Thursday, May 26, 2011

Stress and the Obedience Dog, Part IV

Training To Prevent Ring Stress

Successfully preventing and/or eliminating show ring stress starts in training. The preparation you give your dog in training is more important than anything else, including what breed your dog is, where you got him, how long you’ve had him, how old he was when you started training him, whether you came from a background in competitive sports as a kid and a hundred other factors we’ve all managed to drag into the equation at one time or another.

But it’s not enough to simply “train.” Everyone in dog sports “trains.” Some train a lot. Some train a little. Yet many are still plagued by dogs who stress in the ring no matter how much "training" they've had.

When it comes to training theory, everyone has their own personal beliefs — totally positive, use compulsion, use lots of food, use a little food, don’t use any food, only use toys, ear pinch vs. motivational retrieve, correct, never correct, clicker, shaping, etc., etc.

Please let me make it clear I am NOT going to get on my soapbox and say “X theory is the ONLY way to train and if you train your dog using any other method, you are dumber than a loaf of bread and you deserve what you get.”

One thing this sport has taught me is that there are no hard and fast answers. While I have certain strong beliefs about what works and what doesn’t, I have seen exceptions to every one of them. Although I have enjoyed a reasonable amount of success in obedience, I don’t feel I’ve achieved enough status to the point of being able to distribute advice with the absolute conviction that THIS IS HOW YOU SHOULD DO IT.

There ARE folks out there who have attained that status and deserve every accolade they’ve earned. They are the trainers who want more than to simply Q and when they go in the ring with their dogs, it’s a beautifully choreographed performance where the dog and handler enjoy every moment of their teamwork. Their scores reflect the dedication they’ve put into their training. I’ve watched them at the NOI and am in awe of how their dogs work. I want to learn from them and will take every chance to do so.

So another disclaimer — everything I’m writing is based on MY experiences with MY dogs. It’s not the gospel but it is the truth as I’ve lived it and I’m sharing it in hopes it will help other trainers make some discoveries that will improve their training/showing and the relationship they enjoy with their dog.

Another reason I hesitate to say there is ONLY one way to train is that I seem to train each dog a little differently. My own training methods seem to be a journey of discovery, always evolving to meet the next challenge which is usually a problem of my own creating.

But I digress.

A person’s training beliefs may or may not change over time, depending on each individual’s capacity to embrace change. We all know someone who keeps using a training method that produces consistently undesirable results, yet she seems unable or unwilling to try anything new.

Even if we slowly discover that what we thought was the best approach to training A) doesn’t really work B) worked well for previous dogs but not your current dog or C) works okay but you wonder if there’s something better out there, it takes awhile to come to mental grips with the idea of change.

So what does this have to do with training as a way to prevent ring stress? Well, you’re gonna have to take an honest look at your training methods because you might be causing more of the problem than you ever realized and you’re causing it long before you ever get near a ring.

I know I am. It’s taken a CD, U-CD, CDX, U-CDX and UD (with a HIT, HIT run-offs, class wins and scores ranging from excellent to adequate) for me to finally come to terms with the fact Phoenix’s obedience work is not where I want it to be. He did the work and got the titles but he was doing it with less and less enthusiasm and absolutely no consistency. One day he was winning a run-off to place in a competitive Utility B class and the next day he wouldn’t even look at me when we went into the ring.

I’m a food trainer. I’ve had lots of success with food training. Can’t say I’m a purely “positive” trainer because I do make corrections. I never looked beyond the need to use food because it always worked. It worked well enough to finish two OTChs. and I figured it would work well enough to finish number three. Only it isn’t.

Let’s talk about food training. Does it work? Well, first, let’s define “food training” and then define “work.”

Most food trainers agree on the theory of “Dog performs behavior, dog earns reward.” Pretty simple, huh?

Of course, there are all sorts of way this can and does go wrong. The theory soon gets polluted to the point of “Dog performs something pretty close to behavior, dog earns reward,” “Dog performs behavior after multiple commands, dog earns reward,” “Dog performs behavior only when he darn well feels like it, dog earns reward,” “Dog performs no behavior, handler gives reward anyway.”

We would all agree this is not likely to produce brilliant results in the ring but watch any group of people training and you’ll see a lot of variations on theme.

Now, let’s define “Does it work?” In the obedience ring context, “work” equals “success,” being able to achieve your training/showing/titling goals as a confident and joyful team who is relaxed and having fun in the ring at trials. Will food training bring you success in the show ring where there is no food?

Yes. No. Maybe.

Obviously, food training works A) for some dogs B) for some trainers C) when done correctly.

Food training worked for Connor and for Jamie, at least to the degree that I needed at the time. Since I didn't show them for years and years beyond their OTChs., I don't know what the long term picture would have produced.

Food training is NOT working for Phoenix and me. Oh, it works as long as the food is available and delivered on some sort of reinforcement schedule. But when the food disappears, so does the behavior. No motivator = no behavior. But wait, wasn't I the motivator? Um, sadly, no. The food was.

What’s next? Stay tuned for the rest of the story.

(Sorry, but this has gotten too long. Again. Help. I need an editor. Oh. I AM an editor. So much for that.)


  1. I'm sure you've seen this article, but it's what I thought of immediately:

    Sometimes I think the food phase is something you pass on the path to dog training enlightenment. I've noticed a lot of very high profile trainers move past it, especially due to behavior not holding up problems.

  2. Another great blog post that really makes me think about how I train.

    The biggest break through we had recently was using the Susan Garrett line recently "To be the cookie". Basically it means instead of the food or toy being the ultimate reward, the human becomes a reward even better than food or toys.

    Now I use toys and food to help build my value to my dogs, but personality and playing is what really makes me the ultimate reward to my dogs.

    Sometimes a phrase really sticks with you and this one phrase sure has made a difference.