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.


  1. "Yeah, it's a little disconcerting to realize your dog finds DIRT more interesting than yourself! "

    Sophie and Phoenix really are a like. I noticed in obedience class this monday that if we finish a command, Sophie then decides eating the grass or digging is entertaining. We connect but also easily disconnect when I am not offering treats/toys. I have my work cut out for me to be the Super Cookie!

    Thanks for the great post!

  2. I gotta say, this series of posts has been some of the best and most interesting reading on the blogosphere. Keep it up.

  3. That makes sense. I trained my dog to circle me in between sequences. Not on purpose. I just wasn't paying attention to what she was doing while I changed the course. It's a hard habit to chage even though I work on it.

  4. I haven't commented much, but I'm loving the series like everyone else.

    We - well, not Layla and I, but my little training group who go up to MA for those lessons - have been working on things like that. I think they call them transitioning between exercises. I also believe the dogs can tell when they're allowed to sniff/chase animals/be dogs and when they're expected to be engaged. Just like they can tell the difference between tracking/obedience/agility/conformation (in relation to where they're allowed to be with the handler's body).

    For Layla and I, we're a bit behind them. We aren't working on transitions, but we ARE working on proper play. We haven't progressed to playing without toys yet. I'm still working on getting her to play with me with toys. I keep her on lead and when she wants to go away, I stop her and continue playing. Then we stop when I say so, not when she wanders. Hopefully it's working.

    PS - I LOVE the new picture of Phoenix biting the water in the pool!

  5. I'm enjoying this series immensely! I'm "pet sitting" my friend's mal for a few months and am continuing/expanding on his training (from french ring/obedience to rally and agility). I was quickly becoming a "cookie-only" trainer with him as his play style is to jump on me and bite my arms - this hurts and it isn't acceptable to bite me! But I noticed that much of his attention has waned and his affect has also changed considerably. He has gone from a work-aholic to a "what kind of cookie do you have?" worker. After reading your series I am going back to a play style of reward and he is having a great time! but how do you play-reward when the play-style is too rough. I run around with him and will actually tolerate the bouncing off me, but I don't want to allow the biting - my arms are starting to look like I've been beaten up!I know that mals are known for their mouthiness, but is this something I have to accept?

  6. My friend had the same issue with her border collie - play only meant tug with a toy or chase the ball. We were trying to change that and re-teach the idea of "play with me" when she lost her battle with cancer. It was a lot of work and he was very confused about why no toy. Don't know how long it would have taken to re-teach this. Good luck with Phoenix!