Thursday, June 30, 2011

Got more balls?

Blogger was in a more agreeable frame of mind this morning, so here are a few more pics from our evening in the park on Tuesday. Nothing special, just dogs having fun with a ball on a rope.

Jamie would be perfectly happy to take the ball off to a quiet place and chew it to pieces.

Phoenix is simply enchanted by ball possession. Or maybe he is simply possessed.

Malinois nirvana. A ball and wide open spaces.

Jamie lives in eternal hope he will eventually be able to get the ball and go tear it up somewhere.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Got balls?

Blogger was in a mood this morning and would only let me upload one photo. Fortunately, it's the best one. Here is goofy Phoenix with his tennis ball. I swear balls are like a drug for this dog. Doesn't he look slightly stoned?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Questions, answers and choices

Wow. Dog people are great. Really. They are.

In the last month, I have received a tremendous amount of advice on how to “fix” Phoenix’s ring issues, as well as support from trainers who are experiencing similar frustrating ring problems. I truly believe it was all given in genuine sincerity and appreciate the thoughtfulness of everyone who has taken the time to share their opinions, either in comments or e-mailing or calling me privately.

Having said that, this goodwill and free exchange of ideas can be overwhelming.

The advice I’ve gotten has frequently been in total conflict: train more, stop training so much, use more rewards, stop using rewards, you’re expecting too much, you’re expecting too little, make training informal, make training look like a trial, it might take a year to re-train, you can re-train in less than a month, etc.

There were days when I wanted to scream ENOUGH! My head is full! I cannot process one more conflicting idea, let alone realistically use it in training.

If you’ve been in the obedience world very long, you know this is the nature of the beast. Fortunately, I've played this game for more than 30 years so the many conflicting suggestions weren't a huge surprise. Everyone follows what they feel is the best training method, influenced by their personality, type of dogs they train, their goals, level of experience and a dozen other unrelated factors.

So how to decide who to listen to and where to go next? Well, I’ll be honest. Everyone has their own filter that colors how they hear advice and how receptive they are to it. Sometimes you only hear things you want to hear because you’re just not ready to listen to anything else. If you hear the same advice six months later, you might pay more attention and put it to use. (Just ask any instructor who has tried to impart a certain bit of knowledge, only to be soundly ignored by the student who comes back a year later and says, “So-And-So told me to do THIS and it works!” Of course, it’s the same exact thing you’d been telling them!)

Other times you grasp onto any new idea with desperation, hopeful that THIS is the answer to your prayers. Or you may roll your eyes and think, I’m already doing THAT, no matter how adamantly someone may insist their idea is a brand new concept that no one could have ever possibly thought of before.

The bottom line is, I have to decide what’s right for me and my dog. Which method seems the most grounded in reality? Which one can I personally adapt to fit my abilities and my dog’s needs? Each person who offered help truly believed their advice was the answer to our problems. It’s good to have strong convictions and I appreciate seeing a view outside of my current training box.

As I (belatedly) realize I cannot work Phoenix with the same approach that helped Connor and Jamie excel, I also know I can’t totally throw my previous methods in the trash. They weren’t bad methods, they’re just not right for my current dog, so I’ll store them away and explore new roads.

The journey continues. I’m moving ahead. I have new ideas to try. I have optimism. I have beautiful summer evenings to train by myself and with friends. Above all, I have a wonderful dog.

Thanks, everyone. I mean it. Dog people are the best.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Pay attention!

Cuz that’s where the problems started over the weekend.

Our dismal showing at the Hawkeye trials has left me wondering how in the world the wheels could fall off so completely. As usual, I have more questions than answers but that seems to be the way it goes in the obedience game.

Yes, Phoenix and I have recently changed training methods and I agree that might be partly responsible for the state of disobedience we very ably demonstrated. Expectations are changing in his training world and this weekend’s misery could have been fallout from uncertainty. Confusion does not create a sharp, confident dog. I really didn’t expect serious ring carryover after only 5 weeks of our new training approach . . .

. . . but I DID expect him to watch me and move around the ring with me like we were connected because this is something I have always emphasized in training. It’s not a new concept. Even if we blew everything else out of the water, I hoped we could at least look like we’d seen each other before and maybe liked each other just a little bit.

Since this connection was really the only thing I was looking for, that made it even worse when it didn’t happen.

Trainers vary on the concept of “attention” — what it is, how to get it, how to keep it, etc. While methods of teaching it differ greatly, most trainers agree it should become an automatic response. If you are interacting with your dog, you are elevated to the status of She Who Is More Important Than Cats (anyway, that’s my goal). You should not have to beg, plead and constantly remind Fido to “watch.” Fido needs to be responsible for his own little self without being nagged. If he has to be reminded to "watch," that means he wasn't watching in the first place. Uh-oh. Naughty dog.

I don’t have this automatic attention with Phoenix. Yet another case of thinking I'd trained something, only to find out OOPS! It's not there.

Maybe we had it once, then lost it. Yes, I’m sure we had it when we were doing HIT run-offs in Novice! Where did it go?! Once again I don’t know if this is a situation of A) I thought he’d learned it but in reality he hadn’t, B) he learned something entirely different from what I thought I’d taught, or C) I didn’t maintain it, so the behavior gradually deteriorated.

So in addition to everything else, we need to do some remedial attention work. Fortunately, that is going to blend in very naturally with my "become the cookie" plan.

My horoscope this morning said “You can’t possibly have all the answers yourself. Ask friends for help.” I thought that was hysterically appropriate.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sunday's trial

I wish I could say today went wonderfully and yesterday's trial was only a bad dream but today was pretty awful, too.

Although I wasn't expecting a 200 in each ring, I thought I'd set some reasonable expectations for the weekend, the least of which was to have my dog stay focused on me as we moved between the exercises and do quick, clean set-ups. That didn't happen.

I got walk-ins, stress yawns, slow responses, malinois-in-the-headlights looks and more. I felt like Phoenix was the poster child for "My dog hates obedience."

This is an extra hard slap in the face because I love obedience. I've loved obedience since showing in my first 4-H dog show at the county fair when I was 9 years old. And until now, all my dogs have loved obedience. Doesn't mean they always qualified or were in the placings, but they went into the ring with their head high and their tail wagging and we had fun doing whatever we did. This weekend, Phoenix slunk around like he'd been beaten and his responses were so achingly slow people probably wondered why I didn't retire the poor "old" dog.

So, enough wallowing in the misery of the weekend. What's next?

I still feel that I'm on the right track with the "make ME the cookie" approach but obviously it's going to take a fair amount of time to build that to the point where I can expect it to hold up in the ring. I have NO IDEA how long that might be. 

Our next potential trials are 9 weeks out. When it's time to send entries, I'll re-evaluate and decide if I want to enter, what I want to enter and how often I want to enter. With the addition of an all-breed obedience trial sponsored by a local boxer club, there will be 5 straight days of obedience trials on Labor Day weekend - all 7 miles from our house. So I am very motivated to train and be ready to show, although I would never dream of doing all 5 days.

Since Phoenix loves running agility with single-minded focus, energy, drive and enthusiasm, I know he is physically capable of performing well in the obedience ring. If he were a slug on the agility course as well, I might suspect some physical problem or genuine phobia about performing in public but that is clearly not the issue. The difference between Agility Phoenix and Obedience Phoenix is night and day. He's obviously a speed freak, adrenaline junkie who relishes a 25 second JWW course but is nonplussed with the much-slower pace and demands of the formal obedience ring. Even if he's not racing about the obedience ring at breakneck speed, I still want him to enjoy what he's doing and put on an attractive performance that has "Happy Obedience Dog" written all over it.

I want the silly, happy, goofy, growly dog in obedience that I have in agility. Is that asking too much? Geez, I wish someone would give me the answers! Or, maybe I WILL find the answers, write a book and earn a million dollars.

Or maybe I should just keep training my dog and keeping a clear picture in my mind of how I want us to look in the ring - whether it happens this fall or next spring or 2 years from now. If I don't train, it's not going to fix itself and since I created the problem, it's clearly up to me to un-create it. No finger pointing, no blame game. (Ugh. Really, this would all be much easier to deal with if I could blame someone else!)

Here are some immediate ideas that I have for the rest of the summer:

Keep training sessions short and clearly focused; reward intensely. 

Blend toy rewards and food rewards with ME rewards.

Forget the formal: work elements of each exercise with emphasis on speed and informality.

As often as possible, train somewhere new. Backyards and club buildings are convenient but they also do not present a challenging new environment.

Reward effort; perfection is not the issue here.


I hope you all had wonderful weekends and learned something about your dogs that will help you improve your relationship with them, both in and out of the ring.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

On a scale from 1 to 10 . . .

Today was about a 1. Our UDX debut was less than spectacular (although thank you Earl and Shirlee who brought OTCh. cake, Michele who brought cookies and Sharon who brought chocolate - all were very much appreciated!) 

Other than that, our day was just plain miserable.

While I wasn't expecting all our ring issues to be resolved, I was at least expecting effort and hoping for some small improvements. Didn't get either one.

Again, Phoenix warmed up nicely, tugged, did silly tricks, went into the ring with enthusiasm and immediately went flat. I don't want to agonize over the details. No sense rehearsing bad stuff. Suffice to say he simply wanted no part of the obedience scene and went through the motions with a marked minimum of effort. We NQ'd both classes, blew signals in Utility and then he sat up on the long down in Open.

We'll go back tomorrow and give it another shot. I'm not entered in any more obedience trials after tomorrow and it's looking like that's a good thing. In fact, there aren't any local trials until Labor Day weekend so I'm looking forward to having two months to train without any trial pressure. 

Who knows, I may not be entering anything this fall either. Not too excited about throwing entry fees down a rat hole until we're showing solid progress on rebuilding attitude. (Yeah, WE. This isn't just about Nix. It's about me, too. We're still  a team, even though we're a pretty pathetic team at the moment. I love my Skinny Little Dog.)

The only good thing to come from today was Michele and Cider finishing their UDX. They've had a long road, with a whole year off after cruciate repair surgery following leg #9. I'm very, very happy for them! You go, blonde girls!

Friday, June 24, 2011

First step of a new journey

Phoenix and I start our Open B/Utility B career this weekend at the Hawkeye Kennel Club trials in Iowa City. I’ve shown at these trials since forever. Jess finished his UDX there, back in ‘93 (I think) when the UDX was a brand new title. Connor finished his CDX there in ‘97. Jamie finished his OTCh. there in ‘05. Phoenix got his first CDX leg there last year. So there’s a lot of positive energy going into this weekend.

These are our first trials since Nix finished his UD a month ago and I decided to change up our training to make ME more rewarding than other motivators. I know we’re making progress. I’m seeing small changes in his attitude when we train, little things that weren’t there before. Will they stick when we go into the ring this weekend? Time will tell.

These trials will be a good test of what is working and what isn’t, although realistically it’s too soon to expect any kind of night and day transformation. I’m also going into these trials with the attitude that nothing is on the line. Instead of obsessing about UDX legs and OTCh. points, my focus is on building happy, focused dog and being a relaxed handler.

It's been 4 years since I retired Jamie from the Open B/Utility B rings and I've missed the excitement of showing at that level. Looking forward to starting this new journey!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

June in Iowa

Today is one of those "sun and clouds" mixes. I thought they were intriguing. Nothing special. No pending severe weather. Just clouds and sunshine.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Silliness and the solstice

I love this kind of silliness. I suspect this is what would go on in our house if Phoenix were ever allowed unsupervised-free-in-the-house-during-the-day privileges. But who knows, maybe he would start earning his keep . . . although I suspect he would spend more time ordering stuff from and that actually writing any marketable material.

Happy summer solstice! Enjoy the day of the year with the most daylight hours. Starting tomorrow, the days gradually shorten as we head toward autumn. I don't have a problem with that at all - I've had enough of the recent tropical dewpoints and am ready for some weather where you can't wring water right out of the air.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Jamie update

It was five months ago today that Jamie was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease. He’s been off the prednisone for almost seven weeks now, and he’s doing great. I’m amazed, relieved and grateful, since following his IBD diagnosis last January, he started at 25 mg of pred twice a day and the vet thought he might have to take it for the rest of his life. Guess she didn’t tell Jamie that.

He’s eating potato and venison kibble and probably will be for the rest of his life. It agrees with him and I have no desire to start experimenting with changing his diet. I still have nightmares about the endless vomiting and diarrhea from last fall and winter. The good news is, there are a lot of venison and/or potato treats and canned food on the market now, so he’s not lacking for “special” goodies. Plus, the Farmer and I both love homemade mashed potatoes so there’s no lack of leftover taters for him to enjoy, either, usually stuffed into a Kong or sometimes delivered right off of the spoon.

His funky poodle clip from the IVs on his front legs has grown back, more or less. He’s got thick fur all over his tummy again, from where he was shaved for the ultrasound. And his butt fur has grown back nicely after my unconventional chop job with the kitchen scissors when I reached the peak of frustration with cleaning up diarrhea.

There’s always a chance the IBD will flare again and he’ll have to go back on the pred but I’m not going to borrow trouble. Right now, he feels good and things seem to be on an even keel.

I’ve cautiously started adding a few things back to his diet. First was Nutrigest, a probiotic supplement recommended by Jamie’s chiropractic vet. In addition to probiotics, it contains oregon grape root, cat’s claw, garlic, aloe, ginger and deglycerized licorice, all herbal elements that heal the gut and aid digestion. It’s a powder and has a wonderfully sharp, herbal smell. At first, I wasn’t sure if he would eat his food with this gray powder sprinkled over the top but he didn’t care. Raised by shelties, remember? He’ll eat anything and he’ll eat it like there’s no tomorrow.

The second thing I’ve added back is a fatty acid supplement, in this case, plain old fish oil. It’s the same stuff I take for my heart. Jamie gets two capsules a day. His coat is a mess right now, even though the bald spots have re-grown. I think the stress of being sick, going under anesthesia and the months of prednisone finally caught up with him. He started to drop his coat in May. Last weekend I gave him a bath to get all the old dead fur out. When I blew him dry, huge chunks of fur were flying out of his coat. It was pretty incredible, like big clumps of my dog were flying through the air. He looked like a molting coyote. Honestly, he has not blown coat like this since he was 1 or 2 years old.

He looks a little rough right now but he feels great and that’s all that matters. He turns 12 next month. Yay, Jamie, you are my Big Red Dog.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Maligator chomps

I've gotten a couple of comments about what to do when your dog's play style is so rough it's not a lot of fun for the human end of the partnership and cookies seem like a much safer reward. I probably don't have anything new to say about it, but I'll throw my two cents' worth in cuz I know where you're coming from and I usually have a few bruises to prove it.

Phoenix was pretty hard on my skin until I learned how to play with him in a way that wouldn't leave me headed for the first aid kit at the end of the session. I'll be honest, we still have our share of OUCHHOLYSH*TTHATHURT episodes but they are becoming fewer and fewer. He is a very physical dog and I will accept that playing with him isn't going to be like playing with a maltese. Yeah, there are going to be some bumps and scrapes along the way and that's just the way it is, especially since I have chosen to engage him physically. If he were ever gentle or dainty in his play style, I'd probably rush him to the vet!

One important thing for me was realizing that a dangling toy, held with only one hand, was simply an invitation to "climb" the toy with his teeth. What was at the end of the toy? My hand. So doing chase recalls with a toy flopping at my side was pretty much an invitation to bloodshed.

Probably the best thing I ever learned about playing with him was to give him a specific target to bite. That took a lot of guesswork out of the equation on his part and took the focus off my sleeves or pants legs as potential targets. I use a lot of Schutzhund-type, working dog tugs as toys, along with the occasional plush, squeakie thing or a ball on a rope, but no matter what type of toy I'm using, I make it a point to hold it with both hands and present a very clear YOU BITE HERE surface. I've never done any formal bitework with him but it is very clear he enjoys chomping things as a reward - I just need to control WHERE he chomps.

He rarely misses. If he does make contact with my fingers, it's usually because I moved the tug at the last minute, after he'd already launched and couldn't correct his course, or because I wasn't holding it "properly" in the first place. If I have my fingers splayed all over the thing, I'm just asking to get chomped.

Another thing is to watch the dog's arousal level. Probably the first piece of advice I would have for someone whose dog bites out of arousal (and I am NOT an expert on this in any way) is "Don't practice bad behavior." If he gets mouthier as he gets higher and higher, stop working before he goes over the top. Let him have a time out to regroup and drop below redline. Another idea is to scream YEOUCHTHATHURTOMGIMDYING and refuse to play for a few minutes while the dog considers the fact that he might have just killed his play partner and that pretty much ended the fun. If the dog finds the behavior rewarding and/or is allowed to repeat it, he's going to keep repeating it.

I know when play hurts, it's really tempting to slide back into using cookies-only rewards. But safe and happy play that can be enjoyed by both partners is a powerful thing and worth building, even if you can only play for brief periods before the dog escalates over the top. It's about trust and respect on both sides, even though that's obviously easier said than done when you're dealing with a big, physical, high-drive type of dog. It's up to the handler to establish boundaries of what is acceptable and what isn't.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Waaaaaaay off topic

The Old Hollis Inn, Marengo, Iowa

I’ve been invited to go on a ghost hunt.

I believe the politically correct terminology would be “paranormal investigation.”

I interviewed a local woman earlier this week for a newspaper story about her haunted house. Here’s the condensed version: she and her husband bought an old Victorian home as a rental property or possibly to flip. Well, what with the footsteps when no one was there, the cold spots, the furniture moving and the voices, a future as a rental was questionable. (“It comes furnished with appliances and a ghost on every floor.”)

She’s had five different paranormal investigation teams from around the Midwest (who knew there were that many! Apparently there are more!) come in and do their ghost sniffing thing and all confirmed, yep, there are folks in the house that are not, um, on the same plane of reality as you and me.

Then she invited me to join them at the end of July when another team investigation will be held.

I didn’t say yes right away but I didn’t say no, either. The evening starts with a meet and greet, a historical tour of the house and a “Ghost Hunting 101” orientation, which explains equipment and procedures. Then they spend a couple of hours or so going through the house, from the basement to second floor. The last part is a “debriefing” to talk about everyone’s experiences.

It’s over by 11 p.m., so nothing weird like staying up until the witching hour or spending the whole night. There are no ouiji boards or seances or stuff like that. She described it as a scientific investigation to obtain solid evidence, which sounds pretty dull when you put it that way. But I suspect it won’t be.

Can’t be any weirder than a lot of other things going on in my life right now, which is pretty much focused on getting inside my dog’s head — and since I’m firm believer in inter-species communication I’m open to a lot of other possibilities as well.

Here’s a link to their Web site:

Any of you ever done anything like this?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Clear as mud

Quick post this morning to clear up any confusion about expecting my dog to interact with me even when I am not producing cookies like a Pez dispenser, flinging toys about with reckless abandon and/or having him engage in silly games with me.

Focused attention and engagement are popular buzz words in obedience training. Everyone admires the dog who warms up, enters the ring, performs and exits the ring in sync with his handler, always moving smoothly and attentively from exercise to exercise, never looking away and never having to be begged to get into position or reminded repeatedly about what he should be doing. The dog and handler perform as a team, sharing a mutually enjoyable experience.

Now imagine this: you take your dog out to the back yard to train. While you are setting things up, your dog wanders off to sniff the bushes. You retrieve your dog and perform an exercise or work on a skill set. He is focused and you're happy with his work. You reward your dog with a treat or game of tug and release him. He immediately races away to chase a bird. You call your dog back and set up for the next thing you want to work on. Again, he gives you good effort and you are satisfied you're making progress on his understanding of this skill. You reward your dog and release him. He trots off to pounce on toads in the flower bed. You retrieve your dog and set up for the next exercise . . .

Sound familiar? Welcome to my world. This is what Phoenix and I are struggling with. Is he focused? Is he engaged? Yes and no.

He is great when he's on task but he hits the disconnect button as soon as the tangible reward (treat or toy) has been delivered and then he goes off to find something better to do. (I obviously have allowed — trained! — this behavior in the past so he doesn't see any reason to behave otherwise.) He's happy to come back when I call him but my goal for the summer is to build that eager, happy, "what's next?" attitude that puts his overall focus on ME versus the bushes, birds, toads, leaves, etc. Yeah, it's a little disconcerting to realize your dog finds DIRT more interesting than yourself! That's where all the play, especially the play-with-me work, comes in - call it what you want, building me as the reward, building our relationship, whatever.

Then someone says, "The dog has a UD and he's done some really nice work in the ring so why are you making such a big deal about it?"

Because I want to be more interesting than dirt and until that happens, our ring work isn't exactly going to sparkle, no matter how many titles we have. If we're going to have an enjoyable career in the Open and Utility rings, I want my dog to look to me in happy anticipation of what we're going to do next together. I don't want to have to go get him or call him back to me after every release. I want him to see continued interaction with me as more rewarding than anything else AND I want him to understand it's his JOB to stay engaged with me. As usual, it's finding that balance of "want to" and "have to." Phoenix and I are out of balance.

There are definitely times when he can "be a dog" and sniff and chase and pounce to his heart's content. But when we are in a training environment, jumps and ring gates are set up, I'm carrying his articles, dumbbell, leashes, etc. and I'm cuing him with "Are you ready?", "Let's go!", "Where's your spot?" and similar phrases he doesn't hear anywhere else, and I'm working my butt off to stay connected with him, yeah, I expect him to stay connected with me.

If Phoenix is loose in the yard while I'm gardening, I obviously have different body language and expectations than when we go to train. Since dogs are fluent in the slightest little nuances of body language, I really do think he can tell the difference between "We're working now!" and "Go be a dog." I don't expect him to engage with me at all because my focus is elsewhere and I'm not giving him anything in return.

I had that lovely engagement with Connor and Jamie, although I honestly can't say I deliberately worked to create it. Or maybe I DID work to create it, it just took considerably LESS work than Phoenix, who is quite an independent, confident creature who happily marches to his own drum.

We trained last night and did some play-without-toys again. It seemed to come a little easier this time, he offered it a little more freely although he still made it clear he would rather get the toy and play tug. He enjoys playing "touch" although somewhere along the line, "touch" has disintegrated into an open-mouthed bite, never hard, no pressure from teeth but not the nose poke I intended it to be. Hmm, that needs some work.

And no, I haven't QUIT using food. I still use it. It's a powerful reward and he loves it. I just use it more wisely. I hope.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Granting myself a license to play

This journey of discovery is allowing me to discover that some things are NOT what I thought I knew they were.

How’s that for a convoluted sentence?

My dog is not all that excited about playing with me if there isn’t a toy involved.

This was a bit of a smack in the face. Phoenix is so insane about play with his toys, I figured it wouldn’t be any big deal to play with me when a toy was not in the picture. We’ve done a little no-toy play now and again but I’ve never tried to use it to any extent as a reward for a training session.

Which is sad, now that I stop and think about it. He’s always had tons of toys and we play tug and fetch and hide-and-go-seek with them. He’ll engage to tug just about anywhere and I thought THIS was play. It
is, and it builds wonderful energy that can carry over into our training, but wouldn’t it be awesome if he thought I was just as cool as a tug or a ball on a rope?

We went outside to train at home last night (between thunderstorms — I swear I should be building an ark in my spare time) and I decided to use ME as the reward a much higher percentage of the time versus letting him grab a toy and bring it to me to tug or chase.

Phoenix was quite lukewarm about this plan. He would bounce and do nose-touches when I asked. He would do the tricks I asked for. He chased me all over the yard when I ran. But the minute the interaction stopped, he either wanted to go to get a toy or he found something else to look at, sniff, etc.

This was totally not what I expected and definitely not what I wanted.

I wouldn’t say he doesn’t WANT to play with me. It’s more like he doesn’t know HOW, so he doesn’t find it all that rewarding and he doesn’t stay engaged with that “What’s next?” look in his eye.

While I’m disappointed that I’ve clearly missed connecting with him on a level that presents ME as the best thing available, it’s a good thing to finally come to terms with it and be able to start fixing this hole in our relationship and competitive foundation.

We’ll work at it. Sounds funny, doesn’t it, to work at playing? But since it’s not coming easily to either of us right now, it will take a bit of effort.

What else is new?

Friday, June 10, 2011

It's all about me

Today I want to address Patty’s question about “Isn’t replacing a cookie with a toy just substituting one reward for another and won’t you still have problems when you go in the ring without either one?”

I admit, I’m having a hard time putting this concept into words! Please bear with me.

It’s not a matter of substitution (toy instead of cookie.) It’s a matter of building ME as the reward. I want my dog to think that working with me and giving 110% of himself is the coolest thing in the world. He’s working with me because it makes him happy and he loves it, not just working to get “paid” with a piece of cheese. The toy is just a means to an end because play builds fun and energy in a way treats can’t.

Sure, treats are great for some things and Phoenix loves them, but my overall experience has been that treats have zero carry-over value with him. When they’re gone, so is my value unless I make it obvious I have more and am willing to deliver. Then we go in the ring with no treats, and, well, you know what happens.

As others have pointed out, you don’t always need a toy to play. Just being YOU should be enough if you work at building yourself into the Super Cookie. My end goal is for Phoenix to engage with me and stay engaged (alert, focused, interested, animated, ignoring everything else) while I am cookie- and toy-free. I want him to think that no matter what we are doing, it’s the coolest thing on the planet because he’s doing it with me.

Just how do you achieve this state of canine-human nirvana?

Here it is in 500 words or less. (Just guessing on the word count, thanks Renee, for jump-starting my writer’s block, you deserve credit for most of this post.)

Try this experiment:

Go someplace where you normally train and do an obedience exercise or entire run-through without any type of reward on your body. Do you like the response you get? Is this what you want to take into the show ring? If your dog’s work is lackluster, what do you do? Pull out a cookie/toy to lure the dog into producing effort? If so, the dog has YOU trained!

There needs to be some sort of consequence for this lack of effort (i.e., a correction — not just producing goodies to lure the effort back!) I’ll write more about the corrections I’m using with Phoenix in the future. Trust me, they are not horrible. A) I simply CANNOT be horrible to my beautiful dog who loves me B) Phoenix is 52 pounds of solid muscle so my corrections need to be more mental than physical if I expect them to do any good C) I want my corrections to show him how to be right, not beat him over the head about being wrong.

So give your correction and then try the exercise again. Did the dog give you more effort this time? Even just the tiniest little bit? YES! EXPLODE AND GO BERSERK WITH JOY! Go nuts! Leap around, whoop, holler and act like your dog has cured cancer! Your dog may think you have gone insane but that’s okay. The point you want to make is that effort on the dog’s part produces supreme joy and elation on your part. Too often we have substituted a “reward” when what we should have been doing is showing our dog how much their effort means to us and that we genuinely value it.

Find out what kind of play (no toy) your dog likes — chasing, wrestling, whatever. Use it shamelessly. Roll around on the floor. Run. Squeal. Whatever. Use your body and your voice - no inhibitions allowed!

And to quote Renee, because as a journalist I simply can’t not include this quote, “It’s a sh*tload of work.”

She’s right. You’ll need to put a lot of yourself into this kind of training because if you want your dog to think you are fun and exciting, you need to BE fun and exciting. And it’s work. Did I mention that?

Does that make it clearer?

One of the reasons I’m using a lot more play now with Phoenix than I did before is because I want him to understand the value of giving effort, and asking him to play with me is a simple way to address it. (I’m addressing it concurrently with actual exercises, too.) It takes effort on the dog’s part to play with a toy, especially in an environment where he might want to go do something else. Frankly, it doesn’t take much effort to eat a cookie, no matter the environment.

As my first goal, I wanted Phoenix to play with me in a place he would find very distracting. We went to a spot on our farm I call “Catville.” Granted, we only have two cats these days but when Phoenix first discovered the magic of cats, we had a lot more and this is where they hung out — in and around the hay shed. He is pretty sure there are dozens of cats hiding in the trees and under the bales, just waiting to pop out of thin air.

Of course, he wouldn’t play with me. But he was also on a leash so he couldn’t get away and go cat hunting. I backed up until we were far enough away from the potential of phantom cats that he could function. And we played tug and chase, moving ever gradually closer to Cat Ground Zero.

I was delighted he stayed engaged with me, biting hard on his tug and letting me fling him around and thump his sides and have him “out” and let him bite it again. This was WORK on both our parts — physically on my part, to keep him engaged, and both mentally and physically on his part, because he couldn’t think about cats and bite his tug at the same time. Unless he was visualizing the tug as a cat. Which is entirely possible with him.

Sometimes I ran and let him chase the toy flopping at my side. Sometimes I held the toy next to my chest and ran, squealing and leaping around and making ridiculous noises. (It’s a good thing we live in the country, otherwise the men with butterfly nets would have hauled me away a long time ago.)

We quit after less than 10 minutes because quite frankly, Asthma Girl was whipped. But I’d made my point. He COULD play in the face of strong distraction. We’ll keep at this exercise during the summer, it doesn’t need to take an hour, just a few minutes of “Let’s go play!” in a place you might never play with your dog - the basement, the spare bedroom, in the garage, the laundry room?

Next time: ideas for simple games to build yourself as the cookie. God bless Susan Garrett for coming up with that description. I know there's much more along this line on her Web site, so please forgive me if I'm repeating stuff others may have already said.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

NOW it's summer

The Belgians had their first official pool party of the summer last night. It was another one of those days with a heat index over 100 degrees.

From a lighting standpoint, this is a horrible picture but I had to include it anyway. How often do you get a picture of your dog's cute butt bunny- hopping into a pool?

Underwater retrieves are one of Phoenix's specialties.

I love the expressions on their faces.
"I got the ball!"
"I will kill you now!"

How many Belgians can fit in one wading pool?

Phoenix vs. the garden hose

Voluntary waterboarding. I don't know why he doesn't barf up gallons of water after doing this. He would happily do it all night.

Only a doofus would love getting blasted in the face with country well water that's about 38 degrees. I love my doofy dog.

The peonies bloomed late this year.

The Farmer came home from baling hay.
He attended the pool party briefly.

P.S. Patty, thanks for the comment about food vs. toys and isn't substituting a toy for a treat going to give you the same problem in the ring when neither are present. I promise I'll write about that with the next play post.

It's not so much about the toy but about the energy and fun the handler creates with it. And yes, you don't even need a toy to play sometimes. But with a dog like Phoenix, biting and tugging is definitely a rewarding activity (ACTIVE, not passive like being fed a treat), so a toy is required cuz my skin isn't up to being a malinois tug toy. ( :

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Introducing me . . . the Super Cookie

Well, that’s the easiest way to explain my training goal for the summer.


I have to be a better cookie than any actual cookie. I have to be such a fine cookie that all others pale in comparison.

Is that being overly dramatic?

I think not.

The process of turning myself into something that it surpasses all other rewards and/or distractions on the face of the planet is not something to be approached casually.

I am starting to think it might kill me. It definitely requires pain killers and alcohol.

Possibly not in that order. (Those of you who live with malinois are not laughing. You understand. You are nodding your heads and wiping up the blood and getting the ice packs.)

My summer project of fading Phoenix’s cookie addiction and building true joy (not bribed) in our teamwork has begun. Look, I have the bruises to prove it. There's one here and here and here . . .

Back in the day when I went to seminars and learned about motivating a dog, there were a limited number of options: your dog was either food motivated or toy motivated. Working to avoid physical correction was also mentioned, and I guess that would motivate me - do it or get your neck yanked. But during my formative years, no seminar presenter ever mentioned the best motivator of all, the one you can take in the ring and use openly and fairly: YOURSELF.

It was years down the road before I ever heard a seminar presenter explain the concept of making MYSELF more valuable than any physical reward, edible or not.

So now that I’ve arrived at this point of enlightenment, what to do?

Team Phoenix’s problems are firmly rooted in a marked lack of effort in the absence of a cookie. I had never taught him the importance of making an effort to work when he didn’t really want to and clearly wasn't going to get anything for it. Even though I’d carefully proofed all the obedience exercises through Utility, the cookie rewards were still very much available, so that increased his “want to” in the face of pressure. Of course, the cookies were absent in the ring and his “want to” rapidly followed suit.

So I have two goals for our training this summer: make ME the ultimate reward and show Phoenix he can work even when things are stressful. Making ME the ultimate reward should eliminate a majority of that stress because there won’t be a sudden absence of motivator when we go into the ring. We’ve all said, “If I could just have a cookie in the ring . . .” But then is your dog working to get the cookie or is he working to have fun with you?

In order to build myself as the Super Cookie, I need to be FUN and not rely on food as a substitute. Toys, if used correctly, make you fun. Cookies just make you a cookie dispenser (although they are a perfect reward in some training situations, but not ALL, which was how I was using them.) For me, the simple bottom line is that play gets me involved with my dog on a level he can dial into. Believe me, Phoenix is a speed dialer.

Now be careful with this. Just playing with your dog isn’t going to solve every training crisis you’ve ever had. Sometimes I think people want to play with their dogs without actually getting involved with them. They stand in one place and waggle a toy and are disappointed with the dog does not explode into seizures of delight.

Play is hard work.

Unless you have one of those OCD dogs who fixates on an object and will play with you without very much input on your part, you’re going to have to burn a calorie. If you DO have one of those OCD dogs, make sure you’re the one calling the shots, not him. You choose when and where you play and what toy you play with. Otherwise, the toy becomes almost cookie-like in that the dog is making demands about what he wants and doing as he pleases if he doesn’t get it.

But if you have a normal dog - and this is the hard part - making yourself the cookie means you have to MOVE! And RUN! And SWEAT! (And in my case, occasionally get bruised, scratched and bloodied.) Oh my, yes, it is easier to pop a cookie in your dog’s mouth and be done, no wonder so many people want to train that way.

Next time, I’ll write about using play to get Phoenix to make more effort in training. I don’t intend this to be a tutorial for every dog. It’s just a journal of what we’re doing. I hope it helps some others along the way.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Jamie and Nike

Jamie got to meet Rilda's "Nike" at the agility trial over the weekend. Jamie loves puppies. He always has. He turns 12 next month and he still thinks puppies are the best idea anyone ever had.

I'm not sure what he's saying here but I think it's something like "Get one that will stay THIS SIZE next time!"

The trials were fun, the food was excellent and today I am starting a diet. Seriously. I need to eat less of everything in general and a LOT less of a few things in particular, like fast food and the endless snacks I stuff in my face at work. Phoenix says he will help with the exercise component of this diet plan. Jamie says he will lay in the shade and watch.

Did I mention the heat index is supposed to be something stupid like 106 this afternoon? I think we will all be laying in the house in the air conditioning!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Now what?

It's all fine and good to have a grand epiphany about changing up one's training methods. It's another thing entirely to actually go out and do it.

When I wrote about switching from being a "food trainer" to putting the focus on ME as the motivator, I did not mean to imply Phoenix will never get another cookie in his life. Believe me, the dog will not be lacking for cookies. But they will play a different role. In short, cookies are being demoted.

For the last two weeks, I've built more and more play into our training sessions. Phoenix has always enjoyed playing. He's a fierce tugger, loves balls and anything soft, fuzzy and squeaky. (No, I am NOT taking the cat to training.)

But we had some glitches with our play. Again, this was nobody's fault but mine. Sometimes Phoenix chose not to play. Um, no thanks, yawn, not interested - this was especially true at shows and reflected not only his stress level but also a weak spot in our relationship. So is an issue we need to deal with. If I present a toy, I expect him to engage with me. Granted, I have to do my part. I can't stand there and wave a toy at him and then give up when he looks the other way - I have to make it come alive for him to make playing and interacting with me very inviting and fun.

Phoenix definitely has his favorite toys and I have my favorite toys and believe me, they are NOT the same ones. I like tug-style toys that I can hold on to (for dear life) with both hands. Anything that I can't get a grip on soon ends up getting yanked out of my hands and Phoenix goes capering off to entertain himself. Of course, he loves balls and plush squeakies (his "skeeks"), which are fun for him but really hard to tug with. We can interact with them best by hiding or playing tease and chase games where the toy is just an accessory to interaction.

Right now, we are playing with MY favorites because A) I want him to understand it doesn't really matter what KIND of toy we have, I'm the one who makes it fun and B) I need to get better at making it fun. In other words, I need to break out of some lazy habits.

Previously when I'd used toys in training, I tended to switch frequently during a training session so the poor little darling dear wouldn't get bored. The only thing this got me was a dog who was dangerously close to calling the shots and saying, "No, not playing with that. Get the other one. Now, wench."

Which is not the attitude I was trying to cultivate.

Hope everyone has a fun weekend! The Belgians and I are off to Ames this afternoon for an agility weekend, my only outdoor agility weekend of the year. It's supposed to be super hot and rainy with the possibility of some severe weather . . . which will remind me why this is my only outdoor trial of the year.

Plus we'll drive through the Iowa State campus and relive past glories (okay, my four years at Iowa State were heavy on the beer and panicking about papers and exams and light on the glory) and I'll shop at a couple of the book stores. It's time to renew my supply of Cyclone apparel. Mostly to annoy the Farmer, who is a staunch University of Iowa Hawkeye fan.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Stress and the Obedience Dog, Part V

Is your training method causing ring stress?

Here we go, the final chapter (doG help me, if this runs over into another post, someone should take my editor’s license away.)

I think we’re agreed to this point that ring stress can result from A) handlers acting like aliens and B) poor preparation in training.

But wait! I train my dog! I train regularly and consistently! I go to different places! I proof! My dog has fun and looks awesome! We are prepared! Then we go in the ring and it’s not fun and we look horrible! How can this happen?

After two OTChs, I finally got the dog who said, “No cookie, no workie.” Random reinforcement seemed meaningless. Delayed gratification held no appeal. Jackpots didn’t work. We went in the ring and Phoenix thought, “Oh, here’s the place with no food. Bor-ing.”

I’d carefully gone through the traditional steps of food training, with the food starting as a lure, then becoming a reward and then being offered randomly, lengthening the amount of time and work I asked him to do between rewards until he could perform an entire obedience routine without any cookies. This was the approach that got great results with Connor and Jamie and I was pretty confident it would work with Phoenix.

Only it didn’t.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Although Phoenix got his UD in fairly short order this spring, it was clear if something didn’t change, things were not going to go well for us in the long term. Since I seem compelled to do everything the hard way, I had to reach the lowest point of absolute frustration before admitting this.

So here’s what I’m struggling with: food training isn’t the answer. Relying on food for rewards doesn't prepare the dog to succeed in a food-less environment (the ring). Not saying this applies to every trainer or every dog but I suspect it might be the answer to more folks’ ring problems than they’d like to admit. (And it's HARD to admit it! It's taken me years!) I see a lot of people shoving a lot of food into their dogs in training, only to have the wheels fall off — or at least get very loose and wobbly — when they go into the ring. Just sayin’. It’s taken me the better part of four years to realize food training isn’t working for me and Phoenix. Call me a slow learner.

Well, crap! Food training is the only kind of training I know how to do! The realization that all the string cheese and hot dogs and stinky fish cookies and liver fudge in the world was not going to solve our ring problems was a bit of a WTF moment for me.

That was seriously the only way I knew how to train, other than the initial jerk and yank methods I'd learned when training my first dog in the 1970s. I’d had a fair amount of success with positive, food-based methods and have clicker trained some things with very good results that DO hold up in the ring and it was a d*mned hard lump to swallow that this was just not getting the results I wanted with Phoenix. Especially since this isn’t my first day at the rodeo! Nothing like finding that a belief system that’s almost like a religion isn’t what I thought. (Again, a disclaimer — I’m not saying food training is wrong for every dog. It’s wrong for us. If you’re a food trainer and you’re 100 percent happy with the results, amen, sister, and keep going. If not, keep reading.)

Thanks to on-going discussion with training friends and some wonderful people on the Carousel Malinois e-mail list, I’ve done some mental re-grouping. I realize I’ve left some pretty big holes in my training with Phoenix, holes that apparently my previous dogs had closed up by themselves without me being aware they ever existed. God bless Connor and Jamie for being wonderful! God bless Phoenix for being himself!

Here’s the bottom line: what is my dog’s motivator? Food? Yes. Toys. Yes. Me without food or toys? No.

Ouch. That hurt. But it was the truth. I had managed to take myself quite neatly out of the reward equation by substituting cookies for genuine praise, encouragement, joy and interaction with me. When those things disappeared, so did all desire on Phoenix’s part to perform. Oh, he’d play the game if he felt like it, but there was not a great deal of drive. He was going through the motions.

He was a truly joyful Novice dog and I didn’t suspect we were headed for a breakdown until we showed in Utility this spring. Clearly, the food-based training method I used had worked to a degree, but it hadn’t given him the staying power to work through the demands of Utility and a long term obedience career beyond that.

Right now, I'm undergoing a major shift in training theory. There is going to be considerable re-training and I know it will take some time to form lasting results. I’m looking forward to a summer of (re)building my relationship with this dog. This is uncharted water for me and I don’t expect it to be easy, but I know Phoenix is a wonderful dog with a lot of power (mental and physical) I haven’t been able to tap into yet.

HOW we’re going to achieve this is also going to be a journey of discovery. I will use more play, which builds energy in a way food cannot. Play will not always include a toy. I will make MYSELF the toy (or “Be the cookie,” aka, Susan Garrett). Asking for and rewarding effort will be a major part of the plan. Balancing “want to” and “have to” is something I need to address.

After just a few weeks of not relying on the cookie to provide all the reinforcement, let me tell you, training like this is a freaking lot of work. Play, praise and enthusiasm are a lot more work than standing still and handing over a treat. But knowing that when we go into the ring, my dog thinks playing the game with ME is totally fun, it will be worth it. (This may also be a really great diet plan for me.)

I’ll post on our progress throughout the summer.

I want to throw in just a few more thoughts before closing. There are a couple of other training-based elements that can produce ring stress, including:

• Dog doesn’t understand attention/focus/engagement are mandatory (handler has been “rescuing” dog so dog has never been responsible for paying attention.)

• Dog is unclear about exactly how to perform each exercise (handler has not been consistent with training criteria, thus creating gray areas which leads to confusion.)

• Dog has been allowed to give minimal effort in training (under ring stress, minimal effort easily breaks down into NO effort).

These are also elements I need to address with Phoenix this summer because I am guilty as charged to some extent on all of them.

Thanks for bearing with me through this series. I never meant this to be a training blog but it's a great place to unload and organize a lot of my thought and I welcome your feedback.