Simon Training Update.
I haven't visited in a long time, so I haven't been a very good member. I thought I'd update everyone on some of the things that I am doing as far as continuing Simon's Agility Training.
What has happened since the last time I updated, is that I came to the realization that Simon and I had a huge problem that was going to have to be overcome if I ever was going to compete with him. I had an incredibly talented dog. His physical skills were exceptional. He was strong, he was fast, fast fast, and he was very intelligent and a good student. The problem that I had was that I couldn't get him to focus for a long enough period in order to get him to work with me. This was a deal breaker and unless I could get through this with him, there was no way I could ever think of trying to compete with him.
What would happen is Simon would work with me at home, most of the time, and if I was smart enough about it, I would stop the training before Simon felt like he wanted to stop it on his own, and go off and do his own thing.
If I trained away from home, I had to "manage" everything so that I had a reasonable chance of success, which for me meant just keeping him focused on me, and keeping his attention. This often worked, but when it went bad, it was really bad, and very frustrating. If I wasn't "right on it" every moment, I'd often loose Simon, and he'd decide that something was really interesting, and he'd dash off to visit another dog, or go sniff where other dogs had left their mark. He was blowing me off, and once that happened we couldn' t really get things going.
It was really stressfull for me as I had to be totally focused on Simon and deciding what to do at that moment based on what I was seeing from him. It was exhausting.
The first weekend of December '07 I took Al to the AKC Invitational, and although we did well, I had one run with a fault and missed getting to the finals as a result. The night the event ended, I became extremely ill with gastro enteritis along with a lot of people in attendance, and had to stay over in Long Beach an extra 2 days to recover enough to fly back to Seattle. They wouldn't give me a seat assignment "in" the lavatory, so I flew home Wednesday instead of Monday, and arrived home to a phone message from my sister that my Mom had died suddenly and unexpectedly. My partner Heather had died in Feb '07, and now loosing my Mom, I just lost a lot of drive to do the normal things in life. It was a very hard winter.
Simon's training pretty much stopped, and I just worked with Al. In about March of this year I decided it was do or die with Simon. Since that time I've been working only on developing a relationship with him that will be the basis on which we go on to whatever happens. Everything I have done with him since that time is being done to build focus on me.
I want him to find me more interesting than dirt, or a spot where another dog has peed. It hasn't been easy.
I started out by hand feeding him for about a month so he only got food rewards from me. Since then, we have played games where I reward him for eye contact, and his meals were given after he had given me eye contact and some attention. That game has evolved now as I feed him 3 times a day, and each meal comes in 2 parts. If he gives attention and focus and some duration, then he gets part one. I wait until he is getting to the very end of Part 1 and then I call his name just loud enough so he can hear me in the distance over the noise he makes when he eats. If he looks up and leaves his bowl, he gets part 2 right away. If he doesn't, he has to wait between bowls, and then we reenact part 1 again. I'm at the stage now where I can call him out of his food almost 100% of the time.
While all this was going on, I was also doing something called "Crate Training". This is not the normal crate training you would see though. It is a program designed by Susan Garrett to use in performance training. It's a highly effective program, and I'd recommend it to anyone whether they wanted to do an event, or just have a house pet.
Simon spent most of his first 18 months in a crate. I think he was in it for up to 12 or more hours a day. At the kennel he was at, he was punished by the help if he messed in his crate, and how could he not have had accidents with all the time he was expected to be in it??!! So a crate was not something that he liked at all, and he had wrecked one soft crate a couple of years ago trying to claw and dig his way out.
I couldn't get him into a varikennel type crate as it was too similar to what he had at the kennel, so I ended up buying a wire crate, a small one first, and then a big one that he could spend a lot of time in if I choose to do that with him; but I haven't and only on a rare occassion would I want him in it for more than a couple of hours.
Once using the wire crates, I made some progress, and Simon would get in, get highly rewarded with food treats, and meals, all while he was in the crate. The only treats he got from me in the initial phase was inside the crate. This did 2 things. It built a lot of value to Simon for being in the crate. It also built value in being with me as I was the treat dispenser, and it was pretty much like hand feeding him for almost a month. Then we started playing crate games. Simon learned quickly that all rewards are in the crate. If the door opens he is supposed to sit up and wait for me to release him or put his collar on and then release him. If the door opens and he moved towards the door, even the slightest, the door would close and he would get no reward. If the door opened and he stayed in his sit, he would get re warded while he was in his sit inside the crate.
I did this with Al too, and now, both of them are fiends for their crates. If I make a mistake and leave a crate door open (soft zippered crate or a wire crate) Al will dash in and wait for his reward. I can barely get Al out of his crate without a leash, as he will come out, and then dash back in hoping for a treat. I have to hold him until the door is closed behind him. Simon isn't quite that obsessive about his crate, but he loves his crate now, and will happily stay in it with the door open as I try and tease him and lure him out. He only comes out if I say the word OK.
These exercises have gone on for months, and have made a huge difference in our relationship. Simon's recalls when we go for off leash walks are now almost 100%. When he isn't instantly responsive to my call it is because I've called him at the wrong instant, when he has decided to mark a spot for himself, but as soon as he does that he comes a runnin'. Often from good distances of 200 or more yards.
When he's off leash I always have good treats with me and reward him for looking at me, walking in heel postion, and for coming when called. I like to test him with a game we play, which is for me to send him out, by saying go on!! and he'll run off and when he gets up to speed at maybe 20 or 30 yards away, I'll call him and he'll do a 189 and come charging back to me to get huge rewards.
So I am thinking that we have crossed the threshold, and that I'm now more interesting than dirt. Whenever Simon has been called by me he turns into Pavlov's dog, and he runs to me licking his lips in anticipation of getting a treat.
Now I am randomly giving treats to him for behaviors that he would have always gotten a treat for.
The last few weeks I have started private lessons with Simon and Jef Blake who has been my coach with Al. We're using the crate to start running Simon over a few agility obstacles in a sequence. This is done in a highly distracting environment, as it is in Jef's unfenced yard, that has 3 Border Collies and 1 Chocolate Lab living in it. Also there are unleashed neighbor dogs that wander around up and down the street. I am using the crate as the start and the end of each sequence of jumps and equipment. It's working really well, and in the 4 lessons that I've had, not once has Simon lost interest. He will hold his stay inside the crate while I lead out, then when I say OK, he charges out of the crate, and does the sequence, and as he goes over the last jump I'll say in your crate to him, and he'll run full speed up to his crate and screach to a stop inside it, where he is rewarded heavily.
I'm very excited by this change in Simon's focus. I now have something to work with. As we continue to learn the agility game, I'm hoping that the game will be so much fun for him, that the crate will no longer be necessary, and I'll have his full attention. If not, I'll continue using the crate, until he is giving me what I want.
I'm pretty sure that things are going to go the way I want, and if that happens, Simon will be lovin' agility more than anything. Then when he's ready, I'll start competing with him.