Monthly Archives: December 2015

Ruminations as 2016 approaches

While ruminating on change and New Year’s Resolutions, I ran across this article in the New York Times. The two questions “why don’t I do this already?” and “why do I feel the need to do this now?” seem to me to constitute a very useful approach to life changes. In the case of “why don’t I do this already?” it should lead to problem-solving around the answers. If (for example) you’re not eating healthfully, why not? Is it grocery shopping? Time to cook? Lack of ability to cook? The three problems have different solutions.

When people ask me how I’ve managed to lose weight, a lot of it has been problem solving, one new habit at a time.

There are a lot of messages about weight and fitness going around as New Year’s Day approaches. I have mixed feelings about all of them. I am well aware that many resolutions are not kept–but I am also aware that *decisions* made about making a life change can be a very good thing. I ran across an article about “body positivism”. This appears, at first glance, to be about accepting your body, whatever your weight, but there seems to be an undercurrent of “don’t bother trying to change, because you should love your body no matter what you weigh.”

I think that part of this is an excellent message–“celebrate what your body can do!”– but I disagree that excess weight is okay. I spent a lot of years with more weight than I’d really want to admit (here or anyway) and I feel much better now than I did when I was heavier. My knees hurt all the time, now they rarely do, even with all the running I do. I’m no longer developing insulin resistance: my fasting blood sugar has dropped from a very slightly high 105 to a nice 92. I’m not nearly as tired at the end of the day. I don’t wake up felling unhappy about my clothing choices and the way I look in the mirror (when I had the courage to look in the mirror).

When I decided to lose weight, more than three years ago, it wasn’t about looking better (that really has been a huge bonus!), it was about performance. I wanted to feel better, lose the knee pain (and avoid knee replacement surgery), run faster, get my borderline blood sugar down, run faster so I could keep up with Rush, and not hear my knees make that crunchy noise when I went up the stairs. I wanted to fit into airline seats. I wanted to cross my legs comfortably. I wanted to feel fast and lean.

It has not been easy. I have made my contributions to Weight Watchers (an organization that makes me want desperately to change it) in pursuit of a place to discuss food issues. I track everything I eat (and very rarely eat anything wrapped in crunchy plastic); I cook my own food most of the time and take my own food with me when going to dog events. It requires planning and thought and making big batches of soup for the freezer so I always have something healthy to eat, even when I am bone-tired. I swim and I run and I bike so I can have occasional treats. It’s not easy.

But… My knees don’t hurt. I’m not going to need those knees replaced at 60 (my current age), as they warned me five years ago. My blood sugar is normal. I ran a five-K race and placed first in my age group two weeks ago–beating eight women. I still have seven and a half pounds to go, an amount that should make my five k time 49 seconds faster. And it’s a lot easier to keep up with Rush, too.

In the last few days–New Year’s Day is tomorrow, after all, a few people have asked me about the Couch to 5k running program. So here’s a fuller answer. Yes, do Couch to 5k (c25k). But… do it very slowly if you’re starting from not doing much. Repeat each week until it feels easy and comfortable and even pleasurable. C25k was written for thirty year olds. When I started (two years ago), I did each week twice–it took 6 months instead of three. Then, once I reached the ability to (mostly) run three miles very slowly (I was doing 13-minute miles–tall people can walk that fast!), I went back and started over again, trying to run the running intervals faster, really run. But doing it gradually has meant that I’m stronger, uninjured, find running a pleasure.

And keep records of how you’re doing. Progress is slow–but you can see it if you have a record.

If you’ll find it motivational, sign up for a race. If you’re local to Portland (Oregon), and want me to run with you or do a five k with you, just ask.

BUY GOOD SHOES FOR RUNNING before you start, especially if you’ve ever had foot problems. I *love* my Hoka One One Clifton 2 shoes, but YMMV. My daughter loves her Altras. A good running store can help you with shoes. BUT, if you’re like me and too intimidated/embarrassed to go into a good running store when you’re forty pounds overweight and 58 years old (all those skinny young people? scary), Zappos is your friend. Free shipping both ways. Just buy four or five pairs and return the ones you don’t like. Hoka has free returns too, with a thirty day trial, so you can wear them to actually run in.

Finally, New Year’s Day is tomorrow (as I’ve mentioned), and it’s got me thinking about accomplishing small goals with a little bit of work toward them, every day. For many years, when the kids were small, I tried to spend 10-15 minutes every day working on a quilt, because that worked stayed done. In a world with small children, most things don’t stay done: there’s always another meal to prepare, another mess to clean up, another pair of shoes to buy–it was endless. But I have quite a few quilts that I finished during that time–and they’re still done.

Last year on January 10th, Jay’s friend Kurt Searvogel started riding 11-12 hours each and every day (more than 200 miles) in his quest to set a new world’s record for most miles cycled in a year — the record will fall in just a few days now, as he is now over 74000 miles (the record is just over 75K miles). He got a lot done with a lot of time every day.

My goal for 2016 is to spend a little bit of time *every* day drawing. I admire people who can sketch and have it not look like a grey blob, and it occurred to me a while ago that this was about practice NOT about “talent.” My intent is to spend ten minutes a day practicing sketching, with the goal of being better at it by the end of 2016.

Note that this is a behavior, NOT a result. The behavior is “draw ten minutes a day”; the result would be “get good at sketching.”

A quick summary of 2015: 20.0 pounds lost, 595.6 “official” miles cycled (rides for ice cream dropped), swam 23.2 miles (started in September), ran 528.6 miles. 5.58 million steps, 2600 Fitbit “miles” (some of which were run), 12.3K floor, 778K calories torched. Patting self on back. Smugly patting self on back.

Finally, I will note that I’ve been planning my 2016. I have two 5K runs in January, another 5K in February, a 10K trail run in March, a 10K road race in June, and a sprint-distance (0.5 mile swim, 12.4 mile bike, 3.1 mile run) triathlon in August. I am entering CPE trials in hopes of qualifying for CPE Nationals in California in 2017; I am entering AKC trials with the intent of getting better at AKC courses, since I find them challenging.

Shaping: Behaviors vs. Results (human edition)

I just wrote a very long post–one I’ve been thinking about for days–about shaping dog behaviors. This post is about getting results through shaping human behaviors. It’s no secret to anyone at this point that I’m trying to lose weight and get in shape and run faster and that I’ve been trying to lose weight and get in shape and run faster for more than three years. It started when I realized that running Rush in agility was going to take way more than I was capable of at that point, and the effort–the one where I lose weight and get in shape and run faster–has continued since then.

That’s the easy part. I identified the result I wanted: to run Rush in agility successfully. Note that that’s a result, and that it’s a result that comprises many many steps. It requires training Rush in independent obstacle performance; it requires training him to follow my lead, to have a good startline stay; it requires that I run faster than I could run then, that I handle more effectively (no time to correct mistakes!)… and more.

So I knew what results I wanted, but I struggled with identifying the behaviors that would lead to those results, and I struggled then–and continue to struggle–with how to reward those behaviors. Just as there are some rewards for Rush that are so rewarding that he loses his brain (which is why I don’t carry frisbees into the agility barn but I do carry squeaky tennis balls), there are some rewards that I just can’t use for myself. For example, I’ve identified keeping a food diary as a behavior that significantly helps with weight loss, but rewarding that behavior (writing down what I eat) with chocolate (one of the highest quality rewards for me) would require that I control myself successfully around chocolate. That’s as difficult for me as it is for Rush to control himself around flying frisbees. I do keep some chocolate in the house (on a very high shelf, at the back, where Jay can reach it, but I can’t) (unless I get out a ladder), but the chocolate itself is a reward for not eating the chocolate. That makes sense to me, even if it sounds completely nuts. (I note that Rush’s highest and best food reward–chicken liver treats–leaves me cold. But he’s not that interested in chocolate, so we’re good.) Mostly these days, I’ve developed a habit around keeping a food log, and the months and months of food logs and the consequent data availability and the resultant weight loss have become the reward. (It has helped enormously in identifying just what foods help me to control my lust for sweets and starches.) Initially, though, my rewards were things like a manicure after N days of logging. I still keep lemon creme body wash–ridiculously expensive–as my reward for running.

The real problem with shaping human behaviors is that the reward is rarely (if ever) a surprise. If I say to myself “I will reward ten days of food logging by getting a manicure,” that’s perilously close to being a lure rather than a reward. I have tried to persuade Jay that he should get me a new cashmere sweater every time I lose ten pounds, but I’ve failed. Besides, predictable rewards are not as successful with humans as unpredictable ones. (Las Vegas has built an entire city around unpredictable rewards!) I’m not really surprised (any more) when I lose weight–although I do find it very rewarding–when I follow all the behaviors that I’ve identified, because at this point I know what works.

There are some rewards that do come as surprises, though. When I realize that my Q rate has improved significantly, even though I’m competing at a more challenging level, that both provides a reward and provides an indication that I’m moving toward my goals. I ran faster over five kilometers last weekend than I have since I quit running competitively in the early 1980s–a new PR for me, and progress toward my goal of achieving the same age-group percentage (70%) that I achieved back in my twenties. I’ve moved from an age-group percentage of 42% to 61.6% over the last two years. That’s significant progress. It feels really good–very rewarding–when I check that on the age-group percentage website. It helps, too, to discover that keeping up with Rush is just not as hard as it used to be.

Shaping: Behaviors vs. Results (dog agility edition)

I have been thinking a lot about behaviors lately, because behaviors that are rewarded are reinforced. The mantra of trainers everywhere is “what gets rewarded gets repeated.” So if you’re trying to create new behaviors in order to get different results, you have to figure out what behaviors to reward and how exactly to reward them. You can lure new behaviors, but it turns out that rewarding after the fact is way more effective than luring, because in luring, the lure is the focus; in shaping a behavior without luring, it becomes a puzzle: what did I do that resulted in that reward, that reward that I wanted so much? I have found, with Rush, that shaping–helping him puzzle out what he did that got him the reward he wanted–has resulted in solid, enthusiastic behaviors. He loves agility; I’m very proud of just how much he loves it!

In shaping a behavior, the hardest part for me is to figure out where to start and what steps to add. Sometimes I have to work three or four different pieces separately. To train Rush to put up with having his face clipped, for example, I worked on shaping “hold still while I hold your chin in one hand and look at you” as a completely separate piece from “hold still while I run this clipper,” which was, in turn, a separate piece from “hold still while I touch this clipper to your face.” It was quite a while before I put two pieces together–touching his face with the (turned-off) clipper while I held his chin–and even longer before I put all three pieces together. I didn’t get the result I wanted–“hold still while I clip your whiskers”–until I’d done a lot of work on little pieces, individual behaviors.

Back when Rush was a puppy, I tried to train all of his agility obstacles using shaping, rather than luring. There were times that was quite a challenge, but as Rush learned more obstacles and I learned more about shaping, it got easier. The lightbulb moment, though, occurred when Debbie told me Rush was ready to learn the tire jump. The tire jump is a somewhat notorious obstacle. In competition, dogs often avoid it, or jump between the frame and the tire, or duck under the tire. Typically people train it after they train jumping, and they put something on the sides of the tire so that the dog doesn’t jump between the tire frame and the tire. Alternatively, the handler lures the dog through the tire–and the dog is looking at the lure, not the tire.

Debbie’s method of training the tire was different. She had a tire–and no frame. Unobtrusive stakes had been duct-taped to the side of the tire and the tire was staked to the ground. Again, there was no frame. It was the essence of the tire. By the time we started the tire, Rush had a good startline stay, and he’d learned a lot about shaping; I’d shaped the tunnel, the startline stay itself, a “go round” with a big traffic cone and a jump wing, and a little tiny teeter that was 18 inches wide and six feet long with a fulcrum that was only three inches high. He knew what it meant that I was looking at something and had a handful of treats. So I stood and looked at the essence-of-tire and eventually Rush came toward it, I said “yes!”, and I threw the treat where he’d see it through the tire–and he went through it. We did that a few times, with me standing still, and as Rush got more confident that going through the tire was the right thing to do, I started running alongside him and he started running back and forth through the tire. We repeated that from scratch for a few training sessions. Rush’s tire jump is a solid, safe performance and he does it without hesitation, even with a slice. You can see how relaxed he is about the tire in this photo (taken when he was two-and-a-half years old):

Photo by Joe Camp

Photo by Joe Camp

I used a similar method to shape the broad jump. Rush’s first “ordinary” jump was a single bar jump, he was fourteen months old, and we rapidly raised the bar from eight inches to 20. He jumped 20 inches in competition until he was two years old, when I raised his jump height to 24″.

I shaped Rush’s weaves, starting with 2x2s. I shaped the end behavior of the dog walk, teeter, and a-frame long before I let him do the complete obstacles. I knew exactly what I wanted: right paw on a target, dog stopped dead. (It occurs to me that this may be why Rush so often stops at the end of the obstacle with one paw up. I only cared about that right paw, and I let him do what he wanted with the left–so he keeps it up and ready to rock ‘n’ roll.) I trained his target behavior starting when he was about three months old, using what I call the “big blanket” method, which I first saw demonstrated by Susan Garrett.

The “big blanket” method was my first exposure to the successive approximations needed for shaping behavior. If the goal is to have the dog put his foot on a target, it’s possible to start with the target and the dog in a small space, and reward the dog for getting closer to the target until finally the dog is touching the target. That works. But the “big blanket” method is so much easier. You start with a big blanket and you spread it out on the ground. The dog is over there somewhere and you are over here somewhere, next to the blanket, holding that oh-so-tempting handful of treats. The dog wanders toward you, and steps onto the blanket–and you say “yes!” (or click, but you always have your voice, so “yes!” can be a lot easier–at least, it was for me) and throw the treat off the blanket. After a few repeats of this, just fold the blanket in half, and the target is now half the size, and the dog is still hurrying to step onto that blanket because there’s something about the blanket that makes you say “yes!” and throw a treat–and every so often you fold that blanket in half, and five minutes later the dog is hurrying to step onto a target that’s about 6 inches square and fits in the back pocket of your jeans. I switch to a washcloth when the blanket is about a foot square. When the dog is reliably hitting the washcloth with it folded in quarters, I switch to a white bathroom tile. Easy for the dog to see, can be half-buried in the dirt to make it smaller, and cheap.

So my end behavior for the teeter, the dogwalk, and the a-frame was exactly the same: I wanted Rush’s right front paw on that tile. I put the table next to the obstacle, and I had Rush jump up on the table, and go right down to the target. He knew what to do, just as soon as he saw the target, and it wasn’t long before he did the whole obstacle, and correctly, every time. That was when I started burying the tile, a little bit more every time, until I was finally able to take it away. You can also use a big plastic lid, and a pair of scissors, and just scissor off a bit of the lid at regular intervals.

(A note on the teeter: because Dancer was so worried about the teeter, I really didn’t want Rush to be worried about it. I had a tiny training teeter at home and that was the first contact obstacle he learned. He was never surprised to discover that something moved under his feet–because he’d already experienced that.)

I have shaped a lot of non-agility behaviors with both dogs, as well. They sit and wait for me to put their food bowls down; they wait on their mats while we eat because that’s their best chance of getting something off our plates. (Dancer is especially fond of roast chicken.) Both of them have a very nice “gimme five.” A very mundane behavior that saves me a ton of time is nail Dremeling. When I set up the grooming table and get out the Dremel and get a pocket full of treats, both dogs come running. That took months to train, and I reinforce it with fresh chicken liver treats every time, but I can do all 34 nails (16 on each dog, plus Rush’s dew claws) in less than five minutes, including the time it takes to unfold the grooming table and put it away when I’m done.

(Notice that I haven’t discussed reward quality here. Reward quality really matters. That’s why I have a batch of chicken liver treats in the oven right now.)