Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Problem solving, Part I

“We cannot solve problems with
the same level of thinking that created them.”
Albert Einstein

Here we go with my evaluation of what’s bugging Phoenix in the obedience ring and my strategy to remedy it.

The first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one. Easy enough. The problem has been an obvious don’t-give-a-crap, don’t-wanna-be-here attitude in the ring the last few weekends.

The second step is identifying the problem. Problems. Plural. More than one. A little more difficult. Phoenix’s unraveling ring performances have not been easy to pinpoint to a single, obvious source.

Imagine if you went to the doctor with a sprained ankle, a deep cut on your hand and an irregular heartbeat. (Actually, that sounds like a normal day for me.) Imagine if the doctor only treated the sprained ankle and sent you home without stitching up your hand or prescribing medicine to regulate your heart rate. It wouldn’t matter that your ankle was giving you less pain. In order for you to feel better all around, the doctor would need to treat ALL the conditions. Each would require a different treatment. Each would heal on a different schedule.

That’s kind of what I’m looking at with Phoenix. I think the problems we’re having at shows are occurring on different levels and for different reasons. It’s not like I can just “fix” his heeling or his stays and everything will be wonderful again.

I sat down with a notebook and pen and brainstormed ideas of ways to address all the things that are happening in the ring. It was helpful to write down all the ideas people have given me, discarding or expanding them as I went.

One thing I refuse to do is use harsh corrections. I will correct, yes. But I will not terrify my dog into “working” for me. We will work as a mutually respectful, trusting team or we will not work. I was surprised that several people “recommended” I find a way to make him break stays in training, then correct him so hard (and this is a direct quote) “He will never want to come to you again.”

Um . . . I don’t think so. (Dear God in heaven, do some people still train like that?)

So here’s what I’ve come up with:

Problem A: Lack of drive in the ring. In other words, a crappy attitude, due to stress, boredom and misunderstanding of what I really expect from him.

Cause: Failure to teach him he is expected to work even when he doesn’t want to, when he thinks he’s had enough or when he’s in a distracting/stressful environment; failure to build value for the work through play (more than just shoving cookies at him) and to build delayed gratification through jackpotting either to treats or a toy/play session (You WILL get a reward but you have to work for it). I had started working jackpots earlier in the spring but it fell by the wayside. Geez . . . even the best training methods in the world won’t work if you don’t use them!

I truly don’t think it’s as simple as “he can’t work if he’s not getting a cookie every other step.” This is the dog who gave me happy, animated work throughout his Novice career and early Open career, including perfect and nearly perfect heeling scores. While some trainers might argue that Phoenix just figured out no food is coming in the ring, I think he knew that a long time ago and it didn't matter.

Serious crazy wild play is a powerful thing and something I haven't harnessed nearly enough. Phoenix loves tugging, balls and anything that squeaks, so his rewards need to reflect more toys and less food. That means more handler participation on my part. It's much easier to toss a cookie at him than tug for 30 seconds while it feels like my shoulders are being separated from their sockets but a cookie doesn't rev him up to red-line and tap into the drive I want. I need to quit being a lazy trainer.

I think the bottom line might be that I haven’t set the bar high enough when it came to the issue of sustained performance. I was afraid of losing attitude if I pushed for duration when training any particular skill for fear of doing the dreaded “drilling.” We would work a skill or exercise a couple of times, it was good and we switched to something else. I never asked him to perform beyond a couple of nice reps and therefore never got the chance to address lack of effort errors. When he didn’t feel like working in the show ring, well, he had no reason to think otherwise.

I also think concern about the pending out-of-sight stays, which by this year had become a standard part of every training and showing scenario, had leaked over and poisoned his attitude to an extent. It’s hard to be happy when you know you’re going to be asked to do something that makes you really uncomfortable.

Solution: In training, ask for effort beyond what’s easy and simple. Example: it’s a breeze to get a fast recall, straight front and nice finish in the back yard. But what about in a totally new place with absolutely no visible reinforcers? What about in a deliberately stressful place like “Cat-ville” at our house?

Plus, address the out-of-sight stay stress separately to ease that worry, which should make the ring a more comfortable place overall.

Note: You’d better believe he’s going to be getting lots of wonderful reinforcers when I start asking him for more effort in difficult places. But only AFTER he gives me that effort. The effort may come in very small increments but that is what I want to reward so he learns that trying is what I want. If a dog is honestly trying, that's all I ask.

Okay, this is getting crazy-long and I don’t want to lump two weeks of random thoughts into a single post. More tomorrow, which will focus on the stay problem.


  1. I just started following your blog a couple of weeks ago (been a long time F&F subscriber and have always enjoyed your articles). Thank you for sharing your experiences with Phoenix. When I first started reading your posts about attitude problems in the ring I was quite surprised. I remember watching him in Novice, I think in Waterloo?, and he had wonderful drive and attitude in the ring at that time. But our dogs are always working to make us better trainers aren't they? I've been working on getting my Rottie Noel ready for the ring. I realized last spring (a bit of an understatement since I had my epiphany in the ring) that I had been neglecting a very important part of our training, which was to continue to train and practice in new places. We're in a rural area (Decorah) and don't have access to different training buildings, and I used that as my excuse. :-) So all summer long we packed up and went to parks, club member's homes and even practices in all different parts of our own property. I'm hoping there will be a moral to this story since we haven't actually shown again yet, but I will say that there has been a huge improvement in her attitude and focus whenever we go somewhere new. I also have a tendency to do what you described when not practicing enough for duration - I worry about losing her attitude.
    I look forward to hearing more about your solutions for the stay issue.
    Thank you for your positive attitude and for being an obedience die-hard with a great sense of humor - a rare breed. ;-)

  2. I enjoy reading your thoughts on how to get a more positive attitude. As you know, Jazz is not exactly the most upbeat guy in the obedience ring. I was ring steward at the Amana Cluster and got to watch all those wonderful obedience dogs for a whole afternoon. Today - Jazz heeled on our walk past other dogs with a big grin on his face. I know what was different. I can now visualize how much fun obedience might be. I never saw the fun in it before. I'm sure you and Phoenix will work this out. Relationships can really be a challenge - huh?

  3. Thank you for this fabulous post. I love how much you have thought over this issue and have really tried to think critically about your training plan. I think your solutions are something that we all need to be reminded of, not just those having drive issues. I hope things go well for you in the next couple of weeks/months and I really really look forward to your Stay post tomorrow!!!

  4. Thanks for the kind comment Melinda! I am also glad we survived the DM shows. :)

    I am following your recent posts very closely because we've dealt with change of attitude in the ring as well.

    "I will correct, yes. But I will not terrify my dog into “working” for me." HERE, HERE!!! I got some really scary suggestions about how to deal with Falkor's zoomie issue. YIKES! And it just breaks my heart to see dogs in the ring that have been terrified into working.

    Thank you for taking us all along on your journey with Phoenix!

  5. First, kudos to you for sharing "real" training issues and the thought process that goes into dealing with them. With my GSD I tried to avoid him having to deal with "stressy" stuff too much, tiptoed around it, even in practice. Which is silly, can't avoid it at trials. So he went into competition w/o that vital skill set. And when you think about it, how to you strengthen muscle? By "stressing" it in a carefully and fairly planned program. I will say that with my Pom, a rehome and with a ton of issues, what I've discovered is that when I fairly and gently insist we get through a challenge, and I make it clear to him that I am with him all the way as a real partner, he comes out the other side with more confidence. He understands if he sticks with it the rewards are huge. Good luck, will look forward to future posts!