Someone asked me recently, “Why are you putting all of your training problems with Phoenix on your blog for everyone to see?”
Well, why not? I’m not happy about them but I’m not embarrassed by them either. I'm puzzled, bewildered, frustrated, vexed, disappointed and determined to work through them. Not much room left for being embarrassed. I’ve never had a dog work like this and with two happy working OTChs. in my past, Phoenix’s ’tude has been a bafflement.
Initially, blogging about it helped me sort out my thoughts and get feedback. Now, hopefully, it will give me a way to record and organize our progress.
I’m happy to say I have found a realistic and sensible training approach that should get us back on solid ground when it comes to ring performance. Yes, I will share it with you because I want to pay forward the generosity of one reader who has taken a lot of time to offer her ideas and support.
I’ll be honest - her ideas are a complete 180 degree turnaround from the way I had been training. At first, I thought, “No way. Nope. Forget it. THAT will never work. Nuh-uh. Never.”
It shot holes in damn near every sacred belief I held about obedience training. It shredded a lot of the “motivational” theories I’d heard repeated over the years. At the same time, it opened a very refreshing approach to training and performance, one that is freeing me from some unrealistic expectations I’d been carrying around.
I had a lot of sacred cows when it came to obedience training — I was pretty sure cookies were the answer to everything. If you had a problem, you threw cookies (or toys) at it. Oh, sure, you gave a little correction here and there to tweak things, but mostly it was all about the cookies/toys. How could you expect a dog to work without cookies/toys? That worked just fine for Connor and Jamie. They ate the cookies, won classes and we all went home happy. Phoenix ate the cookies and sulked around the ring in a funk. WTF?
We often talk about “getting the dog in the ring that we have in training.” How about trying to “get the dog in training that we have in the ring” instead?
I would come out of the ring at a trial and wail (trust me, my friends heard me wailing a LOT this spring), “If only he would do this stuff in training, then we could work through it.” And off I went to train, armed with cookies and toys to reward good behavior. And I had my wonderful dog in training every darn time - he was attentive, focused, brisk and happy. Then we went in the ring and the wheels fell off.
The only way I was going to get my “ring dog” in training was to take the cookies and toys out of the picture.
No rewards but me.
Yikes. Now that’s just scary.
It wouldn’t work.
It couldn’t work.
I HAD to give my dog treats and toys when we trained! Otherwise why would he work? If he didn’t get reinforcement, he wasn’t going to work. If he didn’t work, he was going to make mistakes. If he made mistakes, I was going to have to correct him. Things were probably going to get ugly.
I didn’t want to see my dog fall apart in training. Who would? Couldn’t we just keep training the way it had been? With MORE cookies and MORE play? Wouldn’t that make it all better - wouldn’t he learn that the harder he worked, the more goodies he got?
Obviously, no. I was coming dangerously close to the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.
We’d been playing this game for 4 1/2 years. I kept upping the ante - more treats, better treats, treats delivered on a random reinforcement schedule, jackpots of treats, click and treat, surprise play sessions, carefully timed play breaks, new toys, old toys, favorite toys, letting him chase me around like I was the toy. I cooked chicken breast with garlic for Phoenix while the Farmer and I ate cold ham sandwiches for supper. I stunk up the house making liver brownies and fish fudge. I made sure he had tug toys, squeak toys and more balls than any one dog needs. I taught tricks, played games, broke exercises down into their tiniest elemental parts and worked super hard to make everything fun. Even though I proofed the exercises, I set him up to succeed in every possible way.
And what did that get me?
A dog who only understood how to perform in the context of frequent reward. Take the treats out of the picture and — no matter how carefully I thought I’d “weaned” him off them — he didn’t know what to do. He saw no reward in simply working with me. He wasn’t being deliberately naughty. He was doing what I’d trained him to do.
Here was the first hard truth I had to accept: my dog did not value me or the work. He did not value my praise, my enthusiasm or my touch. He only wanted the treat or the tug. When they were not delivered, he didn’t see any reason to make an effort. Hence, the crap attitude in the ring.
In order to make myself valuable, all the other goodies had to go away. How could I expect him to appreciate ME when so many other wonderful things were available? Really, I can’t compete with garlic chicken. Sure, I was the one giving him access to the wonderful things but in his mind, I was only the delivery person. I was not the reward.
For years I’d believed that delivering the goodies made me some kind of goddess in his mind. Well, it did with my two previous dogs but not with this one. I was willing to embrace a change.
So what happened the first night we trained with nothing more than my voice and my touch as reward?
For the first time in his life, I got the dog in training that I had been getting all spring and summer in the ring.
He was awful - slow, stressed, unhappy, inattentive, etc., etc.
Here was the second hard truth: my dog truly could not perform without treats/toys.
Here’s where our training is now: it’s a combination of corrections and re-training without cookies and toys. I’m not a jerk and yank trainer, the corrections are not harsh. Phoenix has a strong enough foundation in Utility (he got his UD in four weekends, he can’t be THAT confused), that I can tell when he’s choosing not to work (Why do I have to do this if you’re not “paying” me?) and when he’s really confused (I don’t know what you want.)
We’re working through things, pretty much one exercise as a time. Some come easily, others not so much. He does value some of the exercises - scent work, jumping and retrieves. Others he still has questions about - drop on recall and signals, especially.
This approach is a sort of tough love boot camp. It’s not easy. I’ve wanted to grab the cheese and the tugs more times than I can count. But I didn’t because I know that isn’t the answer for us. Oh sure, it would fix the problem for that immediate training session but we’d be right back to square one next time we went into the ring.
He’s gradually starting to value ME. I’m the only game in town, so to speak. He’s gradually starting to work some exercises the same way he worked in training earlier this summer when I was cookie pushing — focused, bright, happy. If I’d realized this 4 1/2 years ago, I never would have put so much emphasis on the magic cookie.
Believe me, this new approach has raised a ton of questions for both me and Phoenix. Any questions or doubts you might be having about the wisdom of this method, trust me, I’ve already had them. I’ve played the devil’s advocate over and over and over from every possible angle.
It has all come down to this: cookie training works fine for some dogs. It was not working for my dog. It was time for a change. He needed to learn how to work for me, not the cookie. It’s not easy. It isn’t happening over night. But I finally feel like I’m working my dog without creating false expectations of things I will never be able to deliver in the ring.
I promise to write about the difficulties (and successes!) we’ve encountered in the coming weeks. There are a lot of things I still need to say about this.