The Development of Game’s Interests and Ability to Stay Engaged in a Class Environment

Time flies! Game is already 17 weeks old today. 17 weeks! That’s more than 4 months! It’s crazy.

A favorite colleague of mine invited us to use his puppy class for training and socializing Game. We’ve been going since I’ve had Game. We don’t participate in the exercises, but just hang out in the corner and work on our own things. It’s important to me that my puppies learn to be able to work in the presence of other dogs, and I really appreciate being able to use the puppies and their owners as a distraction for Game. We don’t join their play and socializing time, and we don’t stay for the entire hour, but only as long as it feels right for Game. The very first time, we were only there for a few minutes, and we stayed behind a fence, at a greater distance. The second time, we added a few minutes more, and so on, until we reached our current class time of between 20 and 30 minutes, which is plenty for any dog.

Since I discovered how to draw pie charts in Keynote the other day, I thought this would make a fun way to show you how the allocation of our class time has changed over the course of the last weeks!

The last two charts were drawn right after class. The earlier ones are reconstructed from my memory, so they are probably not 100% accurate. Still, it gives you an idea of how Game’s attention span and interests have developed!

I’d love to show you a video of how we work in the presence of other puppies, but unfortunately, I can’t film at the puppy class. So I’ll add a written explanation instead. Feel free to comment if you have any questions!

11 to 17 Weeks Puppy Class Pie Charts Game

Let’s look at my categories in a little more detail!

How to read the pie charts

The slices of play, work, sniffing, looking, and check-ins you see in the chart represent the percentage of the class time we spent with each of these activities. However, they don’t happen chronologically and one junk at a time, but we circle back and forth between them. For example, in a 20-minute session, we might spend 3 minutes looking at stuff and sniffing, 2 minutes offering check-ins, engagement, and extended focus, 4 minutes playing and working, 1 minute sniffing and looking, 1 minute checking in and engaging, 2 minutes playing, 2 minutes working, another 2 minutes looking around and sniffing etc.

Play (blue)

Personal play and playing with toys (various tug toys, balls, Kong Wubba …). As for personal play, Game gets to climb on me while I lie on the ground, we play opposition reflex games, I turn away from her and she tries to find my face, and I tease her, trying to grab her paws. As for playing with toys, we work on fetch, tug, out, the beginnings of shoving the tug in my hands, switch between different toys, switch between toy reinforcement and food, and going from high-arousal toy play to a food reinforcer for an easy behavior, and back to toys (switching between states of arousal). We also work on distinguishing different marker cues: tug (strike the tug toy) vs. chase (I’ll throw a toy for you to fetch). (1) Our play also includes engagement elements.

Work (green)

The distinction between work and play really is an artificial one. I try to make “work” and play equally fun. When I say “work,” what I mean is we practice the behaviors we’ve already worked on at home: first, I introduce them in a distraction-free environment, and then, we take them on the road. So far, the skills I have worked on in puppy class include:
+ come when called (verbal cue “Ygame!”)
+ distinguish between different marker signals (good = keep doing what you’re doing; I’ll deliver the treat right into your mouth; click/tongue click = I’ll give you the treat, and the behavior is over; ok, get it = I’ll throw a treat for you to chase; treats = I’ll scatter a few treats for you to search for in the grass). Our work includes various elements of food play in the different reward sequences.
+ hand touch (and verbal cue “touch”)
+ tuck sit (verbal cue “sit”)
+ stand (lured or hand signal)
+ fold-back down (lured or hand signal)
+ front feet on disc
+ touch a vertical target
+ chin target
+ mouth a retrieve object (a piece of garden hose)
+ walk over the A frame
+ climb/jump on a low table (food lure or hand touch)

Auto check-ins/Auto check-ins and extended focus (yellow)

This is me clicking whenever Game offers eye contact/looks in my direction. The first two sessions (11 and 12 weeks), there’s only auto check-ins, but no extended focus: Game would occasionally glance at me, but look away right away. That’s okay – I knew the duration would come.

From her third time at the puppy class onwards, Game has been able to give me extended focus: she didn’t need to look away after the fraction of a second, but could keep her focus on me longer and longer, up until a few seconds. When I saw her ability to do so grow, I started marking not only for looking at me, but for keeping up the eye contact, and I started rewarding several times in a row. This is also when I started going from offered focus to extended focus to a little play. Game stayed engaged when I played with her, starting from her third time at the puppy class. I didn’t have to work hard to keep her attention – she had told me she was ready, and I responded with short play sequences. I always make sure I end the play while Game would still like to continue.

Look at Stuff (orange)

Look at stuff is just that: looking at the world. In the puppy class situation, the world includes the other puppies (an aussie, a lagotto, a dachshund, and two staffordshire bullterriers) and their people (men, women, and a 6 year old girl). It’s an outdoors class, so there’s also the occasional bird to be looked at, and various passers-by outside the training field: people on bikes, hikers with dogs, nordic walkers, cars). It’s not a heavily trafficked area, but there are a few people passing by every time. Plus, of course, there is training equipment in the training field.

You can see in the charts that the first three times, Game had to do a lot of looking. Everything was new – of course she had to look! I didn’t worry about it. We came into the training field (or the adjacent field, in case of the very first class), and I’d just let her look for as long as she wanted. I stayed at a distance where she’d be okay looking and didn’t need to fight the lesh, trying to get to the people or dogs. With Game, I never, not even once, asked for engagement. She’s environmental, and I’m not sure I could win. So rather than trying to compete with the environment, I gave her all the time she needed. Eventually, she’d look back every time, and I could click and reinforce that. The first part of every class we were just hanging out and looking at stuff. Then, there were a few clicks for auto check-ins. The time Game needed to look at stuff before she was ready to check in grew shorter and shorter every time. By the third session, she began offering extended focus after a few auto check-ins. And again, with each new session, the extended focus happened sooner and sooner.

So the biggest junk of looking happens at the very beginning of a new class. Then we’ll go to check-ins, extended focus, and eventually play, and then work. After a circle like this, I circle back to looking at stuff and/or sniffing. Game is a puppy – I don’t expect her to pay attention for several minutes at a time! There’s maybe three minutes of doing stuff, and then I encourage her to sniff or look at the world again. She’ll do that, and once she’s done, she’ll let me know with check-ins. When she gives me extended focus again, she’s letting me know she’s ready for another round of play and work. The time we keep playing and working grows longer the older she gets.

I don’t want to overwhelm the environment, and I don’t want Game to forget her surroundings. That’s why I keep going back to looking and sniffing after each little round of work and/or play.

I stay connected to Game when she is watching the world by her leash. Sometimes, I’ll also sit down with her, calmly stroking her back while we both observe the class together.

Sniff (red)

Game loves to sniff. In fact, I don’t think I’ve had such a nose-driven dog since Snoopy, my Dachshund. Game can spend a long time sniffing a leaf, or a twig, or an interesting spot on the ground. She can even spend a long time sniffing my pants or shoes when I come home, savoring every scent molecule of information.

Like with looking at stuff, I doubt that I can compete with sniffing, and I don’t worry about it too much. Game is a dog, and dogs like to sniff! So when we get to a new place – such as the training field that lots of different dogs and people have walked through since we were there the last time -, Game gets time to sniff and look around until she lets me know she is ready to work. Every time we go, she has needed a little less time to sniff and look. This reinforces me for my approach and let’s me know I’m on the right track.

In between play and work sessions, I’ll also give Game opportunities to go back to sniffing. Sometimes I’ll cue “Treats!” and scatter a few treats for her to find in the grass. Sniffing isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it’s relaxing and helps to ground the dog because it requires her to breathe consciously, like we do when we do a breathing exercise.

In the first 4 sessions you can see in the pie charts, I stayed in the same general area of the training field for the entire time. There were more than enough new impressions there! The last two times, I’ve walked a few meters around the periphery between our play and work sessions, giving Game time to look and sniff as we strolled forward on a loose leash. She gets to sniff the ground, the equipment, the water bowl … until she lets me know she’s ready for another round of play and work.

(1) If you want to learn more about how to improve your training by means of using different marker cues, check out Shade Whitesel’s toy classes at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s