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:
The 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!)