Saturday, March 13, 2010

Soft Eyes

These are my own definitions - but for the purposes of this post they should be clarified:
Hard Eyes: narrow focus, limited vision, tunnel vision. Focused on one item in a pile of many. A single tree in a larger forest. 

Soft Eyes: wide focus; the whole picture. Focused on the group, the entire landscape, the big picture.

My introduction to the concept of soft eyes goes back to Sally Swift's** "Centered Riding" - the core concepts of her book were soft eyes, deep breathing and imagery. A concept I'm remembering from years ago is the directive to imagine the rider as a tree: the legs are the roots, stretching towards the earth, the upper body as a tree trunk growing upwards - straight and strong. I vaguely remember an illustration of a human tree sitting on a horse - a visualization technique. Keep in mind this book was released many years before Jane Savoie's "That Winning Feeling" which was for all intents and purposes the first application of psychocybernetics geared towards the  equestrian competitor.

When I'm describing a shaping exercise - in this case I'll apply it to the "place" game - I often refer to the soft eyes concept. The place game is a very simple shaping exercise: I place a towel (blanket, rag, shirt, etc) on the ground. The final behavior I'm looking for is the dog going to his "place" and laying there until released. The blanket being something of his own that can easily travel with us on the road. Even in someone else's house, he can know that when his blanket comes out and goes on the floor the desired behavior is the same. In the example below c/t is a click and treat and as with all shaping exercises you'll reinforce the dog several or many times at each step as you move towards the final goal. So let's break down some of the possible steps towards the final behavior (your mileage may vary): Looking at the blanket (c/t), moving a foot towards the blanket (c/t), walking towards the blanket (c/t), putting a foot on the blanket (c/t), putting two feet on the blanket (c/t), three feet (c/t), four feet(c/t), standing (c/t), sitting on the blanket (c/t), laying down on the blanket (c/t), adding duration on the down on the blanket (c/t), adding distance on the down on the blanket (c/t) get the idea. When I play this game (and any other shaping exercise that involves an object) I'll click when the dog is interacting with the object, but deliver the treat away from the object. In effect this resets the exercise.

I'm looking at the towel (blanket, place, etc), but also at my dog. However, like most obedience dogs trained to give (and reinforced for) active attention, my staring at him is not going to encourage him to offer behaviors. The more that I stare at him, the more that he'll stare right back at me. Knowing my goals for my dogs I don't want to break that freely offered behavior (nor should you), but I'll work around the default behavior (attention).

The soft eye can stare at the blanket - away from the dog, but still see the dog and everything the dog is doing. Soft eyes means seeing the big picture. If my dog looks up at me for a visual cue, he'll see my focus on the towel. Initially he'll probably look down towards the blanket because he's curious about the focus of my stare. A clickable moment! If I had used my hard eyes, I would have seen only the blanket - not the slight glance towards the object of my focus.

Here's a clip of Teller playing with some shaping games. The first clip is the blanket game and the second clip is a new object for Teller to interact with - he's never seen the laundry basket before. I initially was going for a down in the basket for a final behavior (and I may still require that in a future session).

When I do a shaping or training exercise I keep my sessions short and successful by employing the "one stick" method. I'll cut a piece of string cheese into quarters and only work as long as that one stick lasts. Of course anything soft and easily chewed will work for this method, one stick could be a hot dog, a small piece of chicken, a handful of zukes, etc. If I'm gauging my rate of reinforcement properly and my dog's understanding of the work at hand I'll have an enthusiastic dog from the moment I put down the object through the moment I end the shaping game or training session. I almost always end a session with a jackpot or play with a toy and physical pets and praise - again part of keeping the session productive, short, light and fun (for both of us!).

For the purposes of this video, I let Teller get a little bit frustrated in the "blanket" game. You'll see him think about why he's not getting reinforcement for laying on the blanket and he starts to think about offering other behaviors (putting his head down, frogging his hind legs, etc).

This is not to say that there aren't times in dog training where we'll employ our "hard eyes". If we're training a specific hit on the a-frame, we want to use our hard eyes to narrow in on the spot that meets our given criteria. To expand out a bit more, when we're evaluating a class dogs in the conformation ring we want judges to move from soft eyes (the entire class) to hard eyes (the individual dogs). We hope as well that the judge is using hard eyes to focus on the dogs and not the faces of the handlers holding them {grin}. And in the larger world when we're driving we want to easily shift between focusing on what is ahead of us and where we are going and then a larger view of where we are in relation to other objects on the road with us. You are using hard eyes to read this blog and soft eyes to notice things in periphery to this browser window or this computer screen.

As an aside, the "blanket" we're using in the video above is from ABO Gear - we purchased ours from Clean Run. It's reversible sort of a sueded cotton on the tan side and a semi-waterproof nylon side. Down-filled - and just the right amount of filling.  Teller likes the cool (nylon) side and Murphy likes the warm side - even Q likes this comfy bed. This travel bed washes easily, hang dries and are long lasting - a couple of mine are over 2 years old and look like new. I particularly like that I can pull them out of the crates in the car after a trial weekend, shake hair and dirt off and they're good for another week between washes - I never use the carry bags for the beds - but they're very useful for hauling other things back and forth to trials and training. These beds are even on sale this week from Clean Run.

** As a side note, Sally Swift died last year (April 2009) at the ripe old age of 96. Even if you have never sat on a horse or never pick up her book I'm sure you can see how ahead of the time she was in terms of animal and human training. In 1985 no one had heard of a clicker, our dogs were trained with heavy-handed physical methods. There were shades of black and shades of white - I think Sally saw yellow.

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