The morning starts off with a discussion of collar yielding. This just means teaching the dog that releasing pressure on the collar is the right thing to do. This is something the dog has to be taught. The opposition reflex -- leaning into pressure -- is inborn. It's a lot easier to teach dogs to pull than it is to teach them not to pull. If the dog understands collar yielding, it is then easier to move the dog around into the positions you need it to be in, as well as give it collar cues when trying to communicate to the dog what you want it to do.
They start teaching collar yielding at GDB by tethering the dog to a stationary object, like a fence post. Usually the dog will pull on the leash to try to move away, but at some point it will relax the tension on the leash, maybe when it realizes that pulling isn't getting it anywhere. It is the handler's job to watch for any tiny relaxation of tension and click that. This needs a very high rate of reinforcement when initially trained. Let me say here that even on Day Two of the conference, one thing that is really, really obvious is that my rate of reinforcement and number of repetitions are pretty much never high enough, which I am pretty sure explains why I have been less than totally successful with teaching a lot of these skills. I mean, I know there has to be a high rate of reinforcement, and I know there has to be a lot of repetition, but knowing it intellectually is very far from seeing it put into practice by the experts. This conference has already been invaluable just in showing how theory translates into training reality.
Anyway, once the dog has been successful on the stationary tether, the handler can hold the leash and apply fixed pressure to teach the dog how to yield when the leash is held by a person, not by a fence post. Oh, man, I have had trouble with this in the past. When teaching it, you have to apply tension to the leash and then not move your hand or arm until the dog releases the tension. This is easy to say but hard, hard, hard to do. You aren't supposed to cue the dog with any other part of your body, either. So, for example, if you are applying pressure to the right with the dog sitting on your left, there has to be somewhere for the dog to move so it can release the tension. But if you step to the right, a lot of dogs will just follow you to the right -- not thinking about releasing tension, just thinking about following your body, which is nice but not the point of the exercise. I got around this when trying this exercise by waiting till the dog looked away and then quietly taking a step to the right and applying collar pressure to the right. I had such a hard time applying collar pressure to the left that I just gave up and decided it wasn't worth it. To apply collar pressure to the left, you have to move your leash hand out to the left, into space, and it is nearly impossible for me to keep my hand fixed out in space. (When I apply collar pressure to the right or forwards or backwards, I can fix my elbow to my body, but when I apply it to the left, I can't. So my dogs at Leader will move forward, backward, or right in response to collar pressure, but not left.)
One thing that is different about GDB's training compared to ours is that they use collar cues a lot more in training guide work than we do, or at least more than I do. They use them in teaching leading out, moving around obstacles, and curbs. I used my leash a lot when I was an apprentice at GEB, but then when I went to Seeing Eye, PJ was always after me to quit using my leash as soon as possible and use my body to direct the dog instead. I can still hear his voice in my head: "Put that leash away!" So I still do; I use it in the very first week or two but put it away right after that. I am not sure what to think about using so many leash cues, but I guess at the end of the day it is just a different method of training -- obviously an effective one, but probably not one I am going to switch to just because, in general, I don't feel like I have too many problems with dogs not leading out, bumping me into obstacles, or stopping for curbs. The things I really want to get better at are teaching better leash manners and impulse control without use of heavy leash corrections.
The next thing we talk about is teaching precision foot-targeting, which will the beginning of stepping up on up curbs. The platforms come out again -- yay! Platforms are fun. They lay two of the long platforms lengthwise so it makes one really long platform, and then bring out another platform, but this one is square and is a little taller than the long ones. When set up at the end of a long platform, it makes a neat little box for the dog to step its front feet up on. How cute -- it is like a little baby up curb. The dogs love it, and seem to pick up on it really quickly, first getting up on the platform (which keeps their bodies nice and straight), and then hopping their front feet up on the square platform in perfect curb approach position and alignment. You could set up a bunch of platforms in any configuration you wanted, with the little square ones interspersed among the long ones. I immediately start thinking about how we teach the beginning of up curbs at Leader, using the grooming tables with the three steps up. I wonder if we could replace the grooming table exercise with platforms? That way the dog could still learn the up-curb targeting at the same point in Foundations training, but while getting the extra benefits of the platforms (correct body position, help with learning impulse control) at the same time.
After foot targeting, we move on to talking about "lead" -- GDB's term for pulling in harness. (We call it "leading out" or "lead out" at Leader. Different terminology, same idea.) GDB also uses the clicker to teach this. I know I have discussed teaching leading out using the clicker, a long time ago, although I don't remember with whom. I do remember that me and the mysterious person with whom I discussed teaching leading out using a clicker were in agreement that we thought the clicker would create a dog that stopped in the middle of pulling in the hopes of getting a click and treat, and for that reason we agreed that it was better to only use the clicker for stationary behaviors -- behaviors that terminated in a stop, like curbs and targeting things like chairs. But after sitting through this session, I am finally ready to believe that "what you click is what you get". So if you use your leash to get the dog moving forward initially, but you only click when the dog is generating pull itself and moving straight ahead, facing forward and keeping a good travel line, then that is the behavior you will get more of. Also, I confess that I have already tried this, in my current string and without the permission of anyone. I have a dog that was treat-obsessed. If he felt like he had been walking too long without a treat, he would start trying to do things to get a treat, like stopping, nudging my hand, looking up at me, et cetera. I could always get him going again, but I could never keep him from stopping the next time. Out of desperation, I started clicking moments when he was pulling straight ahead and not looking at me. It worked. He stopped doing anything mid-block other than pulling, and it only took a couple of sessions. So I was primed to believe that you can click for leading out, which I don't think I would have accepted even six months ago. The skeptic in me still doesn't want to believe it, but the results with that one dog were pretty convincing (and, so far, they are sticking).
You can also use the clicker to decrease excessive pull. If you stop often and click for the stop, the dog will slow down out of anticipation that it will be asked to stop soon. You have to stay still while giving the treat, and you can also click for sustained stationary behavior. Once the dog begins understanding that you want it to slow down, you can add a verbal cue (I would assume "Steady", though I don't think I actually heard the one GDB uses).
The afternoon is all about impulse control, the thing I personally feel the least well-equipped for managing using the clicker. This is really my biggest reason for wanting to be here, to get better at teaching self-control around distractions using positive methods.
The first thing I learn -- and this is sort of becoming a theme -- is that I have not ever laid the groundwork properly for teaching impulse control. It requires many, many, reps, and a huge "bank account" of rewarding good behavior before you can start to increase the level of distractions. I know that I have never built a big enough bank account, partly because of the time required, partly because of the difficulty of finding a low-distraction environment at Leader, partly because I had never quite had it made clear to me in person just how important it was to get the foundation right before advancing. This is the first time I have ever actually seen the beginnings of the foundation being created, with actual new dogs, and the first time I ever really got a sense of how this stuff is actually done right. Not read about it in a book, which I have done dozens of times or more, but seen it in front of me. Pretty powerful in real life. One thing that is hard to get my brain around is that these dogs are getting clicked for anything that is not movement toward the distraction. I always want to click for visible attention on me, so, so badly. It is so hard to click when the dog is sitting still but looking at the distraction. But when I see that tactic beginning to work, I have faith that maybe it does work after all. Imagine that!
Once you have built a big bank account consisting of a great deal of reinforcement for self-control in the presence of a distraction, you can push the envelope a little and bring the dog closer to the distraction, to the point where it might actually pull towards it. When a dog goes for a distraction, you have two choices. You can correct, a traditional leash correction, a snap on the dog's collar, a positive punishment. Or you can use negative punishment -- removal from the opportunity to earn reinforcement. This was a totally foreign concept to me the first time I heard about it a few months ago. When the dog lunges for the distraction, the handler quickly removes it from the presence of the distraction, turns around, and marches it in the opposite direction, several yards away in early training. Once at a distance, the handler holds the dog in position for ten seconds, facing away from the direction. During these ten seconds, the handler does not talk to or interact with the dog in any way. If the dog is still trying to get to the distraction, it has to be removed to a further distance. After the ten seconds, the handler goes back and reworks the distraction. Anything other than actively moving towards the distraction gets clicked and treated. (Even though I said "reworked", this is all happening on leash, not in harness.)
As the dog progresses through training, the removal distance gets shorter and shorter. By the time the dog is ready to be matched with a client, the client does not physically remove the dog from the distraction at all, but instead just stops and holds the dog on a short leash by the collar for ten seconds. It does not seem like it would be effective at first, but as I watch the training of the demo dogs progress, it is highly effective and I can see how it works.
The point has been made that GDB's training methods do not exclude positive punishment (leash correction) entirely; they just seek to minimize it. If a correction is needed, it is given, but the focus is always on returning to positive reinforcement methods as soon as possible. I take this to mean that if, say, a dog comes around a corner unexpectedly and my dog lunges for it, I can give a leash correction for the lunge, but I also need to notice that my dog needs some more practice with dog distraction and needs its threshold for distraction gradually decreased. It used to be that you just corrected and moved on, but it seems like with this method a correction is more likely to indicate that there is a hole in your training that needs to be fixed. The emphasis is always on rewarding desirable behavior before undesirable behavior has a chance to happen, whereas in traditional training you wait for the bad thing to happen and then nail the dog for it.
After lengthy discussion and practice of teaching impulse control, we move on to targeting actual (as opposed to platform) up curbs. This is one of the only things that is done virtually the same at GDB as at Leader -- on leash first, lots of clicking, asking for the dog to target the up curb with its front feet up. We watch a lot of demos. It is hot and I sort of zone out and start thinking about how Kate and I are going to run the Golden Gate Bridge tonight -- park on the San Francisco side, run across to the Marin side, and run back again. California is so beautiful compared to Michigan.