Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Zeki and the dog walk!

Gosh it's a long time since I did an update on Zeki's training. It's all been about her competition debut.

As well as having fun and thoroughly enjoying her first few shows, a great benefit from these few weeks of competition is that I have a clear idea of what I need to train and/or train better. The list is quite long!

First of all, as is apparent from our various videos, we have had a bit of a problem with the dog walk so that's really what this post is all about. I'll do a separate post about other areas of her training and development ... gosh that sounds like I'm back in the world of management!

The weak dog walk performance is completely my fault because I rushed the process of teaching her to stop. I couldn't make that final decision to give up on the running contact and then before I knew it the time had come for Zeki to be spayed. That meant a good five weeks out of training and then just two weeks to train before her first competition. In that short space of time I kept changing my mind about final position and ended up going for a four-on option. I chose this because Zeki was stopping naturally in a four-on position and then I was asking her to nose target the ground but it was happening in two distinct stages and costing time, I didn't like this.

I will never again teach this. The end result was her four-on gradually getting further and further back until she was targeting the middle of the down plank. Yuk, what had I done? You can see a good example of this in the first run of this video.

I know a lot of people would not have run agility classes until the problem was sorted, normally I would have gone down this route but I wanted as much ring experience as I could possibly get with Zeki. So, rightly or wrongly, I decided that we would have to make do until the end of the season and then work on this over the winter. But I couldn't wait that long as it was bugging me so much. I thought long and hard and took some advice and set about improving Zeki's dog walk. I tried first of all with a toy and had varying degrees of success but no real consistency. Then one morning I woke up and decided that I would go right back to basics, if necessary with a plank on a step but the most important decision was that I would go back to using clicker and food. I had become very stubborn about this because I worked hard to get Zeki into her toy and didn't want to lose that but I decided the toy drive was now strong enough that I could do separate sessions for food-reward training.

As it happened I didn't need to go back to the plank because as usual she was prancing around and offering behaviours once she clocked the clicker so I put her straight over the full dog walk and she ran to a two on two off position and I clicked and rewarded her. I had cooked some chicken (yuk) as I wanted really high value food to cure this problem and also it's very visible on the ground. She was very happy to receive such a tasty morsel.

I decided to stick with her offered position which was a sort of crouch with her two front paws clearly on the floor. In the past I had tried to insist on a down with a nose touch. I really didn't want to make too much fuss about the position and although I didn't want a 'stand' the crouch was a good compromise and it meant I could mark and reward her instantly rather than waiting to encourage her into a different position. I felt if I insisted on a down then I would be back to the two-staged performance and I wanted to reward her for running to the bottom without hesitation. That was and still is my aim!

Next stage was to start varying my position and rewarding her after one, two and then more obstacles, still clicking the moment she reached position. Occasionally she self-releases but I'm not making too much of that for now as I just want the confidence to keep coming. If she self-releases I simply don't reward and have another go (well that's the theory but sometimes I get carried away and forget and she still gets her reward!) The idea with moving the reward further and further out is to build value into the obstacles after the dog walk so that they become the reward. If we do a sequence with two dog walks then I will just verbally praise the first one and release and then click and reward the second one. Each time I do something new such as holding back or running by or some extreme position then I go back to first of all clicking and rewarding immediately and then build into the above pattern of moving the reward out and sometimes just verbally marking before release.

Zeki carried this behaviour well into our training school and also at Leah's where she trains on a Monday evening. Leah has been away in Wales and Mac and Wendy have been training us. Wendy has been very supportive of my efforts and has helped to keep me on track in another environment.

Our first attempt at this new dog walk was last weekend at Weald and as I mentioned in my earlier posting Zeki was brilliant. Obviously I couldn't click and reward with food but I made sure to mark her finished position verbally before releasing and carrying on with the round.

My plan is to continue with the food for some time but still moving out the reward further and further from the dog walk and then eventually, hopefully replacing the food with her toy. Once I feel the behaviour is fully trained only then will I become more rigorous about release and who instigates it!

At home I split my training into dog walk drills using my clicker and food and then separate sessions where she works for her toy. So far I've been lucky at training club as we've worked on jumping and weave sequences first so I've been able to use the toy (thrown in perfectly every time by Elspeth!) and then finished our lesson with contact sequences. Perfect!

Interestingly the more we progress the lower Zeki's position is becoming. She is almost back in a down and if I ask her to hold position for a couple of seconds before release then she is offering a nose touch. I'm not specifically asking for it but she is starting to offer. What I won't do is wait for that to happen before I click/mark, if it happens naturally then that will be a bonus.

I am lucky to have good friends who have helped me, one in particular who has the eye of an eagle in terms of what I'm doing during this re-training process. I am grateful for the constant support, advice and encouragement to make sure I keep moving the process forward and don't get stuck in a rut!

Once again the clicker has helped me out of a spot. I know lots of people don't get on with clickers but I still find it the best and fastest way to teach and importantly re-teach behaviours.

Onwards and sideways as the saying goes (well in my world anyways!)


  1. I think 'onwards and sideways' sums up pretty much everybody's experience of contact training - including mine! And I perfectly agree with the clicker comments - I have used it to teach virtually everything in Nellie's agility training, never mind all her other behaviours out in the world. I would not be without them. The secret with them I think is understanding about and having good timing and understanding shaping.They cause the problems mostly not clickers themselves. Sorry about the essay! Hx

  2. lol, that first line made me smile becuase its been exactly the same with me and D! On the plus side its renewed my passion for agility and even when runs go wrong theres still so much positive I can get out of it.

    Sounds like the winter will certainly give you both a chance to work on this issue. I'm sure she'll be flying up the grades next year xx

  3. Nancy, this is not about Zekis training, although I will be fascinated to see how it progresses with the dogwalk, its about the YouTube homepage/channel you have. How did you do that?