In the first installment of this "mini-trilogy," I reported that Presto! is a learning machine, gobbling up everything I'm teaching him. I also reported that he's strong-willed and distractible, a tough-to-handle combination. When he's with other dogs and people, his head is on a swivel and I may not even exist.
Maturation will take care of a lot of that. But my responsibility as I train him for the competition ring, is to assure that his development is moving in exactly the right direction. Put more clearly: "Here's the way it has to be, Presto! You focus on me . . . now and forevermore." Which, of course, is easier said than done.
Know that as far as distractible border collies are concerned this ain't my first rodeo. Well into his obedience career Bravo!, while racking up titles, was his own dog between exercises, wandering around, sniffing. I had a pat (glib?) answer for those who prodded me about allowing that to continue: "Oh, Bravo! is like the major league pitcher who parties all night then shows up hung over and pitches a no-hit game."
Indeed, once I got him into position he was very accurate, very solid. But eventually I attained enlightenment and got serious about training him out of that loosey-goosey habit. Guess what. When I had convinced him to sustain his focus between exercises, his scores went up.
How did I do that? Through a process I named "The Seamless Exercise." And that's what I have just embarked upon with Presto! Here's how it works.
The concept is based upon the assumption that the training session (as well as the ring run, eventually) is a single exercise. That Presto! is under command and expected to be attentive to me from the moment he steps out of his crate -- or out of the van if we are working out of the van -- until the moment the practice session or ring run is over.
That means I try to sustain his attenion regardless of what else is going on around us. No running off to sniff or visit between exercises. No wandering even a foot or two away as I "reload," replace the treat on my armband during heeling practice.
If I have to go to the van or the setup to get something I forgot, I place Presto! on a sit or a down and expect him to be there when I return. (At which point he gets praise and a treat.)
I'm putting a lot of emphasis on keeping him with me and attentive as we move between exercises. He's learning "right here," which means at my left side, focused on my extended left index finger. I may or may not have a treat cupped in my left hand as we practice "right here." At times when we're practicing in a high-distractibility environment, initially I'll slip a leash on him at the end of each exercise and we'll "right-here" our way to the next exercise.
I've learned that sustaining focus between exercises is a lot easier than re-capturing it each time. And highly beneficial to the performance of both of us.
What about play? It's an integral part of The Seamless Exercise. This morning we kicked off our session with a fierce game of tugging on the leash. Eventually I said, "Give!" He did. Then, "That's all, we're gonna heel." Presto! made no further effort to grab the leash. Then I said, "Place!" Presto! swung into heel position and away we went. The entire transition took no more than 10 seconds. I find that a fast-paced training session helps a lot.
This morning's training session -- early and in a shady park on this day when the high temperature here in the desert is expected to reach 110 degrees -- lasted about 45 minutes. It included heeling, signals, holding and carrying the dumbbell, fronts, finishes, recalls, go-outs, a not-very-broad broad jump, lots of staying put as I moved around retrieving equipment and setting it up, and finally formal long sits and downs (four and six minutes respectively).
Interspersed in all of this were several bouts of tugging on either the leash or a rope toy; lots of soft petting and praise; and several interludes when I dropped to my knees and played with him. Presto! loves it when I make farty noises with my mouth; he puts his paws on my shoulders and licks me in the face (or bites me in the nose).
During that 45-minute session I lost him once, near the end of the time. After a couple of dumbbell carries he found something irresistible to sniff about 10 feet away, and he wasn't about to leave it. I had to physically bring him back.
How long will I continue to build Presto!'s training around The Seamless exercise? How's forever? This is about building strong positive habits. We know that a behavior that is not reinforced will be extinguished. Not only will our practices be seamless, soon I'll carry the process into matches, and later into trials.
This is very easy to write about, much harder to implement. It requires exhausting concentration and self discipline. But as Presto! reached and passed his first birthday early last month I found myself spending a lot of time correcting his distracted (and adamant) behavior, a lot of time going and getting him and hauling him back into position. Then doing it over again. That's not good enough.
The Seamless Exercise is about prevention, which I've found is infinitely better.
Writing this reminds me that the subject of focus is not complete if we don't address the flip side, the handler's obligation to return the focus she expects from the dog. Somewhere in the distant past of this blog I posted a piece on that subject. But to round out the subject of The Seamless Exercise I should address that reciprocal obligation again. Which I will.