Monday, January 26, 2009

Training Article: Give It Some Time

I was struck by a couple of learning experiences with my dogs in the last week. The common thread between two very different situations was how just giving things a little time to sink in can work to our advantage. Both Jet and Billy taught me a little about patience this last week and i didn't even know they were doing it.

For a while now, i've wanted to teach Jet to sit up and "beg". She's a long backed sort of dog and that particular trick is good exercise for her back and leg muscles, and it's something i'd like to do in her conditioning, especially as she's getting older. I've sort of halfheartedly tried to teach her in the past and she's been resistant to it. I'd get some treats and ask her to try it, over and over, in a session. She didn't do it well, didn't seem to want to do it, and certainly wasn't enjoying it. So i let it go. For the last week, for no particular reason, i've been giving the dogs a little treat when they come in from their last potty run, as i send them into their crates for the night. Jet isn't crated overnight, so i started asking her to "sit up" with one treat. That's it, one treat, no repetitions, no big deal. Each night she's done it just a little bit better than the night before. Last night, voila! She's sitting up like she's been doing it her whole life. I think it's interesting how easily she's picked it up doing it this way (and no, i didn't plan it, wish i could take credit for being that clever!). Before, when i'd set out to teach it, she'd seem slightly miserable about it. Asking her to just try it once a day was way more effective.

I also had an experience with Billy last week that brought home how taking your time and letting things sink in can be helpful in training youngsters on sheep. I was working on some short outruns on my field with him, the sheep set about 75 yards out. The lay of the land was such that when he was sent right, he'd be carried in towards the left, then pass a pond, where he needed to open out to the right and kick around the sheep. Picture an hourglass shape to the outrun. The first couple of times Bill ran out, he wanted to follow the contour and cross over, finishing his outrun to the left. I'd just stop him and redirect him back to the right, showing him that i expected him to stay on the side i'd sent him, even when the lay of the land might make him think about crossing over. I sent him a total of maybe 4 or 5 times, and could see he was making the connection mentally and doing it very well by the last outrun. At this point, i decided to put him up and let that be it for the day, to let it sink in with him. Now, if you know me, you'd know that was darned hard for me to do! But i did it. Fast forward to 3-4 days later. I arrive at the farm and find my flock peacefully grazing about 250 yards away, well out of sight for a dog, and decide to see what Billy will do. I sent him from about the same place i'd been training that bend in the previous session. He hit the edge of the pond and kicked out beautifully. Yay! Now the real test as he crests the first hill and starts downhill into a swale. This is where almost every dog new to the field gets drawn in, and many cross over, only catching sight of the sheep as they pass in front of them. I can't see Bill but then, there he is, reappearing well to the right and bending perfectly around his sheep, woohoo! It was a lovely outrun and seemed obvious to me that he'd not only learned something from the previous training session, he'd had time to generalize it to a more difficult situation as well.

I'll be trying to keep these lessons in mind for the future, as i puzzle out problems and training challenges. Thanks to Jet and Bill for a good reminder for me. Sometimes i wonder if the dogs think we're the ones that are the slow learners!

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