The seminar was less about training each specific obedience exercise and more about applying concepts like conditioned emotional responses and foundation skills that help us carry the trained behaviours into a high pressure ring situation. We need to train each ring behaviour (or part of) until the skill is fluent and then add stimulus control, distance, distractions and sequencing. We can teach and work all those additional steps as separate concepts without ever screwing up our ring exercises!
One area that I basically suck at is putting things on stimulus control. Dogs need to understand all sorts of cues both from the handler and the environment and translate those to reliably doing the behaviour only on the conditioned cue. Hannah said that once our dogs understand the concept that a cue is significant then each progressive cue should be easier to teach as dogs can generalize that skill. I guess it is time to get all of those half taught tricks under stimulus control!
Lost focus on distance work is the source of many ring errors. A lot of exercises require us to leave our dog in a wait (stand for exam, recall, drop on recall, signals etc) where the dog needs to maintain focus on us to prevent errors when we move on to the next step of the exercise. Waiting is boring and/or watching us walk away can be stressful for some dogs. We can train our dogs that waiting is fun and rewarding. Randomly turning back to toss rewards or take off running in a chase game or releasing to a toy or zen bowl are all ways to build value for waiting. It keeps our dogs focused and ready for the next part of the chain. Alternatively there are also exercises that require us to send our dogs out to do a task (directed jumping, gloves, scent discrimination, dumbbell exercises etc.) and then return to us. We can train the send/return concept by layering levels of difficulty using things like zen bowls, targets and wraps (cone etc) to build confidence and understanding before adding in things like retrieves, positions and scent work.
Distractions can then all be built on to the foundations. An example would be when we want a dog to be comfortable with a judge working right next to the scent articles. If we start with getting the dog comfortable with a "judge" close to a zen bowl or target first and gradually build on that we keep success rates high and build lots of confidence. All of that hopefully carries over to the formal exercises in a ring environment.
Sequencing is the final step. Again we can teach that concept to our dogs by starting with strong behaviours that don't need high rates of reinforcement (sit, hand touch, paw etc) and teach our dogs that the reinforcement comes at the end of a series of cued behaviours instead of after every single cue.
One of the areas of struggle for positive reinforcement trainers is what to do when a dog makes an error. Hannah really stresses the emotional state of the dog as our biggest priority when training. Avoid errors by setting up the dog for success as much as possible. "Failure begets failure" so if a dog fails twice in a row then stop what you are doing as the dog does not understand. Hannah also avoids using non reward markers. Some dogs are tough and can work through failure but many dogs get frustrated or deflated. Stella is one of those dogs that deflates very easily. Most errors are treated by the handler stopping forward motion, stepping out of position and restarting the exercise again quickly. She also throws in things to soften that sequence. For example when you stop and step out of position you can offer a hand touch which the dog will miss because it is out of position. That hand touch has a huge secondary reinforcement history as we pair it with all sorts of rewarding when the dog is in the correct position so this "softens" the reset. I've been experimenting with this in heeling with Stella and liking the results.
There were lots of other gems at the seminar and ways to break things down into easily trainable goals. Training little pieces of things helps to keep things interesting and fresh for both the dog and handler and can give valuable information on where the trigger point might be in a problem exercise. When we worked the figure eight stuff I really developed a new appreciation for how many pieces of a chain that can be broken into. Right circle, left circle, halt is expanded to train the little pieces like transitions from collection to extension and vice-versa, judge pressure, ring steward pressure, hind end awareness, handler eye and shoulder position cues, feet direction etc. Things like the transition from "exercise finished" to the setup for the next exercise are just as important as the actual exercise and should be trained.
Lots of things are still processing in my brain from this seminar. Sometimes it seems like such a huge task and I miss those days where my goal really was just to go in the ring and get our novice title. Now I want more! I want to be a happy, confident and accurate team all the way from our Novice A debut through to a utility title and hopefully we will achieve that goal over the next few years. I really do love this stuff even when it makes me crazy or makes my head hurt and Hannah is an excellent presenter who gave me lots to think about and work through. Any errors in this information is totally my fault and I highly recommend everyone go to a Hannah Branigan seminar!