Thursday, December 13, 2012

Triple Triumph

This training of Sookie is a slow unfolding--significant progress each day, but it's only visible if I look really closely. The reminders applies to all of my life, especially to all my relationship: be in the moment, pay attention, expect perfection, look for the successes and not the failures.

She still runs away and doesn't seem to hear me, if she has slipped out of the house yard fence without the leash, or if she is intent on tracking some enticing smell on the way to the romping ground. I need to bite my tongue rather than fruitlessly call again and again. If she doesn't want to give me her attention, when she is off-leash, there is no way I can get it. I can only trust that in time, she will be so completely interested in what I will ask of her next that she will always have a bit of her attention on me, ready for the next adventure. That, and eventually the smells of the farm may seem less compellingly exotic to her city-raised nose.

I was distracted and aloof at the romping ground this morning. We actually didn't get there until this afternoon, because of a thought-provoking meeting this morning followed by various follow-up calls and emails. I had taken my pruning shears, and let her play on her own while I cut out wild grape vines that are a potential tripping hazard. We tossed the ball a little bit, with her dancing and throwing her head around and rapidly mouthing the ball every time she brought it. She was coming right to me and letting me take it from her mouth, but it was a lot of dodging and grabbing to get it, and my leather gloves saved my hands from a lot of little bruises from accidentally colliding with her teeth and jaws.


This evening we went out again at dusk. When I let her off the leash, she went out looking for the ball, round and round the Hugelkulture piles, but couldn't find it. It's hard to see in the clumpy grass in the twilight. I wandered around looking, too. When I found it, I called her to me, and she eventually came. I pointed at the ball with my outstretched arm and pointing finger, saying "Look!" She would look deep into my eyes, tongue hanging out, trying to discern what I wanted. "Look!" I would point again. Her gaze on my face was unwavering, 100% Border Collie intensity.

We've done this before, many times, when I'm trying to show her a lost ball that I found. I usually start 5 or 6 feet from the ball, then gradually get closer until my finger is nearly touching the ball, repeating the command while looking at the ball myself. I lock eyes with her and then deliberately shift my line of sight to the ball, hoping she'll follow. I have never gotten her to pay attention to my hand, unless to paw at it and examine it.

But this evening, when I got within a couple feet of the ball, she shifted her gaze to my hand, and instantly pounced on the ball. Success! We did it a couple more times through the evening, and I could tell she had finally begun to grasp the concept of looking where I was pointed/looking, instead of at my face.

This seems trivial, but in working sheep it's critical. If she's sent out to gather the flock, and can't find them, I might need to direct her towards them by pointing them out and saying "look!", if verbal left/right commands aren't working to direct her towards them. And if she leaves one behind when gathering the flock, I'll need to tell her to "Look back" so she can return for the straggler.

That seems like a small difference in commands--"Look" and "Look back". Someone who has struggled to convey the simple concept of "sit" to a mere ordinary dog might wonder whether a dog could tell the difference between the two. Well, my old Toss not only knew these very similar-sounding commands, she understood "here" (i.e., come here) and "here here!" (pay attention to something else over this way) as totally different commands.

These similar commands underscore the vital importance of the trainer being consistent, especially in the beginning as the dog and handler get to know and understand one another, or when introducing new commands and concepts. In many ways, training Sookie is all about training myself. I must be very consistent in my use of words and gestures if I'm to succeed in communicating with her.

Another crucial aspect of the "look!" command is that it is a step in breaking her preoccupation with looking directly at me for commands. This is often an artifact of conventional obedience training, where the emphasis is on having the dog's visual attention on you at all times, as it awaits commands...unlike in a herding situation where the dog must keep its eyes on the sheep to control them, and only listen to the handler.


Once we found the ball, I just sat in one place and let her bring it to me. No gloves this evening (it was a very nice afternoon, still pleasant at dusk without being totally bundled up), so it wasn't long before my fingers were cringing from crashing into her teeth as she mouthed the ball and tossed her head each time she brought it back. OK, time for the next level. Now she needs to PLACE the ball in my cupped hands, instead of flirting with me and making me take it from her. "Drop it in my hands" I tell her, over and over, as she dances around me. Later we'll work on the all-important non-specific "drop it"--usually meaning "put down that disgusting dead thing you found before you get one step close to me!"

Total attention now, and total patience. I need to respond lightning quick when she releases the ball, to close my hands on it just when it is loose in her mouth. And I need to NOT take the ball unless she releases it. I begin by using a lighter and lighter touch to take the ball from her, until I'm not grabbing it enough to get it away from her. She WANTS me to throw the ball, so she is invested in this. How can she get me to throw the ball? I have to make this segue gradually enough that she doesn't lose interest, I have to throw the ball now and then, we have to succeed. And I have to make a big deal out of each success, however small.

As my touch lightens, as we succeed a few times, as the edge wears off her energy at bit from chasing and bringing back the ball,  suddenly I can see that she GETS it--she understands. She's still dancing and tossing and chomping and generally being a moving target--but if my hands are cupped in the right place at the right time, the ball is somehow released into them, falling just fraction of an inch. YAY! YOU DID IT! GOOD DOG! and she is petted lavishly before the ball is thrown again. Suddenly she's releasing the ball into my hand with less and less dancing, and dropping it from higher (measured in fractions of an inch, still). What a great feeling!


Of course, throughout this process, there are many times when the ball is dutifully dropped, but it lands on the ground instead of in my hands. I could have used this to work on "drop it", but thought that would confuse the issue. Instead, we took advantage of the situation to also work on "pick it up", which she also had figured out by the end of the session. Not that she's graceful, reliable, prompt, or accurate, but she knows what I mean. We have communicated: we have "created a shared meaning", in the words of my college communication class many years ago. The rest will come with practice (another word for "play").

So, this evening, we "got" three new important concepts/commands in one session. Considering that a week ago, she wouldn't even bring the ball back to me, I'm pretty amazed at the rate of progress we've made.

1 comment:

Catlady said...

I'm really enjoying reading about this process. :) Good old impatient me is being reminded that dog training is a process. Got so used to Bear, who we had from a pup, that it took me a while to get the hang of training Lady. But, these adventures with the Sookie and the ball are very reminiscent of last summer and the one before - Lady came to us not knowing how to play at all at 9 months, but now puts the ball in our hands, cupped for her... :) Yes, it is a slow process, but so rewarding when I can see progress!!