Saturday, July 23, 2011

Learning Theory

My friend Sharon Perkins has been reading about learning theory, and educating me with this knowledge. Some of the information seems obvious, such as regular focused practice. This builds myelin in the brain which is what allows us to perform a well learned task smoothly and well.

One topic we have discussed is failure, and how the best learning comes from working through failure and struggling to get it right. Failure should be embraced as a valuable tool for learning.

This morning I was playing with Marcus. I had a fistful of treats, my clicker, and a puppy eager to figure out how to get the food. I had taught him sit first, so it remains the first behavior he offers me. I've started working on down, first luring him down with a cookie which I release when he finally lays down while trying to pry it from my fingers. Now I'm fading the lure, and Marcus is wanting to go back to a sit. He was dancing around me, sitting, circling me, talking, barking. The low cookie lure that he used as his cue to down was not there. Finally, frustrated with my lack of response, he tried laying down. Click, cookie. Very happy pup. I realized that little Marcus had just struggled through failure. He learned far more by working this through than if I had simply placed him in a down postion.

I use the 80/20 rule of thumb for training. I want my dogs about 80 percent successful, 20 percent failure. If they are more than 80 percent successful it is time to make the job more challenging. If they are failing more than 20 percent I need to back up and make the job easier. Generally if the dog has failed completely on three tries I change the picture entirely. Sometimes I choose to work through a much higher level of failure. I do this with thought to whether there is another way I could approach the job to make the dog more successful, and whether I believe the dog and I are ready as a team to struggle through the problem.

This got me thinking about how I train on sheep. Well dogged training sheep cooperate despite sloppy work by dog and handler. They have learned the objectives and go along. With difficult sheep and challenging situations my dogs and I are faced with failure. We struggle to get the job done. Success is measured not by the pretty shape of the flank or fast response to the stop command, but by whether we got the cantankerous beasts in the trailer or not. We are utterly focused on the job, and the stock has no forgiveness for bad work. The dog learns when to be quick, when to be slow, when to flank off, when to hold close. My moves on the stock and my commands to the dog face the same ruthless filter of the stock, rewarding good timing and good work with progress in right direction, and poor work with lack of progress or retreat from our objectives. We struggle together through failure, and learn what works.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Fina Triumphs

The July 4th Cascade Farm trial was the last trial my friend Darlene Hutchins was able to attend while she was fighting cancer. That was in 2009. Darlene left me her young dog Fina. Fina and I had plenty of struggles together, but finally began making progress. The July 4th Cascade Farm trial in 2010 was our first placement together.

This year I only ran Fina one day at Cascade as I had 3 dogs to run and was judging one day. She worked like a well oiled machine, confident and responsive. I'd been in first place for some time with Song, but I was pretty sure Fina had bested that score. I was due to set sheep for the next class so I went to the top of the field before seeing the results. They radioed up that I was needed for a runoff. Indeed Fina had beaten Song by one point, and another handler had tied Fina.

The trial had a fun trio of handlers from NC, and it was one of these ladies that had tied me for first. I could not resist a North South challenge for the runoff. The judge and scribe whistled Battle Hymn of the Republic when I came to the post, and Dixie when Sherry came to the post. Much laughter was had, and Fina worked even better than the first run. However I made some mistakes, and as I did so I considered that the south had better generals than the north. Apparently I was reenacting that disparity. The quality of Fina's work carried me and we prevailed for the north.

We made Darlene proud, and even more importantly (if you knew Darlene), we made her laugh.