Category Archives: TRAINING TIDBITS

Thinking about dogs…

Rally-FrEe live & the purpose of the sport

I normally don’t like going to shows at all. You have to get up early, pack for the whole day (or weekend), possibly rent a room, drive a distance, and in that time I can train many more dogs, go for a hike, and have time to do a whole lot more with my life than sit around at a trial. I do believe it’s good to get out to a competition to test yourself and your training under the extra pressures of strange environments, but I don’t have a surplus of time, energy, and money that I want to invest going any more often than necessary. There are lots of ways to test my dog without having to go all the way to a show (blogpost to come). However, I was really looking forward to my first live Rally-FrEe show that happened Jun 2014.

At this event in Arlington, WA, I appreciated the opportunity to talk to everyone involved in this young sport, including Julie Flanery, creator of the sport. I was really excited to go to the event because for me personally, Rally-FrEe is the one training activity that motivated me to become highly systematic and thoughtful about how I move through the expansive list of things I want to train. With the other sports I’ve been involved in, the training variables don’t necessarily have a linear progression (after your dog learns the basics, that is), and your always bouncing back and forth working on different variables (think about all the variables to training weave poles, for example). It doesn’t seem so hugely critical to teach certain things first (with a few exceptions), but in Rally-FrEe, it seems like there are so many contexts for a dog to discriminate, via verbals, and without the benefit of very different setups or the visual aid of seeing tangible equipment (like an A-frame, dumbbell, etc) that, in my opinion, this sport requires a lot more clarity and consideration in the training progression.

Because asking a dog to do a behavior in not just one position, but in any position relative to the handler is a training task on top of just training the behavior itself, I wondered if people pursuing this sport would have to be better trainers. Not that there aren’t difficulties to Competitive Obedience or Rally-O, but, it’s a whole different game if you’re only using left side heel position and a handful of behaviors: sit, down, stand, front, around, fetch, discriminate, over a jump, etc. Training in that scenario has some crutches to lean on, the dog can always default to heel position, or choose one of these behaviors they perform exhaustively. In Rally-FrEe, there’s are so many changes that your dog can’t guess, and you have to train more fluency, and there’s room to make it much more dynamic and fun utilizing movement and props.

I’d like to believe that because the training task is so enormous, that people are a little more humble and friendly, but maybe that’s my imagination?? Either way, it was a really great experience to go to this show and meet a lot of people who pursue both Rally-FrEe and/ Freestyle (there was a Musical Freestyle practice following the competition). During lunch Julie wanted to pick people’s brains and talk and ask for feedback and it was a discussion I appreciated partaking in. Julie started off by explaining how in just about every dog sport, in the last 15 years or so, the proficiency and training has elevated significantly, but, she wasn’t seeing the same true of Freestyle. The discussion went into the dilemma of the freestyle world having such a vast array of options—you can train any trick (and there are a whole lot of excellent tricks out there!!!—that ultimately could contribute to an unbalanced focus on the “shiny-fancy tricks” without hardly enough attention to the foundation: positions and transitions.

Julie pointed out and the light bulb illuminated, Rally-FrEe is just a collection of positions (heel left/right/front/behind/between) and transitions (leg weaves, 180 spins away, handler and dog swapping side while the other stands still). Well, that’s probably why I enjoy it so much. Training foundation skills is hugely appealing to me. Once you’ve established a good base to depart from, the fancy stuff is supported by solid behaviors that, incidentally, take up the majority of any freestyle routine. And we all are guilty of training the exciting stuff before we’ve done our elementary homework. Julie asked how many of us have trained backwards circle around before teaching your dog to circle around forwards both directions…and I think every one of us was guilty, including her.

My own personal thought about the elevation of the caliber of this sport I only just started (not that I have the authority) is that the element of dancing on time is really hard to embody. And I can’t wait to explore what I can do with my West African and other dance background!!

Anyway, it was a lot of fun seeing how the different dogs handled the venue and what skills everybody taught their dogs. After the competition there were hours of freestyle practice, and, since everyone gets tired at the end of the day I usually end up helping out extra, and ended up watching everyone while playing dj. Some exciting performance are in the works…and a couple of people really need go back and do some more training. But overall I’d have to say it was an excellent turnout and did not disappoint. I’m grateful to ask the judges (there were multiple present) lots of questions (thanks for being so generous!) and have conversations with good trainers. Now I better understand the criteria I’m shooting for in competition (which, incidentally, is what I train for all the time, I just would lighten my demands on my dogs during a competition), with the biggest insight being that they like to see the dog return to a solid heel position before moving forward to the next sign. No problem, my dogs can hit moving into heel with me at a standstill in many different contexts. In fact, I appreciate getting points for that, so, moving forward, my competition entries will be much cleaner. We just got a 1st for our most recent video submission. And as for the live event, I was able to train my older dog, who has lots of concerns, giving him tons of reinforcement at the event for good work. Unfortunately, I worked him too long (poor guy) both in my practice run-through and a competition entry. I just got greedy thinking he’d be up for more. Shame on me.

My other little girl, well, she did stellar. Would have done even better if I knew to show tidier positions. We missed 1st place both times by a point or 2. And she titled moved up to the next level. My main focus for her was to set a precedent for the competition scene to be fun and for her to stay at a good enthusiasm level without going over the top. I’ll have to get out and put agility titles on her…or do I? 😉




Dog dancing, I’m hooked on Freestyle!

You couldn’t have told me when I began training Rally-FrEe that it would serve to get me hooked on Canine Freestyle—aka dancing with your dog. I was sure that was for old ladies, or housewives and their Golden Retrievers. Not that there’s anything wrong with old ladies or housewives or Goldens! I kid, but in all seriousness, watching video I never appreciated what a training undertaking it is to train such a massive chain of behaviors. Honestly, sometimes watching a routine can bore me. Yet, other times I can be moved to tears. You’ve got to watch some good routines (check out the links!). There are only a handful of favorites, I’ll grow that list as I get the time to pull my saves from disparate locations.

But let me first put the enormity of the training task in perspective. Imagine asking your dog to do 5 things before giving them a reward, and expecting her to do it with such zest that her pupils are dilated and she’s as keen as could be. Does your dog even know 5 behaviors? It’s actually easier if your dog knows less behaviors to ask them to discriminate between them (less wrong guesses to be had). Anyway, let’s say you ask your dog to run to you, then sit, roll over, back up, lie down, and wave “Hi”. On top of that, let’s ask your dog to do all that but without any visual cues, just by the words out of your mouth. That might be just a fraction of a complete routine…but that’s how you train it, in segments (that you will overlap and chunk in different segments, letting the chain become a little predictable to help, back-chaining and creating a lot of value and comprehension, to say the least). Once your dog is proficient at certain behaviors, then you assemble them and choreograph them with bizarre movements from you (what some call dancing;) so that you are dancing rather than demonstratively cueing your dog. Sound like a tall order? It is!

There’s a lot of people saying that this is the hardest thing you could train your dog. I believe it. And I’m hooked. I just completed my first routine. It started off as an obligation, and morphed into my own creation. To start off I selected behaviors that my dog already knew really well. It’s hard enough to add them all together, so adding new stuff would have been deadly. However, I did teach a simple, easy to discern “jump into my arms” trick…but that has a very different body language and is easy to both perform and discriminate, and comforting because she’s close (I notice dogs that might be struggling with tasks feel secure when they are asked to do this trick in a string of behaviors). I actually say I completed it, but I have a couple of eligible videos but haven’t entered any because I can’t decide if I should choose one of those, or perform it again. It’s never going to be perfect, that’s one thing you’ll need to let go of!

I can’t wait to get started on my next routine’s tricks…but I’ve become very responsible and won’t introduce or practice too many untrained/partially understood behaviors at once anymore. But I know I’m hooked because throughout the day my mind will wander to great ideas for routines. Since I just started nose-work (yes, 1 more totally different dog training endeavor!), I recently had the idea to do a routine about the tragedy of a dog that can’t smell. You can borrow that idea if you need one 😉 I’ve got tons! My only request is that you send me a video of the routine.

Step 1: Get the dogs comfortable on the boat

20140714_121628When I first set out, I brought a helper (human;) and my own 2 dogs, and no electronics (although video and photos from that adventure would have been priceless). Someone had given me a doggy life jacket, which, I never imagined I’d use. I put it on my smaller girl, as she’s not a very experienced swimmer. Pushing off that first time everyone had their doubts, from the helper to the dogs. After moving a little ways out, it was time to investigate if the dogs could be coaxed into the water. I wanted them to end up liking it and trusting me, so lowering or pushing them in was not an option. No rush, we paddled along to let them get used to it some more. Then, luck smiled on us. What happened to be floating a little distance farther ahead? Yup, a tennis ball. In my opinion it’s all about motivation, so, I pointed out the ball to my ball-obsessed Irie with lots of encouragement. She was hilarious, whining and wanting it, when, her desire for it overcame her inhibitions, she went for it. End of story for her.

Zeal, my other dog, was not so easily won over. I played around with letting him jump out to get on land for a break…and it was tricky getting him to commit to getting back in. First we tried paddling away to see if he’d swim after us. He paced the shore and tried everything but swimming up to the boat. So, we paddled back to the shore and he’d jump in, but was not secure so part way out I let him choose to stay…which he did not. He jumped back out. So, we had to let him jump in then hang on to him till we were a good distance out. Since his biggest motivation is prey, I tried to show him some ducks but he had wedged himself against me and wasn’t taking in the scenery. So, we found him some geese that were appealing enough to override his worry. We made progress: first step, he was able to turn around instead of lie down almost in my lap. I quietly goaded him and he finally bit and launched off the front of the boat to have a swim chase. This is probably where I should inform some that geese can supposedly drown a dog, and don’t disturb wildlife. Zeal’s allowed to swim after things that are superior swimmers or herd things that can fly away. One of Zeal’s most favorite activities is herding seagulls while they’re coasting along the shore on thermals. Oh, he’s not actually influencing those gulls at all, but he thinks he is, and gets excited when they change direction and he cuts hard and races the other direction…that’ll be another blog entry unto itself.


Since then a number of dogs had made their debut boat swim off of my little orange kayak. Surprisingly nice, 3 of them were Portuguese water dogs, all with the same great swimming form, some Border Collies and mixes, a mini Aussie with lots of fear issues who did great :)!, and a Flat-Coated Retriever that can sniff out water if there wasn’t hardly a drop left on Earth, and subsequently will try to attend each and every “spa” the wild (or man) may have to offer.

Most dogs were already in love with swimming. Most dogs settle in by the end of the first float. Having dogs on board that already feel extremely comfortable usually helps. I say “usually” because sometimes Irie feels too comfortable and will walk around pushing past dogs to stay on top of the toys, and for those that haven’t gotten their sea-legs yet, that can be a little disconcerting. As each dog’s experience grows, they get more and more comfortable and then launching off of the boat becomes their next challenge to overcome…Read about that in Step 3: The 6 inch plunge!

You can see below how comfortable Bisou and Gaia are. It’s Bisou’s first time out, and Gaia is a pro standing with her paws on the edge of the bow!



Step 2: Making dog-boating safe

Allow me to help prepare you because you’ll probably find you have your hands full when you first head out with your pup.

  • Outfit your dog with a good “handle”. You’ll want to be able to control the dog’s body. I use harnesses for most and a life jacket for 1 (because I only own one) which has a convenient double set of handles. Using a collar, too, gives you even more ways to grip your wet BF.
  • Make sure your collar/harness is not too loose! Almost every dog that I am entrusted to care for arrives with a collar that is WAY TOO LOOSE! You should only be able to slide 4 fingers between your dog’s neck and collar. Loose straps can catch a dog on things; in the water your dog could drown!
  • If your dog is not on voice control and will be wearing a line/leash of some sort, have it running over the dogs back from the back ring of a harness, and keep it up at the surface of the water at all times. Too long is not better, a dragging line could hang up between something and drown a good swimmer, especially if there’s a current.
  • Train for impulse control a lot before throwing the dog into a situation where you’ll need to have him curb his enthusiasm while you control the boat. If you cannot break through to your dog’s brain when they see something like a squirrel, and maintain control over your dog’s movement, well, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble on the water, especially if your boat tips easily!


  • Make absolutely sure your dog can grip well when moving around the boat, or keep them out of that area! For my little kayak, I bring about 6 layers of yoga mats/rubber-backed carpet/mats so that everywhere they step they have a good foothold. I learned this on my first trip out with just a couple of yoga mats running the inside of the boat. Not even close to enough coverage for my 10 ft boat. You’ll need mats to drape over the edges if your dog will be putting their feet up on the edge. ESPECIALLY if you are going to have your dog launch off of that ledge. Additionally, you’ll need grip where you assist the dog out of the water and back onto the boat. It’s already bouncy and enough of a balancing task for the dogs. You could easily get lots of bangs, bruises, or worse! if your dog is standing on slippery surfaces. Any sport dog owner should be able to lecture you on slippery floors, jumping off of beds/couches onto hardwood or tile…an unfit dog could easily pull apart at the seams, and even a fit dog can do a pretty bang up job on a “lucky” day.
  • No entering or exiting without permission. It’s not safe for your dog to decide to launch off of a dock onto the boat, or vice versa, so permit that only on a command like “Ok” or “Hup” or “Off”. It helps if you already practice this sort of impulse control at doorways, getting in and out of the car/crate, when serving a bowl of delicious dinner, etc. I teach how to train these skills in both my True Manners Workshop and my Recall Class for training these skills, with the class going into the details of how to maintain this skill when your dog is excited, too!
  • Swim your dog for only short periods. Bobby Lyons has an interesting article on sustained trotting and I know from her class she believes sustained swimming is much harder for dogs than running in and out of the water. She mentioned something like 5 minutes of sustained swimming equals 5 miles running on land. That may be a little generous in some regards, but you will see your dog need to settle in to a relaxed pace, regulate breathing, keep water out of his mouth, etc, so be very attentive to your dog’s state while swimming and pull your dog out of the water more often rather than let her swim for any long period in one go. Panicking or an awkward entry into the water might require the dog be immediately brought back on the boat to recover for a while before sending her back in. Initially, your focus is on getting your dog comfortable and built up to being able to exercise more in the future…when your dog is in shape for it. Even if your dog is in good shape, your dog probably doesn’t use the same muscle fibers she will while out on the boat and swimming like this.
  • The boat is a wobble board for the dog. Your dog is constantly having to adjust to stay balanced. If you’ve ever trained on a wobble board yourself, you’ll know how exhausting it is to fire all those micro-muscles used for stabilization. If you haven’t been on a wobble board, stand on one leg on a bed for 15 minutes to get an idea of what your dog goes through on the boat. Animals tend to be much fitter than us humans (just think of the mountain goats doing “lengths” up and down the mountain while people struggle to rock-climb) but you should still be very considerate and follow my favorite “Less is More” rule and ease into boating exercise with your dog.
  • Make sure there’s enough room for your dog. The kayak we use has 3 seat positions, and with a boat full of dogs I sit far back with the dogs weighing down the nose. From my vantage point, I can keep an eye on what they’re observing and possibly thinking about doing and react immediately when necessary.
  • Pit stops. How are you going to handle this? Bring bags on board and plan to stop shortly after you begin because your dog will be all shaken up and ready for a breather on land.
  • Don’t bring your dog on challenging bodies of water. No river rafting madness, please! Find a dull lake. You’ll probably appreciate not having any extra stress anyway.
  • Only 1 dog at a time. Well, I break this rule but…

Ask yourself this first: can you control multiple dogs at once on land? If the answer is anything less than an absolute, for sure, “Yes!”, my recommendation is take only one dog at a time. If you take multiple dogs, take 1 at a time for their first couple of trips out to see how they do before adding more. If you do take more than 1 dog, make sure you are fully 20140818_122921aware of how those dogs get along, and that you can create order between them with verbal control…Otherwise, you can imagine the possible disaster this could create. Think about how easy/hard it’d be for you to position those dogs for a photo on land without any help, somewhere outside of their usual haunts.

Only someone crazy (or ignorant) wouldn’t be dubious and undertake handling multiple dogs while boating cautiously. I slowly worked each dog up to a level where they were comfortable before heading out with more dogs than most people should try. Be smart about going out there with your dog. There are a lot of things I shouldn’t have to mention, like don’t get too much sun (your dog’s nose and eyes might suffer), don’t let your dog swim through fishing lines in the water, make sure your dog is close to the boat in traffic, Outward Hound makes a great, double-handled life jacket that will increase visibility and isn’t ridiculously expensive (I ended up replacing the hand-me-down jacket that we trashed), and bring water for your dog…especially if you’re on salt water. And I don’t actually mess around with treating the dogs out there. Water sports and food don’t mix in my opinion. Some dogs may be introduced to the boat while on land and in the shallows (where the dog can easily jump in) with food, if I think it’ll help them “want to” more. Most dogs are thrilled by the incredible and novel adventure, so we leave the food for other types of training, where it really has a useful impact. If you’re out with multiple dogs, you don’t want them getting pushy over a little tidbit.

Step 3: The 6 inch plunge!

The next big challenge, but one that is really up to the dog, is the water entry. This is the sticking point for most of the dogs. Only 1 dog so far has stepped right off the boat into the water on his first outing without over-thinking it. However, I suspect that he thought he could walk on the surface (there were lily pads nearby). It’s funny how big of a deal that little distance is. In the dogs’ defense, they do need to develop a way to enter that allows them to stay more horizontally level rather than dipping their front, head and all, under by stepping down front end first. Irie is our champion diver thus far. Getting video from inside the boat is hard, because it is a really wet situation. Please pray for my phone;) Here’s the best I could do:

While each dog was encouraged to launch themselves into the water, no dog was forced or even pressured for very long if they didn’t feel secure enough to do so*. If the dog wants a toy badly enough, overcoming the challenge of dropping a whopping 6″ off the boat develops more quickly. For those that have little toy/duck interest, and who don’t LOVE the water more than life itself, I explore different ways to get them used to taking the initiative to get in the water. In some places there are floats or docks that are about the same height as the boat, and those are more stable platforms than the boat. So, some dogs were unloaded onto the dock (so far all were happy to jump onto the dock from the boat), and not permitted to jump back onto the boat. Then, I’d paddle a little ways out and encourage them to leap in and swim back to the boat. A couple of the Porties made the biggest fuss over this. Gaia cried as if she was abandoned but couldn’t convince herself to take the leap that day. It even took her a while to figure out that she could run the dock to the shore and swim out. Another Portie refused to try and swim out, and raced along the shore watching us with concern instead of solving her problem. Partly, how a dog puzzles this out will be influenced by how much (or little) that dog has been given opportunities to think through training exercises. The last Portie mentioned is not a creative thinker. But Gaia is. She couldn’t put the pieces together right away, but given the opportunity to learn, she figured out that she could find a suitable entry and swim out to join us.

But I think it all comes down to giving the dogs time to get comfortable with it all. Just the other day, Gaia finally became a diver. Her owner said she has always been hesitant at docks and never leaps in. Well, one 90+degree day she was ready to fly. At first, her form was more like flinging herself high into the air. She was enjoying the water so much that as soon as I’d lift her back aboard, she was running to the front, taking her mark, and launching back into the water. It really makes you smile to see a dog “own it” like that. More recently, she’s altering her entry to be less exaggerated effort. It’ll be interesting to see if she can change her angle of entry to a horizontal motion rather than a downward direction which dunks her head.

For the rest of the dogs who need help to gracefully enter, I assist by setting them in the water in such a way as to keep their face and ears from getting wet. One hand on the collar while bearing the weight with the harness works well for me. There’s an art to angles and direction, all while keeping your boat upright and handling a moving dog. If my hands weren’t so busy I’d get you lots more pictures 😉 It’s fascinating to watch!

After editing the video above and studying slipping, my last trips out proved the mats I have to be insufficient. Next up, instead of lots of loose little mats we’ll try a very large rubber backed carpet. Sometimes the current set up is OK, but the dogs need permanent traction and stability. I’ll keep you posted on how that goes.

*You can hear me in the video saying, “Go, go, go, go go!”, which is a cue Irie understands on land to mean race away from me and seek out an agility obstacle, used generously when sending her across a big distance to a jump before practicing her running dogwalks. She LOVES this command. For most dogs, that’d be too much pressure to use in excess like that. For her, it actually makes her hyper-excited because running her dogwalk is some of the best fun.

Why put a dog on a boat?

At first, like anything unknown, most dogs are going to worry about their safety. I like the saying that “Nature doesn’t give a lot of second chances” and if a dog has potential safety concerns, that will dominate their attention until the matter has been settled. That’s why when you begin introducing a dog to something like this, you want to focus more on making a positive association with it all than any other goal like distance or time spent swimming. There are some things to consider when approaching such a task:

  • Have you provided your dog with fun training activities that involve getting on something that moves, that is unstable, makes noise, or otherwise shakes up their normal world? Start off by seeing how your dog reacts to things like wobble boards, standing on a pile of cushions (and then sitting, lying down, performing tricks like sitting up, etc), walking on different textured surfaces through shaping games. Using operant conditioning and playing around with clicker type training can build a lot of confidence and turn goofing around with your dog into valuable experience. The more your dog learns, the easier it gets to learn the next things (with the occasional conflict of behaviors being an exception). Want to learn how? Check out our Tricks class (both online and in Seattle)
  • Is your dog comfortable being handled by you, being close to you, being picked up/moved physically? If not, you might be biting off a lot more than just introducing the boat and would do really well to practice one of my favorite exercises where you teach your dog that you need to handle them and strengthen your relationship. This is an exercise taught only during private lessons (and almost always ends up being necessary during the first private with a new client).
  • Are you able to control the boat…AND the dog? It’s quite the physical feat and if your not sure about your abilities, don’t even try without some backup.

If you’re not feeling confident about something mentioned above, then you really should ask yourself if it’s a good idea to subject your dog to such an adventure. However, if you are sure, then, the answer to “Why?” is, “Because it’s awesome!” What a change of pace to get out on a lake and float around with your best friends. It’s so much fun to observe them as they discover what a great view they have out there.


They watch the wildlife, the people, the boats, check out things they’ve never seen before like lily pads, investigate strange algae, they get a terrific workout…and on a hot day nothing cools you down to the core like getting out there on the water. All this is said with a low boat that dogs can dive off of in mind. I’m not sure that all the dogs would have as good, or as cool, of a time if they were on a very different kind of boat. You’d have to work out the logistics and see how you can make your dog comfortable at higher speeds, without shade or the ability to take a swim on a whim, and make sure that you can get your dog the traction and assistance he’ll need to get down to the water, in and out, and move around safely. If, at the end of it all, given the training and time to learn how fun it can be, your dog tells you that it isn’t something he enjoys, well, you know what to do. Don’t bring that dog on the boat anymore. I know you wouldn’t do that to your best friend.

Training alternate species

For years training alternate species to dogs (and horses) has been on my list of things to do. Ages ago I was consulting a mentor about whether or not to go to Chicken Camp and she said that she went years ago and that “…honestly, you’re not going to learn anything much you don’t already know”. Since it costs a pretty penny, I rationalized with myself that just about anyone with chickens would be more than willing to let me mess around with training them (and probably ask if they could video, thinking that it’d be full of good laughs). I also thought about doing the Karen Pryor training academy program which involves training an alternate species…and I thought a hedgehog would be someone interesting to bring into the family. However, I have ethical issues with getting an animal just for sake of the class, and would not temporarily use an animal, that animal would have to become my permanent pet. And, to be honest, I don’t want too many pets. That’s a big reason why I train other people’s dogs for a living…to practice training without becoming the doglady with 10 dogs and piles of poop and fur everywhere and crazy hair ;P

Now just about everybody else who’s attended the chicken camp sings praises for it, so don’t be deterred in going after that program. And if you are new to operant conditioning, Karen Pryor will have you logging yourself to expert level, so don’t let my choice influence your decisions. But, above all, make sure you train more than your own best friend. Long ago, back when horseback riding was my pursuit, it was apparent that different horses are drastically to ride. What’s right for one is possibly totally wrong for another of the same species. Moving on to train alternate species with such a different perspective of the world is invaluable. Getting the timing and reward placement and other details correct is the only way you can achieve with an animal that won’t “rescue” you and make up for your errors.

I was fortunate enough this summer to get my hands on some chickens. Read about that under the title: Pecking Order (coming soon)

Here’s a brilliant clip of a father son team that trained a surprising alternate species:


Pecking Order

Training chickens holds a spot on my bucket list, so you can imagine how thrilled I was to house sit for a couple of weeks where these lovely ladies resided:

Della Della was careful and a little shySlinkySlinky, the most keen, quickly realized there were goods on offer and tried to help herself.PepperPepper, boss-lady, she’s no nonsense, looking to avoid trouble, and causing it!

And Brownie, my favorite, the 1st to figure out how to work the system.

Going into this there were many other priorities (you know, life responsibilities and whatnot) and it was actually only after a few days into my stay that I realized the opportunity to train an alternate species was before me. So, my first collection of training sessions where not half as efficient as they could have been. I was just feeling them out and beginning by creating a positive association with me and my ladle. Yes, ladle. At first I had to figure out how to deliver worms (I’m squeamish), and I thought setting it in a ladle would give the chickens a little buffer of distance, easing them into being comfortable near me, while keeping my hands off of those worms. Well, the ladle was kind of a joke. Not a terrible idea, but very clumsy and slow.

I should probably mention I know pretty much nothing about chickens, so these early stages were mostly an examination of chicken behavior. What kind of things does a chicken want, how does a chicken view the world, etc.

So we begin. Fascinatingly, the first chickens to arrive for “worm ala ladle” had such an advantage over the 3 and 4th to arrive. The 4th was unable to overcome suspicion (can you guess who that was?), and it was hard to try to get food to late-comers without the first 2 running in and scooping up the offer. And, comically, when a chicken would peck a worm, it would turn into dried worm shrapnel…which was useful as the other it attracted more chicken interest to the area, and I started to shift my focus from not touching the worms to trying to control the “reward grenade”.  It was a start, and I had a slight concern that I may turn these chickens into hounds that heel and beg and peck at me every time I’m in the yard.

Next up, I had to figure out better mechanics. In chicken camp, they use a measuring cup with a clicker attached to it. Unsure of how out-of-control things might get, I found a little lid to put over the top of the measuring cup (in chicken camp the chickens are isolated on tables and the trainer holds the cup to their chest/covers it with a hand and it’s hard for the chicken to steal more). In my situation, my chickens are on the ground and free, so I opted for a lid. The lid worked fine, was somewhat unnecessary (I could always have covered it with a hand or lifted it up out of reach (a strategy that I think is counterproductive with dogs and I rather train the dog so that the trainer can hold food in both hands at the ready to reward as immediately as possible following the behavior)), and I had bigger problems.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that they rather get “paid” in hundreds than pennies. I filled the measuring cup with cracked corn, their staple diet. They thought it was alright, and even let me click a clicker before courageously pecking at the cup, but I also brought out a higher value reinforcement: worms. Those were locked up in a plastic container, and when one did something exceptional, I took an age fishing out a worm to reward. Suddenly these chickens started learning what I was not trying to teach them, and a good lesson for me to work through because the same thing happens with dogs: they refused the cracked corn. Cracked corn was maybe a number 2 on their value scale, and worms are most likely a 10. Here’s where trainers would go different directions in response. Susan Garrett is all about working through “Don’t wanna, don’t hafta” moments. She is adamant about dogs being able to switch back and forth between rewards, from food to toys and back, between different values, switching from this toy to the next to the next and back. The dog is supposed to take what’s on offer, not refuse and pout and train the trainer to “pay” with better rewards.  I’m on board with some of this philosophy, but in this situation I haven’t developed any sort of work ethic, and adding more challenges (and difficult ones, at that) was premature. So at this stage, and since I never found half as much time and energy as I would have liked to work with these gals, I decided to just avoid putting them into that choice. I still brought both rewards out with me to the training area…just in case I wanted some flexibility. But, the bottom line is I needed to build more value for “trying things”, so I used the highest value reinforcer to start their training “career” ;). Had I worked with them longer, this would be a very interesting component to examine.

Next up, it became apparent that these chickens now needed to be separated for training. Observing the rank among them, it took me a minute to realize, duh, there’s a pecking order here. I never would dream of working multiple beginner dogs at the same time, their social concerns at best dilute, at worst eliminate learning (or teach something unwanted instead). I tried to manage it, by using a stick to create space between the chickens, block a pushy one while feeding another, but, as you may have guessed, these chickens don’t really give a care about what I want in this regard. It was slipping out of control while Slinky attempted to jump up and grab the rewards, Pepper was bullying her way forward at the last minute, just when I was about to deliver the worm to the correct chicken, so I finally got organized and figured out good mechanics/setup for my little experiment.

Setting up a chicken

Operant conditioning could be looked at as a set up. Remember Tom and Jerry and other cartoons that would lay out all these setups where the cat or dog would offer behavior that would get them trapped? Without sounding like I was trying to trick these chickens, what I needed to do was lay out the scene so that to be able to capitalize on what a chicken would possibly choose to do, being ready to reinforce as immediately as possible. It’s important to reward asap, because, although the clicker (or whatever marker you’re using) allows one to bridge the gap from the moment a behavior occurs to the instant you can deliver reinforcement, it just doesn’t work as well if you take too long, especially for subjects just beginning to learn how to learn.

First I had to separate the chickens, so that they could notice what I set out rather than be distracted by safety concerns (like pecking order). I let them choose, of their own volition, to enter a small fenced area with a gate/door. I set up a big x-pen and put in a low stool (a must for training long periods in order to save your back and posture), a target (a square of wood), my training treats (covered in a container), a clicker and positioned myself inside, seated, treats in hand, and waited. The chickens did not disappoint and every one of them wandered in (for which they were generously paid). As soon as one would step in the gate, I’d slowly close the gate behind her, and if 2 came in I’d wait until one left (I may have resorted to luring one out…but never in (there’s only so much time in a day and training entering the pen was not high on my list)).

Let me back up one quick sec and talk about what I decided to train these chickens to do, aside from walking into the training area. The very first task was to condition a marker (both verbal and a clicker), but, even more intently, I took every opportunity with an individual chicken to say her name before doling out rewards. The 1st step to training an animal to come when called is to create value for the recall word. This is a process that takes time and relationship to build and 2 weeks is an unrealistic time to achieve something like a complete recall, but, I figured, so long as I’m doling out rewards for just standing there, might as well get more bang for my buck and add associating their name to the reinforcement. The other more serious goal I decided on was a targeting behavior. Targeting is easy, and shaping pecking was far too easy. So my goal was for the chickens to stand on the target, not to scratch at it (scratching is also much easier).

The chickens were all at varying degrees of comfort and understanding about me and this whole “do something and get worms” thing. Beyond that and a good setup, it’s a waiting and good reflexes game. I made another huge error and I left the dogs loose to run around outside the pen. Mostly they were on long settle command, but it wasn’t just my own dogs and not everybody could heed voice commands, and I didn’t want to break off chicken training to reposition a dog. And it only takes a little safety concern of a dog wandering by too close to detrimentally interrupt a training session. Then it became a much longer waiting game, during which time I said to myself, “I know the next steps to take, do I really have enough time to work through those pieces?” Since my project list was chock full, I had to sadly limit the time I could dedicate to these feathery friends.

Now, I didn’t tell you about a major success I had on something like my 2nd attempt at working with the chickens, when they were all still in a big group. Brownie actually figured out to seek out the target, which I had lying on the ground with no real hopes for it but if a chicken wandered over it I’d jackpot. Well, she did more than just wander over it! She was able to learn not only to seek it out and touch it with her feet, but to also stand on it rather than scratch at it. It was almost just luck, although I did capture and select as best I could, and achieved much, much greater results than could be expected. I was not surprised that she couldn’t easily reproduce these results on subsequent tries. That’s a lesson in fluency. Although she was successfully doing the behavior, she didn’t really “know” the behavior, and I didn’t kid myself about it either. But she did “get it” for that session, and it only takes a few of those sessions for you to be able to ramp up the difficulty level. Someone calls this moment “the decision point”, I love this moment and require it (and seek to achieve it early on with a new behavior) but I’d call it comprehension, or simply, “getting it”. After that comes locking it in and expanding on the criteria until you achieve your terminal version of the behavior…that perfect execution. Then naming and then proofing, generalizing, and so forth. All of that takes a considerable investment of time, and I rather dedicate that love and care to my dogs (and my clients’ dogs). 

It was really fun to think like a chicken and figure out solve some training challenges. I eventually switched to using tweezers to deliver worms, they still exploded on impact, but that was kind of fun for everyone. Since the treat-delivering utensils were clumsy I had to verbally mark a lot in order to capture the right moment, and they picked up on that. I had varying levels of success. Since I wasn’t willing to invest more time, the chickens who took more time to learn to offer behavior were shaped to peck the target. I had varying degrees of success with the target/stand on mark behavior. Most of my setbacks were little things like a logistical failure…if a chicken got brushed by the fence, or a chicken outside pressured a chicken inside for a treat just out of reach, or worry when I shifted around over the top of them to close the gate, or a dog barks or wanders by and sticks his nose in the fence. While Slinky and Brownie both were offering foot targeting behaviors, it would take a bit more time to select out for a very strong stand on the mark along with seeking out the target in various locations. It was right around the corner but I had agility equipment that needed rubberizing, so, that’s all folks. Sorry there’s not cool video but I can’t bring myself to edit down the video I took. For heaven’s sake, I haven’t even watched all my videos of my live Rally-FrEe competition months ago, so, that’s all for now. If you haven’t read the first post of this story, read about how the pecking order impacted my approach, or check out this cool alternate species conversation. 

Does your dog truly understand? —An examination of fluency

“But he does it perfectly at home!”

We instructors hear this all the time. We know a lot of the obvious problems that the dog needs to work through. You have to teach a dog to generalize, work in distracting environments, etc. But there’s a lot more to training than that.

What I am just coming to appreciate is how imperative it is to develop behaviors to fluency before asking a dog to learn or do more: like perform chains of behavior, especially if the performance is at an event with environmental challenges.

What is fluency? Well, fluency is when your dog totally and completely knows the behavior. For example, I’m just polishing up the behavior of backing around me in a circle counterclockwise with my younger dog. This may be the fastest I’ve taught a new behavior yet. In a period of 3 short sessions one evening, I had Irie backing around me, weaned off of the dependency of the encircling gate I used to get the behavior started (with shaping), and was attaching the cue (saying the cue before she’d follow up with the behavior). In under 48 hours she had performed the behavior in no less than 5 different locations, was beginning to understand the verbal cue, and I was actually rewarding staying in heel more than circling back in an attempt to negate a tricky stimulus control problem of her sucking backwards in anticipation of backing around (which is inherently more fun because there’s a lot of movement to it).

By the next week, we worked hard on stimulus control. In a class we tested her. In a sort of ritualized way us humans tend to approach training, I took her out of a crate, walked up to the place on the floor we were going to work, and cued the behavior. She did it so I rewarded her and exited. Returning with the exact same set up, I tried to trick her by verbally cuing alternate behaviors, like spin, forward circle around, standing still in heel, sit, etc. No problem. It looks like she’s starting to get it.

“Starting to get it?” you may ask. Most people would say their dogs “knew” a behavior before even developing this level of proficiency. I, myself, have often moved on to the next new and exciting trick without completing training of the 1st behavior…with most of the things I taught!

But why does teaching a dog to truly understand matter? It is detrimental to your dog’s joy and confidence to suffer too much frustration and confusion. Even more so if you’re working with a dog that has any issues. What often happens is you put your dog in a position where she has to guess. This gets worse when you’ve trained more behaviors, because there are even more answers to chose between. I tormented one of my dogs by teaching him a whole slew of new tricks in a few months. It wasn’t so bad with the behaviors that looked really different, but, with the ones that I cued with a similar set up or body position, my poor dog got so confused he would just melt down. I thought it was just him. He was already a very aloof dog outside, a rescue that is hyper-prey focused. But the real problem was that he was being asked to discriminate between multiple behaviors that he hadn’t been given a chance to learn completely, one at a time.

Now, back to this idea of Irie just starting to get the back around. Yes, starting. She still needs to keep progressing to different set ups to proof her skill: to teach her to really know this behavior. Try cuing it without a ritual-like set up…like while walking along (in motion). Try changing your body position. Don’t be surprised if your dog has a complete melt down when you try to move into sitting on the floor and asking for the behavior. And the hardest, in my opinion, is counter motion from the handler. With this behavior, the hardest set up might be her circling backwards while I spin the opposite direction. I could also really challenge her by putting her favorite toys on the ground. Her herding qualities make staring at the toy so mesmerizing that she can barely process a command, especially if she’s off ahead of me lying down “eyeing” the toy.

I am so grateful to have known to work through these various contexts before moving on. Spend a number of training sessions teaching that it’s the same behavior when you start to change your body slowly from standing, to bending, to a crouch or sitting on the ground. You can incrementally go back to that upright position to help if your dog fails too much. Teach your dog to work around available reinforcement (zen bowls). Introduce distracting movements and actions (like clapping) from you. And only work on one direction at a time, treating the opposite direction as another behavior.

It isn’t until now that the truth of dogs knowing a behavior is coming to light. I realize that while Border Collies may have intensity, drive, and a great interest in training, many of them don’t suffer frustration well. While moving into a lower body position, poor little Irie got pretty frustrated. I’m sure glad that I was only working on that step, and not asking for her to do a bunch of other things she didn’t know well at the same time!

What a humbling experience to realize that most things we train have never been completely trained!