Friday, October 14, 2011

What I Learned About Dog Training by Taking Piano Lessons

Several years ago, John’s mother bought him a good quality electric keyboard.  It is a really good keyboard and it has all kinds of odds n ends to make it flashy.  John liked the keyboard.  I LOVED the keyboard.  I loved the keyboard so much, that I went out and started piano lessons so that I could learn to play it.  I learned a lot of things in my music lessons that are really relevant to dog training, and I thought I would share.

If I heard it once, I must have heard it a thousand times; if you practice the wrong thing you will get really good at doing it wrong.  I head this when my husband was taking voice lessons and I heard it again when I started taking piano lessons.  Yes, practice is important but if you make the same mistake over and over again, you just make your mistake permanent. 

This is true for dog training too.  Eco and I are cleaning up our heeling right now with the intent of going into the ring in the winter to do obedience and rally-O.  We have practiced really sloppy heeling for about three years, so we have a lot of tidying to do.  It is very hard to remember that we are going back to basics because we have perfected sloppy heeling.  Now I am only asking for one good step together, but some of the time I get excited and forget and if we get one good step, I throw caution to the wind and take ten steps and by about the fifth step we are back to making the errors we are really good at making.

When we got the keyboard, I learned a very important lesson the very first day we had it.  Four hours is too long to practice the piano.  By about three hours and forty five minutes.  In fact if you practice playing the piano for four hours, you can expect your elbows to swell up, your fingers to go stiff and numb and forget fine motor activity for the next three days.  When I started piano lessons, I asked my teacher how long and how often I ought to practice.  Ten minutes twice a day she replied.  Ten minutes?  Heck I could do that between brushing my hair in the morning and eating breakfast and not even have to get up any earlier!  And I could absolutely fit it in while dinner was cooking after work. 

Dogs are a little bit like this too.  If you feel a crushing need to train for four hours a day (and who doesn’t if they are dog trainers?  Likely this isn’t true of non dog trainers!), you need more dogs.  Lots more dogs.  For most skill based behaviours, dogs work best for short periods of time.  I realized this recently when I was coaching a novice handler in a class recently.  She was trying to get one to two hours a day of practice in.  I only work my dogs for twenty to thirty minutes at a go, and they are experienced dogs.  My puppy only works for ten to fifteen minutes at a time.  Ten minutes, twice a day, until you get the hang of things is likely more than enough.  If you are working on behaviour modification for a behaviour problem, this may not hold true, but in general, keep it short and sweet.

I started piano lessons when Jean Crétien was prime minister of Canada.  His wife, Aline, began taking piano lessons in her fifties when M. Crétien was first elected as prime minister.  In fact, she began taking Royal Conservatory lessons and by the time he left office she had completed the bulk of their classes and courses.  I figured that if the wife of the prime minister could play the piano starting in her fifties, why shouldn’t I be able to start the same thing as an adult?  And maybe, if I studied long enough I could play some of the works of Mozart or Liszt, or some other classical composer I had heard of.

As a dog trainer, we should try and be aware of the movers and shakers in our field.  We should know who is suggesting new ideas and who is writing and blogging and videoing about dog training.  We should know both who is proposing innovative ideas and who is sticking with the old ways.  It is also helpful to find someone local who can mentor you and who can be a good role model for you.  Pat Miller, Ian Dunbar, Patricia McConnell, Cesar Milan, Brad Pattison, Victoria Stillwell, Suzanne Clothier, Nicholas Dodman and Susan Garrett should all be familiar names to you if you are serious about getting into the training game.

When I first took piano lessons, my teacher gave me a children’s book to learn.  The first week that I took lessons, I learned to work my fingers independently and play a simple scale.  The second week, I learned to move my fingers over one another and reach the more distant keys.  Each week I learned to play different elements of more complex pieces.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning the foundations of more complex work.  One day, my teacher gave me a completely new piece of music and asked me to play what I read.  To my surprise, I was able to play a fairly complex piece of music.  

This holds true in dog training.  The recall is a fine example of a complex behaviour that is made up of a series of simpler behaviours.  Your dog has to orient on his name and find you.  Then he has to disengage from whatever he is doing and come towards you.  If you want your dog to sit in front of you when he gets to you that is another simple behaviour to add to the chain.

Backchaining is the process of learning all the elements of a series of behaviours, and then rewarding the last of the behaviours and practicing the last behaviour over and over again, until you feel really confident about that.  Then you practice the second to last behaviour and the last behaviour and get your reward.  Then you practice the third to last, the second to last and the last behaviour and get your reward.  When I was learning pieces of music to play on the piano, I would backchain them all.  One day my teacher asked me to play a new piece of music that I had never seen or heard before.  I looked at the sheet music for a minute and then asked her how she wanted me to start.  From the beginning she said.  I asked if she minded if I did it a little differently the first few times through, and she asked what I wanted to do.  I explained backchaining to her and she began to laugh.  She had been in a graduate program in music before anyone had taught her that little trick, and she learned how it was that I was learning so many pieces so quickly; I just played the final bar until I was smooth and then the final two bars and so on.  My reward was hearing the music come out the way that it ought to sound.

Backchaining is a useful but seldom used method in dog training.  Especially when a dog is being asked to learn a complex sequence for competition or for service work, backchaining is highly useful.  If you want your dog to learn to fetch the paper for you, you would simply teach him all the elements of the behaviour; go to the door, wait till you open it, wait till you tell him it is safe to go and find the paper, find the paper, pick up the paper, carry the paper back to the door and then hold the paper until you tell him to give it to you.  Then when the dog knows all the elements individually, you would practice only the part where he holds the paper until you ask him for it.  Then you might leave him on a sit stay where the paper is normally delivered, walk back to the house and call him to come and then give you the paper when you ask, and then give him his reward.  After practicing this stage for a period of time, you would ask him to sit and stay at the location that the paper was delivered, and go back to the house.  Once you were in place you would cue him to pick up the paper, and wait for the rest of the sequence to occur, and reward him for giving you the paper when you asked.  You would keep adding to the chain of behaviours until your dog was doing the whole thing in one smooth sequence without prompting from you.

When I first started playing the piano, I felt like an octopus.  88 keys, ten fingers, two hands, three pedals, two feet, and sheet music felt awkward and uncomfortable.  I felt like I was in some sort of a battle with the keyboard.  Gradually over time, I learned to master about 64 of the keys (nothing I ever played required the very high or very low notes), both of my hands, all my fingers and the sheet music.  Then we moved, and the keyboard didn’t get unpacked, so my musical career came to a rather abrupt end. 

During my short time in music class I learned something really important that I try and remember every time I get a new student in my training hall.  Kinaesthetic skills take time to learn well, and I must break elements of  the skill out so that my students can be successful.  If the student is feeling overwhelmed by a clicker, a leash, the treats, the dog and all the other dogs and trainers in the room, I ask myself which elements can I isolate so that the task is easier for the student.  We use tethers so that the students can learn clicker skills without having to juggle the leash.  We use treat bowls because they are easier for the student to reach into than a bait bag or a baggy.  Sometimes I let a student practice with one of my own dogs so that they can experience first-hand what it feels like when all the elements are in place. 

One of my mentors advised me many years ago to try a new skill each year; martial arts, horse back riding, playing the piano or tennis.  It doesn’t matter what discipline I try, each time I try something new, I learn again that my muscles don’t do what my instructor’s muscles do, and what comes naturally to my instructor won’t come naturally to me, just as what I do with a dog won’t necessarily come naturally to my students.  This year, I returned to riding after fifteen or twenty years away from the saddle.  I learned again that I have a lot to learn, and what comes naturally to my instructors and mentors doesn’t come naturally to me.  As the fall gets colder, I think about what I might try next year.  Sailing?  Maybe.  Or oil painting?  How about calligraphy?  There is something for me to learn about dog training in all of them; it remains to be seen what that might be.

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