There is much to be said about my three days of tending camp at Raspberry Ridge. Shelby and I progressed in not only our tending training, but also in Shelby’s reactivity. Three unadulterated days devoted to training was just what the doctor ordered for both of us, and we were able to tighten up our training regiment and bring some skills back home with us. As always, we’re a work in progress, but we’re getting there.
We continued our border training, working on encouraging Shelby to stay on one side of the border with me on the other by clicking and treating her trotting on the other side of a tactile border. When she strayed onto the other side of the border more than twice in a session, she was removed from working the stock and given a break in a crate in the house.
But the most exciting thing we worked on while we were at the farm was teaching Shelby when it’s appropriate to chase the sheep. She enjoyed this game quite a lot!
I, on the other hand, had a pretty difficult time with it. For one, it meant relinquishing a lot of control and trusting Shelby to do the right thing which was, in this case, not to kill, maim or otherwise harm the sheep. I had to take a deep breath and step back. What I learned was that Shelby will not kill the sheep! Actually, if anything, she needs a bit more confidence around loose livestock, which we’re working on building by heavily rewarding her for chasing the stragglers back into the pen.
Shelby’s approach to this new game was rough. She came toward the sheep slowly, crouching low to the ground with her head lowered, almost like a border collie, attempting to use her eye to move the livestock. When they didn’t budge, she barked. When they still didn’t budge, she surged forward, but the surging almost always caused the sheep to come further out of the pen which is something we’ll work on once she has the necessary confidence. In the meantime, I just waited for that moment when the sheep (whose natural instinct is to be with its flock) jumped the border and fled back to the safety of its pen and yelled “Good” while I showered Shelby with cookies for her great achievement.
Shadow, Shelby’s tending counterpart for the week, didn’t have any trouble getting the unruly sheep to stay right where they should be. We actually had a difficult time luring them across the border, because Shadow was so on top of keeping them in, so while she did a great job, I think she might not have had as much fun as Shelby, because she didn’t get to play the game to the same extent!
While Shadow was busy learning the lesson Shelby learned last time at Raspberry Ridge (that is, you hit the end of the harness when you try to go in the pen with the sheep, silly you’re not supposed to go in there), Shelby and I worked on dry work in the furrows.
Basically, this just meant that Shelby got to trot up and down the furrows while I threw cookies out ahead of her for staying in the furrow. By the last day, she wasn’t leaving that furrow for anything (except maybe sheep), because she had learned that good things only happen in the furrow.
I had an “ah ha” moment myself doing dry work in the wee hours of the third morning. The day before, I’d been given yet another lesson from Carolyn on counter commanding (sigh). I’ve been getting better at stopping myself from counter commanding, but apparently I’m still doing it on a pretty regular basis. For those who may not have heard this speech before, counter commanding is when your dog is doing one behavior and you cue another, incompatible behavior after the dog is already doing something else. So if your dog is running away from you and you counter command “come”, for example or your dog is jumping up and you counter command “off”. Carolyn dislikes this training for two reasons. The first is that she believes it’s akin to using a verbal correction or a no reward marker. It can be harmless but when used too frequently, your dog can show anxiety about performing certain behaviors because he/she is afraid of doing it “wrong” and being counter commanded. This becomes even more of a problem as you become more and more frustrated with your dog for performing the “wrong” behavior (keep reading and you’ll see what I mean, the dog actually thinks it’s the “right” behavior and doesn’t understand why you’re mad!) As Shelby is pretty anxious about just about everything, Carolyn finds this training particularly bothersome with us.
Additionally, and this was a great revelation for me over the camp, counter commanding can create unintentional behavior chains. If the dog learns that whenever he/she jumps up, for example, you cue “off” and he/she gets a cookie, then the jumping up behavior becomes linked to the “off” behavior and (by the law of behaviors that are rewarded are more likely to occur) the jumping up behavior becomes more likely to occur. So as you’re going along you’re simultaneously teaching your dog a behavior chain that bugs you! The rewards keep coming, but you keep getting frustrated and your poor anxious dog keeps repeating the behavior chain (you’ve rewarded it after all) but doesn’t know why you’re getting so angry, which can create some pretty mixed feelings about what should be a pleasant training experience.
This is exactly what was going on with our dry furrow training, and I didn’t even realize it (which is slightly embarrassing for me). As we walked along, I clicked and treated Shelby for staying in the furrow, but each time she hopped out, I counter commanded “out” (her cue to turn around and go back to the furrow). When she got back in the furrow, I clicked and rewarded. After the first time she did this, she looked at me and immediately hopped out of the furrow. Again, I repeated, “out”, and she hopped back. Repeat. By the third time, she was spending more time out of the furrow than in, and I was grinding my teeth and trying really hard not to yell or drag her fluffy butt off the graze all together. Instead, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and made myself think about it. To some, Shelby might have seemed like she was being “purposely disobedient” or “stubborn”, some might even argue, “but she knows better”, it sure looked that way, what with the way she looked at me each and every time she stepped out of the furrow and then proceeded to do what was (in my opinion) the wrong thing.
But she wasn’t being disobedient or stubborn at all, and she didn’t know better! AH HA! I had created a behavior chain for her, and she had figured out a great new way to make me click and treat more frequently, by bunny hopping in and out of the furrow. Ta da! What a smart puppy and a stupid human.
I decided I should probably nip this one in the bud before it got to be an established routine. Next time Shelby hopped out of the furrow, I did nothing. In fact, I kept walking right by her like I didn’t even see her, humming to myself. I heard her collar jingling behind me and there she was, charging up the furrow with her brows slightly indented – “Didn’t you see me mom? I was out, and now I’m in, where’s my cookie?” I kept walking. After a few steps of trotting in the furrow, I clicked and treated. The next time she walked out of the furrow, I did the same thing, ignoring the behavior all together. By the third time, Shelby surged out in front of me, looked at the furrow then looked back at me. I waited. She turned from me and began to trot up the furrow. Ah ha all around! Click and jackpot reward! What a good decision and what a smart puppy!
Because I didn’t let this get too far, by the end of the training session Shelby was staying in the border very reliably (in fact, she didn’t cross the furrow any more in our 20 minute session).
As we walked back in, we saw Carolyn, who asked us how it was going and gave me some much needed positive reinforcement for getting up so early to train with Shelby without sheep. I told her about my revelation, and she chuckled and nodded, “Crazy how that works isn’t it? I think I heard that somewhere before…”
I laughed and rolled my eyes. While Shelby got a nice cool drink, Carolyn and I discussed how frustrating it must be for dogs (Shelby included), to have created these (in their opinion) very successful and highly reinforced behavior chains only for their owners to become frustrated with them. We also discussed alternatives to fixing these chains (many of which I’ve noticed at home) without causing the stress of an extinction burst. But at the end of the day I was reminded of a valuable life and training lesson – prevention is really the best medicine.
We also discussed the human psyche and the need for control and how this affected our training of our dogs. I realized that I like to have control of Shelby’s behavior so much that it’s actually causing her added anxiety and causing me to lose some control of her. As Carolyn quoted, “control is an illusion.” While I pondered that, I watched Shelby relaxing in the shade and made some decisions about her future…