Friday, August 28, 2009


The title of this post is a typical jumble of words and thoughts going through my head as I work with Winnie using positive training. We are new to clicker training, something I resisted for the longest time because I never took the time to learn about it. I hesitate to mention at this point, because he probably will shudder at the thought of his good name being linked to my muddled, clumsy attempts at positive training, but I am getting guidance and support from Jim Barry of Reston Dog Training, who came out to our house and worked with Winnie and I personally to get us started.

One of the things I'm trying to do is work on some basic field skills and commands, things that are most often achieved with an electronic collar - something I want to avoid. So I'm breaking the field work down into individual commands, and then each command is broken down into smaller segments and taught using positive reinforcement.

For instance, here's what I'm trying to do with 'Whoa': I eventually want her, wherever she is and whatever she's doing, to Stop/Stand/Stay at the command "Whoa" or the sound of one whistle blast. On its surface this is - to me, anyway - a very advanced command. But the more I look and think about how to break it down into smaller steps that she can have success with, it gets even MORE complex! But here's how I see it:

She already knows 'Stand/Stay' from her brief yet illustrious show career, and has a loose affiliation with a vague hand signal to that effect. So I've got that going for me, which is nice. But I want to assign a different verbal command (Whoa), AND build the connection with the whistle blast as well. And I need to have her do this without the hand signal and without me touching her (as in a stacking situation in the show ring).

I've started with walking with her around the yard, then using the hand signal she knows (hand in front of her face) and the command she knows (Stand/Stay). This is off leash, by the way. When she stops and stands, I click/reward and praise her. If she sits or something else, I just keep walking around the yard and try it again until she gets it right. This worked pretty well and by the end I was getting fairly consistent results.

Then next time out I changed 'Stand/Stay' to 'Whoa' but kept everything else the same, and had similar success, probably because she was responding to the hand signal (and by that I mean she physically has to stop because my hand signal consists of holding my hand in front of her face). But, getting similar results with a new verbal cue was, I felt, a positive step. So again, because I am impatient and ever-curious as to what she is capable of, a few days later I added the whistle blast before the command. So, walk around the yard, whistle blast/'Whoa' and intermittently adding the hand signal (trying to phase that out first), when she stopped she got clicked/rewarded/praised.

I've been working here and there on this for about a week, and frankly even though there was some success, I had little reason to think that she was making much progress, mostly because I felt like I still hadn't figured out what I was doing. Who would have thought that trying to manage a clicker, a whistle, a pocketful of treats and a dog could be so overwhelming? Honestly sometimes I'd be walking around, watching her, and I would think (WHISTLE - THEN 'WHOA' - THEN WATCH, GET READY TO CLICK IF SHE DOES IT! WAIT FOR IT....), then I would simultaneously blow the whistle while clicking the clicker and realize I'm not even watching her, but instead looking down at the whistle and clicker as if one of them could explain to me what the hell I'm doing. If my signals are so mixed up in MY head, I presume they are at LEAST as unclear in hers.

But this morning we went for a walk down the gravel road at our house. Not quite light yet, so lots of deer and rabbit out at that time. Winnie's on a loose 15 foot leash and we're not training, just going for a walk before work. She spots a rabbit as we're walking along (she SO wants to chase a rabbit!), and without really thinking, just trying to avoid the discomfort of holding the other end of the leash as she bolts hard into the bushes, I told her "Whoa." She instantly stopped her feet in mid-stride, facing the rabbit, and stood there. Waiting. For me, presumably, but the whole thing was rather unexpected so I didn't really have a follow up command. But she got MUCH praise and true admiration.

If I can stay out of her way, this dog may get trained in spite of me.


Peg said...

your attitude towards training is admirable. If you keep with the thought that you are both learning together you have a true advantage. Dogs usually grasp more than we think.With you being so observant to her because of your lack of confidence in yourself, your able to move forward faster.
Keep up the great team work!!

Anonymous said...

I can identify totally with the confusion, and not having enough hands, and the mind-set to put it all together!!...and I'm not using a whistle!! But from what I understand it is the timing of the clicker that is all so important---that has to be right on and the treats can follow later. Sounds like she is getting it--Cassie and I are having a great time with the clicker. IT will be interesting to see the results in May!!!!