Sunday, May 29, 2011

Making a connection with Heeling

      Yesterday was a beautiful sunny day in Escondido, California. I attended a workshop with Denise Fenzi. I was in the transition of fading out the luring for heeling since Mickey is very focused on my hand for directions. When ever I would move my hand trying to fade the lure, he would position his body in relations to where I set my hand. It is a good tool for the extreme raw beginning, but fade it fast. Luring can be used effectively for placement of the dog, since that is so important in competition obedience. Then when placement is comfortable for the dog and nearly a default, remove that lure immediately. With Mickey it is crucial or he will follow the hand and not pay attention to where he needs to be in relations to me. I also found that luring can be great for head placement as well, but fade fast. Most people I see do not fade lures fast enough. They become dependent upon it mostly because they a re comfortable getting the behaviors and not as comfortable going to the next step. This is why good shaping skills are essential as they get you to the next step. I prefer starting new students with only sh aping since they become too dependent on luring that they do not get to the next step and get stuck with luring. I found that teaching strong shaping skills first, gets them comfortable with it that when they use luring, they don't get stuck with it.

       With Mickey being my first true competition obedience dog, I'm experimenting with a lot of methods, per my previous blog entries. Trial and error is the best way to fine tune what works. I see better now how I can use shaping. When I start working with Divine, she will enable me to refine my technique. Especially because she is a different breed in a different group along with a very different personality.

         In my previous blog I did mentioned how I experimented with shaping the heel to remove the hand. I was doing well, and then stopped training because life just got hectic. I tried to go back, and noticed Mickey was dependent on the hand again as no matter where I moved it, he positioned his body to keep an eye on my hand as he saw that as the direction giver. I was impatient and tried to jump criteria again where I wasn't going back to the increment steps to fade the hand. Then another three weeks went by with no practice and now time for the workshop. Oops.

         Denise first had me do the heel without the hand, but she said, "talk to your dog." I get so focused on the shaping, that I forget about making that bond and connection. Of course I know how to make that connection with Mickey, we do it all the time when in public while he's working as a service dog. This is when I saw the most wonderful sparkle in Mickey's eyes. His brown eyes staring into mine was the most warming and soothing experience. Connection with him in heeling pattern. I talked to him just reminding me how awesome he is as a worker. I tend to talk soft, which Mickey does respond to his cues in a whisper. Some people tend to like to say "GOOD BOY" loud, but I tend to like to talk to my dog soft for attention and calming affect.

        When I started out heeling Denise wanted both my hands behind me to fade the hand. I took a step forward and Mickey stayed right with me. Click and treat with the right hand across the front of my body with Mickey in heel (left side) position. We then went another step, click and treat. Two steps, and then a few paces. Clicking for appropriate position. Of course it wasn't a perfect heel because you must let other criteria drop, while you focus on fading the hand.

       Then Denise had me walk in a clock-wise circle with Mickey on the outside. When I would walk this circle, I was concentrating on walking, looking at Mickey, talking to Mickey and concentrating when I should click, I started to walk in a straight line. Perhaps this is from when I was in tall flags and marching band in high school. The endless drills of marching straight for parades. However, for now and practice we are doing the circle. It taught me awareness that I need to pay a bit more attention to what I am doing. I also tilted my shoulder. Denise said I will need to work with someone that can spot check my shoulders so I keep them in check. I wasn't even aware that I was tilting my shoulder down where I need to keep them both square. When I turn, that will give my dog direction, but not to tilt my shoulders. The tilting comes from agility. Since tilting your shoulders a certain way is actually communication to your dog in which way you are turning or where you want your dog to go. We are so unaware of ourselves sometimes. Learning obedience has truly taught me a lot. It is a lot about awareness of what I am doing and what the dog is doing on a different level.
       Once we did the circle for awhile, and Mickey and I were doing our drill decent, it was time to change or increase the criteria. Now we walked in a circle, then walked straight for 10 steps then back into the circle. I continued to mark for staying with me in heel position. I continued to talk to him and keep eye contact. I contribute to talking to him to be the main facotr keeping him with me. Of course duration of talking with him will have to occur. But this also tells me how responsive Mickey is when I talk to him. When I walk around my house and see his bright eyes looking at him, I always say, "Hi Mickey!" in an upbeat voice. Having my voice work with Mickey to heel tells me a lot about our relationship. It just gives me tingles to think how much this dog responds to me. How p;owerful my voice is to him. What a feeling!

        Marking his heel position wasn't like my usual intense shaping, but more marking his behavior. It was more like a "yes" than real shaping. I see my intense shaping exercises and training sessions very different from just merely marking a behavior.

         During the treating, my bait pouch is strapped around my waist with the pouch position at my back. I would be treating with my right hand across the front of my body. This did create some forging from Mickey. Then later he started looking behind me during heeling  because he noticed that was here my hands were hanging out waiting to give him the treat when I clicked. So then he shifted from forging to looking back at the pouch and my hands, even though I was using my right hand to reach over the front of my body to treat treat him. A lot of this is basically timing and criteria. I was concentrating on several things at once, that I started to fumble. Timing wasn't as good, sloppy with the hands etc. However, this is certainly common while someone is instructing you and you have about 9 other people watching you in the workshop. Practice and fine tuning will take care of this issue since I already have the problem solving skills.

      At home, I usually try and put a bowl of treats some where and work with a handful of treats. This gets the bait pouch off my body. When I need more treats, I get some more from the bowl.

          Denise then had me heel in serpentine. The S or weave walking pattern. She had me walk slow, fast and medium. Changing the pattern keeps the dog thinking and engaged. Throughout my session with her, MIckey heeled longer without reinforcements than any other time. He was engaged and did not check out. What I mean by checking out is going and sniffing the ground. He knew I was tense, but not angry. Meaning he did something wrong. He knew that I was elated with his performance and that any tension was myself, not him. I find it amazing how Mickey knows the difference. I also described my tension is thinking hard, not frustrated, which frustrations Mickey will "check out." Checking out is when Mickey will go out about three to five feet from me and sniff. This is a stress release response for Mickey to cool things down, take a break from me. He knows I'm not in my logical mind. I was in check with my frustrations and more focused on learning from Denise. This enabled Mickey and I to locked eyes longer than any other time. This did tire me out though. Denise was having me do a lot of things at once and I was concentrating hard. Mickey had more stamina than me! Usually we wear out the dogs first before ourselves. I guess we know who is in better shape. I saw such an incredible improvement with Mickey I'm in total awe with this dog. He certainly out does me. I thought I had took him backwards, but found we were ready for the next leap forward. MIckey is so willing to follow instructions. He's always right there. When I'm in check with myself, this dog will do anything for me.

One soothing and calming exercise was, before my session with Denise, I took Mickey out of his crate, and had him go between my legs and massage him. This is one bonding exercise I use to do with Mickey when  he was a puppy. It seems to make some kind of connection between the two of us. It calms us both down where we are ready to work with each other.  We do have a a lot of fine tuning to do, but this was one of the biggest steps forward showing me we can go into the ring, and we can do well. I will make a routine that before we go into the ring, we won't drill or practice but a little bit, but not right before going into the ring. Instead, we will do calming exercises. If I'm in check, then Mickey will do his part and be an awesome performer.

       What is our plan? Keep doing these exercises. Keep reinforcing for duration. I also told Denise Mickey will work longer for a toy. She said put his toy on the ground and heel around the toy. When the toy is behind us and to the left, send him out to get it. This will enable him to not forge or walk in front of me to get the toy. Which are some of the issues with the food. Placement of the toy is important for how you want your dog to heel in relation to you. I saw this with the front exercises we discussed earlier in how I delivered the reinforcement, toy or food. When I would throw his Kong, he would lean to the side where the toy was located or thrown. I then had to learn how to give him his toy from up above, to have that straight sit. If he forges in front, have the reinforcement behind and so forth.  A lot of obedience is placement and how to give a reinforcement. Once I experiment with these concepts, I learn how to manipulate his body movements. No man handling or touching his body, all on Mickey learning how to move his body to get what he wants. I just love positive reinforcement training and motivational training!

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