Here’s one of the great lessons Ken Ramirez had for us at the Clicker Expo in Chicago last weekend: The basics aren’t really all that basic after all. In his experience, one of the most common mistakes he sees in even experienced trainers is forgetting the importance of some of the basics. Here are some of the reminders he shared, and believe me, I am taking them all to heart.
Precision: Yes, we all know it, timing is everything, but no matter how obvious it is, it is often forgotten. This is relevant whether you are using a marker (like a clicker or ‘yes’) or not, often because we don’t do the following:
Clean Delivery: Ken reminded us that dropping the treat on the ground or fumbling the delivery can be very aversive to our dogs. Say we are on a roll, clicking and treating at a good pace, and then we drop the treat on the ground. The dog has to sniff around and find it, and that might not be so much fun for him. At worst he may feel frustrated, and at best he has completely forgotten what he got the treat for by the time he found it. Not a crisis, of course, but a little bit of frustration can have a lot of effect. Ken reminds us to practice delivery WITHOUT our dogs around (supporting my belief that dog training is a science, a sport and an art.)
Where Reinforce? Are you thoughtful where you reinforce your dog? Do you do it where the behavior occurs (say your dog lies down, so you move the treat down to her on the ground) or, in a location set up for the next repetition. There is no right answer, it depends completely on what you are doing, what’s important is to be thoughtful about your goal and consciously choose where to reinforce your dog rather than doing it randomly.
Stationing: If working with two or more dogs, also be thoughtful about who is stationed where. You can avoid a lot of trouble between dogs if you always set them up to work with one on left, other on right for example. Or take a trick from prof’l performance trainers, and teach each dog to go to a station to work. That avoids the potential of competition or veiled threats from one dog to the other.
Fairness: If working multiple dogs, you must recognize how each animal perceives the session. Is each getting her fair share? What if you have two dogs sitting looking at you, and you ask one to lie down. Who do you reinforce? Just the one who lay down? But the other also did what you ask (stayed in place), why not reinforce him too?
These are just a few of things I pondered on the way home, and that made me glad I was able to catch some of the talks at Clicker Expo in between my own. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this… what are the basics that you think you’d be wise to review?
Such great food for thought. If we could all just live on Ken’s shoulder for a week we’d all be better trainers, I’m sure of it. Check out his website, he really is a great resource. I’m even more excited than ever now about him coming to Madison this October.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Here’s the good news — we know what’s wrong with Willie’s shoulder. Besides an inflamed bicepital tendon, his has a bone chip floating around in his shoulder, probably from an earlier injury when part of the tendon was torn and pulled a piece of the bone away. Here’s the bad news — he will need surgery, but I’ve put it off until May because this time of year is the worst possible time imaginable for me to have a dog recovering from surgery, and Dr. Susan Schafer at UW (who is just as wonderful as everyone told me she is), said the surgery wasn’t urgent in any way. The timing is especially relevant because we got some painfully bad news the morning we arrived home. Jim’s sister has been in a valiant battle with Stage 4 Ovarian cancer and it looked a few weeks ago like she might come out the victor. But things changed fast while we were gone, and she’s not doing well at all. Jim will be up with her as much as he can in the weeks to come, as will I, although I’ll have to stay home more because of lambing, teaching, etc.
So May it is for Willie’s surgery. Dr. Schafer will take out the bone chip, sever the tendon, drill a hole in the bone and screw the tendon back into place. (She has gone back to this method, as have several other experts, after finding that truly athletic dogs don’t do as well with a simple severing, which is commonly done now.) This is the same exact surgery that Jim had about the same exact time last year. Good grief. That means all trialing is out for this year, we won’t really be able to work sheep until August or September. But it does mean he can be off leash a bit, no herding or hard play, but at least some freedom after five weeks of no fun at all.
Here’s Mr. Will, with his shaved shoulders, a mohawk down his chest and still slightly sedated goofy look. This morning I got to take his leash off! Ahhhhhhhhhhhh.