Category Archives: books

Changing how I train

As a result of quite a bit of reading on what constitutes effective practice, I have changed how I train dog agility.

First, what is effective practice? Back in November, I read this book and found it left me with a lot to think about. I’d heard a Freakonomics podcast on learning new skills (this one) and also discussing the “10,000 hour rule” (from this book by Malcolm Gladwell). These sources collectively introduced me to the idea of effective practice and got me thinking about how I learn new skills.

Effective practice, as I see it, introduces new skills carefully and deliberately–not necessarily slowly, but definitely thoughtfully–so that they’re learned without error. In agility, it would be the idea of teaching a tunnel-contact discrimination as follows:

  • Tunnel and contact are ten feet apart and you’re standing between them, closer to the obstacle you want, with the dog on the side closer to the desired obstacle. You release the dog, say the name of the obstacle, and take a step toward the desired obstacle; in short, you make it fairly easy for the dog.
  • Next, you move a little closer to the middle, then repeat.
  • You move closer to the “wrong” obstacle, then repeat.
  • Gradually you make it harder for the dog, but you still keep the dog on the same side as the obstacle and take a step toward the desired obstacle.
  • Next, you put the dog on the other side and repeat the steps.
  • Now, you start moving the two obstacles closer to each other and repeat the steps.

For the dog, you’ve built the skill of differentiating the two obstacles by name very slowly and in a logical step-wise fashion; the dog’s practice has been gradually getting more challenging, but in small increments.

Now, let’s say that, you–the person–have identified skills you need to improve. You want to work on your timing of blind crosses, or the footwork of your front crosses, or giving cues to your dog earlier. Effective practice dictates that you break it down into steps. By working a sequence without the dog, in slow motion, you can learn how the steps feel without confusing your dog. Once you’re comfortable walking through a sequence–or doing that front cross–slowly, you can move a little faster, then faster the third try–and then add your dog. You can look at course maps and visualize how you will move through a course before you run the course; visualization has been proven to improve performance.

When I started thinking about effective practice and how I learn, I started breaking down the long sequences presented in my lesson and only doing seven or eight obstacles at a time. I tried different handling methods and different dog paths at critical points.

Today Daisy had this sequence in the middle of the course:

course mapThe question, of course, was which path to use for Rush when going from 13 to 14 to 15. I walked three different methods of setting Rush’s path* and Daisy timed the three methods. We worked on what to do with that segment, in detail, for about fifteen minutes. Then, we moved to the next segment. The course as a whole had 21 obstacles; it took an hour of analysis and testing to determine the optimal path for Rush. We worked entirely on the single course, without trying to do more.

 

We analysed it one segment at a time and I refined my handling one segment at a time, deliberately working my way through the course rather than flinging myself at it and biting off more than I could chew (to use a dog analogy). Rush repeated each sequence without getting frustrated–short sequences mean a higher reward rate for him–and paid attention to the differences in handling as well.

As a result of this change in my practice sessions, I have improved my course analysis skills, become more confident with using blind crosses, gained confidence in Rush’s abilities and his understanding of agility, improved Rush’s focus (which was considerable)–and improved my Q rate.

*For the curious, the fastest path, by more than half a second, was a front cross on the landing side of 13 followed by a push (“go round!”) to the backside of 14 on the side closest to the teeter (the top of the diagram above) followed by a push to the a-frame with the verbal contact cue (“climb!”), with dog-on-right over the a-frame. (The next obstacle was a weave-tunnel discrimination, believe it or not, with the entry to the weaves (the desired obstacle) about five feet from the tunnel entrance. Challenging course!)

Losing weight, getting more fit: summarizing my food and exercise obsessions

I was asked by a new agility friend a few days ago about how I managed to lose weight and get more fit when confronted by the reality of trying to run a big fast dog when I was a slow out-of-shape handler. I wrote a long email summarizing what I’d done; this post is an adaptation of that email, for the benefit of anyone who is bored with the reality of being out of shape.

I get asked what motivated me to get into shape and the short answer I give is that I struggled with running Rush. The deeper answer is both simpler and not so simple. Somewhere around there I saw my doctor about my “bilateral knee pain”. I was of course worried that my chondrosarcoma was back; my doctor was blunter. “It’s not cancer; it’s your weight. You’re going to need double knee replacements in a few years. Your menisci are thinning.” I went home and did research; I had a bone graft in the left knee as part of the chondrosarcoma surgery. It’s not really clear how successful a knee replacement would be, without good bone to drill into for the hardware.

So: tell me I may not be able to walk normally in a few years if I don’t lose weight, and guess what? I can lose weight.

It’s been more than three years since then. It’s taken three years–not a few months–to lose about fifty pounds. I’ve approached the project with every bit of my scientific brain trying to influence my eating patterns. I’ve read about what influences eating behaviors and exercise behaviors. I’ve read about getting fit “over fifty” (I’m turning sixty next week!). I’ve tapped into my desire to be competitive. I’ve done everything I can to get there, slowly and steadily. It’s been a lot slower than I’d like, but it beats the alternative.

And at this point my knees don’t hurt, most days.

That’s the summary of why. I also feel the need to mention that I stopped being angry at myself for gaining weight in the first place. It really didn’t help matters, and there was no point. I mean, who cares why I gained weight? I suppose it would matter if I had thyroid problems, but I don’t.

I’ve written before about what I’ve done: two posts that come to mind are two posts from late in 2014.

These two are a pair: the first is about goals, and the second is about measurable behaviors that would lead to those goals. Keep in mind that fundamental rule of training anything with a brainstem (as explained by Karen Pryor in Dont Shoot the Dog): you can’t reward results, you can only reward behaviors.

First.
Second.

This one is recent and discusses why I’m going to Weight Watchers right now.

This one is about the changes Rush has wrought for me.

This one is an early report, when I’d lost about twenty pounds. I’d forgotten that bit about “sometimes you’ll be hungry and oh well, just power through it.” Excellent advice.

Another report from around the same time: people were stopping me at trials to ask what I was doing to lose weight. (Literally: they’d sidle up to me and whisper “how are you losing the weight?” because it’s such a forbidden topic that no one will discuss it publicly. At this point, I think people have figured out that I’ve lost a lot and it’s okay to ask about it. But I still avoid talking about it, because it’s BORING to most people. You’ll notice I’m happy to obsess, however, to those who are interested.)

And another early report, talking about some of the research I’ve done on weight loss theory.

Calorie/food tracking apps:
I’ve used the Fitbit site, MyFitnessPal.com, SparkPeople.com, and the Weight Watchers app. None of them is really great, but they’re all okay. Right now I’m using Weight Watchers because I’m going to meetings as a way of help myself not eat MACH cake at agility trials–I go to a noon Monday meeting and the public shaming has helped. I hate the meetings (YMMV) but it’s one more habit, along with tracking what I eat and how much I exercise. I think MyFitnessPal has the best food database, and SparkPeople sends the best daily motivational email.

Exercise tracking:
I use a Fitbit and have for almost three years. My daily goals are 45 active minutes and 12000 steps…. I also have a runner’s watch (Garmin FR110) because I’ve accidentally become a runner, again. (I was a runner in my 20s. Stopped when I had kids. Hated it when my knees were bad… Discovered the Hoka One One shoes and now enjoy running again. The shoes are no good for agility, so now I have shoes for running, shoes for trail running, and shoes for agility. I spend money on shoes.) I also keep a paper logbook on my desk with a brief summary of my day, exercise/weight/agility training info. It’s maybe a sentence a day but it’s easy to review and I like that.

Books I have found helpful (these are live links, if you decide to use them, I get a tiny commission, as an Amazon associate.):

Karen Pryor Don’t Shoot the Dog (about creating rewardable behaviors and then rewarding them–works for people too) (very helpful in explaining to my husband, family, and friends exactly what I need from them–things like: “please buy me nice soap for my birthday, not chocolate.” “Please go for a bike ride with me instead of inviting me to lunch.”)
Link: Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training

Switch by Dan Heath — this is a book about creating change in businesses by approaching things from different angles. It’s pretty geeky/business-oriented, but it helped me think about behaviors instead of abstractions.
link: Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

Better than Before: Mastering Habits by Gretchen Rubin (she also wrote a book called The Happiness Project, to which she refers often in this book–not nearly as specific a book)
Since I’ve found a lot of getting fit/losing weight has to do with creating new habits (since the old ones really haven’t worked for me), the idea of deliberately setting out to create better habits is helpful. Some of the ideas in this book are useful, others, not so much.
Link: Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives

Sugar Salt Fat is about the food industry and is more than a little horrifying. If you need persuading that processed food is not healthy food, this book will do it for you.
Link: Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us

Secrets from the Eating Lab is about the subtle ways you can influence your own food-related behavior to make it easier to lose weight. Stuff like putting the food away, using small plates and bowls, etc. I’ve found a lot of it very helpful.
Link: Secrets from the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again

Still reading? If so, I’ll mention that I’ve started making absolute statements about myself, even if sometimes they’re more about goals than 100% true:
“I never eat processed food.”
“I avoid refined sugar (and artificial sweeteners).” (Both things wreak havoc on my insulin metabolism and create mood and sugar swings that I have trouble managing.)
“I run about 15 miles a week.”
“I walk my dogs three times a day.”
“I always record what I eat.”
“I bring my lunch to trials so I don’t eat the junk from the concession stand.”
“Yes, sometimes I’m hungry. It’s not a big deal.”
“I am losing weight because I enjoy every single bite I eat.” (In other words, I don’t just eat garbage food just because it’s there.)
“I do my hard workout on Wednesdays, when they bar car traffic in the park.”

By making these absolute statements, I a) reinforce the habit, b) make it harder to duck the task, c) present myself as the person I want to be TO MYSELF, instead of tearing myself down.

As for dieting philosophy and what to eat, I know people who are losing weight with paleo, with weight watchers, with Mediterranean diet, etc. I really think it’s key to establish what you’re eating now, what you really enjoy eating–and then reduce the amount about 20% and increase your activity about 20%. If you have any really obvious unhealthy habits, like soda or an evening slice of cake, rationing them is easier than eliminating them. I’m very fond of ice cream, for example. So these days, I can have my ice cream if I bike to the ice cream shop and bike home. French Fries? I can have seven, once or twice a month. Seven turns out to be a real pleasure. It’s enough to enjoy them but not so much I feel disappointed in myself later. One thing I really like a lot about Weight Watchers is the encouragement (through their point-counting system) to eat more fruits and vegetables. That’s helpful for me.

You can tell I’ve obsessed about this a lot. Surprisingly, there’s very little useful research out there, but I’ve found some of it very useful. All the research seems to boil down to: eat less, move more, don’t eat nutritionally altered foods (i.e., foods where a portion of the food has been refined away, such as white rice instead of brown rice, white flour instead of whole wheat, juice instead of whole fruit, etc.). Oh yes, and don’t mess with your sugar metabolism by eating refined sugar or using artificial sweeteners (yes, artificial sweeteners cause insulin to be released).