Thursday, May 5, 2011

Thoughts About Draft Training

Yesterday as I was working with Montana Mac on draft, I was thinking about all the little steps that got us to where he now is and I wondered if people/dogs that have draft issues maybe skip some of those important baby steps along the way. I thought about some of the dogs that I saw drafting at the Specialty -- many did not look at all happy. I wondered why my draft dogs always look happy and other people have obviously stressed/unhappy dogs, and again I wondered if people are realizing how many tiny steps go into training a dog for anything, including draft. And so I decided to write about this today -- baby steps.

Think of a scale from 1 - 10, with one being super easy/natural/hitch 'em and go types of draft dogs, and 10 being a dog that won't even approach the cart; I have trained dogs all along this scale. My first berner, Emma, was an 11 -- I had to take the cart apart and get her used to it in pieces, and Maize was surprisingly a 10, apparently born with zero carting genes. Halo and her daughters (Zoey and Asia) were all in the 1 - 2 range -- interesting, isn't it?

Montana Mac was probably a 6 - 7 so not a super easy/natural carting dog but not as bad as Mrs. Maize by any means; I think Mac is pretty typical for most berners.

I knew this immediately because I tested him for carting genes, as I do all my dogs. The way to do this is to walk the dog between the shafts towards the cart and then lift the shafts gently as you feed the dog a cookie in the cart. A dog's reaction to the shafts tells you very quickly how much work you will need to do before you can even think about proceeding with a harness/hitch.

And so I first helped him become very comfortable walking between the shafts towards the cart -- off leash, with cookies, and no force. If he wanted to jump over the shafts and run off -- that was fine; I think it is important for a dog to know s/he can get away if needed. And we gradually built up his tolerance for the shafts along his side, touching him, and then having him facing away from the cart with the shafts along side, and then one step and so on -- still not hitched.

Yesterday I thought about all those steps as we made our way down the long drive to the street, and I thought about how we are still making our way towards a June draft test in baby steps.

Once Montana Mac was comfortable being hitched, he experienced what many berners do -- concern about that strange and noisy thing following him. I kept him on leash so that he could not take off if a noise startled him -- the last thing you want is a scary setback. And I treated noises as if they were "clicks" so noise/treat -- this transformed what a noisy cart meant to him.

Turns are very hard for most dogs -- they cannot turn as they usually do because they have to handle the shafts -- if they just turn, they wind up twisted between the shafts and scared -- not helpful for learning. Unfortunately, too many people take GIANT training steps instead of baby training steps and think a dog should learn turns right away as well -- sigh...

Consider what happens when a dog has constant stress during the training of an activity -- the dog associates stress with the activity, and you see this in the draft ring. My goal is to increase the stress associated with a new task only slightly and then stay put at that level until there is no longer any stress with it, and the dog experiences fluency in the behavior. I believe fluency is required to have a happy, confident working dog and is only achieved by taking very small steps and staying at that step until the tail is wagging :)

And so Mac was hitched and pulling but still with some concern at times -- I do not move forward when there is still concern so we did not work on turns until going straight was confident and happy. Luckily we have the perfect driveway -- almost 1/2 mile round trip and straight. So for about three weeks we have done that driveway and that is really all -- of course, we practice the harness and hitch as part of it, and add in a change of pace, stops and that kind of stuff that works with a long straight draft pull but I saved the turn training until we had what we now have -- a very confident, happy draft dog.

When I started turns I helped Montana Mac learn that he could not just turn -- he had to move his body into the shaft to be able to turn. I used food as a lure and made a huge turn one step at a time -- literally. In addition to the food lure, I applied pressure on the shaft to move him the correct way. Turns almost always create stress in a dog because they are trapped and cannot do what they want, which is to just turn their bodies -- they have to also turn the cart.

Yesterday I decided we were ready to test our training -- I have very gently been adding turns and Mac has really caught on. He is extremely motivated to do what he thinks I want, and so praising wildly for gentle big turns really got the message through and I decided to test it out.

I set up a draft test course in our arena, complete with draft weaves and a set of narrows. I was quite impressed with him -- his weaving and circles are still "big" but he is doing them with no stress at all -- and he did the narrows successfully every time :)

Zoey can literally turn circles in place -- in other words, the cart doesn't move because she turns so tightly. Montana Mac is not there yet but he shouldn't be -- she started sooner and was a "hitch and go" dog from the start. If I did not correctly assess Mac at every step of the way and only adjust his training in the smallest of increments after he had attained fluency at each step, I could have easily ruined him by expecting him to go as quickly as Zoey.

Training a dog well requires that we respect their strengths and their concerns, and they all have both (as do we). If we require a dog to move along at our pace instead of theirs, we create stress and anxiety -- both of which are counterproductive in learning new things. Dogs that are stressed and/or shut down tell us that they have been consistently pushed farther than their limits without having the chance to create the joy and confidence that comes with mastery -- or fluency.

Montana Mac walks up and down that long driveway with the cart like he owns the place, tail wagging and happy, confident, willing attitude. I know this is because I honored his pace and I broke things down into small increments and stayed there until he was happy and proud of himself. And yesterday he started working on the technical aspects of a draft test, and because he trusts me and has learned this draft game well, he tried hard and showed both skills and confidence.

We still have over four weeks until the draft test, and we will be practicing almost daily until then. When we go in the ring, he will be happy, confident, and well-trained -- because no other dog should ever step foot in a draft test ring, in my ever so humble opinion. He may or may not pass -- I cannot control that -- but I sure can control our preparation and I can tell you that will be as perfect as it can be because again, only a very well-prepared dog can have the level of confidence and joy that all dogs deserve when they are asked to perform.

I am really proud of Montana Mac -- he works when girls are in standing heat, he works when he thinks the cart could be part of a terrorist plot, he works when he thinks the shafts are an evil trap, he works when the neighbor's dog barks profanity at him -- the dog LOVES to work. And to see his confidence and happiness when he figures something out -- priceless!!! What a super fun dog he is :)

And so Mac and Zoey are racing to see who gets that NDD first -- paws crossed that they do it together...

And speaking of together, here are a couple of pictures of cuddle time:

I hope you are having a wonderful day, and will remember that all of us make progress one baby step at a time -- there are no short-cuts to perfection.

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