Tuesday, October 1, 2013

All Roads Lead to...

...where, exactly?

Recently I started a new training class -- the same one that I talked about in a previous post -- and while I'm still of mixed emotions here (so far it's not that bad, although I will admit to feeling a pang of alarm when the instructor said that we'd only be using clickers for about a month because she didn't see any value to them after that... oof), I'm trying to do the exercises with an open mind, at least for as long as I can.

We are, as I'd expected, spending a lot of time pushing and prodding dogs into place. So far Pongu is tolerating it pretty well; he's clearly puzzled by the whole endeavor, but he trusts me and is doing his level best to cooperate with what he understands the exercises to be.

Currently we're working on position changes: Sit, Stand, Down. The emphasis is on moving the dog (not allowing the dog to move itself) in such a way that all the position changes leave the dog perfectly in Heel position. Tuck Sit, fold-back Down, kick-back Stand.

This is important because, as demonstrated in this clip I made a really long time ago with Crookytail, the other versions of these movements will pull a dog out of Heel position very quickly. This is a Bad Thing in competition obedience, at least if you care about getting high scores.

There are a number of ways to teach these movements to achieve the same goal, though. With Pongu, I originally taught them using a platform and foot target:

Doing it this way can be slower up front. You have to teach the dog to balance on the platform and keep his front feet on the target. Then you have to teach him to move through the desired position changes while maintaining his footing on the platform and target.

If you do it with the push-and-pull method, there's no delay to get those extra foundations in place; the Sit-Stand-Down sequence is the foundation.

So at the outset it might look like doing it the "hands off" way with the platforms and foot targets is the roundabout inefficient way of doing things. Assuming that you're being careful about not actually hurting or worrying your dog with the physical manipulation method, why not use the faster technique?

Three reasons spring to mind:

First, while the platforms are slower up front, I am inclined to think that they save time in the long run, because you can use those same foundations for pivot work and balance/core conditioning exercises and tons upon tons of tricks. Some of those extras will help you in the competition obedience ring and some might not, but we don't (I hope) just have dogs so we can teach them only the Novice-through-Utility exercises and then nothing else ever for the rest of their lives. A dog who has learned to think creatively, and not just let himself be passively guided into positions, is much more fun for me to train over the long haul.

Second, because I think the dog internalizes and retains these lessons better when it's making its own decisions and coming to its own understanding of what is wanted. It's the same argument that applies to free-shaped behaviors vs. lured ones: yes, it might take a little longer to install early on, but the dog really understands what is wanted, and so retention is much stronger (not a small consideration when you're planning to ask for these behaviors amid the stress of a trial environment). I don't actually know whether this one is true, but I'll be watching to see whether my guess is right.

And third, because as I observed during that first introductory class, a lot of people aren't that careful about respecting their dogs' comfort levels. They may want to be, but in the hurry of a crowded, fast-paced class, a lot of novice handlers with novice dogs get flustered and frustrated (I know I did, before I learned to accept that sometimes we're just going to be behind the rest of the class and that's okay). Unable to guide their dogs gently into position, and seeing everyone else doing "better," they resort to ever-greater measures of force to bend their dogs into compliance.

It makes me uncomfortable to watch somebody handling a four-month-old puppy like an Ikea table that isn't coming together right. I know I get mad enough to just bang things either together or into pieces, and by the time I reach that level of frustration, I don't even care which it is anymore (one of several reasons why assemble-it-yourself furniture is a no-go in this household). But I'm not doing that with a puppy. Not when the failure is my fault, not his. Not over a silly game that we're supposed to be playing together for fun.

Ultimately, it should be possible for someone to get the same behavior by either method. I think that the methods used in this class are probably easier for a novice in some ways. But at the same time, I think they are harder on (not necessarily for, but on) the dogs, and that's not a tradeoff I'm willing to make.

All roads may lead to Rome, but some charge tolls that I'm not paying.

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