Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Summer school

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.


  1. Great post Melinda. Can't wait to see the great team you two become along this journey of discovery!

  2. I absolutely agree that if what you are doing isn't working, you need to try something else. I've really enjoyed reading about your journey because it makes me examine MY sacred cows. Your updates have been some of the most thought provoking in my bloglist.

    So taking this:

    "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."

    and considering it DID work for your two previous dogs, what would be your basic plan of attack for the next dog? Would you start with this philosophy? Does the answer change if you are teaching the exercises to a dog? If you could do over one of the previous dogs that the cookie approach worked for, would you use the same philosophy you are currently using with Phoenix, or would you stick with what had worked for them?

  3. I can not wait to read more about your journey with Phoenix. I am still working on being Sophie's reward. We have yet to step in the ring but will in Sept. I am not sure what to expect since sometimes even in class if rewards aren't forthcoming she will tune me out. It is not as often as it was when I first started weaning off treats but it still happens more than I like.

  4. Raegan - the next dog scares the hell out of me! LOL

    I want to use the method that's best for each dog. Dogs are such individuals. But I hope to never again create the level of cookie reliance that I have with Phoenix.

    I think treats/toys have a place in training. Without them for the early luring/teaching stages, you don't have much else besides the old jerk and yank methods.

    But this has taught me that things can easily go awry and it's easy to let the treats be in charge. I'll be VERY aware of that with the next dog. It would be nice to have a smaller cheese budget!

    My first sheltie, Jess, was a complete maniac in the ring. He loved to show and he was admittedly a jerk and yank dog because back then, food training was not all the rage. He worked because he truly loved working for and with me. I want to replicate that again.

    Connor probably didn't need as many cookies as he got. He had a very strong work ethic. He was a bit of a freak and probably would have worked for me if I'd stood on my head and breathed fire.

    I think Jamie would have been a better overall dog (he was brilliant but inconsistent) if I'd done a better job of instilling "have to" and not relying on the "paycheck" method. I always felt like he did the bare minimum required to get his paycheck. Fortunately, his bare minimum was pretty good but there were times . . . ( :

  5. Thanks for writing the Phoenix posts. I've enjoyed your journey and look forward to the rest. Too often people only write the good and overlook the unavoidable struggles :)

  6. Many, many thanks for continuing the story of your travails with Phoenix. Terrifically insightful and admirably candid -- very helpful reading for a lot of us, I think.

  7. Love your posts! My 3yo sheltie sounds much like Phoenix - great in training and sluggish in the ring. Stress or disinterest? Both? Whatever. I too tried upping the ante in training with the same non-results in the ring. Now I'm ready to try what you're doing. Can't hurt, right? Keep posting, please!

  8. First off, thank you for sharing your journey with us. I admire and applaud the honest and frank discussions and observations. I have also experienced the cookie/toy dilemma. My question is this: it sounds like you are seeing a glimmer of the end product already in training, what if anything, have you changed in "home" life towards this end? Have you reduced his access to toys/treats in the house or just goofing around outside, that sort of thing? I guess I'm wondering what other things need to change to make the whole process successful? This is where I always start to fumble it...what do I do with the other 23 hrs of the day? Thanks for any thoughts on this.

  9. Like the others have said before me THANK you for posting about what you have encountered with Nix!! It is so very much appreciated and insightful! Very interested how things go from here.

  10. Thank you for posting this!!! I am at my wits end with my 4 year old newfie. She is fantastic at home and at other places but when the food is gone, so is she. I have been dabbling with the idea of "I am the toy" and started training that way with my girl. It has been a steep upward battle with some improvement. It is hard to train a dog with little play drive. Would love hear of your progress!

  11. Thanks for the posts. I am still new to this, but I suspect that your other dogs may have done just as well with or without the cookies. I think lots of dogs just naturally love to work with their person. I have always been surprised by everyone who asked - yeah but would he do it if you didn't have cookies? I put the cookies away and he did. My problem is Jazz is just as bad - cookies or no cookies LOL. Probably a completely different training issue! Either way - I really am surprised by how many people cannot imagine a dog doing something for people because he likes to make us happy. I have no cookies on me as I go about my day at home. I still teach them all kinds of things. They seem pretty happy to get told they are good or get their neck scratched or just to be the one (sibling rivalry abounds) I am paying attention to.
    Oh well. I am still learning a lot. Thanks for being one of the people I can learn from.

  12. Both the posts and the comments have been great reading. I know I give too many treats in training -- that is one of my weaknesses. On the other hand, my proudest moments in the obedience ring were not necessarily on days we Qed. They were days when it was hard, and my dog did not really want to be there doing obedience. But I asked him to do what we trained, and he looked up at me and did it as well as he could, simply because I asked him to. I felt there was no greater gift he could have given me. Working when it's easy and fun is one thing, but working when it's hard is something else entirely.