What did I learn from Susan Garrett?

by Tracey Harrison-Hill

What did I learn from Susan Garrett? I learned that when an opportunity like this is presented, ensure you grasp it wholeheartedly with both hands. For those of you that missed the Uralla camp- you missed a learning opportunity of immense proportions. Indeed, at times I found it overwhelming, and at times I felt dispirited about the steep learning curve and the work in front of me, but I will treasure those five days as a major turning point in the application of my understanding of dog training. I came home invigorated about dog agility. It also underlined to me that my dog is a reflection of my abilities as a dog trainer.

My take on Susan’s five days was that there were two key fundamental elements to her system of training. My understanding was that these elements then formed the basis of what I saw as three further components to how she trains agility. The two key fundamentals were the science of operant conditioning and a method for developing motivation in your dog. Needless to say these two are closely related.

The first, and the element that forms the basis of all of Susan’s actions, is behaviour shaping through operant conditioning. Those who attended the instructor workshop in Brisbane found that Susan even teaches humans using operant conditioning. The basis of operant conditioning was not new to many of us, but we had been inexact in our implementation of the science. In this component Susan emphasised the work of Marion and Bob Bailey. Indeed the main advice was attributed to Bob Bailey and included two jewels of wisdom- firstly the three critical parts of training are “timing, criteria and rate of reinforcement”. And the second- “be a splitter not a lumper”. As a package this advice is important as it emphasises that the timing of the click in marking correct behaviour is critical to success and that to get the timing right requires a lot of concentration and intensity on behalf of the trainer. Hence short but intense training sessions. This advice also emphasises that to keep the rate of reinforcement high we need to split each behaviour down into smaller parts and we need to be crystal clear on what our criteria for the behaviour is and to shape that and that alone. Though probably the piece of advice that really changed my implementation of shaping behaviours was that of the placement of the reward. By altering the placement of the reward you can change the shape of the final behaviour quite dramatically. This in particular translates to agility through the shaping of contacts and control behaviours such as start-line stays but also within jump sequences.

The second fundamental was Susan’s approach to building motivation and it is primarily related to the handler being the centre of all reinforcement for the dog by limiting the dog’s ability to get it wrong or to take reinforcements from its environment. This requires the trainer to make all activities they do with the dog very rewarding, but it also requires the trainer to be very clear and very consistent in the criteria they set for all behaviours. Overall, this fundamental forms a system of living with your dog that makes you the centre of your dog’s existence and the most rewarding thing inFigure 1 that dog’s life. Susan’s book “Ruff Love” outlines her system to building motivation in your dog. What is also clear is that until a handler achieves a good relationship with their dog, achieving success in training will be limited. Susan demonstrates this through her acronym of D.A.S.H. (Desire, Accuracy, Speed and Habitat). All training must begin with drive and attitude, that is, the Desire to work and play with you. Without this it will be difficult to build accurate behaviours, and without accurate understanding the dog won’t develop speed or be able to translate the behaviour into different habitats or environments. I had read “Ruff Love” before the seminar (indeed it had the prized reading position within our house- next to the toilet!) My thoughts were, while there were excellent parts, that it was a fairly extreme way of achieving success in training with your dog. Yet I found that after listening to Susan’s interpretations and explanations of the Ruff Love system that there are very sound reasons for each part that I had missed through my reading of the book. I have since made the decision to attempt to implement the system within our house (and am currently trying to talk my hubby into trying it too.) An offshoot to this fundamental was an emphasis on tugging with your dog as a way to increase drive that is interactive between the handler and dog. There was also an emphasis on building a repertoire of rewards for the dog, with the end goal being that each will hold equal value in the eyes of the dog.

By now you are probably wondering where the agility was in all of this. Well the poignant point was that these two fundamental approaches to training formed the basis of all the agility we covered over the week. My understanding of how we approached the agility specific training was that Susan broke agility into three components. Firstly, teaching your dog to use its body most effectively in jumping and performing contacts, a lot of which came back to hind-end awareness. Secondly, teaching dogs how to accurately perform each piece of equipment, particularly contact equipment. For each piece of equipment, behaviours were split down into small elements and each element was taught separately for accuracy and speed before being brought together as a complete behaviour chain on the equipment. Thirdly, bringing it together with a consistent handling system that emphasised the most efficient way to get around a course and how to make decisions of where to place crosses accordingly. This handling system was informed by Greg Derrett of England.

The first component of how to teach your dog to effectively use its body started with ladder work to assist the dog to be aware of what its feet were doing, in particular hind-end awareness. This was demonstrated further through shaping the dog to perform turns on the forehand. For those dogs with little awareness of their back end the Tellington T-touch methods were used to assist the dog to “find” its hindquarters. Hind-end awareness was also improved through teaching the dog to back up on the flat, back up stairs and back up through a ladder. Susan felt that this was critical for dogs to be able to jump efficiently and to power down into their contact positions effectively. The Jumping seminar in Brisbane furthered this hind-end awareness with several jumping grids adapted from the equestrian world to encourage dogs to use their hindquarters in “bouncing” though jump arrangements. Bouncing is the action where the dog lands from one obstacle and takes off for the next simultaneously, without any strides between. We saw dogs improve in their balance and rhythm over jumps using this method.Figure 2

The second component was about splitting down the behaviour desired on contact obstacles, table and weaves into small elements and training each element separately. For example the dog walk would be broken down into several elements. The contact position desired was a nose touch to the ground between the front feet with the front feet off the contact and rear feet on the contact. So this behaviour was taught away from the dogwalk on a set of stairs. Before that though, the dog was taught to touch its nose to a target in your hand, then on the ground until the target itself was faded. This target was then placed at the base of the stairs where the dog was shaped into offering rear feet on the stairs, front feet on the ground and a nose touch to the ground between the front feet. Once the dog had excellent accuracy the stairs were back-chained until the dog could race down the stairs and hold the contact position until released. At the same time as building the contact position, the dog was being shaped to race across a narrow plank with speed, mostly through restrained recalls. This plank would then be placed between low tables to add the element of height. Once the dog was racing across the plank with speed the height of the plank from the ground was increased (incidentally, Susan also teaches the dogs how to jump off the plank safely in case of overbalancing and falls). The incline and decline of the plank was also altered with the plank between a small table and a high table and the same restrained recalls were used until the dog was confident and flying along, up and down the plank. Once each of these behaviours was very accurate and performed with speed and in various habitats, then the dog was able to be back-chained over the dogwalk. Similar splitting of overall behaviours occurred for the A-frame and the seesaw with movement being an important element in the seesaw. The weaves were also split using a technique Susan called the 2×2 weave pole method. The goal is that through splitting and back-chaining the dog knows the behaviour expected of it without confusion and the handler will not need to “baby-sit” contacts, weave entries or exits etc and can instead concentrate on getting into position for the next sequence.

The third component was about employing a consistent system to handling your dog around a course in the most efficient manner possible. Susan attributed the method to Greg Derrett and emphasised consistency. Each handling maneuver should only mean one thing to the dog. Susan demonstrated how our outside arm tandem turns (otherwise known as the evil arm) and blind crosses (aka Satan’s tool) each had visual cues within them that could mean multiple things to the dog, and as such were confusing and inconsistent. Susan’s delivery of this system appeared to employ two main aims: 1. to get the handler around the course as quickly as possible; and 2. to get the dog to turn as tightly as possible. When performed correctly, Susan felt that the front cross is the best handling maneuver to tighten turns and set up straight paths (and therefore the shortest route between two points). The positioning of the front cross should be where the dog turns (see figure 1). Other important rules included: 1. Always keep your eye on the dog; 2. Use the arm and leg nearest the dog for directions; 3. Stand up straight; and, 4. Face the way the dog is going until it is fully committed to the obstacle. When the handler cannot get into position to perform the front cross then a cross behind should be used. The other maneuver that was emphasised was the false turn that was used to tighten up wide turning dogs. The false turn appeared to resemble a “gentle” RFP without such extreme rotation of the shoulders but rather simply a turn into your dog using the outside hand positioned in the middle of your chest to draw your dog toward you. Susan also demonstrated an interesting method to handle a serpentine that tended to overlap the front cross with a false-turn. She defined a serpentine as anywhere where you would want to do two consecutive front crosses but would not be able to be in position to implement them. This method straightens out the path of the dog through the serpentine creating a very fast line. (see figure 2) It was also very useful for threadles and wrap arounds, which to date we haven’t seen much of within Australian ADAA courses. Figure 3

We then put these turns and crosses into practice within courses that required us to make decisions on where to place crosses (never on a straight line) and in many instances decisions on which direction we wanted our dogs to turn after a jump (see figure 3). The decision making rule for turning asked three questions:
1. Where is the dog coming from?
2. Where is the dog going next?
3. What is the shortest path (distance) to the next obstacle?
It then required the handler to weigh up the answers and decide which option to take. In figure 3 we see that the decision needs to be made from jump 3 to 4. So we ask where is the dog coming from. This is looking at the dog’s trajectory from 2 to 3. We see that the dog is moving toward the right side jump 3, so a turn to the right would be easier. We then ask where is the dog going next. In this case there isn’t an advantage either way. We then ask which is the shortest path. In this case it would be turning right. That path through to jump 5 is 2m shorter than the left-turning path. So in this decision we should turn right. When you have multiple decisions on a course you start with the last one and work back through the decisions towards the start of the course.

Underlying each of these three components as I saw them was the constant emphasis on operant conditioning and in particular rewarding your dog to maintain motivation and the rate of responses from the dog. We got so used to hearing “Reward that dog!” that the audience took up the chant for Susan on a regular basis. If you are practicing a handling maneuver and you get it wrong then we implemented what Susan so elegantly calls a “screw-up cookie”. You ask the dog for a simple behaviour such as touch, spin, or roll-over and reward the dog for that behaviour so that you can maintain a high rate of reinforcement. Susan also emphasised that each mistake a dog makes is an opportunity to reinforce that behaviour for the dog. Needless to say we had many opportunities to implement that within our start line lead-outs. The placement of the reward was also emphasised. The timing of the reward was important, and maintaining your criteria was emphasised. And oh so much more….

So do I have any regrets? I regret that we didn’t have ten days in place of the five. In particular I regret we were unable to spend more time exploring the 2×2-weave pole method, which I had hoped would address a particular problem area of mine (who me selfish?). I regret that we didn’t spend more time expanding on the distance fundamentals. I also felt that we were “lumping” some exercises toward the end of each of the seminars, which didn’t help handlers learn with confidence and conviction. Okay, so maybe we really needed a month… But the reality was that Susan tried to instill the fundamentals of training behaviours in agility so that we could then put this into practice ourselves- she gave us her building blocks. And we have all come away from the seminar having learned incredible amounts and even if we had ten days more, or a whole month, we would still be feeling like there was so much more we could glean from Susan. Though I have to plead guilty to the thought of stealing her passport…..