January is Train Your Dog Month sponsored by APDT (Association of Pet Dog Trainers). Even though there is rarely a day that goes by when I don’t train with Risa, I decided to set myself a goal of training Risa to retrieve in honor of this month. (Note that I’m just starting the training this month. I have no plans to finish it before January is over!)
Retrieving is one of those things I’ve always struggled with teaching Risa to do. She loves to chase and grab toys so that’s not the issue. The problem is in the returning the item to me. When I play fetch, I generally “cheat” and have two toys so that the first is at least brought back to somewhere in my vicinity. (Oftentimes 5 or more feet away.) But, since I’m planning on earning high-level titles in APDT Rally, I figured I’d better have a viable retrieve (it’s one of the bonus exercises in Level 3). Not to mention this is something that could be helpful at some point. Especially since I have a fun idea for a freestyle routine that involves a retrieve that I can’t do because Risa doesn’t bring stuff back!
So I’ve started backchaining it. I’m taking a toy Risa has never played with and using it exclusively for this exercise. I have her sit in front of me and I offer the toy. Ideally, I would like her to take it on her own but we’ve play too many “It’s Yer Choice” games that sometimes she simply stares at me instead of grabbing the toy (she thinks she is supposed to ignore it until I give her permission to take it). So sometimes I tell her to “Take it!” and then I click her for holding it. I’m going to have to spend a lot of time on this portion. Firstly, that’s the point of backchaining. To make the last behavior the strongest. Also because this is the part she struggles with. The bringing it back to me and letting me take it. I’ve only spent a couple days working on it so we’ll see how it goes.
On top of that, we’ve switched gears again. Since I’m still undecided where we stand in regards to AKC Rally (are we going to go for our Rally Excellent title or not?), I’m back to training freestyle and APDT Rally. Especially since we have competitions in both coming up this summer. Since I’m training some new behaviors and working on fixing some old ones (right side heel especially), I’ve gone back to the clicker for most stuff. But I don’t want to give up on what I’ve been doing as it has really helped increase Risa’s focus. Not to mention it is a lot more fun. 🙂
So, after a clicker-based session early in the day yesterday, I made sure to have a super fun one later on. No treats. Only reward was a tug toy. I kept tug sessions short to keep her interested. I did have to be careful, though. If I managed to rip the tug out of her mouth at the end of the session, she started to relinquish it early and get a bit concerned about playing the game with me. So I made a couple adjustments to keep the game fun and going well for her.
Along with using the tug as a reward to make training more of a game than a boring learning session, I decided to use a different method to deal with Risa wandering off while we work. (Yes, this is still an issue!) After attending a seminar, I learned that you can gently grab a dog’s collar and move them away from whatever has distracted them and bring them back to work with you. While I have nothing against this method and it does totally jive with my training methodology, Risa didn’t like it. Of course, she’s not supposed to but she seemed to get more shut down and upset that I was coming to grab her and drag her away. Either way, I wasn’t especially thrilled with the results I was seeing when I used it. What I really want is Risa to stay with me because it’s more fun to be with me than to check out the other stuff. Not because, if she doesn’t, I will go get her and make her leave the other stuff alone.
I recently read Pamela Dennison’s book Click Your Way to Rally Obedience and she had a great way to deal with this issue. If your dog disengages from you, say “HA!” and take off running in the opposite direction. When your dog catches back up with you, have them do some heeling and then reward that. So I tried it yesterday. And I saw a much happier dog racing back towards me as I laughed like an idiot and ran off on her. Her heeling once she got back to me was nice and focused and I rewarded it with a game of tug. Not only did Risa seem happier with this method but I did as well. It was less negative in my view. I saw it as an opportunity to have Risa come after me and chase me in a game rather than getting her away from the distraction and back to work. I’ve only done this during the one training session but I think it will be more effective than pulling her away.
Overall, I feel I’ve made a lot of positive strides in my training over the last few months. While I’m certainly still a clicker trainer, I’m really getting a lot out of adding in different rewards and mixing things up with Risa. Making training more of a game has really increased her focus and bond with me and made training even more fun. I wish I had learned and incorporated these things before!! Better late than never, I suppose. 🙂