Animal training – knowing when to take a step back

There are some days when I set out to work with one of the animals, and from the start I can just tell it isn’t going to work. It could be that they aren’t listening, they’re tired or just simply not in the mood for training – for example some days when I go into the aviary, Beaky (my cockatiel) will come over to say hello and will be very cooperative… whereas sometimes I simply get hissed at as he retreats into a corner. Recognising the signs and being able to take a step back for a little while is essential to successful training: to continue to push and ask the animal will only result in frustration, a loss of confidence and a lack of enthusiasm in the next session.

I would like to think that I am respectful of my animals’ feelings, and Rusty’s agility training is always centred around her having a good time. If I introduce a new challenge, I alternate between that and something that she finds fun and easy. If she starts to get tired, I get her to lie down and have a breather. We don’t train for hours on end: I always stop before she loses interest, to keep her keen for the next session.

Recently however we had one training session that really didn’t work out, and I thought that I would share the experience (and my mistakes).

Due to me being so busy, Rusty and I hadn’t practised agility for some time. This had been a recurring theme over the summer, and every time I had brought out the obstacles she had flown around them as if she’d never had a break.

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With this in mind, I set up a new challenge that would really require Rusty to concentrate and listen to me. I wanted (and still want to) teach her to differentiate between obstacles as she is running, so I placed a tunnel and jump side by side so that I could start teaching her to take the one I gave the command for.

Rusty was very excited to see the agility obstacles out again, and I noticed that once I brought a toy into the situation (as I always do – she picks up speed when I have it) she became very wound up, leaping up at me to grab it and not bringing it back straight away after it had been thrown.

To begin with I warmed her up with each obstacle and she did them perfectly. Then I took her through the weaves and then chose either the jump or the tunnel – making sure I was handling her from the side that the selected obstacle was on so that she took the correct one.

The next step was to stand in between the obstacles and call her to one of them (I chose the tunnel more often because she prefers the jump and will always take it if given a choice).

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Until this point things were working well, but it was at this point that I should have recognised that she had already been stretched mentally and would either need a break or something easier to do. Instead, I carried on and began to move further from the obstacles whilst giving the same commands. 

Rusty became very confused and after me asking her a few times she started to become a little demotivated. She was still very focused at this point, watching me carefully to try to figure out what I wanted – but she was still hyper from the excitement of it all.

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I returned to standing in between the obstacles but she was very worked up and would no longer run through the tunnel, instead flinging herself over the jump a couple of times each way!

Again, I should have given her some release here, but I continued to ask and this resulted in Rusty trying to jump over the tunnel, causing her to stumble over. I felt awful about this, but she was up on her feet again and coming back to me as if nothing had happened before I even had chance to do anything.

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I slowed down and asked for her to go through the tunnel one more time (with more of a run up and handling her from the other side to remove the confusion) and she went, earning lots of praise and treats from me.

I then lowered the jump and calmly walked her round an easy route through the obstacles, before calling it a day and taking her for a relaxing walk instead.

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Rusty and I have had some fun with the agility obstacles since this incident and it’s safe to say that she has not lost her enthusiasm for it. When I feel that she is ready, I will reintroduce the concept of differentiating between obstacles and will write about it here! 

This experience definitely taught me a lot – it’s not something that I ever want to repeat but I hope that sharing my mistakes will help other people in their training. Always listen to your animals and don’t go into training sessions with huge expectations – take each achievement as it comes.

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Dog agility – training the seesaw

Since we began agility training a few years ago, Rusty and I have often found ourselves a little bit limited with our equipment. We acquired a tunnel and a set of weave poles as Christmas presents, but I was unable to teach the contact obstacles (A-frame, dog walk and seesaw) as these are large pieces of equipment and are usually quite expensive.

However, shortly after starting my job a couple of months ago I began to do some research and decided to buy Rusty her very own seesaw. I thought that this was the best option as it is the smallest of the three contact obstacles (so is easier to store), and is possibly also the most difficult to train – so if we do go on to do more agility in the future we will be better prepared for it.

Rusty seemed to know that the contents of this box were for her…

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Once I had assembled the seesaw, I began training with the plank laid flat on the ground. The main focus at this stage was to get Rusty used to walking over it and to teach her to always go in a straight line without leaving the board. This is important because when the seesaw is set up properly, Rusty mustn’t ever try to jump off it or turn around on it as this could potentially be dangerous.

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However, with the board on the ground Rusty didn’t seem to have very much respect for it and frequently stepped off it as she walked along. For this reason, I decided to raise the plank up on a couple of plant trays – this made Rusty think about where she was placing her paws whilst still being low enough to the ground to be safe in the event of something going wrong.

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The next step was to use one plant tray to add a tiny bit of an angle to the board: I kept Rusty on a lead to begin with so that I could control her speed and ensure that she kept going in a straight line.

I also controlled the movement of the plank with my other hand so that it didn’t move too quickly. During these early stages of training it is important to build up the confidence of the dog: Rusty is naturally timid so I had to be careful that she didn’t become scared of her new toy.

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Another important thing that I worked on at this point was teaching Rusty to ‘leave’ the obstacle. She began to find racing along the board pretty exciting and was choosing to do it without being asked, which then led to her jumping on and off it at random intervals.

We practiced walking and running past the board both on and off lead – sometimes I would ask her to ’tilt’ (our specific command for this obstacle) but the majority of the time I told her to ‘leave’.

Once I was satisfied that Rusty felt confident with the board and how it moved, I lifted it up onto the stand so that it was at its full height. With Rusty wearing her harness and lead I walked her up to the middle and then slowly moved the plank down. I put plant trays underneath to begin with so that the change in gradient wasn’t too great.

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Rusty picked this up so quickly – within a few training sessions she was completing the obstacle at speed with no help from me at all. I definitely think that taking it slowly during the first few stages really helped her find her confidence.

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As always, she loved learning something new and seeing her having fun made me even more excited for us doing more agility together in the future. The video below shows some clips from our training sessions…

Dog agility – more jumping exercises

Recently I have felt that I’ve been lacking in inspiration for Rusty’s agility training, so it sort of ground to a bit of a halt for a while. We were working on improving her technique with the weave poles and tunnel, however she is an intelligent dog and as a result quickly becomes bored with simple repetitions of an obstacle. I can add in other things and create sequences but due to her inexperience with the weaves in particular I have to ensure that her approach to the weave poles is straight and easy for her to see – unfortunately this does limit what we can do, especially with our few pieces of equipment.

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Over the past couple of days I set up the weaves and some jumps with the intention of just having a play to keep her feeling enthusiastic about her training.

It’s actually quite amazing how versatile a set of three jumps can be: there is a huge number of different arrangements of varying difficulties that can be set out, and even when I think I have exhausted all of the standard sequences, there really is no harm in just making something up and then figuring out how to handle it.

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The diagram below shows one of the exercises we practised. The red route drawn on is the easier of the two options I have shown – although this did still require skills which take time to learn. These include 180 degree turns and rear crosses (both of which I have written about previously).

Agility layout for blog

The first jump is very simple: I can just direct Rusty to it – however then I have to curve my body away a bit and head along the line of jumps to encourage her to turn and come back across the second jump. For the third jump, things become even more complicated as I have to ask Rusty for another 180 degree turn, but I am on the wrong side of the jumps and on the wrong side of Rusty to be able to ask properly. Needless to say, we’ve been struggling a bit with this!

So far, the best I have managed to do is to perform a rear cross (where I cross Rusty’s path behind her as she runs) and then ask her to swing back to the third jump. As you will be able to see from the video at the end of this post, this isn’t particularly smooth but I feel that with practice it may become easier.

The blue route is even trickier… I ask Rusty to jump the first hurdle, then wrap round the jump and jump the second in the same direction. This is then repeated for the third jump. Again, I can’t seem to handle this in a way that makes it a smooth sequence. I have a feeling that this may be because Rusty is constantly looking at me for instruction at the moment, and I really need her to look at where she is going more.

In fact, the other day she was so fixated on me that she walked into a chair! I use a combination of treats and toys as rewards for agility, and I am wondering whether me carrying the tennis ball more frequently is the reason for her increased attention. Although I have been doing this for a while with no problems, I may experiment with using a different reward to see if that helps her – I really do need her to watch her step on the course as it could potentially be dangerous if she doesn’t.

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The video below shows our training recently – there are some other clips in there of the weaves and some other simple jumping exercises as well.

Thank you for reading today’s post on Wild Call, stay tuned for more!

 

Dog agility – improving the tunnel and weaves

Over the past couple of weeks, Rusty and I have been working specifically on the tunnel and the weave poles.

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She has done so much jumping over the past few years that as a result she is now really confident with it and will automatically run ahead of me to a jump if I give her a clear signal. However she has not had quite as much practice with the tunnel and the weaves due to them taking longer to set up (I sometimes just do jumping).

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To fix this I have begun to teach her that she can move further away from me with these obstacles and that I don’t have to lead her right up to them every time they are part of our course. It will take some time for her to learn this, but we have made a start and I have already seen lots of improvement which is pleasing!

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When I was teaching her to be more independent with the jumps, I would carry her toy and throw it as she left the ground to encourage her to be more forward thinking. This could potentially work with other obstacles too but it does present some problems – for example when she is inside the tunnel she can’t see the ball being thrown, and throwing it too early whilst she is weaving might lead to her picking up bad habits such as skipping the last poles to chase it.

I also don’t want her to rush the weaves at this stage: she is still finding her feet with them and if I ask her to run too quickly she gets confused and sometimes trips up.

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Instead of throwing the ball, I asked her to sit in front of the obstacle and then dropped it at the other end before telling her either ‘tunnel’ or ‘weave’. She still got the idea of moving ahead to the target, but didn’t rush.

Whilst reading on the internet about the weave poles, I realised that I have been spacing them incorrectly. Having moved them a few inches further apart, Rusty’s technique has improved a huge amount (the video at the end of this post shows this).

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Another tactic to give her a bit more energy coming into the obstacle is to place a jump before it. Obviously if we were doing the obstacles as part of a sequence she would already be going fairly quickly, so I did this to imitate that situation whilst still focusing specifically on the two particular obstacles.

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At one point this actually resulted in Rusty skipping the tunnel, as she gained a lot of speed after the jump and missed my directions. I took her back and she completed it the second time round without any problems, however this does show a clear difference in the way in which she treats the tunnel – if there had been a jump there instead I’m pretty sure she would have flown over it without needing much telling!

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I was also pleased to see that at one point she almost skipped the tunnel, but then corrected herself and ran through. The pictures below sort of show this, but I’ve added the clip to the video at the end of this post as well.

You may notice in the video that I did use the clicker in some of the clips (they were filmed over a couple of days). I’m still working on getting Rusty used to this, but this won’t require too much effort as it just means that I have to make sure I always give her a treat after clicking. I clicked too late in some instances – I kept forgetting, so sometimes she had her treat before hearing the click… It definitely gives me something to work on though.

Thank you for reading today’s post on Wild Call; I’ll be back in a few days time for Wildlife Wednesday so stay tuned!

Introducing clicker training

I recently decided to try using clicker training with Rusty; I have always been interested in this method but didn’t really know much about it and always thought that we got on just fine without. Of course, we have managed perfectly well without using a clicker, but I feel that it could prove to be an incredibly versatile tool as I begin to expand Rusty’s repertoire of tricks and as her skills in agility become more advanced.

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The use of a clicker is not confined to dogs – it can be applied to the training of many different animals, including horses and birds (I am hoping that I might be able to use this with some of the other animals too). A friend of mine did a sort of work experience day in a zoo where she got to help out with the big cats: they used clicker training there too. Zoo animals are often trained to present various parts of their body so that they can be examined easily without having to anaesthetise them (for example, to check that their teeth are in good health).

The main reason why clicker training is much better than simply using verbal praise is that the clicker produces a consistent sound which never changes, whereas the human voice will vary in tone and volume, so although we may be repeating the same word it will never quite sound the same to the dog.

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The clicker also enables the exact moment of good behaviour to be understood by the dog – often when Rusty does a good thing I spend a few seconds praising her, which could potentially lead to her becoming confused as to the exact moment when she got it right – but with a clicker, the good behaviour can be marked instantly without interrupting the task being performed by the dog.

Over the past couple of days, I have begun to incorporate the clicker into my training with Rusty. As she has never worked with one before, I am starting off by asking her for simple commands that she knows well, which I reward with a click, followed by a treat. Every single click must then result in her receiving a treat; if this is not done consistently then the clicker will lose its effect.

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As well as really easy commands, I asked her for some tricks that she knows well. The video below shows our first few attempts at using the clicker (I have no objection to showing our journey, but please bear in mind that I am new to this and did make a few mistakes, for example clicking slightly too late). We did some agility obstacles using the clicker, however I didn’t video this. Next time we do agility training I will make sure to take some footage – I feel that this method will work particularly well with the training of weave poles.

Another thing that I would like to point out here is that I worked on this in a couple of different environments – this is to ensure that Rusty knows that the same rules apply wherever we are. We had some builders working nearby in the outdoor clips as well: these provided the perfect opportunity for Rusty to learn not to become distracted and remain focused on me. Over the next few weeks I am also planning to take the clicker on our walks.

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Obviously at the moment I am using commands that Rusty knows well to teach her the meaning of the clicker, but once I start to teach her new tricks, the idea is to use the clicker until she knows the command and responds every time, and then phase it out due to it no longer being needed.

I will continue to work on this and may have a go with some of the other animals as well, so expect to see more blog posts about clicker training as we progress!

Winter agility training

Over the Christmas break, Rusty and I had a few agility training sessions in the garden. She hadn’t practised in about six weeks but still amazed me with how much she could remember!

I thought that I would set up a few different types of jumps for a bit of fun – normally we just have straight jumps as these are quick and easy to set up, however in competitions a variety of obstacles can be found so it only makes sense to incorporate them. (I had to improvise a bit when building these jumps as we are quite limited with equipment!)

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Straight jumps – these are the most common found on an agility course and are often placed in sequences with tight angles and complex manoeuvres. They can have wings or may be without – both options can present problems to the handler.

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With wingless jumps it is very easy for the dog to ‘half jump’ it, where they sort of hop over the very edge and leave the handler wondering whether that counted or if they should be taken back to do it again! In particular this occurs when the dog has come into the jump on a tight turn, or can see that they will be expected to make one after landing.

In a competition there are three other types of jumps that are usually found just once in a course; these add a bit more interest to jumping as they require the dog to think a little more about how they are tackling the obstacles (instead of just treating each one as the same).

Spread jumps are the same height as straights, but have an added factor of length as well – this means that the dog has to make quite a big leap in order to clear the jump. A straight approach is favourable with this jump as coming into it on too much of an angle could result in the highest pole being caught by their back legs.

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Long jumps are low to the ground but have a much greater length than any other jumps in the course (the clue is in the name!). When training this jump it is advisable to begin with a short distance and gradually extend it so that the dog learns not to put any paws down in the middle. Normally this type of jump would consist of wooden or plastic planks lined up next to each other, but I had to make do with what you can see in the pictures below…

The final jump type is the tyre jump – this is quite a fun one although it is common place for run-outs. (Tyre jumps found in competitions are raised quite high off the ground which allows room for the dog to run underneath – Rusty was guilty of this when we used to go to agility classes!)

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Another exercise we had a play around with was the pinwheel. This is sometimes seen on competition courses, but is also a useful activity for general training: I have worked on this multiple times with Rusty before and have seen noticeable improvements in her ability to find and ‘lock onto’ her next jump, as well as her trusting that she can run further from my side but still understand where she is going.

On top of that, she seems to find the whole thing quite exciting so it definitely brings a lot to our training sessions (not that I need Rusty to have any more energy than she already does!)

Unfortunately the videos I have of this were taken in the afternoon when it was getting dark, so the stills were just a blur, however there is a video at the bottom of this post showing the exercise. The diagram below shows an example of a pinwheel with four jumps – this can vary but the handler should bear in mind that fewer jumps will increase the angle between each one, which will make it more challenging for the dog.

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The best place for the handler to be is in the middle of the wheel, as it keeps the dog turning on the circle. If the handler were to attempt this by running around the outside of the pinwheel, they would not be able to keep up with their dog and this would lead to mistakes being made (it is common for other jumps to be placed near a pinwheel so as to confuse the dog).

The video below shows some short clips from our most recent training sessions – this includes a clip with a set of weave poles and the tunnel. I thought I would include this because it shows how much Rusty’s understanding of the weaves has improved – she almost skipped the final pole but when I paused her she took a few steps back and corrected it – such a clever little dog!

 

Dog blog – mind

Dogs require a combination of physical and mental activities to keep them occupied (see my two previous blog posts for more information on play and exercise). This is especially important for the more intelligent breeds of dog as they can easily become bored and this can result in the development of bad behaviour.

Rusty loves being taught new things – she always shows a willingness to learn and loves the fuss and rewards when she finally ‘gets it’.

Recently I decided to begin teaching her to roll over. I can’t say that this has much of a function other than being a cute trick, but she picked it up quickly and I am now working on gradually improving her reaction to my cue (at the moment she is quite reliant on me signalling with my hand, however the end goal is for her to roll over having just been given a verbal command).

When we first started with this trick, I asked Rusty to lie down and then held a treat near her shoulder blades, which encouraged her to turn her head and shift her weight onto one side of her body. By moving the treat a little further and applying a gentle pressure to her shoulder with my other hand I could get her lying down on her side, and from this position a simple gesture would tell her to complete the roll. As she completed the trick, I gave the verbal cue and then rewarded her once she was up again.

In the video below you can see that she is becoming quite quick to roll over one way… but does not want to do it in the other direction! I’d quite like her to go both ways so this will be something to work on, although it means that you can see my initial training techniques being used again…

This kind of learning activity is really great for dogs – no matter what age they are, they can always benefit from trying something new and having extra one-on-one time with their owner.

Another tactic for eliminating boredom in dogs is to give them puzzle toys. There is a huge variety of these available, and they generally involve hiding treats inside the toy for the dog to find. Rusty has one toy like this which we bought for her when she was a puppy. It can be stuffed with dog biscuits and other treats, and she has to figure out how to get to them.

She often tries to reach through the opening in the toy with her tongue, but then realises that repeatedly picking up and dropping the toy results in the treats falling out onto the floor.

With this sort of game it is better to begin with the treats being easy to obtain so that the dog builds an enthusiasm for it, and then it can be made more difficult by packing the treats in tighter so that the dog has to work harder to reach them.

Frequent interaction with other canine friends is another essential part of a dog’s life. Where we live is quite a quiet area but we know a few people with dogs so Rusty often sees her friends and has a chance to play. Her reactions to different dogs is quite amusing – she will growl and bark at smaller dogs, but anything larger is usually greeted with submission.

Our neighbour’s dog Bailey is a good walking buddy and playmate for Rusty… even if she does spend half of her time on her back!

The final thing I would like to mention is dog agility.

I often write about Rusty’s agility training, but haven’t ever really discussed the benefits of it. Before they were domesticated by humans, dogs were predators that would spend much of their time running and hunting. Despite many changes in their anatomy and behaviour since then, some of those basic instincts remain – agility allows these to be expressed.

The fast-paced chase around the course mimics the capture of prey – a variety of obstacles present different situations to the dog which may be encountered during a hunt: for example leaping over jumps, winding between objects and crawling through tunnels.

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I would honestly recommend dog agility to any dog owner out there – it doesn’t matter if you and your pup aren’t particularly speedy or talented – training Rusty wasn’t all plain-sailing, but I persevered! I firmly believe that agility strengthened our bond and resulted in Rusty’s general behaviour improving as well.

Most importantly, it is great fun for all involved.