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.