Adolescence: Working on Opting In, Engagement, and Pushing Me to Work/Play

As a 9.5 months old adolescent, Game thinks the world is very interesting. So many things to explore, to sniff, to look at or roll in! People to greet, and dogs to play with!

I don’t want to correct my dogs for lack of attention – but I do want them to give me 100% when we’re working: we’re either off duty, or we’re ON. And on means ON in a the-world-around-us-ceases-to-exist kind of way; only me and my dog and whatever it is we are doing together. That’s the kind of attention I give to my dog when we work or play, and that’s the kind of attention I want in return. No halfhearted checking in with me and then going back to sniffing the ground in between reps!

With a puppy, it’s easy to overwhelm the environment with food or toys. As the dog gets older and more independent, this gets more difficult. Eventually, it won’t work anymore unless you have a naturally handler-focused dog (Phoebe is an example of a dog like this). This is the point where people will often add corrections to the picture: work with me – get rewarded. Lose focus – receive a correction. This works well enough, but I don’t want to train this way. It doesn’t seem fair: what I’m asking of my dog isn’t “natural.” Tuck-Sitting, heeling, fold-back-downing, retrieving stuff on cue while ignoring all environmental temptations … It’s not our dogs who want to perform perfect heeling patterns; it’s us – the human on the other end of the leash. Correcting a dog for being interested in something that is inherently more interesting to dogs – like looking at the cat walking past the training field or sniffing – doesn’t seem fair to me.

I still want that perfect state of ONness, focus, and engagement though. So I need a different strategy – one that relies neither on corrections nor on overwhelming the environment with my rewards!

Game finds the environment very interesting. I could already tell she was environmentally focused when I got her at 10 weeks of age. Even when she was a puppy, I made an effort to not overwhelm the environment with my reinforcers, but wait till she asked to work or play. Game is a working-line Malinois. Enjoying work is in her genes, so I didn’t doubt that I would get what I wanted if I was just patient and set her up for success.

At 9.5 months of age, Game’s environmental tendencies have been flaring up again. (As they should – any decent adolescent will challenge their human to be creative and become a better handler.)

Game is highly confident, highly social, nose driven, and interested in everything and everyone. Of course, that makes the world pretty exciting, and working away from home comparatively boring! Here’s what I’ve been doing.

The Set-Up

  •  I imagine a square or circle of 6 to 10 meters in diameter. That’s the area Game will get to explore on leash.
  •  I set my timer to 15 minutes. If after 15 minutes of acclimating, Game hasn’t asked me to work, I’ll end the session, and put her back in the car.
  •  I walk her into my imaginary square or circle, and keep walking her around this area. I want to give her an opportunity to sniff to her heart’s content, to look around, to move her body. If she pulls on the leash, I’ll stop, and if she is about to step out of my imaginary square or circle, I’ll stop her with the help of the leash.
    The reason I’m walking is that I know if I stood still or sat, Game would engage me before she was ready. Sitting used to work very well when she was a puppy, but now that she’s a little older, I’ve found walking her around to be the better strategy. Otherwise, she will ask for work too soon, and likely disengage during work. In order to avoid this, we stay in motion.
  •  There are two ways Game can ask me to work: she can sit and look at me, or she can make eye contact while walking and keep up her eye contact for at least 4 steps. The moment she does one of these two things, the game is ON, and we start our ritual.

The Structure of Our Engagement/Play/Work Sessions Away from Home

Our current ritual is personal play (play without food or toys) – food play/training – toy play/training – food play/training – toy play/training – trade the toy for food (cue: “Let’s trade!”) – end the session. From the moment Game asks to work by sitting or making eye contact for 4 seconds until the moment I end the session, I expect 100% of her attention. I make sure I set her up for success by keeping the length of our sessions realistic. If I were in a cooler climate, I’d probably use whatever remained of the 15 minutes my timer was set to for play and training. That way, the sooner my dog asked to work, the longer the fun part would be. Here, in the hot and humid Thai summer, I end the session after a few minutes. Especially when playing tug, I’ll be all sweaty and tired after just a few minutes! Even if Game could keep having fun, I wouldn’t be able to keep up much longer.

For now, I keep all “Ask to work” sessions separate from walks, hikes, and exploration/just-be-a-dog field trips. I want it to be as clear as possible that during an “Ask for work!” session, there are only two options: walk around in a boring square or circle, or work and play and have fun with me. If I want to take Game on an off-leash walk in the same area I want to work, I’ll just put her back in the car for a few minutes in between the work and the leisure part of our field trip.

This is what it looks like at the agility field. Behind my camera, there’s a guy watching us and a dog in a crate – further distractions!

Can you see the difference between the acclimation part and the “Ask to Work!” part? Both last approximately 4 minutes. Game hardly ever looks at me during acclimation, and she never takes her attention off me while we are working/playing. I gave her the time she needed – and when she was ready, she was all in!

In more exciting places, there will be times at first when we acclimate for 15 minutes and then go back home. That’s okay. With an adolescent, being out in public is not really about what I train or work on. It’s all about shaping the mindset I want! I won’t accept any less than 100% engagement, and it’s up to Game to decide that she’s ready to give me these 100%. I am laying the foundation for a dog who will love to work in public later in life. Right now, it is secondary whether we actually get any “work” done or not.

Here is a session at the parking lot of a big supermarket. Note how quickly Game asks me to work! (Ugh, I’m not wearing the right pants for putting the toys back into my pocket, which is a little annoying and interrupts the flow of our session.) We’ve been at this parking lot three times in the last three weeks or so. The first time, Game acclimated for 15 minutes without looking at me at all, and then we went back home. The second time, she acclimated for about six or seven minutes, and then we had a perfect play session. This time, acclimation only takes 17 seconds before Game starts pushing me to work by means of initiating enthusiastic personal play!

Tesco Parking Lot Sam Phran; Game almost 10 months:

This is huge and really good. However, there are two tiny lapses of attention in this 4-minute play and training session. They are small, but they are there (can you spot them?). I’ll try especially hard to not have any lapses of attention the next time we go there!

Here’s the play-by-play:

00:38 Out of the personal play, I ask for a sit and reward with toy play. The sit leads us into the first toy play section.
00:49 “Switch!” (one of the reinforcement/toy play protocols we’re working on)
01:00 Switch!
01:13: Aus! (Out cue, rewarded with food.) Now we’re entering the first food play/training portion of our session.
01:33 Game struggles with her fold-back downs in this environment and in this arousal state. That’s okay – it’s information that I need to work on this some more.
01:57-02:05 I cue “Platz!” (down), reward with food in position (marker cue “Good!”), and then reward with a game of tug (marker cue “Tug!”). This leads us into the second toy play/training part of today’s session.
Note that it’s always important to me that Game voluntarily brings back the toy, and pushes it into me. I want her to insist on playing – never the other way round!
00:53 Out cue, automatic sit, food as a reinforcer … And we’re in the second food play/training part of our session.
02:47-03:51 Down cue rewarded with food in position (marker cue “Good!”); staying down gets rewarded by a throw of the tug toy (marker cue “Chase!”). We’re back in the last toy play part of the session.
04:27 “Let’s trade!” followed by food sprinkled on the ground. This is our end ritual.

Training notes to self – pay special attention to the following things next time:

  • Wear pants or jacket where it’s quick and easy to hide the toys during food play parts of the session.
  • Make sure Game acclimates for at least 30 seconds – this may avoid the tiny lapses of attention during work.
  • Make sure there’s no obstacle behind her when asking for a down – it might make it harder for her.

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