Friday, March 9, 2012

Attack of the killer cotton balls

I think my Thursday night heeling class is ready to kill me.

Last night I tossed cotton balls all over the mats and had the handlers heel their dogs around and/or through them.

You would have thought I’d tossed squeaking, bouncing bacon-wrapped tennis balls on the floor.

Even though cotton balls are A) immobile B) silent and C) odorless, nearly all the dogs were driven to distraction by them. A couple of the more advanced dogs were rock stars who navigated the hazard with nary a look, but the newer dogs were fascinated by immobile, silent, odorless things on the mats. (Now imagine REAL show mats with the scents and residue of a thousand shows ground into their surface.)

The cotton balls were a totally visual distraction. If your dog is watching you, he can’t look at cotton balls at the same time.

I did this exercise to demonstrate a couple of things. Making my students want to lurk in the parking lot and brain me with the Utility bar jump wasn’t one of them.

It’s very easy to train in a clean, quiet, controlled environment and you can build up a pretty good sense of false security about what your dog “knows.” So on one level, the cotton balls were a test for the dog: does he understand that his job is to watch his handler, no matter what’s on the floor?

On the other hand, it was a test for the trainers: what are you going to do at a training session when your dog completely derails and acts like it’s the first night of home obedience class, pulling and lunging and totally ignoring you?

Keep in mind these are young dogs who have had some but not a lot of training at this point in their careers. They need help. They need reinforcement. They need feedback.

What to do?

1) Increase the distance between you and the distraction until you find a point where your dog can function and give you the behavior (attention) you want. Then move incrementally closer.
2) Increase the amount of help you give your dog: verbal praise and encouragement and/or physical help like pointing to the dog’s heeling focal spot or having him do hand touches (again, can’t do a hand touch and look at the floor at the same time)
3) Increase the frequency of rewards.

Understand that having a dog who can do beautiful heeling for the full length of the building with zero distractions is no guarantee that the dog “knows” what he is doing. He may truly know how to heel or he may just be doing it because there aren’t any other options available.

Here’s where allowing the dog to make a choice comes into play. Do you want to get the cotton balls (intriguing but essentially unrewarding) or do you want to interact with me (always rewarding)?

It’s also a good example of how taking three steps backward in your training can actually allow you to make faster forward progress. Here’s what I mean: dragging your distracted dog across the deadly cotton ball field, giving jerks on the collar while your frustration level builds is not very productive in the end - you have allowed your dog to practice bad behavior (lagging, sniffing, ignoring you) while you pulled the proverbial rug out from under him (no verbal encouragement, no physical help, no rewards). Not a recipe for success unless your goal is to create a dog who ignores you.

The total opposite - stopping your forward motion the very second your dog tunes you out, getting him re-oriented and re-engaged, taking one step, rewarding, setting up and starting over again will produce a dog who is able to make the choice to ignore the cotton balls (or the small child sitting ringside, eating and spilling popcorn) and remain focused on his handler. I'm not talking about luring him through the pile with a cookie on his nose, I mean letting him make the decision to look at you and then rewarding it.

I frequently hear trainers saying “But he KNOWS how to do it right.” Okay, maybe, but if your dog who “knows” how to do something is making big, obvious mistakes, he DOESN’T know how to make the choice between the correct, desired behavior and doing as he pleases as the impulse strikes. This doesn't make the dog a miserable failure, it just means he needs more training, more patience, more time and more reinforcement. The first time you see your dog make a visible choice between pursuing a distraction or maintaining his job, your heart will leap with joy!

Everyone was a good sport about it last night, though, and got through the pile with varying degrees of success. No cotton balls were consumed, although not for lack of trying.

I suppose I should take treats to class next week if I’m going to make them do it again.


  1. Have they had the "spoon" class yet?

  2. I'm cracking up about this as my GSD Blitz would have left the building. He has some ear problems now and again and if he sees me pull out a cotton ball he is Gone...

  3. Excellent post! Made me stop and think because I've said that too...'my dog KNOWS this stuff!' when she wasn't behaving correctly. Hmmm...Stop, get attention, reward....thanks for the reminder.

  4. Great post! I'm forwarding to all my students NOW.