Preparations for Obedience Trials

Several people have asked me to give more details on my training with Vito.  So this has been my long plan with The Toller to get him back in to the AKC obedience ring.  Written in a rough order of our progress, but often we are working on several at once.  My goal for Vito is joy.  "The utmost in 
willingness, enjoyment and precision."

1. Increase personal play
We've been working on this for quite a while now.  Vito has been difficult for me to figure out what type of play he likes.  Too much pressure can shut him down.  Chasing me games can be fun, but I have to be very careful not to get too far ahead as he doesn't recover well from lagging.

So far our play is a combination of building value for hand touches (not a natural motivator for Vito), me quickly stepping backwards and letting him jump on me (he loves the release in pressure), butt scratches, and his favorite trick the reverse chest vault.  Other options I'm working on building value for are very gentle pushes, releases to go out around a pole or other object and then catching up to me, and spins during heeling.  We didn't really make the progress I wanted to see with this focal point until I started to address point #3 below...

2. Self control around food and toys
My dogs have quite a bit of impulse control training from early on.  Vito has always done very well with leaving both food/toys/objects on the ground that he will never be released to and with leaving his eventual reward.  All of this training is done without using any sort of verbal cue such as leave it as I don't want my dogs thinking that something is fair game if they see it before I do.
More thoughts written here on focus around food.

The later is definitely harder which is why I tell my puppy students to do way more training of always handing a different reward from their hand versus letting the dog be released to it.  And while I consider Vito to have a low work ethic, he is a very obsessive dog.  Knowing he's not going to get it is one thing, but knowing the toy will be his reward is another.  Puppy Vito took months and months of work on not Toller Screaming for a ball.  Now days he's pretty good if I have the ball, but not so good with anyone else.
We are also making considerable practice on heeling with his ball on the ground.  We're to the point where eye flicks do not go un addressed and our biggest work is on maintaining focus between exercise set ups.

3. Choosing to work, and with full effort/ Ring entrances
The meat of our issue.  As readers know, this was something I didn't realize was a problem for us until it was pretty darn bad.  We also likely had the added difficulty of Vito's anxiety medications lowering his already poor work drive (at the time he was on Xanax which really was not a good fit for Vito) and his need to check out the environment for safety concerns.

The issue was Vito choosing to work with me with his full focus and effort.  Vito could/can be very slow to turn on and even slower to give me that intensity I want in our work together.  At the time I was skirting around that issue by using Vito's obsessiveness to my advantage.  Appearance of his favorite treats or a fun toy was absolutely needed to get him to focus on me instead of the environment.  At the time I didn't see it as much of an issue.  I was just getting him warmed up, heating the porridge.  But in the process not only was I expanding way more energy than my dog, but I was also lowering the value of our personal play, and teaching him that I would bring Disneyland to him versus him actually getting off the couch and walking in with me together.

Revolution on this point was almost 2 years ago thanks to a lesson with Nancy Little.  And a very, very, long road of figuring out how to apply it.  Mainly I started with Ring Entrances.  A combination of the idea that the ring was our Disney World, and the idea that he had to enter with full engagement.  We spent a lot of time entering that ring and immediately exiting if he didn't meet my criteria.  Of course criteria at the beginning was one step in the ring with full focus on me, then party.  Lots, and lots of exiting.  Seriously.  Now I'm happy to say that he really understands the criteria on entering the ring, setting up for that first exercise (usually heeling first as a way to gauge him), and now transitions to other exercises.  There are still times I need to leave the ring, especially when in a new place.  I will never force my dog to play with me, so if he doesn't want to then we just leave.  At this point I can usually try again immediately, but in the beginning I would wait outside the ring until he offered focus.  If he kept up engagement while I asked Vito if he was ready, we would try again.  Repeat.
This is pretty early on in our journey, but past the hardest initial work. I'm working on entrance, leash off (I now have eye contact criteria there too), and running to new setup spots:
Food was still on my body and I am still putting out a ton of energy.  That day I didn't need to do any immediate exits.  In the beginning I also used a low to moderate value reward (which for Vito was kibble or packaged dog treats) so that I could really focus on engagement first, reward second.

4. New locations
Going somewhere new and starting over.  This is something that I haven't put a lot of effort into doing and one I know that is highly important for him.  I was putting a higher priority on it this fall and we made a lot of progress very quickly.  Then winter hit and playing outside was no longer an option.  I do try and take advantage of Vito always coming with to Lance's trials by utilizing the warm up ring if there is one, or at least respectfully playing in any open space I can find.

The hard thing is still holding criteria high on what is important for Vito.  For us, that means no showing upfront the reward, and once we begin work his focus has to remain.  In the beginning rewards were plentiful.  And I also spent a lot of time just standing in one place outside of the ring, whether it was a real ring or just a predefined area of grass.  See the above notes on doing lots of nothing because he simply wasn't ready to work.

5. Jackpot training
Since Vito is no where near ready to work just for the sake of playing with me, we have started some jackpot style training.  Nothing real systematic and formal.  Once Vito decides he is ready to play with me, I show him his reward and place it on a chair or shelf right outside the ring.  Eventually the reward will be back at his crate.  Then we go the ring and play.  The hard part for Vito is his obsessive nature, but the work we have been doing above in part 2 laid most of the ground rules.  In many ways this training is WAY easier then our previous work on engagement from the start.  While I'm still asking Vito to work with me without getting him revved up with food and toys, he can see the reward he can get before we actually go in the ring.  Basically I'm just asking him for more and more work before I reward him, sometimes doing an easy rep.  Transitions are harder as of course he sometimes thinks my praise means he gets his toy.  But we're working on doing his personal play as a reward and I am trying hard to make sure that it's actually some what fun even if it pails in comparison to his jackpot.

Actual release to the jackpot is something I'm still figuring out with him.  Currently, I'm requiring Vito to move with me to the exit of the ring and he's not allowed to spring there on his own.  I put on the leash and at this point I'm leaving him in a sit while I grab the reward and bring it to him.  I'm still wanting to the actual jackpot to be done inside the ring at this point.

6. The exercises themselves
Other than some training with Vito's food inside the house, he has extremely little training on the obedience exercises themselves.  Seriously.  ALL of our work at the obedience club and in other locations has been on engagement with me and monitored through heeling.  I chose heeling because it is the staple of obedience, easiest to judge his focus level as it requires 100%, easiest to apply little games to and smoothly transition back, and I just love it.

Now Vito has had an introduction to every single obedience exercise since he was a puppy.  He has not been trained to proficiency, but at least knows what I'm asking for.  Utility exercises are the weakest as they require the most confidence.

It's only in the last month or so that I've actually been stepping up his obedience training at home and actually doing some at the club.  The reason that I wanted to wait until now to bring it back is because the root of our problem had nothing to do with the obedience exercises themselves.  Attitude first, precision second.  I also knew that re-focusing on the exercises is drastically increasing the number of rewards he is getting during his obedience training and I didn't want to fall back into the huge hole I dug earlier.  So now when we're away from home but in a well known location, I focus first on jackpot style training, and then fall back on bringing the rewards in the ring for the other exercises.  So much fun to get back to it!

andrea  – ( February 8, 2014 at 5:51 PM )  

always love reading what you guys are up to - great plan - looking forward to watching the results :D

Lynnda L in Mpls  – ( February 9, 2014 at 1:51 AM )  

You betcha -- Attitude first! Cuz if you don't have Attitude, you'll never get your competition goals like Precision. [as well, losing dog attitude is verrrry demotivating for the handler.]
I hope Vito's perscription(s) get all sorted out.

Muttsandaklutz  – ( February 9, 2014 at 8:06 PM )  

First, THANK YOU for this post -- LOVED IT!

I've noticed his chest vault in several of your videos -- he especially seems to love doing that and it's pretty neat to watch :)

When you talk about building value for things like gentle pushes, spins, etc., can I ask what approach you use to build that value? e.g. rewarding it with something... with what? praise? personal play? something external? a combo of the above? I find it hard to build value for a trick (e.g. spinning) where my dog in the end finds joy in doing the trick itself. I usually end up with "ok now where's my treat"?

So so much in this post, great ideas for things to do and work on. I will definitely be referring back to it. Thanks again.

Laura, Lance, and Vito  – ( February 9, 2014 at 8:39 PM )  

That is a very good question and one that I don't think I've formally thought about. Short answer is yes, a combination :) Long rambly answer I'm making up below:

I make sure that when I'm training my dog, once they're past the initial learning phase, I use a ton of praise and excitement before ever handing over a cookie or toy. My dogs better know they're geniuses from my voice and body. And when handing over the food I try to do so in an interactive way as much as possible- whether that's jumping on me for treat while I pet with the free hand, or chasing the treat like it's a toy back and forth on the ground.

Secondly, a lot of the time I try and smoothly transition the personal play I'm trying to build value for (plus tons of praise) back to work. So there's no time for the dog to wonder where their cookie is. And usually the trick can be followed by me running away from the dog/backing quickly away which movement is somewhat of a natural reinforcer to dogs.

The things I'm trying to build value for with Vito are all things that either involve movement or oppositional reflex moves. He isn't much of a jumper or spinner, but it's a ton easier to build value for high hand touches and spins then it is to build value for a bow or wave. Of course some dogs just really love certain tricks.

You can start by substituting a "game" about half the time you feel the urge to feed a cookie in your training. While it drops the external reward rate in half, usually attitude is much higher.

Jenna Z  – ( February 10, 2014 at 10:51 AM )  

Awesome post with a lot of meat! What is your ultimate goal for Vito? Do you think that formal obedience training is also helping in everyday life situations? I ask because there are times when, if I really sat down and thought about what Dot wanted most, going into the obedience ring would not be high on the list. And yet I'm still doing it, for now. Do you consider not continuing or do you think it's beneficial to Vito in other aspects of life?

Laura, Lance, and Vito  – ( February 10, 2014 at 1:04 PM )  

No I don't think formal obedience training is of any benefit in his every day life. My dogs are pretty much allowed to be hooligans at home as long as they respect the few rules I have :)

But I like training obedience. And I like competing as a concrete way to measure progress. Obedience is not naturally high on his list but as I take care of his long list of needs I figure he can throw me a favor. and I sure try very very hard to make it worthwhile for him. I will be ok if we never make it back to the AKC obedience ring but I sure am going to try, for my sake.

I know that if I suddenly stopped training obedience with him it is likely that our relationship would take a small hit. Training for a sport forces me to take time out of my day for having fun with just that dog. Otherwise it's all too easy to be lazy

Laura, Lance, and Vito  – ( February 10, 2014 at 1:06 PM )  

Oh my ultimate goal with him? I would love to get his AKC CD and UD titles. I don't see him ever having the stamina to go further for a UDX and OTCH. But at the very least I'll have a backyard champion!

Muttsandaklutz  – ( February 22, 2014 at 11:47 PM )  

Woops, somehow I didn't see your answer to my question until now. Great answer! "once they're past the initial learning phase, I use a ton of praise and excitement before ever handing over a cookie or toy" -- love this! Will definitely start doing this as well.

Thanks again for taking the time to share all this info!

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