Instruction Perspectives ~ Advanced Classes

Friday, April 01, 2016 12:30 AM | Front & Finish (Administrator)

Usually obedience training begins as a necessity, and evolves into a social activity, and for some, an art form. But without efficacy at the foundation levels, the fun part of the advanced competition classes and the evolution of the artistry is not possible.

Extremes in the spectrum of training methods is a problem in our sport. In the name of motivational training, with the goal of extreme precision displayed in extreme states of excitement and speed, many folks, including myself for a while, hopped on the pure positive bandwagon. If training is really fun, the dog will always want to perform correctly, right? And it IS fun to train that way. But all too frequently, trainers find after a while that they have dogs who are generally very responsive to a long list of cues in a controlled training setting, but don’t necessarily have dogs who are, you know, obedient! Or stable in public settings. Or reliable around distractions. Or attentive at all if they didn’t see visible signs of treats or toys. Many frustrated competition obedience trainers today believe that if they are permissive and affectionate with their dogs 23.5 hours a day, their dogs will reward them with cooperation during 5 minutes in a competition ring, and the bargain isn’t working consistently enough to consider the approach entirely successful. It’s an approach that has MANY potential trainer errors and information holes, and while people will argue that at least the errors are not hurting dogs, at some point frustration for potential competition trainers begins to make training NOT fun for the owners, because they are not getting the expected results. If they are given help to find the balance they need to achieve greater clarity and reliability, they become addicted to the wonders of training. If they don’t get that help, they disappear from the sport. And they blame the SPORT rather than the holes in their training approach. As instructors, we should be able to offer that balance.

Instructors ideally need to be at least passingly familiar with many different ways to train skills, and prepared to deal with dogs of varied temperaments, innate talents, and their handlers of equally varied skill levels, goals, work ethic, and philosophy. Inclusiveness is important to our sport. While I am not a clicker trainer, I have experience with the theory and, indeed, use verbal markers with the same timing and intentions for marking correct behaviors. I have class students who like to use clickers. My job is to help them identify needed improvements in their dogs’ skill sets. By the same token, if somebody is effectively using an electric collar or a prong collar, s/he is welcome to come to class and use those tools. I am familiar with the tools technically, and I’m happy to discuss why with anyone who asks , and explain under what conditions I support the use of those tools. I will also tell the trainers if I think there need to be changes in how they use the tools, or if perhaps I think there might be times that neither sort of tool is helpful in the particular situation.

In advanced classes where dogs are beginning to do some work off leash, it’s important for instructors to ask questions and give guidance that will help each trainer make controlled progress, as well as keep all other class members safe. When somebody new comes to a class and walks up to do a recall that everyone else has been doing off leash, and the person says, “I don’t know if he’ll do this,” it is the instructor’s job to say, “Well let’s make sure he does.” Maybe that will be several on-leash recalls rather than one long off-leash one, and if that goes well, it might be a basis for allowing a half length off-leash recall the next time. Maybe it’s an opportunity to remind people how to handle a long line or a Flexi. People need to know that just because some folks do stays from across the room doesn’t mean that others are required to do the same when their dogs really don’t have the duration or distance tolerance or distraction resistance skills to succeed at that yet. Help them understand the progression and work with their dogs’ current skill levels, rather than let their dogs make repeated mistakes.

Our sport also has factions with diverse opinions about heeling. As an instructor, it’s important to be clear on what is required by the regulations, and what is a stylistic choice. Heads-up heeling with high prancing is pretty, but you don’t get extra points for it; and for some dogs, physically it is not practical or even possible. (I know that some of you won’t believe me about that, but some well-respected veterinarians who also train dogs agree.) However, attention can be taught at more natural head postures. If a student wants to try for the high head carriage, great; but people who achieve accurate heeling without it should not be made to feel that they are less successful. And probably it would be good to do some studying of canine structure so that as an instructor, you can evaluate whether or not a dog who is resistant to that posture perhaps has a good reason for it, and save the dog and handler unnecessary frustrations with each other.

A hot spot in our sport is the retrieve. Personally, I’m familiar with the Koehler method, several field training progressions, and shaping. I’ve used aspects of and variations on all of them over the years. But new trainers hear the words “Forced fetch” and “ear pinch” used as the names of methods, and without knowing any details at all, they sometimes decide that they will not be doing those things with their dogs. Those of us who understand the many steps in structured retrieve programs are desensitized to the words. But instructors need to consider the unspoken fears the words instill in the inexperienced folks. And I believe we all need to become familiar with more than one means of teaching people, even if we have one method that we are personally loyal to because it has always worked. Some people in our sport react with just as much negativity to the words “shaped retrieve”. And having done both, I can say that a shaped retrieve CAN be just as accurate and just as reliable as a forced retrieve. Even the common complaints of mouthing or pouncing that I hear folks state as reasons they won’t do shaped retrieves are preventable or quickly fixable once the basic retrieve is established. (Hint: Condition stillness as the decision that levitates food, and don’t do immediate trades of food for the dumbbell being spit out once the dog has learned to deliver to front.) Also, while some of us choose to use shaping to teach the topography of the exercise, that does not preclude the use of more familiar corrections to deal with lack of effort as a dog attains a level of skill where the choices he makes are more obvious. We don’t often think of marketing so much in our sport, but we should. So even if YOU choose to do a force fetch program of some sort, call it something else, like a structured retrieve, so that you can motivate an open mind. And if you have a student who still has reservations, do you really need to give the “my way or the highway” speech, or can you accurately teach the shaping progression to install the skills, and then discuss corrections when they are actually needed? The more generous decision could make the difference between that person staying in the sport or moving on to some other sport where conversations often are filled with nasty comments about obedience. 

At all levels of classes, there is one underlying truth: If the dog is not focused or the dog has not been taught ALL of the pieces of an exercise, real success is not possible. Focus and effort must be happening for progress to occur. Share this secret with your less experienced class members and teach them about the little details that make obedience beautiful. For example, show people how to reward attention in motion, not just sitting in heel position. Show them how to randomize skills to motivate working attention and interest, rather than just repeat exercises every week. Show them what the details lead into for the future. As an example, you know that in utility a great directed retrieve starts with a focused turn that ends up with the dog correctly lined up facing the correct glove. So introduce the pivot turns to your novice folks as part of heeling refinement. Talk about the attention before the turn, the unified take off, and unison in MOTION, not just a straight sit at the end of the turn. People who learn to pay attention to such details find that their training gets easier as they advance through Open and Utility. They won’t all pay attention to what you say, at least not the first time; but at least when they finally go to a seminar and hear the same thing from Prominent Trainer, and the light bulb goes on, it will be because the information is familiar and they are ready to embrace its usefulness.

Show people how to break advanced exercises down and teach all of the pieces, as for the Drop on Recall. If a dog can’t do a stationary drop at 25 feet, odds are that a drop in motion will not happen either. Ask people the question: Can your dog do that stationary drop? How about if you ONLY use a command? How about if you ONLY use a signal? When the answer is no to any of those questions, it’s an opportunity to isolate that skill for the student or perhaps for the class at large. It’s also an opening to discuss the importance of command discrimination. Maybe everyone could use some work on the down and sit skills at varying distances, or in the face of distractions. People often don’t think to isolate skills for distance and distraction work; they just keep trying to practice the “exercises” without thoroughly training the DOGS. A good instructor can see this and offer guidance.

Help people see both the uses and the pitfalls of props. If you put a board down and have the dog drop behind the board for either the DOR or signals, is the dog learning to do the drop correctly in response to the handler’s cue, or is the dog responding to the board? This kind of approach achieves the appearance of progress in a class setting, and can certainly help people do a better job of timing their information; but some of them cheat their timing and give commands for the drop way early, but allow creeping forward so long as the down happens behind the board. When using front chutes or platforms, are the dogs ALSO learning to target visually on the handler, or are some looking down at the props rather than aligning on their handlers? A good instructor has to spot that and fix it. Then at some point, each team has to face the question: Can the dog do the exercise without the boards down? A lot of them will be successful. Some will not because of how the dogs perceived the importance of the props as targets or as part of the cue set. What missing piece of the puzzle will you need to give them?

In utility classes, it’s useful to focus on just one or two exercises so that the details can be assessed and improved. How good is the attention from the dog as the handler is walking away on signals? How good is the focus from the dog while the handler is scenting an article, and then waiting for the command to send the dog? How good are the turns on articles and gloves? How accurate is the directional signal for the glove, or are you seeing vague swooshes that make correct retrieves more luck than skill? What is the communication system before and during go outs? Is the handler giving the dog EVERY bit of information allowed in the ring about what he’s doing and where he should go? What task has been taught for the go out, and does it appear to the dog to be viable in the ring to prevent the dog from hunting for targets that don’t exist? If the dog is being sent to a platform or a box for the purpose of developing a tight sit, is there a back up task also being taught so that the box is not the focus of the task in the dog’s mind? So many little details…but also so much fun to train if you know what to do, and the keys to more clarity for the dogs, and more success overall.

Next time... some thoughts on teaching Rally classes.

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