Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Happy winter solstice!

Today is the “shortest” day of the year, with the least amount of daylight hours. Starting tomorrow, the daylight hours gradually lengthen. Can’t wait until June when it’s daylight until almost 9 p.m.!

In the meantime, the Celtic people called twilight “the time between times” and that’s sort of how I feel about late December. It’s the twilight of the old year, a time between times. For me, it’s time to think about what I’ve learned while training and trialing Phoenix this year.

The thing that comes to mind over and over is training with joy.

A simple concept, right? Since we do this dog stuff for fun, shouldn’t the element of joy always be present? Then little things start sneaking up and undermining our joyful foundation. Pressure to achieve. Ring stress. Failure to get a certain score or title. Anxiety. Disappointment. Worry we’re not doing it “right.” Ugh. Tons of things to squish the joy right out of you and your dog.

A friend of mine showed several dogs in obedience. It was always fun to watch her in the ring because both she and her dogs were obviously having fun. When those dogs retired, she began showing another dog. She wanted “more” from this dog. She took lessons from a Big Name Trainer. This new dog was a very good obedience dog but lacked the flair and enthusiasm of her previous dogs. “He hates obedience,” my friend often said. “This is my obedience dog who hates obedience.”

I always wanted to ask her why she didn’t change her training methods since her dog obviously disliked it. Surely there was a different approach that would allow them to find joy in the work together. The dog worked with a great deal of accuracy but without much joy. They got very high scores and eventually, she finished the dog’s OTCh. and even got a 200 in the process.

I think about them often when I train. Many trainers are so focused on the technicalities of the methods that teach the dog how to perform a required skill that they totally ignore how the dog feels about it.

For me, the bottom line is joy. I want my dog to WANT to work with me, no matter whether we are by ourselves at the club building or in the ring at a trial. If I get a mechanically perfect performance with no joy, it’s an empty achievement. As a trainer, it is my job to make training (and performing) rewarding to the dog. That doesn’t mean cookies every two steps and it doesn’t mean I’ll never make a correction. Neither are fair to my dog’s expectations or understanding.

But it does mean I will make my dog’s happiness a very high priority when we train. I’ve stumbled around in that no-man’s land of “This is how I will train my dog because So-And-So said ‘Do it this way’ and her dogs are brilliant and she’s got a bazillion titles so I’ll shut off my brain and mindlessly do everything she says and never have an original thought of my own.”

Experience has taught me this is not a good idea. I will keep an open mind. I will try new things. I will experiment. Then I will decide what is right for me and my dog.

This means constantly evaluating how we are working together and tweaking the details to improve our performances AND make them “more funner.” Believe me, Phoenix is all about the “more funner.”

As 2010 slips into the twilight, the image of the year I have in my mind is Phoenix giving me that goofy mal smile while he tries to steal the dumbbell or glove out of my hand when he thinks I’m not looking.

Here’s to much joy and even more funner training in 2011.


  1. I love it! I agree that the ultimate goal should be a dog who loves his job. The best compliment I ever got from a judge was, "Your dog looked so happy!"

  2. I can't tell you how pleasing it is that you have adopted Taz the Terv's motto "more funner." It feels like we have made our mark on the dog training world, even if he never learns to watch me for all the signals....

    Tazzie's latest joy is that yesterday we brought home a 14 week old black tri aussie pup. Believe me, she is all about the "more funner." Without having the streak of pure evil that seems to be part of a Belgian puppy. Who knew they actually made GOOD puppies.

  3. In that vein of thought, at what point would you stop working with a dog in whatever sport if she obviously was not enjoying the activity, only enjoying the fact that you enjoy it?
    My dog has made virtually no progress in almost a year of training, through no lack of trying. She likes the attention from me, but could care less about the activity, and so does not try all that hard to retain the training.

  4. I hope you keep writing and reminding us to all work towards "more funner"! I'm trying my best to use that mindset with the 3 I'm training now. Our current funner is just training with tricks - keeps me smiling and them too. We'll work then towards making those tricks into more official looking actions in the next year.

  5. Hear! Hear! for more fun!! Diana

  6. I am learning to find the fun. I started out thinking I had something to prove. What a dumb idea. Now I am trying to figure out what Jazz thinks is fun and help him do that. Luckily, so far Coach thinks everything is fun. Thanks for the reminder and happy holidays.

  7. A lovely piece, saying so much of what is in my heart. I could easily substitute my boy Flat-Coat Gryffin in place of Phoenix (especially the stealing things when he thinks I'm not looking!). I'm posting a link to this on my Facebook page, cause I think as many people ought to read this as possible. Here's to 'more funner' in 2011! Happy Holidays.

  8. When I showed my Malamute in obedience many years ago, I always made sure that the last thing I did before entering the ring was put a big smile on my face. Somehow that made me relax and telegraphed down the leash to my dog...whom, I swear, smiled back at me. People always said we looked like we were having a great time out there...and we were.

  9. Yea! Now our goal is to share this message with others so obedience doesn't loose folks. My goal while training and showing my dogs is to demonstrate the relationship between dog and handler. I had a *great* sheltie (Shelby) who consistently lost 3 points for barking in the ring. He was so happy working he couldn't contain himself. I actually had a judge apologize for scoring us a 197 (3 points off for barking) :) He taught me a great deal about what I wanted in a dog--scores or fun (and a fabulous relationship). I love obedience and every training session I train to show off my relationship with my beautiful dog. I hope others will do the same! thank you for the blog.

  10. Nice, I totally agree with you! I just feel that there often is made out to be a conflict between having fun and getting really good results. With todays positive, reward based methods, that really shouldn't be a problem. Or?


  11. With oyu 100% on the message. It is my goal, too, to have a dog who enjoys the work. Also have one who only does obedience because I ask her to. We'll get that CDX but then we'll go on to other things since she really doesn't like obedience. Why play a game with a team member who would rather be anywhere else but there? So we'll do herding which she is crazy for! And I will get a new puppy in the spring and try to keep the 'more funner'in the journey for her.

  12. My favourite memory of training my previous Vizsla, was a judge at a match telling me how she was mesmerized by my dog's "metronome" tail.

  13. I briefly read a blog written by someone working on their OTCh and struggling and frustrated and there was *no joy* in any of the videos she posted. Ever. And it was painful for me to watch. I had to stop reading the blog because I found it so unsettling. Sure the dog was doing the exercises but everything about him said "I'd rather be anywhere but here".