Friday, July 23, 2010

It's okay to be confused

Thanks for the responses to yesterday’s post about using both gloves AND toys in the directed retrieve. Several of you said you wouldn’t ask your dogs to do this because of the potential for confusion, especially if you had proofed the dog against picking up toys on another retrieve.

First, let me clarify: the only way I would use toys as a DISTRACTION on the directed retrieve is if they were totally out of the line of the retrieve, otherwise how could your dog tell what he was supposed to mark and fetch if two items are directly in line with one another? (The retrieve item isn't being thrown on this exercise, unlike the dumbbell retrieve.) I would, however, put a toy out IN PLACE OF a glove.

So let’s look at what the directed retrieve requires: A) dog looks at whatever I mark him to and B) dog fetches that item on command, no matter what it is. If I mark and send him to #3, I expect him to bring #3, whether it's a glove, a toy or a plastic cup.

Phoenix WAS confused the morning I sent him for a toy on the directed retrieve because it was the first time he'd seen that picture and he’d been proofed on his dumbbell retrieve with toys scattered around on the ground. It’s okay to be confused. Confusion means the dog is thinking. He’s not sure what to do. He’s trying to figure it out. If he needs a little help to be right, that’s okay.



Not a correction. And never anger. Too often I think our frustrated human response when a dog makes a mistake is is “must punish” when it should be “must help.” Is it little wonder so many dogs don’t like obedience?

I didn’t realize until Nix veered off the toy and went to get a glove instead how solidly the “avoid toys on retrieves” lesson had sunk in. Wow. Again, he learned more than I thought I was teaching. What a clever boy.

It only took a few quick reps for him to understand the "fetch what you mark no matter what it is" concept.

With my first few Utility dogs (the shelties), I was so scared I would “break” them that I did very little proofing. I was just happy they learned how to do the exercises and wasn’t about to mess around with it beyond that! Fortunately for me, they understood and enjoyed their jobs so thoroughly (UDXs and OTCh./UDX5), proofing was not as important as it became with subsequent dogs. (What a beautiful gift Jess and Connor were!)

I want my dogs to be able to think and make correct decisions. I want them to understand their job so they can do it with confidence under show ring pressure. That’s not going to happen if I never allow them to make mistakes in training, then work through those mistakes with them. The key words here are WORK THROUGH IT WITH THEM. You can’t “correct” a dog for being wrong when he isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do in the first place. I realize this doesn't stop some people from doing it anyway, then they wonder why their dog has a bad attitude.

Years ago, I remember being baffled the first time I saw someone proofing a dog. I thought it was awful, they were setting the dog up to fail. Why would anyone DO that? Gradually I came to understand that when done correctly and fairly, proofing sets the dog up to succeed by giving him the ability to make decisions, not shut down or make failing errors, when faced with distractions in the ring.

Plus, proofing keeps your training fresh and challenging to your dog. Some folks like to train by going through the same motions over and over. Hey, whatever works for them.

But Jamie and now especially Phoenix never thrived on simple repetition, so I try to find new ways to approach the exercises to keep him thinking. My goal is never to deliberately create confusion but to be prepared to HELP my dog if it happens because if you train long enough, it’s pretty much inevitable.

Yes, I think you can take proofing to unnecessary extremes but that’s probably an individual decision for each dog and handler. How far do you want to push your dog? Obedience diehards will remember Diane Bauman’s “Beyond Basic Training” book from the early 1990s — the one with the cover photo of a dog working scent articles with little turtles in the pile. Extreme? Probably.

But my sheltie Connor worked articles with a cat in the pile. I didn’t deliberately put the cat there (it was just a weird cat who always showed up when we trained) and Connor didn’t seem to care so I let it go. If he’d been totally messed up by having a cat in his articles, I would have removed it. Would Phoenix do articles with a cat in the pile? Oh dear doG. I don’t even want to think about that!!!


  1. I had a proud moment some while back when Taz retrieved a glove from UNDER the cat. Now, to be fair, this was indoors, and his cat--outdoors with a neighbor cat would have been a different story. But still. Alas, it has become impossible to leave treats on the counter or mantle so as to have them off my body. The rotten cat snarffles them all.

  2. Soooo, when a dog doesn't sit on go outs (mostly in trials), does it mean he doesn't understand what to do, or is he too stressed to figure it out? Any ideas on how you would proof for that Melinda?

  3. THANK DOG!!!! I'm confused the majority of the time!!! G I'm so glad it's OKAY!!!! VBG