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.


  1. Its a good point that we often rely on other things to reward our dogs for us. I rarely use food to train flyball, focusing on using a tug toy reward. This forces interaction with the dog more than a treat, sometimes, but makes it easy if you have a good, serious tugger, to simply toss the end of the tug out, catch the dog, then pay no attention other than to realize there is still tension on the end of the tug.

    The true test of a bond with a dog, and good training, is that the dog will perform without any motivation other than the handler. Its something almost everyone involved in dogs sports can use some work on, we just need to remember to focus on it.

  2. "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.”"

    Does this really qualify as ring stress though? Or a dog that's "blowing you off"?

  3. Another wonderful post as always! I will say using play based training has helped me a lot with both of my dogs. They respond to it and it is wonderful to help get us in synch before we go in the ring, are training in a new place or even while waiting at the vet's office to be seen. Using tricks as a reward, silly talk/tone and "touch" are all ways I become the reward. Can't wait to hear how your summer progresses and we are cheering you both on!

  4. Raegan - Thanks for your comment. I really do feel it's stress. First, I don't truly believe in a dog "blowing me off." If he's making that sort of error in the ring, there's a deeper reason - confusion, stress, fear, boredom, whatever.

    It's possible he is be making lack of effort errors or simply making the wrong decision because he doesn't understand what to do, but that all comes back to my training - my fault for not preparing the dog better.

    Plus there's been a lot of stress behavior showing physically, too: sniffing, slow movement, no eye contact, ears back, submissive tail and body carriage - just a very uncomfortable dog, not one who's casually saying "Screw this, I don't wanna do it."

    My overall goal is to use play with ME as the reward to build enthusiasm that will carry into the work itself, making the experience itself rewarding and not dependent on treats/toys.

    I don't like the term "work ethic" because it implies the dog should come with that ability already built in, when in reality it's US as trainers who have to install it - but it would benefit all of us trainers to understand that building a dog's work ethic is as important as training him to perform the exercises perfectly.

  5. You mentioned Susan G in your post so I know you are familiar with her Have you tried some of the Recall games she plays? They are wonderful for creating bonding to you and not the toy or food though of course there are those things added to it but the "games" become the fun part for the dogs and some of them you can actually do in the ring between exercises once you have built the value. We have enjoyed your series of posts about your training.

  6. And just curious...any thoughts on a breed difference and what, if anything, that brings to the table? Yeah, I know we're still swimming in the herding group pool, but Mals are not Tervs, GSDs are not Shelties, etc. etc. No hidden agenda in the question, just honestly curious. And even within a breed, say with mine(GSDs,) you get breedline differences as far as drive etc. that may make one adjust a training approach. I have really enjoyed your posts and thought provoking observations/conclusions.!

  7. I'm working on using play more than food with Legend. Seems to be helping. Lots of work still to do though.

  8. As always, your thoughts make me think, too! I'm interested in the "work ethic" notion. The three dogs I've trained each had a built-in work ethic for sure, but their natural jobs were very different. Kiri loved challenges, especially athletic ones. The chance to do the next agility obstacle or the next obedience retrieve was a built-in reward for her. Lucy loved working with me at whatever, especially if we could stay physically close together as in rally. Orbit (probable JRT) is pre-programmed to hunt small critters. She could do it all day long with never a word of praise or reward from me!

  9. Wow, I cant believe how close to home this disussion hits! I had 2 OTCH's then hit a roadlock w/ my current dog too. I only just discovered your blog and I love it, but I think Phoenix and my Berner girl Latte might have been emailing for some time, they sound like soulmates! She has her UDX but is stuck at 20 OTCH pts. Cant wait to hear about your progress this summer.