All right, here we go again!
Yesterday I wrote about improving ring attitude by addressing a lack of sustained effort in training and by making the work itself rewarding (without cookies on the nose) by building delayed gratification and more play to build drive in the context of obedience work, which is obviously not self-rewarding for many dogs.
Something I wanted to add, and this applies to ANY training issue, is that knowledge is power. If you have given your dog a clear picture of what you want from him in terms of performance, that can go a long way in helping relieve stress he will encounter at a show. Vague “that’s close enough” training disintegrates under ring pressure when the dog really isn’t sure what you want because you haven’t been consistent with your criteria (exactly how you want him to perform) in training. When reinforcers like food and toys are gone, he may feel lost in a gray zone of uncertainty. He’s not deliberately blowing you off, he really doesn’t know what you want.
As several of you noted in your comments (thank you!), deliberately introducing stress during training is a vital part of ring prep, although we often ignore it because we don’t want to rock the boat with our dogs and fall under the illusion that our dogs “know what to do" because they are awesome in the back yard. This can be remedied by building some mild stressors into your training routine and showing the dog how to be successful and that you will help and support him in a firm, fair, kind manner.
Now, here’s our next issue - stays:
Problem B: Phoenix worries abut “strange” dogs in his proximity, causing him to break out of the lineup on group exercises. I’m not sure this is a fear issue, more like an elevated discomfort level. While some fellow trainers thought he was breaking to FIND me (and I’m not totally discrediting that theory), I think he’s leaving the line up to GET AWAY from the other dogs.
He has looked slightly anxious but not overly freaked out when I’ve taken him back from the stewards when returning, so I don’t think he’s in a panicked flight to come find me, more of a deliberate decision to take himself out of an uncomfortable situation.
Cause: Phoenix is the first dog I’ve ever had who has a tendency to be sharp with other dogs who get in his face. It doesn’t matter if the other dog is friendly, an idiot or has its own rude agenda. Since I’ve discovered that 98 percent of owners of “oh, he’s friendly” dogs do not see anything wrong with their dogs getting in other dogs’ faces, I found myself putting Phoenix back in his crate any time he was not being actively worked at matches, classes, etc. It was easier than constantly monitoring his surroundings for dogs who were going to invade his space and cause trouble whether they intended to or not. This meant after he got too big to sit on my lap, he didn’t “hang out” much in group doggie situations.
1) More out-of-crate “hanging out” time with me keeping an eye out for potential problems. Sometimes he lays at my feet, sometimes I sit on the ground with him, sometimes he sits on my lap (yeah, need to get a pic of that). Other times, I will let a trusted friend hold him while I leave the building and return at various intervals.
2) Random stays near other dogs also doing random stays in the context of “hanging out” at matches, classes, etc.
3) Continuing to work group exercises but NOT putting him in the line up, instead placing him ahead of the line up, behind the line up or to the side of the line up until he shows no signs of being stress and uncomfortable, then gradually moving him into the line up.
4) Contrary to lots of advice, NOT returning to feed him or having anyone else feed him during the stays. It’s been the consensus among training friends that instead of creating a happy “Someone might come feed me at any time” attitude at trials, it can backfire and instead create a “Why isn’t anyone coming to feed me? Am I doing something wrong?” attitude that will only increase the stress levels I’m trying to reduce. I will, however, jackpot at the conclusion of the exercise when I have returned to heel position. The jury is out whether I should jackpot after EACH stay or only after the final one. I’m thinking at least initially I’ll reward after each stay since we are obviously still in the training mode of this exercise and I want to reward my dog for doing something that is not easy for him.
5) Since finding groups of different dogs to do stays with multiple times a week isn’t very realistic, we will work them in potentially stressful places around our farm or I’ll create a “thinking” situation in the house: running the vacuum, rattling the dog food bowls, opening the fridge and whistling are all possibilities. Actually, the possibilities are endless because Phoenix is a dog who loves to be involved in everything I do and it will be hard for him to remain on a stay in another room when there might be fun or food involved.
Note: I’ve gotten e-mails from several malinois owners who have experienced very similar problems with their dogs following them out of the ring or breaking shortly after the handler disappeared from sight. It seems our mals take a dim view of being left alone. I suppose this can be due to the nature of dogs who bond very tightly with their owners and just plain don’t want to be left behind.
While I hate stereotyping dogs by breed (shelties are shy, rotts are aggressive, etc.), there may be some merit in the observation that mals just don’t like losing sight of their owners and stays should be taught in a way that always builds the dog’s confidence in the handler’s return.
Tomorrow, the final installment: am I over training?