I had another good lesson today in Helpful Patterns and Unhelpful Patterns. Some days I drive my dogs somewhere to walk them and other days I will walk from home. On the days that I walk from home, some days I will take toys and other days I won’t. Some days I am just taking them to some of the green spaces in the residential areas for an opportunity to go to the toilet and have a quick leg stretch and other days we will have a longer, mainly on lead walk, joining up the green spaces where the can have a quick run around and sometimes I will play with them with their toys. Several months ago, due to injuries to both dogs, we had two or three months of lead only exercise with only pottering on the green spaces. Ragnar was on a flexi lead and harness for his pottering as he tends to charge around like a loon even in a small area. No toy play at all for that time. Unsurprisingly both dogs’ lead work improved as their expectation of doing anything exciting at the green spaces reduced. After about a month they were both really relaxed on the lead, walking around the streets and pottering happily on the green spaces.
Fast forward two months after both dogs are passed fit to play with toys and run around again with no restrictions. Muppet here has been very busy and so training has taken a back seat and I have lost my focus on lead walking and so ‘Surprise!’ things have started to drift and Ragnar especially has started to forge ahead and get very focused on reaching the green spaces because we regularly play there and that is his favourite activity. I have been ‘managing’ Ragnar by doing a bit of stopping, sometimes calling his name to get his attention and sometimes letting my criteria slide and letting him go to the end of the lead rather than station keeping at heel. It is only a body length but it makes all the difference. This morning I had some more space in my head and realised – another head slap moment – that I had again become destination focused and not journey focused. Big Fat Doh!!!!
I have become predictable and so Ragnar is anticipating excitement when we arrive at the green spaces and is rushing to get there. I have been reinforcing the rushing by continuing to walk and so I am getting more rushing, and so the vicious cycle continues.
Dogs will generally do what gets them what they want with the least amount of effort. Self-management takes effort and so if I allow Ragnar to get where he wants to go when he is not in the right frame of mind, I am undoing all the other work that I have been doing because he gets reinforced for rushing.
Dogs learn through patterns. Initially these patterns are helpful because it lets your dog work out how to earn their rewards. For example, if I put my bottom on the ground after I hear ‘SIT’ then I will get a treat. This is useful. Patterns very regularly then go on to become unhelpful as your dog starts to anticipate that you will give a cue after certain things have happened. A classic example of this is retrieving. Your dog learns that after someone has thrown out a dummy you will then give them their retrieve cue and they will then go and get the dummy and return it to you (hopefully!). This is when steadiness will start to deteriorate. Your dog will anticipate the cue and go before you have sent them.
In order to preserve our dog’s ability to wait to go until told we need to recognise when our dog has passed from the learning phase into the generalising and proofing stages. At this point we need to add in many variations to the pattern so that our dogs learn that the only time that they can expect to get rewarded for a behaviour is after you have given the cue.
So, this means that we have to be willing to change the focus of our training at any point when we realise that our dog is beginning to anticipate what we are going to do.
I left the house this morning with an aim to get to a certain green space where I could work on some hunting and steadiness exercises with the dogs. When Ragnar was rushing again, I started to realise that it was more important to address the lead work and what that was telling me about Ragnar’s state of mind rather than to get to a certain area within the allotted time. So, today’s training consisted of walking about 10-15m forward then turning around and going back the same way, and repeating this short piece of our journey until Ragnar was relaxed and walking next to me and could take a treat and occasionally check in with me. We would then progress onto the next piece of our journey. Inevitably we didn’t make it to my original destination, however, we did make some good progress on the lead work and I played with the toys at a green space, where I don’t normally play, when Ragnar had settled and done some nice lead work. So, my task for the foreseeable is to be predictably unpredictable! If Ragnar is relaxed and not anticipating and rushing, then we will play. If he is rushing then we will just turn around and go back the way we came.
Looking short term this is possibly going to be very boring, but looking at the long-term picture I can see that it is teaching him a life skill. Anticipation and not self-managing means that the good stuff does not materialise. It is all interconnected and dealing with these seemingly small details builds up a picture for Ragnar about how best to earn his opportunity to work.
I am now realising that rushing on the lead when on our way somewhere is the precursor to squeaking in the Beaters Wagon on a shoot. They both have their root in pushing me to get to ‘work’, and so I need to be sooooo aware of this in all my training with Ragnar. I have to be willing to sacrifice the ‘doing’ training in the short term to teach self-management and patience, for both of us, so that in the long-term Ragnar will have the foundation he needs to be able to go into an exciting situation and not switch on until I tell him to.