did great on some very tough and recalcitrant sheep. Then she ran late afternoon. She had a bit more of the flankless wonder going on. The come by tends to fail first. So our lines were not great, but she took corrections, got the flanks eventually, and we got around. She did some lovely work at the pen with stock that did not want to go in. Since the run was not competitive at this point I used the pen for some stern flank practice and she was good with it, cleaned her flanks right up and worked extremely hard to get those girls in. We timed out in the shedding ring, having walked in with about 30 seconds to work.

I look forward to taking Fina to the post now. She still has her problems, but don't they all. Now Fina has opened herself to working with me, trusting my commands and her own ability to do the job. Fina was bounced around for training a bit when young as Darlene was sick. Then Fina ran in Open with Darlene. Darlene was too sick to train and Fina was not really ready, but they were well matched and earned a placement. I believe that Fina was put on this earth for Darlene to partner with. It looks like now Fina will partner with me as well, frosting on the cake.

Monday, July 12, 2010

How do I train thee?

After working dogs with a friend this morning we had a talk about various trainers, methods, and philosophies on training dogs. I don't seem to get dogs trained all that quickly. I've never had a dog on the trial field before 2 years, except Cato in Novice Novice. I have a tendency to move a young dog to the bottom of the training priority ladder whenever we hit a training plateau. They get a bit of work to see where their head is at, and hopefully we’ll get some progress going again. I take forever to get commands on a dog, and even longer to get them on whistles. My dogs generally run in Open for a year before they are reliable on whistles. I’m reluctant to move forward in training until they are working with the attitude I want, and I like them to be about 80% successful before I add complexity to any particular job. I’m quite reluctant to put a lot of pressure on a young dog until I’m sure it understands and has generalized the command I’m enforcing. The stop is learned early and enforced all along. I’m afraid I seem to take forever installing flanks, no doubt aggravated by my regular errors on which side is which. Then it seems, when I get one piece of training done, something else breaks, so I go back and spend some time fixing that. You can see how I manage to extend the process!

I know there are folks that get dogs ready to go much younger than I do, but today I realized I’m fairly comfortable with my methods. I’m enjoying the process and that is more important to me than having a dog trial ready at a young age. I see young dogs competing that are confident in the job and in their handler so you know some good training occurred to get them there. I just can’t seem to do it myself. I keep working with trainers, watching their methods, observing their way of working with their dogs, and trying to learn so that I can teach my dogs the job more quickly. I haven’t the natural talent for training I see in some, but I am diligent in observing, questioning, and analyzing the process. I’ll get there, but it needs to be on my terms: I won’t make the job more complex until the dog has shown me a fair mastery of the current level of difficulty (neither will I dwell at a level until the dog is flawless); I won’t apply hard pressure for compliance to commands until I’m quite sure the dog understands the command, has generalized it, and is well able to comply with the command when given. My exceptions here would be “lie down” and “that’ll do”. Many strong young dogs need some serious pressure to establish those commands before you can even consider going forward in training.

Part of our morning conversation was training pressure. There are very successful trainers who routinely put pressure on green dogs, and accept that the level of pressure may well make the dog quit. The dog will likely come out at the next session having thought through the lesson and much improved. I have put pressure on a dog until it quit, but it is a seldom thing. It takes the joy out of training for me. Afterwards I mentally review my session extensively, deciding if it was good training or not. Could I have changed something to help the dog achieve my goal in the current session? Was my goal realistic? Can I approach the training challenge from a different direction entirely and perhaps have more success? Did I just lose my temper, get frustrated and push too hard?

I have walked onto the training field with a plan to put a great deal of pressure on a dog for a specific behavior where I’m not having success with other methods. In these sessions I have a clear idea of how I will set the exercise up. My goal is for the dog to succeed, but I’m prepared with where and how I’ll apply the pressure to force the issue if needed. I’m ready to apply a great deal of pressure to break through the training plateau. I don’t like working this way, but sometimes I believe it is the best method to get a dog through a training problem, far better than muddling around in repeated failures. If I decide to put strong pressure on a dog for certain behaviors, I remove all other criteria. I set the exercise up so that I’ll be in a position to enforce compliance immediately. I try to set it up so as to expose the problem I’m working on, but otherwise set the dog up for success. Effectively the dog has a single requirement it needs to meet, or there will be hell to pay. The instant the dog complies then the correction ends, and my demeanor returns to cheerful. I want the message clear, understandable, and attainable. What is “hell to pay”? That depends entirely on the particular dog. It is whatever will make that particular dog worry about me and worry about the correction to the point of releasing a strong behavior that I don’t want and replacing it with a behavior that is likely mentally uncomfortable for the dog. Depending on the sensitivity of the dog and the intensity of the behavior I am trying to change, that is possibly enough pressure to make the dog quit entirely.

There are many people who substitute severity of correction for consistency of correction. Severity in the absence of consistency is abusive to the dog and ineffective as a training technique. If you allow a number of missed stops to go by you have lost the right to have a fit and get mad at the dog the next time it misses a stop. The absence of consistency is hard on a dog even if your corrections are not severe. Inconsistent corrections muddy the rules, delaying understanding. For corrections to be effective they must be consistently applied, even if the timing is inconvenient for you. After all, how many of you always obey the speed limit for fear of the occasional speeding ticket? If you were to get a ticket virtually every time I’m thinking you would be saving fuel.

There are many ways to train a dog. Each person who endeavors to train a dog must find methods that they are comfortable with, and that produce the results they want. Methods that work for one person may not work for another. Part of training is our timing, and the persona we project to the dog on the training field. Some methods require more precise timing, or a more imposing persona. You may be able to master these methods eventually, or they may never be effective for you. There is always another way. I have yet to attend a lesson or clinic with an experienced trainer and not come out with some new understanding, or a new method of training a behavior. However I sometimes reject a trainer's overall view on training. Dog training is rather like the Bible, you can find references to back up many different points of view. You can point to an example of a successful trainer’s style to validate your preferences, and I can point to the different style of another trainer to validate mine. Know yourself, your dog, and use your judgment and conscience. Take out the dog reference and I believe the same applies to religion.

Not all trainers can be successful with all dogs. Everyone's style and temperament suits them to certain types of dogs. There is nothing wrong with that as long as you remember that the fact that a dog is not suitable to you as a trainer or handler says nothing bad about either you or the dog. It simply means you are not a match. Personally I can really enjoy some strong minded dogs, as I'm a bull headed person myself. I have several friends who enjoy biddable and compliant dogs and shy away from dogs that attract me. All and all, you will probably be better off working with an instructor who enjoys the same type of dogs as you do.

When you are working with a trainer you need to try hard to understand how their methods work, and to handle your dog as they suggest. Give their methods a chance. If you are truly uncomfortable with that person's methods or a particular exercise then don't participate. Use your judgment. It is important to give a technique a good try to see if it will work, and equally important that you make the final decision on actions that will affect the physical and mental welfare of your dog, yourself and the stock. Use your own judgment, but don’t jump to conclusions. Find methods that work for your style and temperament. Have respect for folks that have taken numerous dogs from playful pups to confident working partners.

It is not easy, but then nothing worthwhile ever is.