Thursday, May 19, 2011

Questions, questions

Taking a break from the stress series today to answer a couple of really good questions from yesterday. I’ll get back to it, hopefully early next week, focusing on stress prevention from a training perspective and stress as it relates to the human half of the team.

Yesterday, Elizabeth wrote: “Do you think different breeds require different considerations in terms of preparations for the ring?”

Yes and no. They’re all dogs, right? Four legs and tail? So in that sense, no. They all require a reasonable program of training and proofing to get ready for the ring. It’s helpful if newbie trainers can find an obedience mentor to help them evaluate if they’re ready to show, or better yet, to help them get ready in the first place. Pick someone whose dogs you admire in the ring - most handlers are glad to help and if you need to take a couple of lessons, it’s money well spent.

But beyond that . . . I prefer to think of dogs as individuals instead of specific breeds. A dog who is bold and confident will not need the same training and handling approach as a dog who is more reserved or has fear issues, no matter what breed it is. I avoid breed stereotypes, cuz they’re absolutely NO help when it comes to actually solving a problem.

Example: I was at a seminar once when Jamie was very young (1-2 years). I was really struggling with some attention issues — his head was on a swivel — and the seminar giver summed it up as, “Oh, he’s just being a Terv.” WTF did that mean? See? No help at all. And I shudder to remember how much I paid for THAT advice. I went home and trained through the problem myself.

However, purebreds have been selectively bred for generations for very specific traits (work closely with humans, work as a pack, work independently, etc.) so in that regard, no, all dogs are not the same. You might say they don’t have the same world view. Can you train an Australian cattle dog the same way you would train a golden retriever? I think the only person who could say for sure would be someone who had trained both an ACD and a golden.

On the surface, those two breeds are worlds apart in terms of purpose. While the basic training methods would initially be the same, I suspect there would be some tweaking and fine tuning of methods to accommodate each dog’s personality and temperament. But you could train half a dozen ACDs or goldens and each would have its own little quirks — so I think the bottom line is every dog’s training strategy requires a bit of “personalization” regardless of the breed. And once again, that’s where getting some “professional” help can be a wonderful thing, especially if you can find someone in your breed who has excelled.

Question #2
Elizabeth wrote: “If you have a dog that is extremely uncomfortable being handled by strangers in general, is there anyway to convince them that any reward is worth not just tolerating the activity but enjoying it? If not, is it fair to subject them to that kind of stress (even if you can train them to tolerate it)? This is sort of a moral conundrum that I’ve been struggling with.”

I’ve been in that situation and I can honestly say that not showing Jess, my first sheltie, in obedience because of it never crossed my mind.

Jess hated the stands for exam in Novice and Utility (StrangerdangerheistouchingmeIamgoingtodie!) but he was such an insane freak about every other exercise — bouncing, barking, spinning, pouncing with sheer delight — it was obvious that the enjoyment of training and performing outweighed the few seconds of having a judge (or even my friends who he knew) touch him.

For Jess, the reward for tolerating the stands was the fact he got to continue “playing.” That worked well for us. If he hadn’t been so thrilled with the rest of the game, I probably would have retired him after his UD and not continued to show.

I am sure Jess never found any enjoyment in those thousands of stands I asked him to do but they were so strongly linked with the bigger picture he just squinched his eyes shut and leaned away from the judge (imagine his paws being glued to the floor but the rest of him leaning at a 45 degree angle). When it was over he was ecstatic. He never did like it, but he endured it and I wouldn’t say he was unduly stressed in any way by being asked to do them.

Like so many things in dog sports, to show or not to show a dog with an issue like this is a very personal decision. Am I exploiting my dog’s fear for the purpose of winning titles and ribbons for ME? Or is my training building a relationship that can only be strengthened because of our continued work together? I prefer to believe in the latter.

If the dog were terrified to the point of soiling the ring or bolting to get away from the judge, I might reconsider but generally, assuming the dog is relatively well-blanced otherwise, I would accept “tolerance” of an exercise that is obviously very difficult for the dog. Whether or not I would continue to show the dog beyond Novice, knowing there’s another, more challenging, stand in Utility would depend on how much fun both of you are having in relation to all the other aspects of obedience.

Not wanting to do something because the dog may or may not “like” it is dangerous ground. Everyone has their own philosophy but my dogs are not in the position of getting to choose what they like or dislike in terms of training and life in general. Jess didn’t like the stands. Phoenix doesn’t like out of sight stays. None of my dogs has ever liked having their nails clipped. But stands, out of sight stays and nail clipping are a fact of life at our house.

Another way to think about it is this - I hate getting up before dawn to drive to a trial when it’s 10 below zero in January. I hate hauling in heavy crates and I REALLY hate worrying about driving on icy roads. Nothing anybody can do will ever change that. But I still show in January because I LOVE showing. The benefits (fun, friends, playing with my dog, being in the ring) outweigh the negatives.


  1. I would add my two cents worth on the breed thing. I was told that my Samoyeds will naturally heel facing forward and not looking at me because they are sled dogs. I actually bought into this with Jazz and it has made heeling a miserable thing for both of us. Coach is also a Samoyed and he looks at me and prances along like the happiest boy in town. He knows the difference between heeling with a human and pulling a sled. Now - I do too! I think breed stereotypes can end up as excuses to fail. I think it is more useful to try harder to understand each individual dog. Thanks for the comments, Melinda.

  2. Great posts yesterday and today! Thank you for giving me so much to consider when developing training plans!

  3. Uh oh, my comment is so large it has to be split up! Sorry - this is one great topic!


    Oh boy, I would NOT have been okay with that Terv comment! I hope it wasn't a seminar from the woman I've been going up to lessons for? She says some harsh things at times.

    The breed thing is an interesting topic. On one hand, dogs have to be trained differently - but not necessarily on a breed level. Dogs within breeds are individuals, as you pointed out. There are probably Border Collies out there who are either too fearful or, at the other end of the spectrum,n too wired to be able to do agility/obedience/whatever properly. For some dogs (and breeds), you'll need to use more play/food/etc than just constant repetitions. Like another blog I read, Never Say Never Greyhounds pointed out in a recent post, you'll most likely need high value treats, especially if it's something unnatural for them.

    However. And this is my absolute belief and conviction - if you make assumptions first, instead of adjusting training once you see your dog's reactions, you're just accepting less and making excuses. I would have a very easy time saying, "Oh, Layla's only a Malamute, not a (fill in any more common breed, Golden, BC, whatever) so she won't do agility the same, or walk next to me on lead because they're bred to pull ahead, or do tracking, or pay attention. She'll just be stubborn and independent and not retrieve." As a side note, I also was told that Mals won't heel looking up because they're sled dogs. Too bad - wait til I post the video of her heeling at that lesson. It isn't just pretty, it's good!

    Even though Layla won't necessarily have the insane speed of a Border Collie in agility, it doesn't mean I don't expect her to run as fast as she can! She can turn TIGHT for a big dog - I'll have to show you a video. Since I don't make exceptions for her, she does fantastic. Most of our errors are mine. Most Mals do agility hardly breaking out of a trot, which (as long as it isn't a health issue) is just unacceptable for me.

    And obedience - OMG! You can imagine the opinions I get on THAT front. Same scenario - I don't expect 200s. But I DO expect high scores. I CAN be a perfectionist and still have a Malamute, that isn't a paradox! So they may get bored quicker with repetitions than other breeds. So what? Other dogs I've seen (more "traditional" breeds) also have an issue with repetition because they assume if you're asking for it again, they've done it wrong. It's my job to alternate between "games" and repetitions to keep it fun. I'm thrilled to say that her tail is 99% of the time up, happy and wagging.

  4. I would have a much easier time doing all these things with her if, before even starting, I said "Well she doesn't do that." A woman in obedience class always says, "he doesn't do that because he's a terrier." Drives me crazy!

    There was a F&F column that Helen Phillips had written that touched on this. She said a lot of people say, "My dog just doesn't have the focus because he isn't a Border Collie." Her answer was, "My sheltie isn't a Border Collie either, but I still expect it." And even better, she compared it to the parents of children with learning disabilities. She said how if parents do all they can to cultivate the learning, the children can be almost "normal" and have jobs and all. If the parents accept the bare minimum of schooling, learning, etc, the children will never progress.

    This is a very big subject with me and I'm so glad you posted about it. To sum it up, I think that some breeds will have to be trained "differently", but only up to a point. You won't know until you try. It's one thing to adjust your training to help your dog, and another to accept pre-conceived limitations as fact without trying yourself. Yes, some dogs aren't cut out for obedience (or agility, or tracking, or therapy work, or...) But it is across EVERY breed, not just certain ones.

    If people are in a sport with an uncommon breed, I think they're actually doing their breed a disservice by playing into the stereotypes and making excuses. All dogs are not equal, all breeds are not equal and all handlers are not equal - but that shouldn't stop anyone from trying their absolute best.

  5. One thing Susan Garrett has talked about is people using the excuse of their dog being a rescue dog for whatever deficiencies it might have in training. She says, in essence (not quoting!), train what you've got, and show the world what a wonderful trainer of (insert dog type - rescue/hound/whatever) dogs you are! It certainly might take more effort, but unless the dog has a physical or psychological problem, it is possible to train all types of dogs.