Phoenix finished his UD today and while it wasn't the sparkling performance I'd hoped for, it was a Q and a very interesting weekend that probably taught me more about my dog than if we'd been dazzling in the ring every time. Yeah, one of THOSE weekends.
First, let me flash back to Friday the 13th. Not a good day at work. I had two newspaper story interviews cancel because it "wasn't convenient." (Which begs the question, then why did you schedule them then in the first place!) There's some co-worker crap I'm going to have to take to HR and I'm not looking forward to that. Then R2 started giving me "low tire pressure" messages on the way home. I went to my favorite tire fix-it guy and he pulled a roofing nail out of the right front tire. Probably the result of too much gravel road driving due to all the road construction and detours lately. Oh well, definitely better to happen Friday afternoon than Saturday morning when I was ready to leave for the trial.
Saturday morning — I swear I am not making this up — a black cat ran across the interstate in front of me on the way to the trial. Not that I'm suspicious or anything.
Yeah, I was pretty convinced Friday the 13th had carried right on over to Saturday the 14th.
There were two trial each day this weekend and I entered all four. By the time we got done Saturday, I was entertaining serious thoughts of cutting my losses, packing up, going home, not going back on Sunday and possibly never doing obedience with Phoenix again.
Yeah. It was that bad.
We went into the ring for the first trial and I could see Phoenix visibly deflate as I took the leash off. He wouldn't look at me, didn't want to set up, stress-yawned and walked in on the very first exercise, the moving stand. The rest of the run was more of the same. He couldn't do go-outs, couldn't do a glove turn, clearly didn't want to play. Ouch. Not only did it look like he'd never been trained, it looked like he'd been beaten regularly.
I gritted my teeth, warmed him up for the second trial and into the ring we went. He was still obviously stressed. He did a send-direct on the gloves and he couldn't figure out how to do go-outs but it wasn't QUITE as awful as the first trial. His heeling was really very nice.
I drove home, frustrated and disappointed. This was NOT the dog I have in training. He's certainly not perfect in training but he acts like he enjoys the work and the challenges. I felt like I'd wasted the last three weeks since we showed at nationals and all the work I'd poured into our training sessions, making the effort to go different places and to set up scenarios where he could be rewarded for trying hard and making effort. While the ultimate goal is a flawless performance, what I really want above everything is a dog who never quits trying, whether in training or in the ring.
I looked back at all the places we'd gone: parks, different places around the farm, familiar buildings. Probably nothing that prepared him for the chaos of an all-breed dog show and obedience trial with its staggering undercurrents of both canine and human emotions. Hindsight being what it is, I think he was simply overwhelmed.
So maybe he WAS trying and just wasn't ready to function in that kind of environment. I'd like to think my training had prepared him better than that, but obviously it didn't. His obedience career has not been that extensive. So why was I being so hard on my green dog! Thunk-thunk-thunk. Sound of head hitting wall.
We went back today. I wasn't overly optimistic but I decided to show in both trials, figuring short of him laying down and sticking his feet in the air, it really couldn't get any worse. I wanted to see if he was more comfortable with the show site today and if I could make any difference in his mental state before we went in the ring. Warm-ups are critical and I've struggled with figuring out just what Phoenix needs to go in the ring at his peak.
When we got to the building, I had him sit in my lap for awhile. I think he likes being "above" all the other dogs - arrogant little snob. And he was wonderfully warm and snuggly on my lap, since it was very chilly and damp in the building. (Did I mention we set record high temps last week and are forecast to be at near record lows tonight? Spring in Iowa. Really. Ya gotta love it.)
Our warm up was a lot of informal stuff with tugging and cheese and silliness. I figured if he could be happy outside the ring amidst the chaos, maybe some of that would carry over into the ring - along with the message that I really want him to have as much fun at trials as we do in training, no matter where we are.
We went into the ring and whattaya know - he maintained eye contact when I took off the leash. We ran to the set up for the first exercise, gloves, and he set up quickly and gave me a hard muzzle punch on my palm when I asked for a touch. Well. All right then.
It wasn't the prettiest of runs. Actually, a lot of it was pretty darn ugly. Still lots of stressy stuff and walk-ins but it was definitely better than the previous day and it was a Q for his title! Yippee! And he WAS trying. His stress level was obvious and he could have easily just quit working at any time but he didn't.
We had a show picture taken and I sure hope the photographer got a good one because that's all she took - one.
I had serious thoughts about pulling him from the last trial but knew with his title behind us, I'd be more relaxed and since he'd improved just a little bit every time we went into the ring, I really wanted to see what we could do. Plus, by the time we went in the ring a lot of the breed folks with their endlessly barking dogs and whining blow dryers had left, so the site was much quieter.
Phoenix did his best job of the weekend! We had one substantial mark for a walk-in, otherwise would have been in a run-off for placements. He seemed to relax and enjoy the work more than he before.
We've still got some serious work ahead of us and a good six weeks until our next obedience trials, which will be the first time we show in both Open and Utility. I really want to walk into that show with a confident, happy dog. In order to get there I need to look for "shades of gray," those little improvements that will gradually take our teamwork to the place I want it to be.
THANK YOU to all my obedience friends who shared insights and suggestions this weekend, and offered never-ending encouragement and support! Sharon, Michele, Mary, Johnette and Renee (for your endless e-mail support) — you are wonderful people, I love you and couldn't do this without you! I know lots of you didn't have the best weekend yourselves, but you still had time for us.
Of course Phoenix got a new toy today, a teal and purple bungee weasel. It's really quite adorable and probably doesn't have much of a life span but Phoenix loves it. It was much cheaper in the long run that getting him a cat.
What's next? I entered a local UKC trial this coming weekend. I'm hoping it will be a relaxing and confidence-building weekend for us while we dust off the Open exercises in a ring context.
Will write more about training plans to address A) attitude and effort issues and B) how to approach the UDX campaign in future posts.