Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Problem solving, Part II

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?


  1. I love what you said here:

    "Vague “that’s close enough” training disintegrates under ring pressure..."

    This is SO true. Another thing for people to remember, especially if they're new to training a dog - and even if they're not, we can all go back to basics and set criteria. The problem is that it may be harder the second time around to establish the criteria and make that clear to the dog. But, with patience and persistence, you will win out for the better of your dog.

    Love reading your insights. Thanks for some good "food for thought" here.

  2. I'm really enjoying reading this segment. Not that I'm glad you're trying to work through a problem, but all of what you're saying is applicable to me, too.

    I know what you mean about not liking to stereotype by breed, but sometimes it can't be helped. There's a difference between making excuses and fact. There are some intrinsic things that you just can't erase.

    I agree that in the beginning, jackpot after each individual stay. I think that'd give him a clearer picture of what he's getting rewarded for. Also, very interesting about why it might not be the best idea to reward him DURING the stay. Tricky dogs.

    Can't wait to read the last installment. Even though I have no helpful advice, I'm very confident that you guys will work through this with success.

  3. huh. that's really interesting about #4, not feeding randomly during the stays. That's how I start my initial stay training although obviously fade it out by the time I am ready to trial. I've never really thought about some dogs viewing the absence of the rewards as stressful. Of course just rereading that sentence above totally makes it seem like a duh! moment.

    But then again every behavior I train I continue to reward at random parts to keep each section strong. So if I am occasionally rewarding say during the middle of heeling, not just after a halt, and careful to still build long duration and heeling without the sight of the reward, do you think that would create the same problem as you foresee during the stay? Sorry I'm just thinking out loud and rambling...

  4. We had very good luck with a stay "jackpot", for our stay issues. Now, our issues were boredom so different in that respect, but the solution was to redirect the mental aspect of the stay, so perhaps not all that different. We refocused the dog's mind to the end goal and that kept him alert and engaged, but I'm also wondering if that might not help morph generalized anxiety into a more specific mind set and direction. So, instead of "I want out of here" perhaps more "if I stay here I earn specifically this". I also like your idea of pulling him out of the formal lineup to restart some stuff. We do stays with dogs scattered about randomly and then slowly shift the picture back to closer quarters. You can even start the exercise formally outside the ring so it feels the same, but as folks enter the ring they then scatter about and start the stay. Just some random musings on a rainy morning.