Attila teaching 'joy' moves to Clifford,
In August of 2005, my parti-color Standard Poodles, Jyah and Sydney, and I had the privilege of attending an advanced musical canine freestyle seminar presented by Attila Szkukalek in Beltsville, Maryland. There are a lot of similarities between what I do with my dogs (making video movies) and what freestylers do (choreographing and performing routines), and I knew there was much I could learn from such an intelligent and experienced trainer as Attila.
I have always had an appreciation for what it takes to compete in freestyle, but listening to Attila telling how he prepares for a competition upped that appreciation even more. I took a lot of notes -- but we were given such a wealth of information that I can't begin to do it all justice in this short article. I hope that what I, as a trainer of 'movie' dogs, learned at the seminar will help those in freestyle, and I thank Attila for allowing me to share some highlights from this most inspiring and enriching experience.
For anyone interested in advancing their training technique, I strongly recommend purchasing Attila's Gladiator training video. Attila's Border Collie, Fly, is so well trained that she looks like an independent dance partner rather than like a dog being cued. The level of difficulty in teaching many of the moves in the Gladiator routine is extraordinary. In the video, Attila shows how he uses bridges and targets to train all of the moves that he and Fly perform in this routine. (The Gladiator video was not played at the seminar, but I own a copy and have watched it many times.)
Lynn Franklin, who sponsored this private advanced seminar, is a long-time friend and fellow Standard Poodle lover. She and her freestyle colleagues had selected topics they wanted Attila to cover for this custom-made advanced freestyle workshop.
Here are examples of how these five signals might be used in teaching a freestyle sequence (done in a smooth consecutive manner):
"Back" (walk backwards)
Before addressing these topics of interest, Attila talked about the cueing signals he uses in training. These are:
Attila working with Sam,
The CONTINUE SIGNAL is taught by having the dog do something it already knows. The trainer gives the CUE "Watch" and, when the dog focuses its look on the trainer's face, the trainer begins the CONTINUE SIGNAL "Cleverrrr" and then gives the BRIDGE "Yes!" or a click and rewards the dog. By doing this with several well-known behaviors, both static and active, the trainer conditions the dog to understand that the CONTINUE SIGNAL means that the dog is correct and to continue the behavior.
MUCH OF what Attila covered at the seminar was relevant for what and how I train. My dogs must work independently and at a distance; they must stay focused and work for long periods; they must do a chain of behaviors smoothly. But since I don't train for freestyle events or competitions, how I cue my dogs does not have the same kind of relevancy that it did for others who attended the seminar. Still, I found it fascinating when Attila showed how he incorporates all of his cues and signals into dance movements to cue the dog in the ring rather than relying on voice cues.
AFTER DISCUSSING cueing signals, Attila began addressing the topics chosen by Lynn and her colleagues.
* TEACHING THE DOG TO WORK INDEPENDENTLY
Attila watches Marlene teaching Sailor, herNorweigian Elkhound, to prance. at arm's length from her side.
* TEACHING THE DOG TO WORK AT A DISTANCE
TO TEACH distance work, Attila suggested first teaching the two following behaviors separately but simultaneously: 1) Teach the dog to go to a target such as a mat on the floor, and 2) teach the dog to take food from a 'feeding station' ONLY when given permission. Again, for exact details and excellent examples of this, watch Attila's Gladiator training video.
Jyah's apprehensive posture
Also, Attila said that teaching the dog to sometimes look at (in the direction of - not focusing on) the audience would make the audience feel a connection to the dog. Done purposefully, this would also make the dog look more like an independent performer and not just like a dog being cued. Attila said that the handler should also practice smiling towards the audience instead of constantly watching their dog. A good example is Sandra Davis who does this expertly in her routines.
Sydney's playful posture
* TEACHING THE DOG TO WORK SMOOTHLY FROM ONE MOVE TO ANOTHER
ATTILA SAID that he rarely practices a routine in its entirety before going into a competition. Instead, he practices overlapping sequences of the routine to condition continuance. If the routine has six sequences, he practices one and two together -- then practices two and three -- then three and four -- then four and five -- then five and six -- then six and one, and so on. This overlapping also helps to keep the transitions smooth between sequences.
In practice sessions, when the dog makes a mistake in the sequence chain, the trainer should say 'wrong' and re-cue the dog. If the dog then does the move correctly, the trainer says, 'good' but does not reward. They should start the sequence again. If the dog does the sequence correctly, the trainer would then say "Yes!"(or click) and reward the dog.
Attila says that he cues every movement rather than cueing a chain or a sequence; that continuing to the next move is a cue in itself; that keeping a very strong response to each cue will trigger the next move.
Every move is cued with verbal and physical cues in the beginning and then Attila gradually conditions the dog to respond to just the physical moves which have become the dance moves. The dog will learn to respond to the handler's dance moves as cues if these moves are used from the beginning of training the routine.
* SUSTAINING ATTENTION IN DIFFICULT VENUES
ATTILA TALKED about how to give the dog confidence by making a FAMILIAR PACKAGE of the freestyle routine that the dog can recognize when in a competition. He said to do this by providing as much of a competition-like atmosphere as possible in every practice session. Suggestions were:
1) Use a special verbal cue (such as "Are you ready?!!") to start every practice session and use the same words right before going into the ring.
2) Always use music when you practice (not THE music of the routine, but just music in the background of a similar tempo to the routine) so that music becomes a familiar signal to the dog to work. No music during non-working sessions to differentiate them from the working (fun) sessions. The music should signal the dog to work.
3) Practice while wearing the costume (or part of the costume) that you will use in the ring so that the costume becomes another familiar cue for doing the routine.
4) Always practice with the props you'll use in the competition. These props become yet another familiar cue for the dog when in a strange environment.
5) The handler should always do each move (and sequence of moves) in practice the way s/he will do them in the ring. That way the handler's moves will be another familiar thing for the dog to anchor to when performing in difficult venues.
6) The handler should also try to duplicate her/his own ring emotions so that element is yet something else the dog can see as "familiar" when a strange environment.
It is more probable that the dog will respond to the handler and to dance cues if everything about them is very familiar in an otherwise unfamiliar environment. The more familiar things the dog can anchor to about the routine, the more likely the handler can hold the dog's attention in a competition.
* DEALING WITH DISASTERS WHILE IN THE RING
SO THAT 'disasters' occur infrequently, the trainer should teach the dog to ignore distractions as much as possible and the handler should bring a 'familiarity package' into the ring for the dog. Sights, sounds, smells, verbal signals and body cues are all things you can try to duplicate in practice so the dog will have a feeling of the familiar when he is in the ring.
Attila also recommended taking the dog for periodic half-day outings. Start with mildly noisy/confusing environments and then, as the dog adjusts, gradually go to more hectic locations. Keep the dog in this stressful environment for half a day during which time you will allow the dog to look around, but also intermittently demand its full attention to do a move or two. Make it clear to the dog when it is working and when it is allowed to look. Gradually get more behaviors as the dog adjusts to the environment. The goal is to condition the dog to enjoy working in highly-charged surroundings.
When the dog shuts down in competition, handlers should have a signal such as "Are you Ready?!" that they use every time before any practice session so that giving that signal is something the dog is familiar with and this can often break through its stress. Another way to help the dog when it shuts down in the middle of a routine is to improvise and ask for a 'joy' move (an exciting move that the dog really likes to do), then the handler would improvise to the next sequence in the routine.
Having pre-taught a 'relaxation' signal is also helpful to have for when the dog is getting stressed in the ring. This would be taught by using a cue word (such as "relax") when the dog is in a very mellow state, then gradually
Jyah cued to bounce on his hind legs for several hops. Notice the feeding station behind him.
ONE OF THE things Attila did in their Gladiator routine that made Fly look like an independent performer was to teach her to do moves without looking at him. This was brilliantly showcased when Attila and Fly entered the ring walking side by side, a couple of feet apart to the center of the ring, neither looking at the other. They both bowed allegiance (to the king) and then each went in opposite directions around the ring to face each other on opposite sides. (Attila shows how he taught this in the Gladiator training video.)
For the dog to look more like an independent performer, it should not look as if it depends on the proximity of the handler to perform. By using target sticks, hand targets, barriers, target mats and raised platforms, trainers can teach their dogs to do moves and behaviors at a distance.
Attila teaches his dog to target his hand with her nose. Movements trained using the hand target are then morphed into dance moves. Teaching the dog to touch its nose to a hand or target stick a few feet from the trainer can get the dog away from the trainer's body and its eyes off the handler's face. In the picture on the right, Marlene is holding her hand out to her side and having her dog target it with his nose. Then, she clicks to 'capture' the highest elevation of his legs to teach a prance. Having her dog prance a little way away from her side will better showcase her dog's movement and make it look as if he is doing the prance more independently.
Above is an example of using a barrier to condition the dog to a specific pattern. Since Sydney knows the "back" cue, I can signal her to back at the end of a hall -- which teach her to back around me.
Platform -- conditioning 'teddy bear' at a distance.
Target Mat -- conditioning 'circling' at a distance
Mary with her Aussie, Dixie
* INCREASING THE DOG'S STAMINA FOR TWO-DAY COMPETITION
MUSICAL CANINE FREESTYLE is a dog sport, and the dog should be in condition to participate -- both physically and mentally. The dog needs stamina, endurance and speed training as would any athlete who competes in a dynamic and athletic sport.
The better condition the dog is in, the more stamina it will have for not only the athletic part of freestyle but also for handling the stress of performing in show situations. (This also applies to the trainer.)
There are excellent books on this subject. One is: "Peak Performance: Coaching the Canine Athlete" - by M. Christine Zink, D.V.M, Ph.D.
* SUBTLE WAYS TO CUE THE DOG SO THE TRAINER DOESN'T GET NAILED FOR HAND, VERBAL, AND BODY CUES
FROM the very beginning of training for a routine, Attila uses hand and body signals that he can morph into dance moves. He teaches his dog the cues with verbal and body signals
conditioning the dog to relax in many different and increasingly stimulating situations and places.
For dogs who are prone to stress, Attila suggested trying one of the D.A.P. products which mimic natural reassuring pheromones produced by female dogs when nursing. Farnum Pet Products has one called 'Comfort Zone with DAP'. (Dog Appeasing Pheromones)
THE BEST WAY to learn Attila's technique is to study his videos and attend his seminars. (Unless, of course, you are fortunate enough to be trained by him personally.) However, I hope these notes from my experience attending one of Attila's advanced freestyle seminars can help those who may be unable to attend a seminar but who are seeking ways to improve their own training technique and freestyle performances.
* EXPANDING THE DOG'S ABILITY TO FOCUS FOR LONG PERIODS
Attila said that dogs should be conditioned to know when they are working and when they are not working, and should be conditioned to focus on their work the full time they are doing it. Also, that working is fun and rewarding, and that NOT working is quiet and boring. And -- that music cues working.
One of the exercises Attila had participants do to emphasize this difference to their dog was to cycle between a working session with music (using a working cue such as "ARE YOU READY?!!") where the trainer would be interactive and reinforcing with the dog, and a non-working session where the trainer gives a non-working cue (such as "Practice Over") and then walks sedately with the dog around the ring with no music, no rewards, no interaction.
Attila told trainers to get the food rewards off their body. That if the dog is always given food from the trainer's hand it will have no incentive to work independently of its handler. So, for the working session, Attila set up 'feeding stations' (a chair with food on top) at three different points around the perimeter of the ring. The music played and the trainer was to give the dog her full positive attention and have the dog do one behavior over and over or short sequences, such as heel-spin-heel. Then, when the dog was focused and doing the behaviors correctly, the trainer would BRIDGE (say "Yes!" or click) and they would rush together to the nearest feeding station. The trainer would then tell the dog, "Ready, Steady, Go!" and throw the food for the dog to get. By rushing to a feeding station just when the dog had done really well was a way to reward for more enthusiasm and faster speed in responding to cues; and throwing the food took the attention off the handler as the food source.
In the non-working cycle, the dog and handler walked sedately around the ring with no music, no interaction, no rewards. In addition to this session being in sharp contrast to the working session, it gave the dog a chance to cool down and to absorb what it had just learned in the previous session.
Attila had the trainers and dogs cycle between these two sessions. In order to build the dog's ability to focus for longer and longer periods, he said to start out doing sessions of 10 seconds working and 10 seconds non-working. Then going to 20 seconds of each session, then 30 seconds and so on to build the dog's ability to focus for longer and longer periods of time.
differential being the target or barrier for Fly's feet), then he faced her from about 15 feet away and had her sidestep along the curb matching his body cues.
Sydney's stalking posture.
Jyah's woeful posture
When given the Bridge, Jyah turns and goes to the feeding station for his reward.
By Charlene Dunlap
Another way to make the dog look like an independent partner in a routine is to teach him postures that look like expressions. This gives the dog a more principal role in the routine. Attila said trainers can teach expressive postures by capturing them when the dog does them naturally. 'Joy' moves might be leaping, bouncing, hopping on hind legs, etc. Other body expressions could be stalking, rolling on back, hangdog look, etc. In Attila's Charlie Chaplin routine Fly did several comic behaviors that made her look like an independent performer.
I both capture and train postures I use in creating my dog's 'expressions' for movie plots. Below are some expression postures.
Attila Szkukalek , Ph.D. from the United Kingdom is an Animal Behaviorist, Trainer, Musical Canine Freestyle Championan, and International Judge and Tutor. People around the world have enjoyed watching video clips of Attila's brilliant routines.
Teaching the dog to work independently
Teaching the dog to work at a distance
Sustaining attention in difficult venues
Teaching the dog to work smoothly from one move to another
Expanding the dog's ability to focus for long periods
Increasing the dog's stamina for two-day competitions.
Subtle ways to cue the dog so the trainer doesn't get nailed for hand, verbal, and body cues.
Dealing with disasters while in the ring
CUE: The signal for a behavior, action, or move that the dog is to perform.
CONTINUE SIGNAL: A word or sound that tells the dog to continue what he is doing but that he hasn't reached the end of the behavior yet. Attila uses the word "Clever" said many times and drawn out - "Cleverclevercleverrrrrr" - as a signal that the dog is correct in what he is doing and to continue doing it.
This is a signal that tells the dog that the behavior he just did is correct but that he will not be rewarded yet. The trainer says "good" in a normal but up-beat tone and then cues the dog to do another behavior in the sequence. No reward is given until the final behavior in the sequence.
BRIDGE: The bridge is a signal (sound or word) that tells the dog that he will immediately be rewarded. "Yes!" or a click are two common bridges.
Once the dog has been trained to go to a target and perform cued behaviors away from the handler, and the dog has learned not to take food unless given the okay signal, the possibilities for distance work are endless.
In one example (on the video), Attila had placed three feeding stations in a line about ten feet apart. He sent Fly (his Border Collie) out to just short of the feeding stations, which were about 20-30 feet from Attila, and had her turn to face him. He then cued her to 'sniff' (a version of the play bow except with a different posture attitude). He had her do this several times on cue and then gave her the signal to approach and eat from one of the feeding stations behind her. He had her work at this distance doing different behaviors until all of the feeding stations have been utilized.
Trainers can also use things in the dog's environment as targets. An example in the Gladiator training video is where Attila was teaching Fly to sidestep facing him at a distance. Attila put Fly on a curb (the height
and then gradually drops the verbal. Soon all of his dance moves cue his dog to do her moves in the routine. When he uses the movements he will do in the routine when teaching Fly her moves, she learns fright from the beginning to cue off these movements. In this way, the handler's movements in the ring are just another thing that is "familiar" to the dog when the team goes into a competition.
Attila said that the handler's dance movements should trigger (cue) the dog to move, but that the emphasis should always be on the dog's moves and not the handler's dancing. The handler should not be a high-profile flashy dancer, but rather the 'support' partner of the dance team. The handler should move his or her body gracefully and not detract from, but rather complement, the dog's performance.
Another thing Attila emphasized was for the choreography to be kept simple. He told participants not to 'jam up' routines with too many moves. That some dogs could not cope with being thrown too many signals in the ring and would shut down. He said to keep the routine simple enough for the dog to keep the flow going smoothly.