Thursday, February 5, 2015

Search Training: Take One

Now that it has ended well, I will confess that it was my idea. After three snow storms in a row averaging 10"-16", we have some serious snow piling up. Why not use it for a practice session with Molly?

Molly is a working dog. She is a young working dog and can't yet be trusted with the animals alone, but in time and with much reinforcement, I am hopeful that she will be all that we have hoped for. If not, it won't be from lack of time, attention, or trying on any of our parts. Since Molly was 6 weeks old, we have been training her with various commands. We begin with one command and make training a game for her. Short sessions work best and we always end on a positive note, so that training is more than work, it is fun for Molly too. One of the best qualities Molly possesses is her desire to please. Teamed with natural instincts to bring items back to us and her intelligence, training is coming along nicely.

Every activity we attempt is broken down into multiple steps. For Molly's search training several games were introduced and practiced repeatedly over a span of months. First, Molly was trained to understand the command of "Come." Sean and I stood on opposite sides of the room and took turns calling Molly to us. When she went to the right person, she got either a food treat or praise. That game was expanded to one of us moving out of her sight while she was with the other person, so that she had to look around a bit to locate where we were. We practiced this each night for 10-15 minutes for several weeks.

The second game used to hone her search skills is a simple retrieval game using a tennis ball. The game started with us simply throwing a ball and letting Molly chase after it. Once she got the hang of that, we added her bringing it back to us using the command, "Come." If she came with the ball in her mouth, she got a reward. If not, we simply threw the ball again for her to chase after. We never punish her for not doing what we want during training. We simply continue the game. But, we reward her with praise or treats when she does it correctly. It hasn't taken long for Molly to catch on. After Molly mastered this game of chasing, catching, and bringing her ball back to us, we challenge her with new steps for her to master. "Stay" was added before she was released to chase after her ball. Then, we threw the ball further, purposely out of her sight, to learn the command "Find it." We use the command "To Me" when we want her to bring us whatever she has found. After Molly was in the habit of returning her prize to us, we implemented "Drop it.", the command we use to tell her to release her ball into our hand. "Off" means for her to stop whatever activity she is engaged in like searching or chewing on something. "Hold" is used for her to keep whatever she has in her mouth and not to drop it.

We are still in progress with this training. One goal is for Molly to be able to differentiate different objects and retrieve the specific one we are requesting. Ultimately, these learned skills will be of use in moving goats from the wooded pastures back to the barn. Or, in finding hens or other animals who have not returned home to roost. Of course, in both these situations, we will not want her to pick up the animals in her mouth and retrieve them to us. So, other skills will have to be learned and mastered such as signaling to us when she finds an object. But each new skill builds upon the last. Time is needed to really master one skill before the next one is introduced. We take our cues from Molly as to when she is ready to move on or if we need to continue practicing.

Back to the point of this post, I was relating how Sean and I took advantage of the nearly 4 feet of snow that has fallen
Sean's hiding place.
upon us in the past 10 days. I suggested that we dug out an area inside one of the huge snowbanks living in our yard to Sean. My intent was that he would hide inside it, completely obscured from sight. The plan was for Molly to try to find Sean when he called for her. Sean thought it would be a fun activity and was game to try. He modified the plan by hiding inside the truck cap obscured by the snow instead. With cell phone in hand in case of any unforeseen trouble, Sean crawled into the space the truck cap provided. I shoveled the entrance closed behind him and called for Molly to come to me.
Waiting for the game to begin.
After her initial exuberance of being outside in the magic snow, Molly settled to listen to what I wanted from her. We began with the command of "Sit/Stay". Look at how intensely she is waiting. Though it is hard to see in the picture, in real time I could see her muscles all tensed for action, just waiting to be released.

After half a minute, I gave the command, "Find Daddy." and Sean began to call, "Molly, Come." Initially, Molly was confused, but very excited. She jumped up on me, wagged her tail vigorously looking for the ball or other toy. I told her "Off." and repeated the command, "Find Daddy." with encouragement in my voice. The howling wind shifted and Sean's voice carried to us. Molly took off like a shot... in the wrong direction... towards the house. She was looking for Sean, just not in the right place. 

So excited for play time! "What are we going to do?" she seems to ask. 
Confused, Molly stuck her head and shoulders deep into the snow, nosing it intently. Then, she would pop out of the snow and run for another area of the yard to repeat this process. From the porch to the woodshed, over to the barn, to the gate to the back yard. She stopped to listen several times. Molly could hear Sean calling, but it took about 4 minutes of frantic searching in the wrong places before she returned to where I was standing. She tried to jump up on me again in an effort to see if perhaps, I was hiding Sean on my person, maybe in my pocket? I repeated the command, "Find Daddy." I am not sure why she made the correct choice this last time, but she followed the partially shoveled path to the buried truck cab. This time, it took just a few seconds for Molly to nose around before she began digging herself a hole to where Sean was hiding. The video tells the rest of the story:

Molly was over the moon at finding Sean, pouncing with forceful puppy enthusiasm. It would have been really cool, if she had just naturally, dug a hole wide enough for Sean to slide out of easily, but that is unrealistic. She will also have to be trained to reign herself in and not attempt to wrestle with her "finds". But, that can be worked upon. All in all, not bad for a first attempt.

Thanks for stopping by to visit today, friends.
~Sean, Sonja & Molly

1 comment:

  1. I will share this adventure with Ryan Dale and the monkey when they arrive home. That was great! She did an excellent job of finding her Daddy!