As I continue down along this path of trying to used reinforcement based methods for training a dog to work stock, I have been experiencing some amazing ‘ah-ha!’ moments.  Right now I am focused on training my three green dogs, and putting a foundation in the two puppies I have from my latest litter.

Building the foundations with the blank slates that are my puppies is providing me with wonderful opportunities to explore and experiment, and also to learn.  The first big ‘ah-ha’ moment I had was around the concept of It’s Yer Choice (IYC), a game developed by dog trainer extraordinaire Susan Garrett that involves showing the puppy (or dog) a treat and having her choose to do something other than dive in and grab it.

Now I have played this game with all my dogs and used it to teach them to not bite my hand or lunge at their food dishes but the light suddenly went on the other day around just how much more this game offers.  Let me explain.

First, I am becoming increasingly aware of just how much I alter MY behaviour to keep my dogs from doing things I don’t want.  I keep my counters clear of food so they don’t counter surf.  I put food up high while training so they don’t get fixated on it.  I don’t let my livestock out in the morning until the dogs have had a leg stretch so they (the dogs) don’t get in with the sheep and give chase. And on, and on, and on.

Then I noticed while watching Susan Garrett train her dogs that she has food and toys all over the floor and they keep working with her.  So I tried leaving the food dish in the middle of our training area while shaping one of the puppies.  After two or three tries to dive into the bowl – with my response being to quietly put my hand over said bowl – the puppy stopped paying any attention to the food and just carried on.  WOW.

But it gets a whole lot better.  A few days later I took the same puppy out to do chores, including tending my ducklings in their pen.  I filled their food dish and didn’t the puppy immediately dive in and start wolfing down the feed.  I was just about to put the bowl up when I decided to try simply putting my hand over it.  It was a big bowl and I couldn’t cover the whole thing, so I just made the same shape with my hand that I do in training and placed it above the bowl.

The puppy backed off.

I pulled my hand away, and he dove back in (Mr. Naughty Pants!).  So I simply put my hand back over the bowl.  He backed off again, and I similarly pulled back.  He then took one step towards the bowl, stopped himself, then turned and went about his business and ignore the food for the rest of the time we were in there.  O.M.G.

How simple is that?!

So how does this translate to herding?  Good question.  Here’s my thinking…

When working stock, our dogs are constantly having to make choices.  One of our biggest challenges as handlers is to convince our dogs to choose to listen to us, rather than their own instincts.  This can be done through domination and intimidation – in effect, forcing them to do our bidding and thus not giving them a choice – or it can be achieved through having a dog choose to listen because doing so is reinforcing.  The difference is subtle, but critical.

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On paper, getting our dogs to choose to listen to us rather than follow their own impulses is no different from the IYC game I was playing with my puppy and a bowl of food.  However, the stimulation levels are a whole lot higher and so we need to find exercises that can build up to this challenge.

Before I share what I have been experimenting with, I need to raise an important aspect of this training.  IYC is not about having the dog be stationary.  It is not about having the dog go into a sit and stop moving.  It can be, if that is what you are looking for, but that is not the goal of the exercise.  The purpose is to get the dog to exert self-control in face of stimulation.

To be effective in a herding environment – which is highly dynamic – the dog needs to be able to make her choices while being dynamic.  In motion.  I know many dogs (mine included) who can hold a sit or a down around stock but lose their minds as soon as they get into motion.  So we need to be training our dogs IN MOTION.

To do so, I have been playing around with a few options.  So far I have come up with two approaches.  First, if you have a dog who is trained to do other things (agility, tricks, disk, etc.) you start working the dog in that sport within sight of the stock.  You start as far away as you need to be to have the dog still focus on the task assigned.

I like to push it just inside that threshold so the dog struggles a little but is capable of success with a little effort.  I think experiencing the frustration and pushing through is part of what builds the ability to think and make good choices in face of high distraction.

This is what I did with Desirée, who is also my agility dog.  Here is a video of our second attempt at this method.  Amazingly, I saw a big difference in her ability to stay level headed on stock after doing this only once!

When the dog CHOOSES to focus on a job we ask her to do, rather than simply acting on impulse, the act starts to reprogram their brains to do more of the same.  Every choice a dog makes leading to something it enjoys results in an endorphin release that serves to build neuropathways that, in turn, increase the probability of that same choice being made again.

This is why it is so critical to avoid letting them make “bad” choices (from our perspective)  – even once – that result in them experiencing something pleasurable (chasing a squirrel or a car etc.).  Once I understood how powerful making a choice is, I have worked very hard to try and set things up so my dogs make the choices I want them to make.  One single unfortunate choice can require dozens of repetitions of doing something else to counter condition.

Fortunately, the reverse seems to also be true, and it appears to generalize as well!  So Des learning to enact self-control (by her own choice) by doing agility in sight of sheep has translated to her being much more mindful, relaxed, and able to enact self-control while ON sheep!  I am thrilled with the result and looking forward to where this will take us.

The other approach, if your dog is not trained to any degree of intensity in another sport, is to use the Premack Principle.  Specifically, you reinforce a lower probability behaviour with a higher probability behaviour.  This is what I did with Clayton, who does not have the agility training that Desie does.  I will talk more about this approach in a future post.

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