This is week one in the saga of my initial training activities with Lacy, my German shepherd puppy. While I plan to compete with Lacy in both obedience and agility, obedience is my favorite dog training activity, so I will be doing some things a little differently than I would if agility were the top priority.
Week One: Clicker training. We had a 12 hour drive back home to our house in Kansas from Memphis, where we went to pick up Lacy. During the time when my husband, Gary, was driving, I got to hold Lacy and talk softly to her. I also had the opportunity to introduce her to the clicker. I conditioned her to the clicker by clicking and then feeding her a tiny treat (so small she didn't need to chew). The message: click means food is coming. Lacy had an advantage to learning this. Her breeder had used a conditioned reinforcer just prior to feeding. It doesn't matter what the CR is, a clicker, a special word, or whatever. In my experience, a CR enhances learning by telling the dog, "Yes, that's it, you're right." So in all of the training I'll talk about during the next few weeks, you should know that I am using a conditioned reinforcer to let her know she has done what I ask. She will get food - she loves cheese and chicken - as a reward every time she hears that click. After she has learned a behavior, she will not get a click each time she does the behavior, though. I will try to get her on a variable schedule of reinforcement as quickly as possible. This is the slot machine theory of dog training. For the same reason that people will stand and feed quarters to a slot machine, a dog will offer behaviors in hopes of earning a click and treat.
Sit-Down-Stand. I am teaching this with a food lure. I place the training treat in the palm of my hand, held in place with my thumb. The treat acts as a magnet to lure Lacy into correct position. I keep the treat close to her nose. I want her to move forward into a sit. A slumping, puppy sit is a problem in shepherds, and I will not reward a sloppy sit. There is no correction or punishment, simply no reward. A down is achieved with my hand luring her head to the floor. The food is under my hand, palm down. She has to turn her head sideways to reach the treat, and this encourages her to bring the front of her body down as well. I want this down to be a crouched down, with the front end going down first. Right now I'm not naming the positions - I want her to be reliable being lured into position before I giver her a verbal cue. Within a few days, though, the words will be Sit. Down. Stand. I'll also teach a down with a rolled hip for long downs in obedience. This down will eventually be named 'platz.' For stand, I'm simply luring her from either sit or down by moving the food slightly forward. My utility stand signal is my right hand moving forward in front of the dog's face, so this is very basic, pre-utility training.
Reverse magnet heeling. This method was developed by Dawn Jecs of Washington and is explained in her book, "Choose to Heel." I team-teach puppy classes for Heartland Dog Training Club in Manhattan, Kansas, and we have been using this method for a couple of years. It works great. I simply walk backwards with Lacy's ear in heel position, and she is walking toward me. I use a hot dog as a lure. I'll walk backwards with her for a full week before I turn her around. I have chosen to do this only on the left side. If I were more serious about agility, I would be careful to balance this work with right side "let's go" type heeling, which we will do, but not intensely.
Come when called. This is a potentially life-saving skill and I spend a lot of time working on this. I have employed the help of friends to play the recall game. The puppy must be in a safe area, because this is done either off lead or with the puppy trailing a light line. Each person has treats and everyone practices calling the puppy to her, rewarding with a treat, and petting the puppy. Then the next person calls and repeats the exercise. We will do this a lot over the course of the next few weeks. I also am calling Lacy away from play with the other dogs, rewarding her and then letting her go back to play.
Dog walk. Because Lacy will be a relatively large dog, it is important to teach her that walking on a narrow board is do-able. To prepare her for the day when she'll be negotiating a 12 foot board suspended 4' in the air, I am starting her out walking on one portion of the dog walk, elevated on bricks. She will get plenty of treats and verbal encouragement as she goes along. And when she reaches the yellow contact zone she will be rewarded again. Eventually she'll learn to stop with two feet on the board and two feet on the ground, but this will wait til later. I don't want to put stress on her young bones.
Tunnel. I placed a 15-foot long tunnel on our patio. Actually, Lacy learned the tunnel very quickly by following our toddler grandson, Caleb, through. We started out with the tunnel in a straight, pipe shape. After three days we progressed to a semi-circle. Lacy loves following Caleb or one of our shelties through the tunnel. When she is committed to the tunnel, we say the word "tunnel" so she will come to associate this obstacle with the command word. She is also happily running through on her own, and seems to prefer the semi-circle to the straight line. She is starting to pick up speed going through the tunnel.
Table. A standard AKC table top, without its base, is part of our patio agility equipment. It's about 5" high. When Lacy showed interest in the table, I encouraged her to climb up on it. After she reached the point where I could get her to climb up by pointing to the table, I added my command word, which is "table." Not too original, but I don't want anything complex to think about when I'm running agility. I am not using food on the table at this point. I will add food to the table later on when I begin sending her from a distance. Right now we have a "sit" on the table, but I have not introduced down on the table - mostly because I haven't had food when I've been outside with her and thinking about it. We have worked on table stays of just a few seconds duration. I want her to get the concept, but in an easy, fun way.
During the optimum period of learning, up to age 16 weeks, I will try to introduce Lacy to as many different facets of advanced obedience, agility and tracking - and real life - as I can. It is my responsibility to keep everything fun so that she never loses her zest for learning.
Lacy also is learning house manners and good behavior. Without these basic skills, none of the rest would be important at all. She learned stairs very quickly. I started her out on the second stair from the bottom and let her come down. Then I placed her on the third stair from the bottom and she came down again. She figured out coming up the stairs very quickly. We started with the two stairs coming into the house from the patio, and then progressed to a full flight of stairs in the house. It may take longer with some puppies, but this task was easy for Lacy.
Other stuff Lacy is learning as a matter of course: Leave it, which I'm using rarely. I don't want her to avoid picking up objects. She picked up a stick in the yard. I traded her a toy for the stick, but I didn't say "leave it" because I was thrilled she was holding and carrying the stick. Let's go, which is an informal command meaning "we're out of here." I don't care if she is on my right or left side. I just want her moving with me. Lacy has excellent following behavior, but if she were distracted, I'd clap my hands to encourage her to come along.
When we can't be there to supervise, Lacy stays in a wire dog crate where she can be near the other dogs. I am fortunate to be able to come home from work at lunch time and let the dogs outside for a potty and play break. At this time I throw the ball, play with them, do a little informal training, and give them a chance to be outside for awhile. Then it's back in the house til I get home from work.
As she matures, she will be permitted more freedom during the day. I like for dogs to learn good house manners through success, rather than being disappointed that they don't live up to unrealistic expectations.
And a note about where Lacy lives. All three of our dogs live in the house with us. It is my opinion that it is very, very difficult - if not impossible - to establish a great relationship with a dog that doesn't share your home.
Check back next week and see how Lacy is progressing.
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