Saturday, July 16, 2011

Shooting another sacred cow

For all of my adult dog training life, I have believed you were supposed to put the dog's attitude above everything else. Every seminar I attended and every book I read (and believe me, I attended and read a lot), assured me that it was my job as a trainer to make sure my dog was happy, enthusiastic and motivated at all times in the realm of training. It didn't matter if his work was not quite perfect as long as he had a "good attitude," the rest would come.

Or so they said. 

I believed them because it was very easy to get a dog with good attitude when my cheeks were bulging with cheese and I had fun toys stuffed in the waistband of my jeans. (It never occurred to me that overuse of these things might become an addictive crutch.)

This has been another one of those sacred obedience cows I've had to come to terms with this summer.

I had a dog who had been cookied, tugged and fussed over to no end, all in the name of building attitude which was somehow supposed to to ensure he would be delighted to perform anywhere, anytime. I had nearly worn myself out worrying about his attitude.

Well, his attitude was wonderful — as long as the treats, tugs and fussing continued. He looked amazing outside the ring in warm ups. When the attitude builders were no longer part of the picture (in the ring), neither was the amazing attitude.

It was replaced by a different attitude — "this sucks."

I totally agreed.

In my attempt to make everything happy-happy-joy-joy on the obedience front, I was neglecting to make a priority of the one thing that would truly make him a confident worker in the ring: teach him to do his job.

Whoa! Focus on TRAINING when we trained? At the risk of loosing precious attitude? Say it isn't so!

Um . . . did you see us in the obedience ring this spring? We didn't have any more attitude to loose. At several trials, short of laying down in the ring and sticking our feet in the air as a team, Phoenix and I were just about at rock bottom. His obedience career was going to end with his UD if something didn't change.

What's a girl to do besides watch her hair turn gray and wonder what the early symptoms of an ulcer are?

The answers started to come from a totally unsolicited e-mail that made me sit up and take notice.

"Your dog is telling you that what you are doing is not working," a reader wrote. "Teach him his job . . . quit trying to trick him that you will suddenly launch into a game or whip out some great food reward. He is not dumb. He has been shown enough to know that will never happen in the ring and that's got him very confused." She went on to explain that all the "attitude building" work I thought I was doing, was in effect creating one big lie — promising things that would never be delivered while not putting enough emphasis on teaching the actual skills I wanted him to have a "good attitude" while performing.

In order to get things back on solid ground, our training needed focus on the work at hand, not trying to ensure my dog was having a cracking good time every second of the session.

Does this sound harsh? For me and Phoenix, the bottom line is, he CAN'T have a good time until he understands what is expected of him and how to do it WITHOUT treats. Once we are rock solid on that, THEN I can put some focus on his attitude. Admittedly, this is a problem of my own creation and I wish it hadn't come to this. When Phoenix was a puppy it never occurred to me that he wouldn't follow in Connor and Jamie's cookie-loving pawprints. Phoenix had other ideas. Live and learn. Nobody said the journey would be easy.

So now when we go out to train, we train. And that's that. Yeah, it's a little odd. But it's not like I'm drilling him for hours each day. He IS getting rewards - my voice, smile, body language and touch. He is slowly starting to value these although I know he'd still rather have food or a toy. But he can have me in the ring so in order to teach him to value me, all he gets in training is me. It's fun smiling at him and ruffling his fur and telling him how brilliant he is. It's a more sincere connection than stuffing food in his mouth. Some of his work is pretty nice, some of it isn't. Sometimes his attitude is good. Sometimes it isn't. The "bad attitude" exercises are opportunities for me to help him figure out what the rules are.

A couple of folks asked about life for the other 23.5 hours of the day when we're not training. Am I doing anything different in daily life around the house?

No. The household rules that existed before are still in play. Nothing has changed. And Phoenix has not changed how he reacts to me outside of training — he's not holding a grudge or going off to sulk or anything. If anything, he's even more obnoxious and pushy than he was before! And yes, of course I still play with him — we tug and chase balls, just not in the context of a training session. (Playing WILL return to our obedience work and hopefully soon. More on that in a future post. This one is plenty long.)

Next post: the C word — corrections.

A happy note: Phoenix finished his MXJ today! He also double Q'd, winning both his Std. and JWW class! There is nothing wrong with his agility attitude — but I have no doubt that he knows what his job is in that venue. And you can't compare agility to obedience so while there's a lot I still don't understand about training in general and Phoenix in particular, I DO know our current state of affairs doesn't mean he doesn't "want" to do obedience. 


  1. You and Phoenix ROCKED today at the trial!!! Good job!

  2. I know that you are having a hard time with your red dog, but I have to say, as a "young" trainer, I am learning a lot from your experiences, and I really appreciate you sharing this.

  3. Looking forward to the next post. In planning my tricks class (the first time I ever taught on my own) I realized I literally have no idea how to train without a clicker or how to use corrections in any meaningful way.

  4. Congrats on your agility Q's. I hope you arent offended by this but do you think you are blaming to much on the treats? Maybe its just ring stress. My dog can get on a table every where but in a trail situation. She has associated stress with the table. Does she know her job, I say 100% yes. But stress over rides that. Dogs are smart and they know the difference between training and trialing. Maybe he does better with agility because its fast. 30 seconds and your out of the ring, the dog see you are happy with him and most dogs love that. But Im sure you are in the ring a lot longer with obedience. No running around burning off excess stress. No, the dog has lots of time to think and worry about what is going on.

  5. Hey Melinda, I'm following your new training regimen with great interest and hope for success, since I have struggled with the ring-stress issues myself. I'm anxious to see if training with the 'have to' is really going to change the performance in the ring. My Jackson knew what he was supposed to do (could do it well in practice), and he knew he 'had to' do it, but that did not translate into more than 'just good enough to get by' in trials because he was so worried in the trial setting.

    I'm wondering how do you see this 'have to' training combating the ring stress for Phoenix? Isn't ring stress still another dimension of trialing beyond a dog knowing what to do and that he has to do it? I think this is the real challenge for dogs that are worriers -- but isn't that why we love dog training - overcoming the challenges :)