30 August 2010

Dog agility ~ It's not just a collie thing

What do you picture when you think of dog agility?  Crazy collies racing over hurdles at warp speed, their handlers barking out commands as they try and keep up?  Ever picture a 35kg Labrador doing it?  Cue Beau ...

The hurdles and tyre jump are homemade.  For instructions on how to make simple jumps and hurdles see here ... http://www.agilitybits.co.uk/Equipment/equip_index.html

I used 2"x2" lengths of wood fixed together with screws rather than nails so the hurdles and tyre jump are really sturdy.  The tyre jump is my own design and can be raised and lowered.

Food bowls are boring! Cue Tilly ...

When we're not trick training, this is how Tilly has her breakfast ... 


The video has been edited to less than 2 minutes long as it actually takes her about 10 minutes to empty the Dog Pyramid - a tough plastic food dispenser toy that has a weighted base, making it easy for the dog to control, but unpredictable enough to keep it interesting!

29 August 2010

Leadership ~ What does it mean?

'Leadership' has become a popular doggy buzzword in recent years, however, I find that it's a word whose meaning continues to be misunderstood by many people.  Owners of unruly pooches are frequently told that their dogs 'lack leadership', however, it's often the trainer's explanation of leadership that is equally lacking.  The result is usually an even more confused dog, and after an initial self-esteem boost, an owner who feels as though they are constantly 'battling' to keep their dog's mis-behaviour in check. 

It's important to realise here that our dogs are not on a never-ending quest to take over the world.  So many unruly behaviours are mis-labelled as 'dominant', whereas in actual fact for the most part they are expressions of a dog's confusion, anxiety, frustration, excitement or stress.   

To truly grasp what leadership is, it's important to realise what leadership is not.  Leadership isn't about taking care of a dog's needs - that's just being a responsible and caring dog owner.  Leadership isn't about 'controlling resources', 'having the upper hand' or 'putting a dog in its place'.  Neither is it forcing a dog to yield to human authority, for example, 'correcting' a dog's behaviour or making a dog give up right of way through doorways.  These are all dominance-related activities, and dominant-subordinate interaction is about 'can't do' and 'mustn't do' with the purpose of setting social boundaries and limiting behaviour.  Dominant-subordinate interaction is not leadership, and too much of it results in a dog that either gets trapped in a cycle of anxiety and frustration and becomes even more unruly as it tries harder and harder to interact, or a dog that simply gives up trying to interact and shuts down because either its efforts always fail, or they are met with hostility.  Leadership has nothing to do with eating before your dog eats, or being 'the alpha' or 'the pack leader' either, in fact these things don't even fall under dominant-subordinate interaction, but that's a whole other topic.  

And so to what leadership is ... 

In contrast to dominant-subordinate interaction is leader-follower interaction.  Leader-follower interaction defines what a dog can and may do. 

What leadership means in relation to our interaction with our dogs is to provide direction, to show and teach them what they are allowed to do, guide them towards what they can and may do instead of engaging in nuisance-type behaviours such as jumping up, biting on hands, pulling on the lead, barking, or barging through doorways.  And 'do' is an important word here - it's not enough to say 'I want my dog to stop barking' or 'I want my dog to not jump up' or 'not pull on the lead' - leadership is about teaching them what we want them to do instead, not what we want them not to do. 

Leadership requires concerted and constructive effort on our part, and involves us prompting and coordinating friendly social interaction, activities and behaviours that bring beneficial results both to us as leaders and to our dogs as followers.  It's about quality of life and enriching the  bond that we have with our dogs.  

Leadership requires us to communicate clearly and compassionately with our dogs, to be patient and tolerant while our dogs are learning to follow and trust our direction, and above all, to remember that we are on the same team as our dogs - always.

26 August 2010

'The Gambling Effect' ~ How to keep your dog addicted to training ...

If, like me, you have ever found yourself standing in front of a slot machine, losing game after game but still continuing to feed in your money in the hope that Lady Luck is smiling favourably upon you and that on your next go, the machine is sure to pay out - just like it did 10 minutes ago - you'll understand what I mean by the gambling effect.  Because we won something once, we are prepared to continue our efforts and put up with getting nothing, time after time, for the chance of winning again - maybe even hitting the jackpot.

If after a while we haven't had a win, we might decide to cut our losses and give up.  The chances are though that the next time we and the slot machine are together in the same room - even if this happens a few weeks later - we'll be flash with our cash and play it again because it's our wins that we remember, not all the countless games that we lost.  This is because when we have a win, a big release of the neuro-hormone, dopamine, floods our brain.  Dopamine is the stuff of desire, of want and addiction, and it's what keeps us feeding that slot machine in the hope that it'll pay out again soon ... and so long as we get an occasional payout, we'll keep putting our efforts into winning even though overall, we have probably lost more money than we have gained.

We can apply the principle of 'the gambling effect' with our dogs too.  I don't mean that we can train them to play the slot machines for us while we sit and chill with a beer and then collect our winnings at the end of the evening ... although that would be pretty cool ... no, I mean that when our dogs receive something really rewarding, the same thing happens in their brain as it does in ours - dopamine is released, and what the dog was doing immediately before the reward is likely to be repeated in order for that reward to occur again.  The trouble with using rewards such as food tit-bits in training is that the value of the reward decreases if it occurs every time - or rather the 'desire' for the reward lessens.  The desire for the reward hinges on its unpredictability, and once a reward has become predictable its value goes down.  In the presence of other rewards that don't occur very often, that once high-value reward is next to worthless, and no longer worth the effort to try and obtain unless there is nothing better on offer.  At the other end of the scale from this, efforts made to obtain a previously once-gotten reward that consistently end in failure result in the 'why bother effect', and effort ceases completely.

Using the gambling effect to keep the value of a reward high, and so the chances of the effort required to obtain that reward high also, involves making the occurrence of the reward unpredictable.  Not giving the reward every time our dogs do as we ask is difficult.  We want to reward them because we want them to repeat that behaviour the next time we ask for it, however, what happens then is that we, not our dogs, fall under the influence of the gambling effect, and it is we who end up holding out for the desired behaviour, rather than our dogs holding out for the reward. 

Once we are sure that our dogs have learned a new behaviour - which usually happens after only a few repetitions, sometimes even upon the first go if our timing is spot on - we need that behaviour to become a habit and so for a while, we need to reward it every time it occurs.  Once the behaviour has become a habit then we need to start making the reward unpredictable, which means not paying out every time our dogs put the effort in.  We can still give a cheery 'good dog!' if it makes us feel better, but the reward that we have used to train the behaviour in the first place needs to be saved for another time.  So long as that reward does happen from time to time in the near rather than the distant future when the behaviour is repeated, and occasionally the reward is even better than expected, it will remain desirable and therefore worth the effort of our dogs doing what it takes in order to obtain it.

23 August 2010

First post

It's taken me most of the evening to set up this blog ... so many design options and gadgets to choose from!  My dogs - Tilly, Labrador x terrier (pictured right, except she's not a Lab x terrier as I have since found out, see this post) and Beau, Labrador (pictured left) - will soon be letting me know that's it time for them to go out into the garden and chase the frogs around the paddling pool ... so more from me another day.