Dramatic Rally Changes-- March 3, 2008
I bet you’ve all been wondering where I’ve been and what’s been going on with Bing!
Bing’s last blog talked about our trials (and tribulations) out in Arizona in November. The result of that was largely that I realized I had a ton of work to do! Bing’s newest schtick was to either be way out ahead of me and distracted by every little thing or to nip me in the butt as we heeled through our rally courses…hmmm…not exactly what a trainer wants to show off! So I decided that I would not trial him again until I had figured out how to fix that.
I decided to give the target stick concept a try. My friend, Anne Swan, from Santa Barbara, CA, mentioned that she did something similar to this with her Border collie, Zippy Swan. Zippy is mostly an agility dog, but MAN you should see his heeling!!! She accomplished her feat of beauty by using a target attached to her waist. Zippy targeted it and Anne rewarded it bazillions of times, and got her final product. I started out by buying a telescoping pointer from Office Depot and attaching a cat toy foam ball on the end of it. The telescoping part allowed me to adjust perfectly the length of the stick while not having to move my hand out of the position I wanted to keep it in during heeling. I held the clicker in the same hand as the target stick. It didn’t take long for either Acacia or Bing to figure out that targeting the ball got goodies, and in no time at all we were practicing our heeling.
In the meantime, I went out to Washington State for a week in December to attend “Chicken Camp” (please see my article about this great adventure on my website). The camp was held at Terry Ryan’s training center (www.legacycanine.com) and I won a prize for answering a question correctly…I won a Terry Ryan ClikStik!! It’s a target stick with a quiet clicker built right in. I was so excited to have one of these…and to have Terry hand it to me herself! When I returned, I hunkered down and really started to work with Bing on heeling.
Acacia tends to be a lagger (moves slower than me and behind me) and Bing tends to be a forger (he actually likes to be ahead of me and perpendicular to me!), but using the target stick helped in both cases. Within only a few short training sessions, Acacia was much perkier and precise in her position, and Bing was much more focused on working as a team than before. I believe that dogs don’t really ‘get’ the concept of heeling, a belief I assumed after having this discussion with Leslie Nelson a few years ago at an APDT conference in Denver. ‘Heel’ needs to be systematically reinforced one step at a time. The heel position needs to be really precise for a long time in order to teach muscle memory in the dog. This is where the target stick comes in handy. It gives the dog something tangible to work toward. When they ‘get it’, it’s really awesome to see.
For Bing, I also needed to work on his excitement level during heeling. It seems he’s always looking for whatever is NEXT. The anticipation of that results in him squeaking and sometimes barking. It makes me want to laugh, although I do my best to stifle it because I know that this is not a healthy thing for him to be doing; it’s a sign of anxiety. We spent some time working on the idea that when he squeaked or nipped or even mouthed my hand, work stopped. Sometimes I’d put him in a crate and work Acacia instead. But I began to question the effectiveness of this. I am concerned that using negative punishment would increase his anxiety level. So instead, I simply stopped for a few seconds when he got too excited, waited for him to calm down and resumed our heeling.
We didn’t do as much target stick training as we should have; I didn’t attempt to generalize it to environments other than my own training space (shame on me), and we went down to Pup ‘N Iron in Fredericksburg, VA, for a weekend of rally. I judged Levels 1, 2 and 3 on both Saturday and Sunday, and trialed both Bing and Acacia multiple times on that weekend. It was our first trial since Arizona in November. The results were great! Not perfect, since Bing still did some noisy, mouthy behaviors, but his focus was much improved. Acacia, while always stoic in the ring (ok, lethargic for the first half of almost every course we’ve run!) maintained a closer heel position in general.
The results were as follows: Acacia got scores of 203, 207, and 206 in Level 3 (all scores are out of a total 210...200 max plus 10 points possible for a bonus). Bing got scores of 196, 191, and 194 in Level 3. Acacia got scores of 210, 200, and 207 in Level 2, while Bing got scores of 208, 205, and 197 (those darned food bowls…we haven’t done them in ages!) in Level 2. I have to say that I was incredibly proud of my dogs for their efforts and their behavior in general the entire weekend!
For comparison, click here to see video of Bing and his heeling prior to target stick training. And click here for video of Bing at Pup ‘N Iron in Fredericksburg, VA after the target stick training.
I recommend trying this training technique if you would like to hone your heeling skills! My next concern is going to be to address Bing’s anxiety….stay tuned.
Not only did Ali run Bing and Acacia a total of six times each at the two-day Pup 'N Iron Rally Obedience Trial in Fredericksburg VA, she also was one of the judges for both days the trial. And while it may be hard to tell from the video, Ali was almost six months pregnant at the time.