Friday, December 25, 2009

One Size Fits All

I made a rookie teaching error this last week. Well, I’d like to think it was a rookie error, although truth be told I’ve been in (bad) dog classes where the instructor has made the same mistake.

It began innocently enough. The task was to get Zachary to stand right in front me with his nose pointing straight toward me and his tail pointing straight away (Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels Three - Front) Simplicity itself, right?


We began in the usual way. I stood in the kitchen with a clicker in one hand and bunch of treats in the other. I then visualized the final product (Zachary as a compass needle) and tossed a treat behind me to get things started.

While Zachary dug around under the cabinets for his morsel, I refined my mental picture a bit. I was now standing on an imaginary line running left to right. As soon as Zachary crossed that line while heading back to my front I would click and treat. Sure enough, after Hoovering up the first cookie and find no others, Zachary came trotting around to see what was up. As soon as his feet crossed my imaginary line I clicked and tossed another tidbit behind me.

We repeated this for a while with excellent results. Once I could see he was really hooked on the game, I bent my mental line at my feet, reducing his 180 degrees of success to about 120 degrees. No problems. When he didn’t come around far enough and I didn’t click, he just took another step – “Hey Mom… Hellooooooo… anybody up there?” Click. Treat… we were doing great so I called it night. Might as well end on an up note.

The next day I decided to changes things up a bit. Same goal, of course, Zachary as a compass needle, but now I was tossing the treat behind him instead of behind me. I was hoping this would keep his body straight vs. wrapping around my leg like some furry, carnivorous vine.

Worked like a charm, he came in straight as an arrow. I figured I’d be videoing this one in no time.

On day three I got fancy and turned a bit so I could toss the treats off to the side. Yes, I did try it the first time without turning and ended up on my hands and knees digging a pea-sized dog treat out of the fridge grill. Ewww.

So canted slightly sideways with respect to my kitchen, I tossed the treat to the side and waited for Zachary to return. I kept my 120-degree requirement from before (60 degrees either side of front, dead center) and held off clicks until he was within my imaginary angle. He was now shifting around a bit to the find the “sweet spot”  (see Ten Seconds and the cosmic trap door.) When his location was within my imaginary lines I would click, treat, and toss the cookie off to the side. From there I gradually started reducing my 120 degress to “move” him right in front of me. Sue’s instructions were quite clear on this point. I was–to click while the dog is in motion. In fact, here’s what she says:

“and it will be MUCH better if you click while [he’s] still in motion than if you wait until [he] stops”

And thus I made my rookie mistake. I neglected to consider my student when applying the instructions. Now had I been working with Beau, those instructions would have been dead on accurate. Clicking while Beau was stationary (or heaven forbid seated) would have created a nearly impossible to budge statue in short order.

But as my good instructor is forever reminding me, Zachary is not Beau. And so, while I thought I was teaching Zachary to move increasingly closer to front, what I was actually taught him was that shifting a little bit this way and a little bit that was what Mom wanted.

Before I knew it, I had dog that would NOT stand still. He tiptoed to the left, sashayed to the right, one step forward and two steps back.

Sue summed it best when she labeled him “Dancing Zachary”. Arg!!! I just wanted to Velcro his paws to floor. So it was back to the drawing board.

The new improved (Zachary specific) criterion is now standing STILL. Perfectly STILL. Like a rock STILL. So long as he is within about 30 degrees of center either way, and STILL, I click. A straight on front gives him a jackpot.

Just the other night I was standing in front of the TV, awaiting the pasta to boil, having just cut up some Jarlsberg cheese. Zachary loves Jarlsberg cheese.

When what to my wondering eyes did I see
But my Zachary, standing STILL as a tree.
He had come from the side - swung his rump right around
‘Till perfectly fronted, not a fault to be found!

And he heard me exclaim as I ran for the cheese,
“Stay right there, don’t you move, let me film this now – please!”

Merry Christmas!

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