Your Chicken’s Not Ready

The words ran through my mind last weekend when I was showing Maggie, a little Russell Terrier, in Utility at a big busy show.  She did a beautiful signal exercise and the next exercise was scent discrimination and when she went out to the pile, she selected the correct article and carried it right out of the ring!  She was worried about the stewards you see, all those feet that move, so of course she ran toward the thing she is worried about.

There was a time that would have upset me, my dog failing.  Why did she do that?  What could I have done differently to handle her better?  Didn’t all those matches help with this?  Now, I just hear Bob Bailey’s response when you try to pass an evaluation with your chicken and it fails, “Your chicken’s not ready”.  That is it, plain and simple.  You are not bad, the chicken (or dog) are not bad, you just are not ready for this evaluation right now.  So freeing, you just need to train more/better/different.

How do I get my chicken, I mean Maggie, ready?  Well, we now have what I call TEAM MAGGIE.  I came home from that show with 1 utility leg and a plan.  I’ll be doing lots and lots of training around people doing unusual things.  My students are now running to put down the gloves, jumping back from the ring gates to let us in, staring at her and asking if they can pet her.  She needs to have the freedom to quit at any time while we are training, but that quitting also leads to loss of reward.  It’s tricky this desensitization.  You need just enough of the worrisome thing for her to notice, but not enough that she can’t work.  I need her to notice things are weird or different and still want to work.  I have already worked through this with her Moving Stand for Exam.  She was so worried about the judge going over her, and the hard thing was that each judge has a different exam and pressure they put on the dog.  So, I taught her to stand on a platform, then I proofed a stay on the platform to death, then I had people start to put pressure on her.  If she jumped off, it’s a release and you missed your cookies (too bad/so sad), if she stayed, reward!  It was wonderful to see her confidence grow, she had complete control of the situation.

I remember the first time I did a chicken workshop with Bob and Parvene,  I was so nervous that I would lose my chicken!  So, hurry, hurry, hurry, grab the cup of feed, the target and just start clicking to keep the bird engaged!!  Bob then did his famous “everyone pick up your bird” and looks at all of us and asks us why are we rushing?  We have the reinforcements, all the food, and the target we were training.  He told us to put our bird on the table, situate ourselves, and then look at the chicken and ask it “are you going to be a good little chicken?” and then start training.  When you use operant conditioning, you reward the animal’s choices, so be careful what you reinforce!

So back to my little chicken, Maggie.  When my students helped me on Monday morning, I set up the ring gates, made everything very formal, and asked them to crowd around and move a lot like stewards and handlers might.  I wanted Maggie to give me full heads up attention, through the crowd, to a sit/stay, as I took off the leash, then heel to a set up spot, and then reward.  We had to do it over a couple of times, she would drop her head, or break her sit/stay, but I didn’t reward, I went back to the start.  An amazing thing happened; she got more and more confident!  So confident that I asked for a signal exercise and heeling out of the ring before rewarding!   There was a time in my training, before really understanding operant conditioning, that I would have rewarded a lot in that training session.  I would think that the more I rewarded the more that she would like the entrances.  There may  be a time to do that for a dog, but for Maggie, she knows my cues very well, and now she needs to learn that with the heavy distraction of the stewards/judge (even if they are acting weirdly) she holds the key to if she is reinforced or not.  In a few sessions of training it’s amazing what she can do already.  Don’t get me wrong, I had always worked on Maggie being able to work around people, but I was always concerned that if I proofed too much she would actually become more sensitized to the stewards, but I am not afraid of that anymore, bring on the drunken stewards and the judge that yells!

So, I am headed back to Bob and Parvene’s camps this summer, highly recommend them to everyone.  But, if you go, get ready to hear “your chicken’s not ready” and when you hear it, realize what a wonderful thing to not blame you or your chicken for any error, you just aren’t ready yet.

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