Getting Out of the Pool

I recently read one of Sarah Stremming’s blog posts over at the Cognitive Canine. I will give you a second to go read that …




I keep telling myself that this is what I have done with removing myself from almost every sport and all classes for the past year. The exception of course has been disc, which provides a consistent set of locations and people, an inherently fun game for him, and as low pressure an activity as I can find where I am still involved (I want to do things so badly that my desperation oozes off of me despite every effort to remain chill and that pressure doesn’t help Sei one bit). We have made progress there, glacially slow, but progress all the same.

Sei just can’t function in class or sport environments. Hell, he can’t take food in most places away from home or walk around the block most days. I’ve spent most of the past year beating myself up for quitting and not trying hard enough. But I’m going to dread going somewhere all week, stress Sei out, both of us have a bad time, and come home crying, is that really helpful for either of us? The answer is obviously no! But then, the problem is my attitude: if I could just have a happier outlook, be more empathetic, be a better trainer, then it wouldn’t be like that. Or so my brain tells me.

So at what point does getting out of the pool equal quitting? When should I try to get back in? When will I know when Sei is ready? Actually, that one is fairly easy, he tells me pretty clearly when I have a mind to listen. When will I be ready to do what Sei is ready for, rather than what I want to do?


Just Go Train

I listened to a really interesting Facebook Live yesterday put on by Denise Fenzi. It was about what to do when you get stuck in planning rather than actually training. It was exactly what I needed to hear right now! Training used to be fun, before I learned more. Perrin and I made incredible progress in the first year and a half, when I knew less and we just went out and had fun. I wasn’t videoing every exercise looking for all of my mistakes. I just trouble shot issues as they came up rather than spending hours agonizing over making clean training plans.

Part of what I have learned this month on working through TEAM with Perrin is how fast we can make progress if I just go out and work on things (rather than sitting inside stewing about the best way to do so). I have no problem troubleshooting behaviours, and know where to go to find solutions if I get stuck. I only get hung up in the training plans because that is the ‘right’ way to do it. Admittedly, doing things ‘right’ matters much more for Sei than Perrin. If I mess up and frustrate Perrin, some handler screw up cookies makes it all better. Not so for Sei. But still, I get a lot farther learning from my mistakes with Sei, than I do from doing nothing at all.

Overall message:

Just get out and train! You will get much farther trying something than sitting and thinking about training the ideal way.

Other things I was pretty vindicated to hear coming from an experienced trainer I enjoy following:

  • TEAM1 is boring
  • Go train and have fun even if it isn’t perfect or what you ‘should’ be working on, especially when doing behaviour work because it is boring, frustrating and like watching paint dry because progress comes so slowly.

Set It and Forget it – Ideas

This morning I watched a webinar/online seminar thing put on by Hannah Branigan called Set It and Forget It. It focused on strategies and skills for setting up clean training sessions. This is an area that I definitely need work in, especially for Sei! The more clarity I can provide for Sei, the happier he is! Being right is important for him, where as Perrin doesn’t really care as long as he gets a cookie (ie, screw up cookies do not make up for confusion with Sei, they do for Perrin. Sei finds confusion much more aversive and cookies much less reinforcing than Perrin does).

Three of the components that Hannah focuses on for clean training sessions: stations, transportation, and reinforcement/resetting (among others).

Ideas of Things I Can Use for Stations for Sei: 

  • Chairs (my current go to, and meets the criteria of, if present, Sei will get on it without a cue)
  • Mat (needs work)
  • Crate (needs a lot of work, has some baggage)
  • X-pen (again, baggage/a history of frustration)
  • Other situational/never before used things: stairs, car hatch, couch, any sort of available platform

The transportation component, a formalized lure/hand touch type thing, will need some practice on our part. I should try working on that. I wonder what other kinds of things I could use in place of a food lure where appropriate?

  • a series of platforms/foot targets?
  • tugging? (YES! Answered in the webinar)
  • hand touches? (If a duration + motion nose touch is trained prior)

Ideas for Reinforcement Loops:

(Some focus on brainstorming for the TEAM exercises we are working on)

  • Back and Forth
    • Jump training (also see similar exercise in Jumping Gymnastics course)
    • Jump grids done in both directions
    • Platform work (getting on and off either side)
    • Tunnels (curved with me in centre)
    • 180 degree wraps (bowl on either side of me. Also a mix with out and back?)
  • Out and Back
    • Platform work (reinforcement behind, thrown or with T&T)
    • 180 degree wraps (bowl on either side of me. Also a mix with back and forth?)
    • Vertical Target Training (where the dog comes back)
    • Resets from pivot work?
  • Loops
    • Jump grids done in one direction (I have done something similar using tugging as my transporter)
    • Weave training
    • Vertical Target Training (where the dog does something once ‘out’)
    • Jump for TEAM1 (jump with handler motion)
    • Circling the handler without precise heel position already


Activity Ideas

I am trying to narrow down which activities to work on with both pups, and this is just a huge, high level list of my options and ideas about each for future reference and planning.


Tracking – online and local instruction available, hard to practice in my location as there are few appropriate areas that are dog friendly. Not sure if there are any local trialing options.

Nosework- available in my area, lots of training options in person and online. Perrin enjoys it. Have the equipment necessary to start. I don’t really enjoy it and dislike the process/protocols involved with handling scent.

Barnhunt- available in my area, local training available, but a bit of a drive to access. Could acquire the necessary equipment to practice at home, but that involves start up cost I am not sure I want to commit to.  Not something I enjoy overly. Low stress trialing.

Fitness- Just needs to be done to ensure my dog’s safety and quality of life in all activities.

Rally- a myriad of training options, online and in person. Fewer local trialing options, but plenty of online opportunities (which I currently prefer, for my own nerves and for Perrin). More laid back on the details. Online courses do exist that I can set up in the limited space of my back yard. Little to no startup cost (already have signs and training courses for it). Perrin has already started it and has most of the entry level skills individually (at the point of working on chaining a whole course together). Not sure if Perrin enjoys it, or if I have sucked his enthusiasm out by drilling things, moving on too quickly, and getting frustrated.

Obedience- a myriad of training options, online and in person. I already have several online courses on the subject, and Perrin has several of the basic behaviours, but we would have to go back and re teach them. No interest in in-person trialing (registration issues with an intact mixed breed, disagreement with some of the exercises, not an activity that works well with my own weaknesses for perfection and frustration), but TEAM is certainly a viable option.

Freestyle- seems fun, and like Perrin would enjoy it. Online training options available. Trialling options are somewhat limited, but there are a few online venues of different flavours. Could work through a lot of it on my own, but would love to take some more online courses on the subject.

Toy/Play Skills- Do we need these? Should I spend the time on building drive in Perrin for them? Unsure.

Service Dog Tasks- Perrin’s all time favourite activity. I enjoy training them. Win-win. Strictly for fun, no titles to work towards.

Trick Dog Champion Title- Totally within reach, need to clean up some behaviours and train one or two more, but we are close.

Parkour- Perrin enjoys it, easy to train. Online titles available, no training courses necessary. This area is not very dog friendly, so hard to do locally, but I could likely do much of it at the farm.




Disc- a given at this point. I need to keep training at a safe level for Sei’s age though. It is easy to get carried away when we are both having so much fun.

Agility- also a given, just trying to decide when to start. Need to buy some equipment to start at home, several in person training options, several online options. Need to pick a handling system, so many choices! May not start even foundations work (even though he is more than old enough to start those now) until next summer due to time and money constraints.

Loose Leash Walking- necessary. Non optional. Hate working on it.

Nosework/Barnhunt: see Perrin’s section above.

Fitness – not optional. Will be required for Sei to remain safe and healthy if we continue onto disc and agility.

Rally/Obedience- see Perrin’s section above. Registration issues not applicable for Sei since he is not a mixed breed. Sei has few/none of the behaviours started, so would be starting right from the beginning. That seems overwhelming to me right now.

Freestyle- see Perrin’s section above. Also seems like it would be great cross training for disc freestyle.

Toy/Play Skills- we NEED these for disc and agility. Willing to spend quite a lot on courses as necessary.

Trick Dog Titles – See Perrin’s section. Same logic applies, just a different title.

Parkour-  see Perrin’s section. Need to wait until he is older for the jumping portions.

Herding – access to stock the limiting factor. Closest trainer I am comfortable with is 3 hours away, so any lessons will be limited to once/2 weeks at best this summer.

Mindset Problems with Goal Setting

I appear to be running into a problem with my goal setting and planning, and it is all in my head.

It seems that I am able to either have fun training with my dogs, dabbling around in whatever seems appealing that day, OR I can work towards goals I have set. If I have a goal I tend to get militant about it, putting so much pressure on both my dogs and myself that it sucks all of the fun out of the process. Training plans turn training into a chore for me, and make me anxious and demanding towards my dogs such that we ‘stay on schedule’. I become unaccommodating and inflexible. I get extremely frustrated with myself and my dogs in a way that I don’t when we are ‘just training for fun’. Generally, I become a trainer  and a person that I do not want to be. This tends to come out when I am working on manners behaviours as well (the dog should ‘know’ this! Except that obviously they shouldn’t, because I haven’t trained it. But I should have trained it if I had my priorities right, and I didn’t and now I am frustrated at my dog when I know it is not their fault but mine. But instead of making a plan and working on it, I sit and be upset with myself. Not a useful behaviour chain). But it is all supposed to be fun! The logic part of my brain understands this, but the rest just can’t seem to follow.

Part of this problem, I think, is compounded by the fact that I just can’t seem to narrow down my focus with my dogs and decide what sports/activities to focus on. Then I get overwhelmed by ‘needing’ to do ALL THE THINGS by next week.

So shouldn’t I just be able to do the things we find fun? Rally today, mimicry tomorrow, disc tricks next week. There is nothing inherently wrong with just chasing butterflies and having a good time with my dogs after all. Except that this is another thing the logic side understands, but the rest of my brain can’t get behind. If we aren’t working towards some concrete achievement or performance, I have trouble seeing the point and following through. Even though I understand that ‘the point’ is to have a mutually enjoyable time with my best friends.

My mindset is very poor. I need to pick a goal and stick with it, and be able to find that process enjoyable. I need to be able to make a plan, but be happy to change and adapt it to where my dogs and I are right now. I need to decide on something to work on and not get distracted by all the other activities that we ‘should’ be working on too. This is what I would like to see, I’m just not sure I have the tools yet to get myself there.

Stress is Not a Single Category

In the dog world, I have come across the concept of ‘stressing up’ (zoomies in the ring) versus ‘stressing down’ (avoidance, sniffing, scratching, etc) as a dog’s response to stressful situations. It came up during the Intro to Herding workshop that Sei and I took with Kynic Stockdogs a few weeks ago. And I have been thinking about it ever since.

Prior to introducing the dogs to stock, we were asked whether we anticipated our dogs stressing up or stressing down. Thinking back to our work with toys (ball, disc, flirt pole), I guessed that Sei would stress high. When introduced to stock, Sei was pretty unsure/unconfident about the sheep at first, and pretty classically stressed down, avoiding looking at the sheep and sniffing around. This did not surprise me at all. I know that he is often unsure in new situations at first and takes some time to watch the situation before gaining confidence and jumping in. So I had a bit of cognitive dissonance going on. I guessed that he would stressed up, but also expected him to stress down; contradictory beliefs. I could not sort out in my brain the times in which Sei was going to ‘stress high’ or ‘stress low’, but I knew that they are both in his repertoire of reactions to stress.

I explained my lack of understanding to the instructor, and how when frustrated Sei would ‘stress high’, as compared to what she had just seen with his reaction to stock (which I had said at the time didn’t surprise me). Helene pointed out that the stress experience by Sei that was initiated by frustration/unclear criteria caused a different reaction in him (‘stressing up’) than the reaction to stress initiated by anxiety/uncertainty/fear (‘stressing down’/avoidance). This was one of those lightbulb moments for me!

The issue in my thinking was that I was picturing ‘stress’ as one big amorphous thing. I was lumping stress caused by all sorts of different stressors together such that they had one type of behaviour as a reaction. On some level I must have known that this wasn’t a good model for behaviour under adverse conditions, because I recognized that Sei had two different reactions to different kinds of stressful situations. However, I seemed to be getting caught up in the baggage in the human world around the word ‘stress’, and had not been able to look clearly at the behaviour my dogs were showing me.

‘Stress’ is not a single type of situation, but rather a broad category of different kinds of situations that elicit emotional states that the dog needs to find a coping strategy for, such as frustration or anxiety (I’m having trouble coming up with more at the moment, but this will be stuck in my brain for a while, so I’m sure I will come up with more). To be a better trainer and advocate for my dogs, I should be aware of their coping strategies for different kinds of stressors, so that I can better give them what they need to be comfortable in difficult situations. Something to observe and work on going forward!

Release Cue Hesitation Observations

Today I made some really interesting observations while working on playing tug with Sei.

Sei has only recently gotten strong enough at playing tug for me to require an ‘out’/’drop’/’give’ cue, so we were working on that today. One of the ways to teach that, is to say ‘drop’, then put your hands on both sides of the toy near their mouths and wait until they let go, then immediately releasing the dog to the tug again (so dropping the toy on cue always leads to more play). I did this three times times, Sei dropped the toy immediately with my hands pretty far away from his face, and things seemed to be going to plan. Until I held the toy out with both hands horizontally and gave Sei his tug marker (release to tug/marker word), and he hesitated. I had to cue him twice more and take a few steps back before he believed me.

Sei hadn’t shown hesitation before this and it gave me pause. I had come across an article/podcast at some point in the past, I think it might have been something by Sarah Stremming? I can’t remember now, but I had read/heard an article/podcast somewhere on proofing done poorly, and how when dogs get hesitant about their release cues, it’s a sign of confusion. This wasn’t a proofing scenario, but the hesitation around an understood release cue was there, so I started looking at the situation for what Sei might be finding confusing. I figured it was likely that my presentation of the toy, with one hand on either end of the tug, held out horizontally so it is easy for him to grab, might look too similar to me having my hands on either side of his mouth on the toy. Really, the difference between my hands in both scenarios is only a few inches.

So, I tried again, but without the pressure for the release. Adding verbal cues is hard for me, and I generally hesitate to add them until I am *really* sure the behaviour is ready. But I was in experimentation mode so I tried anyway. I tried making the toy as ‘dead’ as I could (no motion, which is hard because Sei will keep backing up until there is tension on the toy again, but I did my best), standing up in a less playful stance, and then said ‘drop’. And he spit the toy out (which he had never done with the body language process alone). Then immediately went back to it when I said tug. We tried a few more times in that session, and again this evening without any more hesitation.

I figured something out on the fly in a training session! That might be a first! I get so worried about having to do everything perfectly the first time with Sei, for fear of ruining behaviours forever that I don’t start working on anything at all. It is the little moments like this one, where something doesn’t quite work, but I am quickly able to notice what is happening and pivot directions with no ill effect, that are slowly getting me out of that analysis paralysis. Its not gone yet, but hopefully it will get a bit better!

October 7-14th, 2017

Between Thanksgiving, midterms and assignments due this week, there was no videoing of training sessions. A quick run down of things worked on this week:

Perrin: Wrapping different objects, discerning the difference between wrapping clockwise and counter clockwise. He also goes along for the ride when Sei works on sits, downs and stays.

Sei: Sei has really got shaping figured out, so now we are playing with ALL THE THINGS. So far this week I have played with shaping front foot targets, ‘be sad’ (face on floor while laying down), holding objects, shaking a paw and we also shaped a bow and started putting it on cue. We also work on sits, downs and stays over the course of the day. Play skills continue to be worked on, specifically bringing back a toy that has been thrown to me rather than dropping it part way back. I’ve been looking up different solutions, but am still trying to decide what approach to try first.

Other revelations this week is that my big goals I made a few weeks ago are just not that helpful to me right now. With so little time in the day, I need to have better planning than a far away goal in order to get anything productive done. I need specific ‘Today I am going to work on sits’ or ‘Today I am going to shape the nose touch portion of a mouth hold’ type steps. So, back to the start on coming up with a cohesive training plan. I also need to decide to focus on something rather than flitting around from flight of fancy to flight of fancy if I want to make any concrete steps towards anything.

There is so much to be worked on too, some of it life skills, some of it ‘fun stuff’: co-op care, stationing skills to make working with two dogs easier (I really need this), life skills for Sei like loose leash walking, stays, happy crating, etc, ‘fun stuff’ with Sei like learning how to shape, tricks, agility foundations, etc., Perrin’s skills work on rally/obedience/tricks, competition skills with Perrin like reducing reinforcement, ring confidence, chaining behaviours, etc, working on Perrin’s online titles for parkour, rally, tricks and freestyle, working towards Sei’s trick dog title… Decisions decisions…

Sei Frustration Musings

Before I picked Sei up, one of the many things his breeder told me about him was that he would demand clarity in training. While that became clear in our other training endeavors, it has become glaringly, in-your-face obvious now that I am attempting to use a frisbee or a ball as a reinforcer. Im suspecting there are two big underlying reasons for this:

1. In shaping and capturing, I am using food as my main reinforcer. Food and toys encourage very different arousal states for Sei, and the arousal state produced by a toy is much more active, energetic, demanding, and less patient. Perfect for teaching many behaviours, but less forgiving of mistakes. Which leads me to…

2. My lack of skills using toys as a reinforcer. Perrin never really liked toys enough or consistently, so they didn’t really come into his list of useful reinforcers. I am just starting to learn what training a dog in a ‘toy arousal’ state looks like: which behaviours lend themselves best, which type of play (chase, catch, tug, etc) works best for which behaviours, where to deliver reinforcement for which toys and which behaviours, which types of reinforcement/delivery locations need different marker words, etc. It’s a bit of a steep learning curve with both theoretical/judgement skills and mechanical skills to learn.

3. I am better at shaping and capturing because I have done it more, so I make fewer mistakes and set up better training plans. This leaves fewer gaps for Sei to be frustrated in.

I’m trying to do my best for Sei by learning as fast as I can, but there are going to be a lot of mistakes for a while. I am going to have to up my planning game and stop setting  Sei and myself up for failure by going into training sessions unprepared.

I’m not skilled at using toys for reinforcement in training yet, but I am just so happy that I at least had the knowledge to identify the likely problem when Sei suddenly started jumping up and biting my arms in the middle of toy training sessions. Knowing even less than I do now, I would have likely put that behaviour down to a ‘lack of self control’ around the toy, rather than recognizing it as a frustration behaviour initiated when I was being confusing and his path to reinforcement was unclear. The pieces of the puzzle that made me think frustration were:

  • It was not happening in the beginning of the session, but in the middle after the novelty of the toy had worn off a bit
  • He doesn’t do it when we are just playing with toys (and I didn’t think what we were doing looked much different than that. It was high on the playing and low on the asking for skills. Clearly Sei disagreed)
  • His body language and bark is different when he is really excited versus when he is frustrated
  • It was only happening when I was trying to cue newer behaviours that had never been practiced with a toy (and quite frankly were not on the verbal well enough for me to be trying it with him so excited and focused on the toy).

This seems childish to me, but I am also happy that I was able to think logically when he was biting me, rather than applying an emotionally driven answer (‘he is an entitled little brat thinking he can just take the toy from me!’), or lashing out when he hurt me. That is progress from where I was three years ago. The last reason is actually one of the reasons why moving to +R philosophies made my world a happier place. I find that the only time +P methods tend to pop into my head as an option is when I am extremely frustrated or in pain (usually the triggers occur in the form of constant barking or being nipped, respectively). And at that point my decisions weren’t logical, or based on behaviours science, its strictly an emotional lashing out. Then I would feel so bad because Perrin would be so sad and I was mad at myself for making him feel that way, and also for letting my emotions take over to the point of lashing out

While I may not know what to do all the time, I’m finding that I am more and more able to at least identify the problem (or at least a short list of likely ones). Which means I can think through them and try a new approach or go out and find more information on the problem. I’m slowly making progress!

So, back to the disc incidents. I continued to use my three different markers for toys that I have so far (catch = the toy is going to be tossed into the air for you to catch, tug= come to me and tug the toy in my hand, chase= I am about to throw this ball/disc/whatever for you to run after), which I think makes a big difference. He clearly knows what each of them means. I also put more thought into what I was asking him to do, where we were and how he is feeling. Rookie mistake assuming that what he can do in the house for food, he can do in the yard for a toy. After re-adjusting my criteria and ensuring I was consistently using the correct markers, I am happy to say that I haven’t been bitten since.

Its a shame for poor Sei that he had to yell so loudly (bit me twice) before I understood the troubles he was having. I will work harder to be better for him.