What do you think of when you hear the word balanced?  I think of something or someone that is stable, strong, coordinated, and steady.  When training our dogs we do consider balance,  but balance in the dog, not the training techniques.  We want our dogs to be well-rounded.  To have equal amounts of drive and control.  We want dogs to work with energy, excitement, and enthusiasm.  But we also want them to respond promptly and correctly to cues.

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This is Baby Star on her balance board.

The balance between drive and control is a fundamental one.  It is a goal we are constantly striving towards.  Please note, first of all, that I am using drive as it is commonly used in dog trainer lingo.  The scientific view of drives is that they are not terribly useful for an understanding of behavior.  But if you say “drive” to a dog trainer,  we typically have a shared understanding of an internal force motivating the dog to act.  Some sort of internal push, often coming from the dog’s genetic inheritance.  Types of dogs, and specific lines of dogs, are purposely bred to maintain or enhance some of these tendencies.  Border Collies with a drive to herd or retrievers with an innate desire to pick up and carry stuff are examples of this.  Even within breeds however, some dogs have much stronger natural drives than others.  Not every pup from a litter of exceptional parents will be a great herding dog or retriever.  But the genetic possibilities are there.  So we would expect the drive to come naturally and be present without any outside interference.  That’s nature.

We can, however, enhance or diminish or divert the drive that is naturally present.  We can offer appropriate outlets for the drive and shape it in desired ways.  We can help our dogs learn how to control their natural desires and tendencies.  Dogs with “too much drive” can be difficult to impossible to live with.  They are likely restless and frustrated and looking for an outlet for that internal push they constantly feel.  Without an outlet they divert or displace that energy, often in inappropriate ways.  They often have a high need for action or sensation seeking that is not satisfied.  This can lead to all sorts of behavioral issues such as excessive barking, chewing, destruction, anxiety, hyperactivity, and so on.  These are the problems that lead people to rehome their dogs or take them to a shelter.

However, because that desire for activity can be diverted into appropriate channels, those of us with performance dogs like this type of dog.  This dog has the desire and energy to do stuff with you.  No matter what the sport, this dog is likely to be a willing partner in order to be active.   Herding dogs are very good performance partners because they have been bred for generations to work all day.  Granted, their work involved moving livestock.  But even without livestock they can learn to participate in agility, obedience, rally, disc, and so on.  This type of activity uses up that desire to do things, at least temporarily (it always comes back!)  Of course, those hardwired herding behaviors can then be problematic.  You can end up with a dog that wants to arc or circle instead of going straight out on a go out or retrieve.  That arc is built in for circling the herd or flock.  But we don’t want it in obedience.  You can get a dog that wants to nip at your legs to make you move faster in agility.  Again, that is hard wired to keep the livestock moving.  But clearly we don’t want that either.  So we get the drive to work, but we get some of the deeply ingrained behavior patterns that we might not want as well.

Some dogs, on the other hand, do not seem to have the drive to do much at all.  They are typically more easy going and laid back.  They seem to have missed whatever hardwired behaviors their breed should have.  Or they may be a breed or type that is simply meant to be a companion animal.  They make good pets, which is incredibly important.  They don’t come with too much hard wired baggage, so they are relatively easy to manage.  But they also don’t have a lot of  energy to put into dog sports and activities, especially when those activities are not highly rewarding or engaging.  Their baseline state is low energy.  Trying to make a dog that has this genetic inheritance into a high-level performance dog is going to be very challenging.  It can be done, to a point.  But it will require a great understanding and skillful use of reinforcement to build the “want to” into the dog and the enjoyment into the activity.  Often, this is the nice family pet that someone decides to try out on their first attempt at a dog sport.  An inexperienced trainer and a dog without much drive don’t seem likely to have a lot of performance potential.  They have a hard road ahead.  If they get the right instructor they may find success.  But the wrong instructor can make both dog and owner miserable, and often turn the owner off to the idea of dog sports.  The problem is a lack of innate motivation and desire to seek activity.  If a punishing or aversive approach is used to try to coerce the dog to perform then the desire decreases even further.  If a trainer has only ever worked with highly driven dogs, then he or she may struggle greatly when trying to work with dogs without that drive.

The less internally motivated dog requires a very sophisticated understanding of how to use reinforcers appropriately.  Reinforcement is a far cry from “throw cookies at the dog” though I must admit that “tossing cookies” is very common in my training of puppies and young dogs.  But it is used with a clear understanding of what I want to accomplish and how I will fade out those external rewards as training progresses.   My Papillon, Copper, was a serious little soul.  He was bred to be a lap dog, and excelled at that.  Many Papillons have a very strong desire for activity, but not Copper.  I learned from  him that “if it ain’t fun, it ain’t done”.  Coercion, or even a hint of negativity, led to a shut down.  Copper was so sensitive that he would leave me and go jump in someone’s lap if he felt the least bit of pressure!  Once when we were working on weave poles in the back yard (his least favorite obstacle which was entirely my fault) he want to the furthest corner of the yard and sat with his back to me.

Copper 05 Nationals jump

Talk about clear communication!  Luckily for both of us, I listened to him and respected what he was telling me.  I found a variety of ways to pair fun stuff with obedience and agility.  We worked on rituals at the show site that made him feel secure and comfortable so that he could work his best.  I was careful to  only ask as much of him as he was capable of giving.  I worked hard to build his confidence and enjoyment.  And it worked.  He worked his little heart out for me and earned a MACH and a UD within 2 weeks of each other.  And I allowed him to retire early to live the lap dog life he truly loved.  Training this type of dog can never be accomplished with stress, pressure or force.  You have to truly understand the dog and break down your goals into tiny little pieces so you can build success on success.  This is how you add balance to a low drive dog, by strengthening his weak areas, building his confidence, and helping him achieve realistic goals.

Dogs with high drive present their own set of challenges.  Since they are eager, often desperate for something to do, they seem like ideal candidates for performance work and dog sports.  They are, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy.  Zen my Border Collie, desperately wants to work.  He will do anything, anytime, anywhere. He never gets tired and he never wants to quit.  Sounds perfect, right?  Not always.  Zen is a whole handful of dog!  He throws himself into activities 10,000%.  But he doesn’t always think before he acts.  In fact, he usually acts first, thinks later.  He’s having a fantastic time, but he may not be doing exactly what I want.  His goal is to do it harder, faster, more.  Subtlety and finesse are not in his vocabulary (if dogs had vocabulary!)  So how to put balance into Zen’s life?  Do I want to diminish his drive?  Absolutely not!  I love his joy for activity and his unbridled enthusiasm.  But I do want to add more control and thoughtfulness to his work.  I want to channel his desire to work in appropriate ways.

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A dog like Zen would likely withstand quite a bit of force or pressure and still keep working.  Since working is reinforcing in itself, it’s unlikely I would be able to kill his drive with aversives.  Even so, I still don’t want to train that way.  Zen is a totally different challenge than Copper, but one I still approach with primarily positive techniques.  Just because I could “get away” with aversives in training Zen doesn’t mean that I want to.  My pride in my training is based on doing it without force, undue stress, or pressure.  So achieving goals with aversives holds no allure for me at all.  It would be a very hollow victory.  Zen challenges me to be smarter.  And it is hard, maybe impossible, to be smarter than a Border Collie!  He challenges me to think of new ways to add control and precision to his work.  And I’m up for that challenge :-}

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Zen adds his own unique style and flair to everything he does!

So the mythical ideal dog would be a balance between Copper and Zen.  He would be thoughtful and sensitive, yet driven and enthusiastic.  What is the likelihood I will ever get that package genetically?  Probably pretty low.  A few people I know have gotten that gift.  The perfect dog falls into their laps.  But most dogs fall to once side of the scale or the other.  They are easy to control but lack drive; or they have tons of drive but lack control.  They make us work if we want to participate in dog sports and activities with them.  But that work is what makes us better trainers.  An easy perfect dogs sounds nice, but where’s the challenge in that?  We likely all know someone that stumbled into a great dog even though they’re not much of a trainer.  Do we respect that person’s abilities?  Not really.  We are astounded by the raw talent and potential of the dog.

So maybe we shouldn’t wish for or hope for the perfect dog.  Maybe we should work on balancing the dog that is right in front of us right now.

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So I’ve been having a “discussion” on Facebook with a self-proclaimed balanced trainer about my last blog. And following my policy of being honest and telling the truth on my blog here goes.

She brought up some interesting points and arguments.  Unfortunately, they were laced with prejudiced judgments about me and the value of my goals with my dogs.  It turned out that it was really not possible for me to have a true conversation with this trainer as she threw so many statements and questions at me that it would take months to thoroughly explore them in a thoughtful and intelligent way.  I am very willing to discuss with people who are open and honest and interested.  But when someone engages you with the sole intention of making you “wrong” there’s not much to be gained from that.

Early in our exchange she asked me about my goals for my dogs.  I gave what I considered a complete and thoughtful response.  My main goal is to have my dogs work with me as willing and enthusiastic training partners.  Ribbons, awards, and titles all follow as possible side effects of that main goal.  But my need for external validation of my training abilities is minimal.  From that the balanced trainer determined that I have “given up” on obedience competition because it is too hard.  She feels sorry for me for letting my dogs down in this way.  She believes I have given up on competition because I was not very successful at it.  But she does state that its a shame because I seem to be a talented trainer.  That’s a lot of assumption!  This person only “knows” me from a few postings.  Yet she has made some very negative and specific judgments about me and about my choices for the dog sports and venues I choose.

I found her main analogy very interesting.  Apparently, competition obedience is like the Olympics while rally is like going to  Curves.  Judy goes to Curves regularly and thinks it has been very helpful to her, so she doesn’t really get the analogy either.  I’m thinking it is supposed mean that one is easy and the other hard.  And apparently, the Olympics is a worthy and important goal, but not working out at Curves?  OK.

None of that really bothers me.  I am way past the point in my life where someone else’s opinion of me matters.  What I find much more interesting are the numerous conflicting statements she has made.  She stated that she would love to minimize or avoid aversives; but then says she is willing to cause her dogs discomfort to reach her goals.  She states that one of her dogs really dislikes retrieving and then states that she uses an ear pinch; yet apparently she sees no connection between those two things.  And she states that her dogs have fun and love to show; but that one of her dogs requires very severe scruff shakes as corrections for poor heeling.  Hmmm.  She wants “proof” that positively trained dogs can earn high scores.  But when told that a certain trainer with two totally positively trained OTCH/Sch3 dogs is doing a seminar in her area says that she wouldn’t attend unless said trainer’s students were also earning OTCHs.  OK.

At that point I realized we were not having a productive discussion.  I’m not sure exactly what the point of the exchange was from her end.  My guess is that she wanted to catch me in lies and inconsistencies and prove me wrong so that she can feel justified in how she is training.  Honestly, that isn’t necessary.  If she’s comfortable with what she’s doing then good for her.  Have at it.  But apparently she’s not or she wouldn’t need to “talk” to me.  Karen Pryor says quite a bit about being a “change maker” and the stages people go through in the process.  Some of that seems to fit here.  This whole exchange has been very unpleasant, but I think it indicates that I’m on the right track.  If something I write makes people that uncomfortable there must be a reason.

Unfortunately this online exchange ended in rudeness both towards me and towards others posting on the thread.  That’s too bad.  It did nothing to bring either of us closer to understanding the perspective of the other.  It’s not my goal or responsibility to change the minds of people that don’t want to be changed.  That really isn’t my intention.  I’m speaking to those with a small growing doubt or feeling of unease about what they are doing to their dogs.  I’m speaking to those who have a hope that there can be a better way, even if they don’t see it in those around them.  If I can help at least one person “cross over” to more positive methods then I’ve done what I set out to do.  I am not here to argue with anyone.  I’m here to provide information and support to those that want to change.

That reminds me of the one joke I know about psychologists!

Question:  “How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?” Answer:  “Just one, but the lightbulb has to really want to change!” :-}

People can train their dogs any way they want.  This is the United States of American and I don’t have the right to tell anyone else what to do.  How I wish I did, but I don’t :-}.  But I do have the right to state my views loudly and often, and that is just what I intend to do.  If you disagree fine, disagree.  If you think I’m full of BS, fine, ignore me.  But don’t waste my time with nonsense disguised as discussion.  I am open to any honest exchange on dog training any time, but not to personal insult or hidden agendas.

I started to say that this picture has nothing to do with this post but I was wrong.  I pulled it up just to have a nice dog picture to attach, but then I realized that it actually does apply.  Part of our discussion was about her need to use a shock collar on her young dog so that he could have freedom to run.  She stated that she felt puppies needed to free run and she couldn’t possibly take 3-6 months to teach a good recall first.  I stated that a big part of my definition of success in training is to  have my dogs under exquisite verbal control without the use of pain or threat of pain, or even the need for external devices like leashes, to gain compliance.  So here are my dogs enjoying their freedom at a lovely park.  There were actually a number of other people and dogs around, yet my dogs chose to hang out with me and to do what I asked them to do.  To me, that is all the evidence I need that my training methods work, and work very well at that!

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This is my opinion, based on my experiences with dogs over the past 20 years and my understanding of behavioral science (which is pretty damn good!)  So if you strongly disagree with me, write your own blog about it.

Among dog trainers we seem to have been divided into camps based on our underlying philosophy and the techniques we typically choose.  One camp, the one that I’m proud to be part of, is focused on the use of positive reinforcement as a primary training tool.  Note that I did not say purely positive.  I am not that and never claimed to be.  I would label myself as primarily positive reinforcement.  Another camp has claimed the name of “balanced” trainers, implying that those focused primarily on positively reinforcement are apparently “unbalanced”.  If you didn’t know any better you would probably guess that balanced is good and unbalanced is bad, but you would be very very wrong.  It’s a problem of definition.  Then there are those referred to as “traditional” trainers that use a variety of 0ld-fashioned methods, often not at all supported by behavior science.  But I’ll leave them out of this for now and focus on the distinctions between “primarily positive reinforcement” and “balanced”.

The term “unbalanced” certainly sounds bad.  Maybe I have a mental illness or am unstable?  I imagine that too many pomegranate martinis or too many glasses of pinot noir might have the effect of making me “unbalanced”!  But not my training method.  I certainly don’t feel lopsided when I train.  I feel like I have a full arsenal of methods and techniques at my disposal and am very confident that my lean towards positive reinforcement gives me everything I need in training.

So what is the opposite of primarily positive reinforcement?  Before we can discuss that we all need to be using the same language, the language of learning theory.  Here’s a short and simple tutorial on the proper terminology of learning theory.  There are 5 possible consequences to a behavior.  Positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, negative punishment, and nothing (no consequence one way or the other).  Positive means adding something and negative means taking something away.  They have nothing at all to do with value judgments of good and bad.  These are used as if they were mathematical terms (addition and subtraction).  Reinforcement is intended to increase the behavior it follows and punishment is intended to decrease the behavior it follows.  Note this says “intended”.  Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.  By combining these terms we get the 4 quadrants that people often talk about:  positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, negative punishment.  If you put the definitions together then you get the following.  Positive reinforcement means adding something with the intention of increasing behavior.  Negative reinforcement means taking something away with the intention of increasing behavior.  Positive punishment means adding something to decrease behavior.  Negative punishment means taking something away to decrease behavior.  And no consequence would lead to extinction, the decrease and eventual loss of a behavior.  People often leave that out because it doesn’t fit nicely into the 4 quadrant model.

So if I train by primarily positive reinforcement then what are the other options?  Negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment are left.  Negative reinforcement is always a tricky one.  Most trainers don’t really understand it and even my students, after an entire semester of study, don’t always get it right.  I’ve seen it defined and described incorrectly in many books, blogs, and posts.  Another way to think is negative reinforcement is “escape/avoidance training”.  Your dog can escape from or avoid something unpleasant if he does what you want.  The problem with negative reinforcement is that first there must be an aversive applied so that it can then be taken away.  This is the process behind using an ear pinch to train a retrieve.  The ear pinch is applied, and when the dog does what the trainer wants (opens his mouth and takes the dumbbell) the pinch is released.  The dog learns that taking the dumbbell makes the pain go away.  So in the future he is more likely to take the dumbbell when it is presented to escape or avoid the ear pinch.  But he also learns that his trainer is willing to use pain to get what he wants.  If I were a dog, I would not ever totally trust someone willing to hurt me like that.  Plus, the dumbbell is now paired with a painful stimulus (the ear pinch).  In classical conditioning we have just created an unpleasant emotional response to the dumbbell.  So negative reinforcement can lead to two big problems.  First, the trainer must do something unpleasant to the dog and second, the dog associates the behavior with the unpleasant thing.

Go ahead!  Try an ear pinch on  your cat and let me know how your retrieve training works.  Dogs are too tolerant sometimes.

Then we move to punishment.  Remember, punishment is designed to decrease behavior, so if you are focused on things you want to decrease or stop, and you are primarily approaching training from that perspective, you would indeed be primarily punishment.  Positive punishment is adding something unpleasant to decrease a behavior.  So if a dog is giving another dog a warning growl and you pop on the leash (let’s say attached to a pinch collar) you have just applied positive punishment.  Again, there are going to be problems.  First, you just tried to decrease an important bit of information that your dog gave you (he felt threatened or worried enough to growl).  By punishing the growl you may well eliminate it, and your dog will now go directly to physical attack in the future.  Great.  Plus, you again classically conditioned an aversive with a behavior.  Seeing other dogs leads your dog to be corrected.  Since he was already leery of other dogs, or else he would not have growled, your added correction convinced him that other dogs really are bad.  They cause him to get in trouble.  So you may have punished out the warning signs, but you just made the problem much, much worse through the use of positive punishment.  If there were a sarcasm font I would use it here when I say “Great job!”  The rule in training is to never make things worse, and in this scenario, you did.

Negative punishment isn’t quite as bad, though it can certainly be misused as well.  In negative punishment you take away something to decrease behavior.  The ultimate negative punishment for humans is jail.  Taking away something (freedom) in order to decrease behavior (crime).  Sarcasm font again “We all know how well THAT works!”  But sometimes very short time-outs can be useful in training.  These are not, however, the same as using environmental control and management to prevent unwanted behaviors.  For example, crating a puppy when you’re not home and can’t watch him so he doesn’t have accidents and chew things up.  These techniques come first as a way to avoid the situation that leads to the unwanted behavior.  Punishment comes after the behavior (remember, it’s a consequence not an antecedent).

Bear sleeping

In the above photo the crate is being used as management, not negative punishment.

Being “balanced” actually suggests that you are equally likely to use both reinforcement and punishment in their positive and negative forms.  And therein lies a big part of the problem.  Punishment has a host of serious side effects, even when done “correctly”.  It has a much stronger likelihood of unintended unpleasant fallout than does reinforcement.  That’s not to say that you can’t go horribly wrong with reinforcement based training, people can and do.  But their mistakes are typically less stressful to the dog and less serious in nature.  Too many cookies might lead to a fat dog.  Too many leash corrections might lead to a collapsed trachea.  The damage to the relationship between human and dog is much more likely with punishment than reinforcement.  I am definitely not saying we should let our dogs run wild and free so they can enjoy their lives without human intervention.  Dogs need to be trained to get along in human society.  I am saying that it can be done with minimal to no use of negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment.

My goal is to be a good enough trainer that I minimize the need for aversives in training.  If I say that I need to use aversives then I am advertising my failing as a trainer.  If I am educated, aware, and proactive, my dog should not “need” me to introduce unpleasant events in training.  Trainers often punish because they don’t know the other options or how to use them effectively.  For example, if someone says “so what should I do, throw cookies at the dog?” that indicates a clear lack of understanding of the sophisticated and complex use of reinforcement.  People punish because that is how they learned and it has worked well enough for them in the past.

Even if it works, which punishment can, that doesn’t mean it’s the most effective or efficient method, and it definitely doesn’t mean that, ethically, it is the right thing to do.  The means-end argument suggests that “the ends justify the means”.  But that can lead you down a bad road very very quickly.  So saying “I used punishment and it worked” should not be justification for the punishment.  Shooting the dog (ala Karen Pryor) would work too, but we don’t recommend it.

I also hear people say that punishment used “correctly” is more effective and humane than reinforcement used “incorrectly”.  I disagree quite strongly.  If a father physically abuses his child and the child now obeys, would you say that the abuse was justified and appropriate?  It must have been correct because it worked, right?  Of course not!  We know that’s ridiculous because abuse can never be justified by the outcome.  While I’m not saying all punishment (or negative reinforcement) is abusive, there is quite a bit that crosses the line.  Granted, the line between abuse and punishment is a fuzzy one, and that is a big part of this problem.  One person’s punishment is another’s abuse.  In his book Willpower (a great book that I highly recommend) Roy Baumeister talks about a “bright line”.  A clear and obvious rule to follow.  We don’t have a “bright line” to distinguish punishment from abuse.

I must be very sensitive.  It bothers me at a gut level to see dogs that are stressed, shut down, anxious, or fearful.  But this clearly does not bother everyone.  Some argue it is simply part of the training process, or it is just what the dog must learn.  Or that life is going to be unpleasant sometimes, so the dogs need to learn to deal with it.  Poor dogs.  I can’t help them and I really want to.  It sometimes makes me really hate people.  Especially people who have information and knowledge about modern training, but choose to use old-fashioned harsh methods anyway.  If you really don’t know better, but you learn, grow and change, that’s fabulous.  But if you simply argue that anything different from the way you’ve always done it is wrong, that’s a problem.

So back to “balance”.  If my dog could, at any moment, be subjected to reinforcement or punishment, I’m pretty sure I know which he would choose.  I worry about the inconsistency that underlies the concept of “balance”.  My dog never knows what might be next.  There could be cookies and toys and games or  there could be leash pops, ear pinches, or a shock collar.  Imagine spending your life in an uncertain state.  Today might be a good day where you get reinforced with things you love.  Or it could be the day you get punished.  You just never know which is coming next.  To me, that sounds like the perfect recipe for stress, instability and lack of “balance” in the dog.  Lots of uncertainty and conflict.

I want my dogs to be stable, happy, and confident.  I want them to find me a source of consistency and security.  If I alternate between reinforcement and punishment they can never be 100% trusting of me.  So “balance” in training can actually have a very bad outcome for the dog.  Don’t be fooled because it sounds reasonable!  When people feel the need to make up new definitions of words so they sound more acceptable, you can guess there’s an underlying problem with what they’re doing, and they’re trying to find a way to make it sound better.

My experience at APDT Cynosport Rally this weekend was VERY different from my previous AKC weekend.  So, along the lines of always telling the truth and naming names I want to thank the members of Medina Swarm who hosted this trial.  Thanks Cindy Wilmoth for answering my initial email and encouraging me to attend.  There were not many workers there, but they were pleasant and friendly to a fault.  The trial secretary, Barb Kaplan, was absolutely amazing.  Even with last minute entries and a number of somewhat confusing changes she was unfailingly helpful and pleasant.  The judges were wonderful.  They actually walked the course with us and focused on helping new exhibitors (me!) understand the signs and requirements.  They explained, in advance, how they judged some of the exercises where there might be ambiguous guidelines.  Great job Carolyn Martin and Hope Schmeling!

I saw something that was truly impressive.  A woman showed up with a dog that was not registered with Cynosport.  The woman was confused about many aspects of showing.  Clearly, this was her first time in a trial setting and no one had mentored her.  The club members sat down with her, got her registered online, helped her fill out the forms, and found a legal collar for her dog to wear in the ring.  Everyone encouraged her and she ended up getting 3 legs for her Level 1 title!  I’m sure she is now motivated to train more and show more.  That would not have happened in other venues.  Mainly because of rigid rules about closing dates and entries.  But also because folks are less likely to drop everything to be helpful to a total newbie.

The feel of the trial was definitely more relaxed and easygoing.  It was small in number of participants, but so was the last AKC trial I attended.  Everyone seemed to know everyone, and all were nice to people and dogs.  Awards were given out by name at the end of classes.

I only intended to participate one day, but ended up going back for the second because it was such a nice experience.  Plus, Gail Jaite took her time explaining titling requirements (which are a bit confusing) to me and I decided I wanted to finish my Level 1 titles before the next trial.

I did finish them on both dogs and was able to move up to Level 2 in the last trial.  I hadn’t even looked at the exercises until about 15 minutes before going in the ring.  Luckily, my dogs have a pretty wide behavioral foundation to call on.  I spent a couple minutes with each teaching something we’d never done before (leave dog, run 2-3 steps, call dog while running, as dog catches up start backing up and call dog front, then finish).  They both did well.  I’m really looking forward to some of the new challenges in Level 3 as well.  Each level in Cynosport Rally is more challenging than analogous levels in AKC.  Plus, Cynosport Rally courses are longer.  The Level 2 course was 22 stations, and seemed like it went on for a long time!

What a contrast to last weekend!  I am already looking at several more trial weekends coming up.  I will definitely be spending my entry money in places that seem much more user friendly.  Plus, I have decided that I am sick and tired of the AKC traditional obedience culture that poisons the atmosphere at many trials.  Bitchiness and unpleasantness abound.  It is stressful and negative, and I don’t intend to be a part of it when there are much more pleasant options available to me.   Some people may strongly disagree with what I just wrote.  But this is my blog and these are my experiences.  If you disagree write about it in your own blog!  I want to trial at places where people are nice to other people AND to dogs.  I just want to spend my free time having fun showing.  That doesn’t seem to be too much to ask.

Some people might wonder why show at all?  Why not just train and play?  That’s a really good question.  I like working towards a goal of some sort.  I don’t have lofty goals, but coming home with a bunch of ribbons is really nice.  I like an objective measure of improvement.  I want to improve over previous trials.  I even like analyzing problems that develop and working on fixing them.  My dogs really seem to enjoy showing.  Star, who can be a bit suspicious and nervous, seems to be gaining in confidence and boldness every time she has a good ring experience.  She’s learning to stay focused and work through distractions really well.  And Zen just loves to do stuff.  So anything I want is fine with him as long as we’re active.

I was stunned that Star actually beat Zen 3 out of the 5 times they showed.  I was pleasantly surprised by her progress.  It’s fun to see a baby dog develop.  And Zen has his ups and downs, but every so often he has a fantastic performance and that keeps me going through the downs.  I am learning so much about how to manage and work with an extremely high energy dog from him.  Doing stuff is reinforcing for him.  Doing it right is another story.  So my challenge there is to get accuracy while maintaining all that fabulous attitude.  It’s a process.

Now I have more training to do before the next trial.

So, I start packing up to go.  I really can’t get out of there fast enough at this point.  I want to toss my ribbon and prize in the nearest trash can, but I know that is bad sportsmanship. 

Earlier in the week I had made arrangements with a very generous person to pick up a loaner pup from her for my current video training project.  Since I was already halfway between us she agreed to drive up, meet me, and drop off the pup.  As I’m packing my van she shows up and we talk, play with pups, and take some pics.  It took about 20 minutes.  I was parked right outside the door to the building and noticed that we were being observed (and I think even photographed) the entire time. 

Those of you familiar with AKC events probably realize what’s going to happen next.  Dumb me, it didn’t even occur to me that there was a problem. 

As I turned to put the pup in my car I was accosted by several club members.  The one that asked me if I was lying about my title earlier screeched at me “do you know how many rules you just broke?!”  My honest response was “what?”  I still didn’t get it.  She said “you can’t have puppies on show grounds” and another person chimed in “it’s in the premium”.  She continued “and you cannot buy and sell puppies on a show site”.  I immediately realized they were right.  It was truly an honest, ignorant mistake.  And I knew that denying we were buying the pup, even though 100% true, would never be believed.  Honestly though, if I thought we were doing something wrong I certainly wouldn’t have done it right in front of everyone :-}! 

So I said “I apologize, we’re leaving”.  But I wondered why they watched and waited so long before saying something.  If they came over right away and said something we would have gone off-site immediately and exchanged the pup there.  Looking back on it I think they were already pissed at me for wanting my ribbon and now found a way to gain evidence of my wrongdoing.  I expect they will file some sort of charges with the AKC. 

Anyone that goes to AKC shows knows the “no puppy” rule, myself included.  Granted, it’s a rule that is rarely enforced.  Or should I say selectively enforced.  Puppies are everywhere at some shows.  But it is a rule and I did break it, totally unintentionally this time!  I feel really bad that the breeder was pulled into this.  She looked quite appalled by the level of anger and venom directed at us.  It was so ugly and unpleasant and seemed quite vindictive when a simple sentence would have resolved things immediately.  I know our club would have handled things quickly and quietly. 

And people wonder why AKC obedience events are not as popular as they used to be.  Huh, I can’t imagine!

So there you have it…..

 

So let me narrow down the audience for this one.  First, you are someone that trains and shows dogs in AKC obedience or rally.  Second, you care about my experiences and opinions.  Now that there are 2 of you left, here I go!

I promised myself to always be honest in my blogs and honesty is NOT always pretty.  Be warned.  Plus, I believe that if people want you to write nice things about them then they should behave nicely.  And if you only write what is true then it’s not libel or slander. 

Other than dog training, writing makes me feel better.  It helps me process events and information and make sense of them.  I think this is true for many introverts like myself.  We don’t always know what we think and feel until we’ve had time to reflect on it.  Since this bothers me so much I need to write about it.  I’m sharing it because I know so many of my friends train and show dogs in a variety of venues. 

First, the good part.  My dogs are freakin’ awesome!  Zen and Star went to Columbus for the weekend and did a fabulous job in Rally.  I love to train and lately, dog training has been my therapy.  It has been the major thing that makes me feel somewhat normal since Chris got sick and passed away.  At first, it was very hard, harder than it’s ever been. Dog training has always been somewhat natural to me.  But after everything that happened I couldn’t remember how to do simple things.  I made really dumb mistakes on courses.  My brain was not functioning normally.  Stress can truly have cognitive as well as emotional manifestations.  But I kept going because it’s what I do.  If dog training didn’t make me feel better then nothing ever would.  I got better and so did my dogs.  I worked on problems and saw success, which made me feel even better.  Zen’s heeling, in particular, has improved greatly.  And Star’s reactivity is being managed very well indeed.  So I was happy with my dogs and with myself. 

Clearly, I am a dog person and not a people person.  Anyone that knows me knows that.  But I try to be “normal” and polite.  Try is the operative term here.  I know I’m not always the most sociable or easygoing person in the room. So I do admit and accept my part in what happened. 

Anyway, yesterday Zen finished his RAE2 title and I was really happy.  I worked hard for that title.  It means something to me.  It’s about dedication, teamwork, and conquering challenges.  Maybe it means nothing to some people, but it means a lot to me.  I was excited to go in the ring for ribbons.  Zen was also second with 99s in both classes, so it was very nice.  There was some confusion during and after awards, but the club members told all of us that earned titles to wait and get our ribbons and prizes.  We waited and when we got to the head of the line the club members were out of ribbons and prizes and asked me “are you sure you earned a title?”  So my response was a thoughtless “do you think I’m lying?”  That set the tone for a very bad experience.  I should have been more patient, sure, but they then made it much, much worse.  One said to the other “if she wants a ribbon she needs to go to the other building and get it”.  I love being talked about 1) like I don’t exist and 2) like I’m a major inconvenience.  I’m sure my face reflected that because the club member then said “never mind!  I’ll go do it!” in a very unpleasant manner and flounced off.  So my pleasure and excitement over getting great scores and a nice title with my dog were totally shattered.  I left the ring and went to pack up.  The club member did find me and practically tossed the ribbon at me saying “here” then walked away.   The other “prize” given to all other title earners was not offered.  A friend insisted on getting it for me, but at that point I certainly didn’t want anything else from this club, ever.

I have shown in AKC events for 20 years and this was, by far, the worst I have ever been treated by anyone.  I just wanted to pack up and get the heck out of there as fast as possible.  I was made to feel like I was causing trouble and doing something unacceptable by expecting what the club offered. 

You might think this would be the end of the story, but no, it actually got much much worse.  I left not only never wanting to deal with those particular people or that particular club again, but feeling like this venue is definitely not for me in the future.  You’ll have to wait for part 2 to hear the rest of the story. 

This post definitely devolves into a massive rant!  Read at your own risk.

It’s been over 20 years since I first got involved in the dog showing world.  My introduction came with an 18 month old rescued Black Lab named Katie who needed some training.  I was in grad school and got her as a companion, and she turned out to be a wonderful one.  What I didn’t know was that training her would completely change my life.  Through Katie I was introduced to the world of obedience trials.  At that time (1992) there was little to no agility in the US and rally hadn’t been invented yet.  I know I went to a USDAA trial early on, but there weren’t many.  I loved training and working with Katie and watching my first obedience trial thought “I could teach my dog to do that”.  Actually I did teach Katie all that and much, much more.

But I was ignorant and didn’t even know it.  As we all are when we start down a new path.  I didn’t know how much I didn’t know.  And I’ve spent 20 years learning it.  And I still don’t know LOTS!  Since Katie (who earned her CDX, 2 UD legs, and 2 NA legs before retirement due to a torn cruciate) there have been many other dogs.  Sully the troubled Golden that I just never could quite click with personality wise.  But his behavioral issues forced me to learn a lot.  Then Copper the nearly perfect Papillon who went on to earn MACH2, UD, RN, and tons of other titles.  Then Luna, my little tiny Papillon girl who did agility like a baby BC and made it to Excellent, but had to be retired early due to a luxating patella.  Getting a chance to work with Morgan, the absolute perfect Sheltie.  Truly perfect.  No dog could ever live up to him.  He was so special.  There was Kix the Sheltie with the overwhelming neophobia.  I learned that sometimes the best thing you can do for a dog is to place him in a home that makes him comfortable.  Smudge the crazy blue Sheltie with more drive than sense sometimes.  He managed lots of speed points in agility and only 3 QQs over his career.  He also got a CD and is 1 leg shy of an RA.  Then Zen my first BC and hollee ball addict.  What a great boy!  UD at age 3 and almost RAE2, plus Open agility titles.  His fault is too much enthusiasm, regardless of the activity.  And now Star, my little introvert who loves to work, adores her frisbee, but doesn’t love people.

Each of these dogs has been a unique individual with his or her own set of strengths and challenges.  Each has been well-suited to some dog sports but not to others.  And the same is true for the thousands of dogs I’ve helped train over the years.  I enjoy training and showing, but it is definitely not right for every dog.  Some dogs prefer calmer and quieter settings rather than loud and chaotic agility trials.  I have been reading the book Quiet by Susan Cain (about introverted humans) and thinking how well it applies to dogs.  Some dogs have trouble with the repetition and precision required for successful competition obedience.  Some dogs are physically incapable despite a strong desire to do the work.  Some dogs are just happier as homebodies.

The good part is that every dog we train can teach us an enormous amount.  We will never train the same dog twice, so we should learn to alter and improve our training methods as we go along.  Our dogs should make us better trainers.  Another really good part is the change in relationship you have with a working dog as opposed to a pet dog.  It takes the relationship to a whole other level that most people don’t even know exists.  There is nothing like the connection you can develop while working with a fully engaged canine partner.  Most dogs are probably bored to tears.  They rarely get to use their brains.  We give them that opportunity through training.

The bad part is that people use dogs without thinking about what is actually best for the dog.  They just assume that the dog should go along with the program.  If the person likes agility then they assume the dog will too.  They treat dogs as if they are interchangeable, rather than as unique individuals.  They impose their will and desires on the dog and the dog gets no say in the process.  You can see this in the “my last dog was perfect” syndrome.  When the next dog isn’t a clone of the last dog, and actually requires creativity and thoughtfulness to train, people are unhappy.  The dog needs “fixed” and quickly.  People get a puppy as a performance prospect and jump right in to sport-specific training.  They are in a huge hurry to get this pup into the ring and to start showing.  This worries me for some very valid reasons.  First, pups are not physically ready for the demands of most dog sports.  They need to physically develop and mature.  Second, they are definitely not mentally ready for strong training pressures either.  Yet people push and push their pups and young dogs.

Sometimes they work their dogs into a frantic and hyper state during training.  Then they claim this as evidence that the dog “loves” the sport.  When I see a situation like this I feel so bad for the dog.  Those huge highs and massive overactivity levels verge on hysteria, not enthusiasm.  Typically these dogs resemble crazed lunatics on an agility course.  They are so high and out of their minds with adrenaline and cortisol that conscious thought is not possible.  They are not “having a good time”.  They are chaotic and overactive, which is exhausting and unpleasant.

On the other hand, some people that train obedience really want a passive and quiet dog.  They train the dog to do nothing.  Doing nothing works for the dog because that is a way to avoid getting in trouble.  Unless, of course, you’ve been told to do something and you don’t.  Dogs trained to do nothing often appear quite well behaved, but they are actually shut down and emotionally abused.  They are forced into unpleasant situations and their only way to cope is to become helpless and passive.  That is NOT a well-behaved dog.  It is an unhappy one.

And of course, there are people that blame their dog for their own crappy training.  Oh, and the ones that are convinced they need to be alpha or their dogs will take over the world.  Really?  In 2013 you still think the alpha model is valid?  Read something current on dog training, please!

While the bad is bad enough, the ugly is even worse.  There is outright physical and mental abuse in dog training.  I’ve seen things that still make me cringe when I think back on them.  I’ve seen dogs baited into aggression so they could be severely ‘corrected’ by the ‘trainer’.  I’ve seen dogs with 3 different ‘training collars’ on at one time (choke, shock, and pinch).  I’ve seen dogs ear pinched out to an article pile repeatedly.   I saw a dog at an agility trial being dragged to his crate by one ear.  I actually saw one moron put on chain mail gloves then goad a dog into trying to bite him.  Geesh!  I hope that when we die our dogs get to make the decision about whether we go to heaven or hell.  That would be true karma!

I’ve seen agility dogs that should have been retired long ago still being pressured to compete.  Why?  It’s sad and pathetic.  Is a MACH 15 really worth it?  Let the poor dog have a nice enjoyable retirement.  I’ve seen agility dogs with injuries that their trainers mask or ignore so that they can continue showing.  There’s a whole industry built up around agility dogs with physical injuries now.  Granted, dogs can and do get hurt in a variety of ways.  But some people will ignore the dog’s physical condition until he breaks down completely.  Then they will rush for a quick fix to get back in the ring.

Some people overtrain their preferred sport.  This burns the dog out mentally and often leads to physical injuries.  A friend of mine who is a chirporactor told me the worst canine spinal injuries she saw were from obedience dogs that were trained and shown constantly.  Being forced to hold unnatural positions (such as heads up heeling) for long periods without compensating work leads to  problems.

So if it’s so bad and ugly, why do I still participate and enjoy dog sports?  Because there is still so much good.  There will always be people that do bad and ugly things to dogs, whether through ignorance or deliberate choice.  I can’t stop them.  What I can do is train my dogs with joy and enthusiasm.  I can treasure the short time we have together training and showing.   I can also treasure all the time we have just being together.  But I know that my relationship with my dogs has changed for the better because I am involved in performance events with them.  It has led us to a whole different level of relationship.  It has also led me to meet some really wonderful people and amazing dogs.  And there’s still so much more to learn and do.

 

 

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Star is brilliant and loving and easy to live with.  She is also an introvert.  She doesn’t really want to interact with you, whoever you might be.  She prefers the company of the few people she knows and trusts.  And if you leave her alone you will make her comfortable and happy.

On a walk yesterday it occurred to me that Star and I are alike, and also that people totally misunderstand introversion.  So I thought a blog post was in order! Being an introvert does not necessary mean that you have a mental disorder or that you are pathologically shy.  It means that, as a general rule, the people around you require an enormous amount of energy to deal with, even when interactions are pleasant.  Being sociable is fine in small doses and with those we truly like.  It becomes overwhelming and exhausting very quickly, however.  And when it does we need our solitude to refresh ourselves.

In Star’s case she is happiest to be ignored by other humans, except for her few really good friends (most of who she imprinted on as a puppy).  She doesn’t want you to look at her or talk to her.  At best you are neutral; at worst you can seem highly threatening.  When you invade her space and boundaries she will let you know it with a growl or bark, then she will try to move away.  If you continue to try to interact with her because “dogs like me” you are escalating an unpleasant situation into a dangerous one.  If you then want to correct her for growling at you I will step in and forcefully change your mind about pursuing that path.

Many dogs are attention whores.  In children there’s  a stage called indiscriminate sociability.  Most dogs are there all their lives.  I own several.  Feel free to lavish your attention on them.  They will love it.  But be aware that one only seems to love you because he’s hoping you will throw his hollee ball.  Another dog I know loved you until he clearly determined you had no cookies, then you were old news as he moved on.   They don’t care about you, but about what you can do for them.  They are users!

Star and I are actually both more than fine without your attention.  I don’t mind giving a nod and a wave to my neighbors as I pass, but I don’t want to get dragged into a 20 minute conversation every time I step out the door.  I want to go take my walk, enjoy the day, enjoy the solitude, unwind, and enjoy being with my dogs.  Star seems to feel the same way.  She wants to keep moving, watch for squirrels and enjoy a chance for a quick “sniff break”.  She doesn’t really want to be with you.

Dog people are the worst.  They think all dogs like them or that they have a special way that wins over all dogs immediately.  Trust me, it won’t work on Star.  If you try getting down on her level and making weird noises and gestures you will totally freak her out!  Stand up and ignore her and she’s just fine.  Quit trying to be her friend.  If you do that she is actually much more likely to approach you for a quick sniff, but that still doesn’t mean she wants to interact, she’s just information-seeking.  Allow her to sniff you without suddenly swooping down on her and you’re more likely to win her over.  Give her time and let her make all the moves until she determines whether or not you are safe.

I’m pretty OK with Star’s behavior because I understand it myself.  We cannot be made into social butterflies through conditioning or reinforcement.  We cannot be bribed into liking you.  We can learn to tolerate social activity, to a point.  Then we need a break from it.  It’s not completely fun for us, it’s an obligation.  As I said earlier Star has friends (and so do I!) that we are happy to see and enjoy spending time with.  But then we need twice as much time alone to recover.  Why?  Genetics and early experiences.  Of course, that covers pretty much everything!  We were indeed “born that way”.  Our experiences then either made our natural tendencies more extreme or altered them in the opposite direction.  We’re both in the “normal” range in terms of sociability, but low normal.

We’re not “anti-social”.  The term “antisocial personality disorder” is actually an extremely serious and dangerous personality disorder (think psychopath or sociopath).  That’s not us.  We are more asocial.  We don’t need it much.  It needs to be on our own terms in small doses.   For human introverts, internet communication is fantastic!  It’s controlled, yet still offers many of the benefits of social interaction.  Most introverts, myself included, prefer email or text messages to phone calls or face to face conversations.  I’m sure if Star could text she would enjoy it too!  It’s a controllable activity.  I am thrilled with the prospect of teaching online classes because they strongly appeal to my introverted nature.  Facebook is another great outlet for introverts.  Social activity that can be totally controlled and managed!

This is not to say that I haven’t worked on making Star comfortable around people.  I work on it constantly.  I will likely always have to work on it.  We have done tons of exposure to people below her arousal threshhold with huge reinforcement.  She will happily play tug and frisbee anytime, anywhere, and we do this in crowded settings like dog shows, which has helped her attitude about those settings quite a lot.  We work on seeing people and reinforcing for moving away or not overreacting.  And yes, I even reinforce her for grumbling.  I absolutely want her to feel free to express her discomfort so that I can be aware and do something about it.  Better that than a snap without any warning.  Punishing out the warning signs is a huge problem that only makes things worse.  Her discomfort is at its worst at the vet.  I actually believe some negative experiences there exaggerated these tendencies.  The first thing I did was change vets to change the context.  Luckily we also had a chance to work with a wonderful vet and trainer, Linda Randall, at her clinic on CU type exercises.  It was a great experience for Star.  But she still doesn’t want to be handled by strangers or even greeted by them.  My vets understand and have done a nice job staying neutral with her yet still doing what is necessary to care for her.  I have also positively trained her to wear a muzzle in case it is ever absolutely essential.

Star is NOT aggressive.  She has never made physical contact with another creature using her teeth.  That is not to say that it could never happen.  We all know that anyone can be aggressive when pressed hard enough.  Without good management, handling, and training, she could end up in an overwhelming situation and feel forced to defend herself.  That is why I need to be  her protector and ally.  I want her to be brave and confident, and know that I have her back if necessary.  I will sometimes ignore her minor reactivity.  Staying calm and relaxed myself gives her information that there is no cause for alarm.  And sometimes I may even pet her and talk softly after she has had a major reaction, to let her know that I understand she is upset and needs my support.  This is not reinforcing her reactivity at all.  Once the reaction happens it is too late to alter it.  All I can do then is minimize the aftereffects.  My goal is to be proactive enough to avoid reactions before they even start.

As a human I have the ability to realize when I have had enough social interaction and leave the situation.  Dogs don’t have that luxury.  It’s our job to monitor their interactions for them and to respond appropriately.  Over the years I’ve learned to manage my introverted tendencies.  In fact, many people, my college students in particular, are surprised that I describe myself this way.  I can act appropriately in social settings, but it is not always natural to me.  And it is always tiring.

At best, this is what I hope to achieve with Star.  I cannot make her an extravert, but I can help her cope in the least aversive ways possible.  I can give her the tools through training and exposure that allow her to tolerate social interaction when necessary. Now if you see us at a dog show don’t totally  ignore us!  But understand that she is my first priority.  Please follow my cues for how to interact with my dog.  Don’t swoop down on her and invade her space.  Let her make up her mind about you in her own way and time.

And if you’re talking dogs, I’m happy to do that all day!  That is NOT a social obligation and it’s something I never get tired of doing :-}!

The first part of this post is NOT a rant!  Went to Youngstown All Breed’s Rally Trials yesterday.  They offered two trials in one day, which was very brave and made for an extremely long day.  We got there at 11:30 and left at 9:30.  The Club did a really great job.  Their workers were all nice and efficient, even when things got really late and everyone had to be exhausted.

I was extremely happy to be able to go to a trial and spend the day with my dogs.  My life has been totally disrupted and dog training and showing fell far to the bottom of the list for quite some time.  You do what you have to do and set priorities as necessary, but I really did miss working with and showing my dogs.  And my dogs seemed very happy as well.  Some people get to do it every weekend.  I doubt I’ll ever get back to that, but I will never take it for granted again.  It’s a luxury many people don’t have.  

I’m veering towards a rant here, but will control myself.  While agility used to be my main focus I think that will change now.  I just don’t have the time and resources to get my dogs on equipment enough to feel that they are safe and well-trained.  Plus, I find it sort of lost its allure for me.  I’m not impressed by many of the trends I see in agility.  And I am more and more concerned about what people are asking their canine partners to do in the name of “fun”.  And mainly, I just somehow don’t feel up to it.  So rally is a nice compromise.  It requires more precision and control, but the majority of the training really can be done in my living room.  It still has quick changes and speed, so it fills a gap between obedience and agility, in my opinion.  

Yesterday was a much needed good day for us at the trial.  Zen got two more RAE legs with 2 firsts, a second, and a third.  He’s pretty close to earning his RAE2.  In the second trial of the day he won the High Combined award with two 98s.  This is the first time I’ve been to a trial that offers that award for Rally and I thought it was extremely nice and would like to thank the Club for that.  

Now for the rant!  What wasn’t quite as nice were the judge’s comments as she handed me the award.  She told me that if Zen were her dog she would have a “come to Jesus” meeting with him for “pushing me around” out there in the ring.  I had the presence of mind to tell her that I was happy he was my dog and not hers.  I think Zen would agree!  Why couldn’t she have just left it at congratulations?  She was, after all, the one that gave him the scores that gave him the High Combined.  If she found his performance lacking or unacceptable then she should have scored it accordingly.  But she didn’t because he meets the criteria for successful performance.  If I’m not mistaken, judges are there to judge performances, not to offer advice and opinions, unless asked.  So what was she talking about?  Zen forges, wraps, and bounces as he heels.  He is excited and enthusiastic throughout his performance.  I have been working on it and it has gotten better.  But as with all things, it is a work in progress that I hope to improve upon in the future.  I am assuming she was suggesting that he needed some sort of physical “corrections” to fix this problem.  It seemed implied that he was being bad or defiant or god forbid, dominant :-}  She’s barking up the wrong tree there.  It’s actually a good think she said this to me and not some other struggling positive trainer.  I can shake it off easily and move on.  But it might devastate someone that is working hard and respects the judge’s opinion just because she’s a judge.  

So back to more pleasant stuff, Zen was happy with the ‘swag’ he won, and so was I.  He won his first cash, $50, which I believe he would like to spend on more hollee balls!  And this was Star’s very first experience in any ring, her Novice debut.  She did great!  The first time in the ring she was a bit barky, and lost 3 points, which gave her a 97 and 4th place.  I was happy that she got over her excitement and settled down and worked nicely.  In the second trial she got a 99 with what I considered a perfect run.  I have no idea where a point could have come off of it.  She got first place, beating a GSD with a 99 also on time (by 20 seconds!)  She was happy and engaged and having fun.  Everything I hoped for the first time my dog has trial experience.  Image

My second rant would be about the level of training of many of the dogs going in the ring, which seemed to be either little to none or very poor.  I felt really really bad for many of the dogs.  They were clearly not prepared either through thorough training or positive experiences, for their time in the ring.  They were confused and stressed.  We observed lip licking, sniffing, zooming, slow responses, scratching, and just general disconnection from the handler in many cases.  We watched the performances and then looked at the scores and were just astounded when a horrendous and painful to watch performance earned a score of 90.  Really?!  The poor dog needed multiple cues for everything, and then only performed the bare minimum.  I’m guessing the judge was judging accurately.  And if that’s the case then the guidelines still need some work.  Scoring does seem to have tightened up some, but horrid performances are still earning legs.  Therefore, handlers have no reason to do anything differently in terms of training.  If they just want a leg and don’t care about the score then that’s easy enough to do.  In fact, a good friend of ours from agility decided to do rally with absolutely no preparation and she managed legs and titles on all her dogs.  I actually taught one of them a stand and wait for the walk around while she was in the ring with another!  The power of cheese is endless!  In her case the dogs aren’t stressed but they are confused.  Continued pressure without training is likely to lead to stress.  But we saw many dogs that are both stressed and confused.  

The thing is, I don’t think most owners even realize it.  They aren’t savvy enough to see what experienced trainers see.  All they know is that the dog is not doing what they think it should know well and they get frustrated.  It’s a vicious cycle.  Frustrated owner leads to stressed dog with leads to poor performance which leads to more frustration for the owner.  If we had good, solid training and instruction available everyone could be much, much happier!  Sorry for the long post.  Now off to do something fun and relaxing with the rest of the weekend.  

Went on a short vacation with friends.  We each brought several dogs.  They brought their 9 month old sporting breed.  We chose the vacation spot because it had a fully fenced 8 acre area with pond.  Guess what the young sporting breed did while off leash?  Exactly what you would expect, investigated the underbrush and pond.  That’s his nature.  The Border Collies, OTOH, stuck by us in case we would “kick the ball!”  They could be anywhere in the world and their view would be the same (ground, ball, kick, chase, fetch, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat).  

The problem, of course, is that the sporting breed dog would not stay close to the people or return when called.  In fact, we noticed that all the other guests there had the same issue.  Dogs off leash, gone.  No recall responses at all.  We learned the dogs’ names because we heard the people yelling them so often “Simon! Simon! Simon!”  Of course, Simon was busy and did not come until he was tired.  Eventually people caught their dogs and put them on leash.  But not until the dogs were darn good and ready.  We almost got blitzed by a very wet, very happy Golden Retriever with a tennis ball.  No one could have stopped a dog fight if it started.  

You might think that this blog is going to be about recalls, but it’s not.  It’s about something much more fundamental, thinking.  The young sporting breed with us is a very nice boy.  He’s really sweet.  He gets at least an hour of free running exercise at home every day.  He is also managed well inside with expens, crates, and tethering to the owner.  She uses kongs and bones to keep him occupied.  The problem is, she has not taught him to think, at all.  He is a mass of reactions to the environment.  He is “out of his body” all the time.  If he is not physically contained, he is like an ADHD kid.  He is either jumping on you or ignoring you for some other distraction, but he never settles down.  He is “on” at all times unless he is sleeping.  He cannot pay attention to his owner because his attention is already occupied by a thousand other things.  

I tried to be very diplomatic in suggesting that some training might help.  Of course, she has been training, but not in the way I would recommend.  This boy needed to expend some mental energy.  He needed to solve challenging problems and figure out that he had a brain.  His training has been mostly physical responses, not mental puzzles.  And of course, my first thought was to work on impulse control.  Impulse control exercises force dogs to think about what they are doing and give them the option of making behavioral choices and seeing the consequences of those choices.  It puts them back “in their bodies” and helps them focus on themselves rather than on everything around them.  Over and over again I’ve seen dogs calm down, settle, and focus when impulse control exercises are properly executed.  

We worked on basic self-control starting with slow treats and “zen” work.  I started slowly moving a treat towards him, when he jumped to take it (as I knew he would) I slowly moved it away and waited.  When he settled I started moving the treat towards him again.  In less than 5 minutes he figured out that he needed to either sit or down to get me to move the treat to him, then give him verbal permission to take it.  It was an internal struggle, but he was completely focused on the task.  He wasn’t perfect, but it was a start.  In another quick lesson I pushed him harder.  He needed to be both still and quiet (a huge issue for him as he was a frustrated vocalizer).  But I shaped it for a bit and he got it.  He was focused on the task, and on me because I controlled the reinforcer that he wanted.  After each session he was so much calmer than he was even after an hour of running free (which of course I strongly suggested she change to running on a long line).  Physical exercise cannot replace mental exercise!  You just end up with a dog with more and more stamina that is still not thinking or able to calm himself down.  

Our last session we worked on “go to mat”.  He had worked on the baby steps of this with his owner already and he was a superstar as we raised criteria!  We worked up to tossing a cookie across the room for him to chase.  He would run back, down himself on the mat, wag his stumpy little tail, and patiently wait for the click and treat.  It was beautiful!  To see him go from an unfocused whirlwind to a self-controlled youngster was a lovely transformation.  And it only took 3 short training sessions.  I hope they continue this work as I know he will be a happier dog and they will be much happier owners.  A tiny little bit of focus training helped move him back into his body and helped him learn to take control himself.  Seeing such an easy, dramatic transformation  makes me sad for all the dogs that never get a chance to use their brains and be “in their bodies”.  It can be so quick and easy and it’s so much better for dog and owners alike.  Physical control alone is never enough.  It leads to what a friend of mine used to call “a prisoner at the end of the leash”.  You aren’t changing the dog’s behavior, you are simply preventing the dog from doing what he wants, which leads to conflict. It is so much better to teach our dogs that cooperation is the key to getting what they want!