Tuesday, August 30, 2011

An experiment on an August evening

Last night Phoenix and I were working on heeling in the back yard. One thing I've been doing to reward for sustained effort on heeling is releasing to a toy that's laying on the ground or in a nearby lawn chair. He races to get the toy, brings it to me and we play. This is NOT a formal retrieve.

Then I drop the toy and we heel again, maybe for a few feet feet, maybe for a few minutes. Sometimes I release after a halt, sometimes during a successful speed change, sometimes after a turn, sometimes during a long straight stretch.

The first toy I used was his french linen tug. He loves his tug. I love his tug. It's very tough and finger friendly.

Then I decided to do an experiment. Since putting some food back into our training, I've been filling a little treat bag, the kind with the drawstring closure. As part of the reward, I throw the bag, Phoenix retrieves it, we tug briefly, then he gets his cookie. So it's not just shove a cookie in his mouth and done. I definitely want to keep play a big part of the picture.

I left the tug on the ground and put the treat bag next to it. Well, duh, that was a no-brainer. Of course he brought me the treat bag the next time I released him.

Then I added a tennis ball on a rope. The tug and the treat bag (which still had food in it) were still on the ground. The ball on a rope was next to them. I truly do not care which toy he brings - it's totally his choice.

On the next release, Phoenix raced to the pile and grabbed the ball on the rope. Well. Surprise. He chose a ball over food. We tugged and I put the ball on a rope back into the pile.

Next, I added a single tennis ball, the kind that squeaks. We heeled and I released. Phoenix didn't hesitate. He grabbed the ball and brought it to me, squeaking madly.

I thought maybe he was just picking the "new" toy each time but for the next 3 releases, he brought the squeaky ball. Then I put the squeaky ball on top of the patio table and covered it up. We heeled, I released, he ran to the pile . . . and stopped . . . and sniffed . . . and ran around the yard, sniffing and hunting for that squeaky ball even though two other toys and a bag of treats were available.

Finally, I grabbed one of the toys, he gave up his hunt and came to play with me. We played with the ball on a rope and the tug and I had him retrieve the treat bag a couple of times. Then I gave him the squeaky ball. It was obviously his toy of choice and it even outranked food.

I don't mind my dog having a "favorite" toy but I want him to engage with me, no matter what toy I have. It really surprised me he would ignore food in favor of a ball. Since the squeaky ball is clearly his favorite, I'll reward with it on a somewhat limited basis. I don't want him to become so obsessed with it that he doesn't think he can play with anything else. Whatever rewards you use, you "build." If you use only food, the dog's enjoyment of toy play will decrease and if you only use one particular toy, the dog may soon lose interest in other toys.

The Farmer, in his eternal wisdom, watched this whole thing and wanted to know "What's wrong with that dog!" that he would choose a ball over food. Obviously he wasn't raised by Shelties!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Know when to say when

On Thursday of this week, Phoenix and I are going to jump back into the Open/Utility rings after our summer off. We're entered in 3 days of a local 5 day cluster.

I honestly don't expect all of our training issues to have been miraculously resolved in the last two months but I do feel much better about the direction our training is going.

In keeping with my training goal of focusing on what we CAN do this week, not what we CAN'T, here's a list of how to know it's time to end a training session. Yes, I have ended a training session at one time or another because of every single one of these reasons. (Some are while training at home, others while training away from home or at a motel with friends during a trial weekend.)

I didn't say they were GOOD reasons. Well, at the time, they sounded like very good reasons. And some of them were. It's probably a wonder Phoenix has gotten as far as he has.

• Your fingers are bleeding and you need a band-aid(s).

• You have a split lip.

• You ran out of cheese because you ate too much of it yourself.

• Your dumbbell broke.

• The gloves are shredded.

• The toy got ripped in half.

• The toy got stuck in the limb of a tree (really, who threw it up there?)

• The neighbor was walking up the lane.

• The neighbor's dog was walking up the lane.

• A skunk was walking up the lane.

• The Farmer was yelling out the window "YOURMOTHERISONTHEPHONE."

• The wind keeps blowing the ring gates over.

• You were tired of listening to your older dog howling.

• You can't stand getting one more hole in your shirt.

• A lightning strike.

• It started to rain.

• It started to snow.

• There was a tornado on the ground.

• The pizza came.

• Your dog is so obsessed with a nearby cat that he is basically dysfunctional.

• You are so hungry you are basically dysfunctional.

• Friends with margaritas arrived.

• The Farmer is yelling out the window "MICHELEISONTHEPHONE!"

• "NCIS" starts in 3 minutes.

• A new Harry Potter book arrived that afternoon.

• The wind is blowing the jumps across the yard.

• Things were going so well you decided to quit while you were ahead.

• Things were going so badly you decided to quit while you were ahead.

Happy training, everyone!

Friday, August 26, 2011

I can't drive 55 . . . seriously

Between the first Coralville exit coming from the west off Interstate 80 and the building where I teach classes, about 6 miles to the north, the speed limit changes 327 times.

Maybe that's an exaggeration.

But it changes a lot. From 65 mph on I-80 (yeah right, like anybody does THAT), to 35 through all the lights by the mall to 55 mph on Hwy. 965 north of Coralville (good luck with that at the 5:30 p.m. rush hour, more like 15 mph), then you hit the speed limit nightmare of North Liberty. Or the policeman's paradise. I guess it depends which end of the radar gun you're behind.

Last spring, I was behind the wrong end and made an $80 donation to the City of North Liberty. I hope they spent it wisely.

"Ma'm, do you know what the speed limit is here?" the officer asked.

Well, I think it's pretty obvious I either didn't know or didn't care. You'd think policemen would get really tired of asking rhetorical questions.

I was out in the middle of the country, north of town. I was surrounded by cornfields.

"Um? 55?"

It was 35. He clocked me at 48. I thought that was pretty good, given that I thought it was 55. I thought I was safely 7 miles under the limit.

He didn't see it that way and wrote me a ticket.

Sigh. I bitched and moaned and wrote a check that would have paid entries for an agility or obedience weekend.

I am now officially the World Most Paranoid Driver when it comes to that stretch between the north city limits of North Liberty and SueAnn's building. The speed limit changes at least 36 times in that stretch of a couple of miles. It makes me crazy. It's really hard to drive 35 mph when you're going through the middle of nowhere. And the North Liberty police know this.

Cutting over to I-380 on the way home isn't any better. That street (Penn St.?) is under construction. It was under construction last spring. It's still under construction. It looks like it may be under construction until the end of time. It has signs for speed limit 35 mph immediately followed by signs that say construction zone speed limit 25 mph.

None of that matters because you're swerving back and forth between orange cones so much and switching from one side of the road to the other that you can't accelerate past 10 mph. Then suddenly - it ends and you're faced with a wide open road. I have absolutely no idea what the speed limit is there.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Happily ever after

Twenty years ago today, the Farmer and I got married. I meant to scan a picture from our wedding album to post today but like so many other things, it didn't get done. Phoenix got worked last night, though. You have to have your priorities.

We're not having a big celebration or anything. In fact, I'm working late tonight and will probably get carry-out pizza for supper. We might get away this weekend for a nice dinner out. Maybe. If the Farmer isn't baling hay.

I drug our wedding video out last night. Wow. We were SKINNY back then! The Farmer asked if I would still fit in my wedding dress. Maybe . . . if you didn't try to button up the back. We both had more hair back then, too. Mine was long, over-the-shoulder and very blonde. The Farmer's was . . . there.

In the last two decades, we've survived the straightline windstorm that trashed our farm in 1998 and the day in 2007 when the Farmer left baby Phoenix loose in the house all afternoon. We've had calves in the basement, bats in the bedroom and dogs everywhere. We know each other well enough to know any sentence that starts with "Honey? Can you . . .?" is going to elicit The Hairy Eyeball, followed by doing whatever is requested. This includes pulling my van out of the mud, pulling my van out of the snow and explaining (with limited patience) that the tire BLEW OUT and no, I can't just air it up and drive home. We've buried a parent together, put up with each other's eccentric relatives and lived through multiple home improvement projects. He's learned that letting the dogs out needs to be followed by letting the dogs back in. I've learned how to help back the cornplanter into the machine shed without putting a dent in the back wall. More or less.

No wonder his hair is falling out.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

More things I learned this summer

School started here today. Does this mean summer is officially over? Autumn doesn't start, technically, until Sept. 23. I guess it's summer until Labor Day, THEN it's autumn, no matter what the calendar says.

Here are a few more random thought about things Phoenix and I have learned this summer.

• There’s nothing wrong with using food in training, but there are frequently a LOT of things wrong in the WAY people use it and I was a prime example. I used it as a crutch for too long and when it was gone, my dog was dysfunctional through no fault of his own. I need to use it in such a way that my dog does not learn to expect food for every single thing he does. I had unintentionally created this unrealistic expectation. No wonder my poor dog was disillusioned in the ring. I want him to understand sometimes he might get cookies and sometimes he might not get cookies but my expectations for, and enforcement of, his behavior never changes.

• One of the biggest problems with food training is that it’s so DAMNED easy to keep plugging food in your dog for every little thing, even when he’s done nothing in particular to earn it. Or you’re giving the same reward for a slow sloppy sit as you did for a fast, tight sit. The dog probably has NO idea why he’s getting the food half the time. I know because I’ve done this! OMG! Make me stop! Imagine that food is a gold nugget. It’s going to be given ONLY in exchange for something of extremely high value that the dog delivers.

• Letting go of the cookies can be as big a deal for the trainer as it is for the dog. It’s been a whole new experience for me to train using little to no food during a session. Yes, I have put some food back into our training but no where near the previous level. Oddly enough, I think Phoenix finds it MORE rewarding now, since it's become somewhat of a precious commodity for him.

• The dog has to produce the effort before you produce the reward. Leave the food in your bag. Go out on the training floor. Do whatever. Did the dog make a genuine effort to be right? (“Effort” is going to be defined differently for different dogs.) Was it worth a gold nugget? Then by all means, go and have one!

• It’s easy to let performance criteria slide when the food leaves the picture and the behavior slips a little. Does my dog need a mild correction or does he need more training to understand how to do his job? “Good enough” is only good enough if you won’t be upset by the same behavior in the ring after you’ve paid a $25 entry fee, put $3.50/gallon gas in your car and driven for 3 hours. Having a clear picture in my head of how I want things to look makes it easier to stay focused and not settle for less.

• Exercises can be fun without any food at all. Have you ever goosed your dog in the butt as he runs away from you on a retrieve exercise? Not to grab or pinch, just an open handed goose that comes from directly behind as the dog is leaving. This drives Phoenix insane! He bunny-tucks his butt underneath him, his tail goes straight up and he drives out harder for his dumbbell or glove. He thinks the butt-gooser is going to get him. Actually, I think he kind of LIKES it. He's getting faster though, and I can't always goose him quick enough. Which is actually the whole point.

• Silence needs to be a GOOD thing. It’s an easy habit to chatter happily at your dog when he’s doing well, then lapse into stony silence when something goes wrong. If your dog believes silence = oh-crap-I’m-wrong, can you imagine what he thinks during exercises in the ring when you’re only speaking to give commands? This is something I really, really, really need to get better at.

• Hindsight being what it is, I can now look back at the problems Phoenix and I had in the obedience ring during the spring and early summer and understand them better. There was no single “This is what you’re doing wrong” solution. It was a combination of things - lack of understanding, lack of confidence, lack of understanding “have to,” lack of drive for “want to” and lack of ability to see ME as the primary reinforcer.

• Things have improved over the summer but I know we haven’t “fixed” everything in two months. I’m looking forward to fall — my absolute favorite season — and continued training and limited trialing to see what’s working and what’s not.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Moo - the rest of the story

I stand corrected. The Farmer informs me it was not a 1,300 pound steer. It was not quite market ready so more like 1,000 or 1,100 pounds. Silly me.

He buried the head and hide. The guts went out in a field for enjoyment by the local coyotes.

The knife thing puzzled me, too, since we have a number of fairly decent sized kitchen knives that surely would have been more useful. All he had to do was come back in the house to get one. However, they ARE kitchen knives with thin blades and not really meant for dealing with food "on the hoof," so to speak. Having dealt with the Farmer's pocket knife before — nearly running it through the washer when he forgets to take it out of his jeans — he was probably better off using it as it's a pretty sturdy item.

We frequently have beef custom butchered for people who want to buy a half or quarter of a steer to stock their freezers. On our end, this means loading the steer into a trailer and driving it to the locker, where it is humanely killed and then processed into roasts, steaks, hamburger, etc. according to the buyers wants and wishes.

In this case, given the untimely demise of the steer and the slightly questionable hygienic practices under which it was dressed, we'll be keeping the meat for ourselves. Although it only hung outdoors for a couple of hours, if the quality has been reduced, like the Farmer told Phoenix, "You might get a lot of hamburger for supper." This would be the ultimate break for a raw-feeder!

Okay, the weekend's matches and the state fair report.

Overall, things were improved. Not perfect. Not totally brilliant. But better. And that's what I wanted - to do our runs with no food and no toys and see that he understood his job better than he did last May and June. Both Saturday and Sunday's matches brought better attention and, to my great delight, he was trying to work his fronts, didn't give me any walk-ins and did lovely go-outs in spite of people hanging over the railing above the Utility ring at the state fair.

I noticed a couple of things - the sound of silence is a problem. I have worked (obviously not hard enough) to help Phoenix understand that me being quiet is GOOD thing and it means he's right. We need more work on that and I need to shut up already.

The eternal quest for balance between formal and informal training continues. I do not want to drill my dog through exercise after exercise day after day, complete with formal set ups, fronts and finishes on every exercise. This may produce qualifying results but it will not produce a happy attitude. IT'S BORING.

On the other paw, Phoenix occasionally NEEDS to see these exercises from start to finish in training as I expect him to do them in the ring. Informal training is fun and good and you won't ruin your dog by using treats and toys. That keeps obedience work from disentegrating into a pit of boredom and monotony . . . but . . . at least now and then, I feel I need to put everything together and ask for it several times in a row so he understands he has to perform ALL the behaviors, not just bits and pieces of them here and there. Train like you show, show like you train. Some trainers claim they never do formal run-throughs except at trials. Wow. Okay. Glad that works for you. Know your dog.

When the match was over Sunday, I walked around the state fair for a little bit. Went to the Varied Industries Building and got a 2011 Iowa State Cyclones football poster to annoy my co-workers. We are located just 30 minutes from the University of Iowa so right in the heart of Hawkeye country where Iowa State's cardinal and gold are not the predominant colors. It looks wonderful on my cubicle wall.

Then I checked out the new Jacobsen exhibit center, which is a fabulous indoor horse show arena where the Des Moines club will be holding its agility trials beginning this fall. It's amazingly fabulous. Did I mention that? Can't wait to show there.

I wandered through the 4-H exhibits building and relived my glory days as a Louisa County 4-H'er, did some people watching (always hysterical - you truly see EVERYTHING at a state fair). Would liked to have spent more time wandering around, there is SO MUCH to see, but I'd been up since 4 a.m., not to mention loosing several hours of sleep before that.

So I ate a deep fried Twinkie and headed home. Now before you start rolling your eyes and wretching in disgust, remember, the Iowa State Fair is ALL ABOUT food on a stick. I could have got deep fried butter on a stick! A Twinkie was practically health food by comparison! My cardiologist would be so proud.

It was actually pretty good, providing you like Twinkies to start with. I do. They're a guilty pleasure. My grandma used to have them at her house and we'd eat them together when I was a little girl. The fried version is dipped in a sweet batter, kind of like pancake batter, and fried, then served with powdered sugar. It ends up tasting like a extra doughy version of the original spongecake.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

You might be a redneck if . . .

. . . you married a man who can field dress a 1,300 pound steer with a pocket knife.

At 3 a.m.

By pickup headlights.


I can't make this stuff up.

I woke up about 2 a.m. this morning to the sound of the Farmer going outside. This in itself is not alarming. Life in the country means a certain amount of nocturnal prowling. The Farmer and I have gotten up at odd and sundry hours to check on cows having calves, to double check gates and to hastily secure barn and machine shed doors when wild weather blows in.

I rolled over and went back to sleep. Within minutes, the Farmer was back. I could hear him banging around in the basement, then the sound of the basement door slamming as he left again. Whatever.

After a brief interlude, the pickup went roaring down the lane. Hmm. Curious. But I was getting up in 2 1/2 hours to go to the state fair and since the night before had been interrupted by a 4 a.m. calving, I really didn't think it was necessary to loose two good nights' sleep in a row. Whatever the crisis was, unless I got a personal invitation, he could keep it to himself.

Pretty soon, I could hear a tractor in high gear coming down the road. It had to be the Farmer, returning from another farm, having traded pickup for tractor. Really, who else would be driving a tractor in road gear at 2:30 a.m. Sure enough, it throttled down at the end of the lane, turned in, then opened up again, coming up the lane and past the house to the barn.

Another pickup roared in behind it. Okay. NOW I got out of bed. Oddly enough, Jamie slept through the whole thing, confirming my suspicion that his hearing really IS gone and he's not just faking it. Phoenix accompanied me from window to window, as I watched the Farmer's brother jump out of his pickup, climb the fence and disappear into the darkness of the steer yard.

Enough cloak and dagger. I was tired. I was getting up in 2 hours. I went back to bed and tried not to listen to the sounds of a tractor and occasional disjointed yelling.

Then I went outside this morning and in the misty light of pre-dawn, saw the loader tractor parked in front of the machine shed, bucked raised, with an approximately 1,300 pound steer, neatly field dressed, hanging by its hind hooves from a chain looped around the bucket. 


The Farmer was AWOL. (It turned out, he'd been sleeping in his pickup, being not exactly clean enough to come back to bed after the night's adventure, and completely missed me leaving for the state fair at 5 a.m.) I went to the state fair (a post in itself) and didn't get the whole story until I got home this afternoon to find the barn yard returned to a state of normalcy that did not look like something out of a Steven King novel.

Having been a cattleman's wife for 20 years, the two things that strike terror into their hearts are A) cattle running en masse through fences and B) cattle "getting over on their back."

This was a case of the latter.

The steer in question had "gotten over on its back," meaning it had laid down and due to a slight slope in the ground, literally hadn't been able to get up. Unfortunately, due to the way cattle are constructed, that leaves a lot of weight pressing on their lungs, they can't breathe and it's slow death by suffocation.

The Farmer — who only hears about 50 percent of the things I say to him — heard, from our bedroom, which is maybe 75-100 yards away from the steer yard, the sound of bovine distress in the middle of the night. I heard nothing. Maybe I need MY hearing checked.

He ran out to investigate and sure enough, a steer had gotten over on its back. Its fate was sealed. You can't just smack them on the butt and they get up and all is well. The Farmer ran back to the house, got his pocket knife and cut the animal's throat to end its suffering. Then he called his brother, who lives about 10 minutes away, and the two of them hung it by its heels from the loader bucket and field dressed the beast with their pocket knives. In the dark.

I feel compelled to insert a Crocodile Dundee quote here, at the risk of dating myself. All you children of the '80s will remember "That's not a knife, THIS is a knife!" Okay. Back to the story.

This morning, they called the local locker who always processes our meat to come and get it, but the folks who run the locker were out of town on vacation. So then they called the local grocery store (the Brother is conveniently married to a part owner of said grocery store) to see if they could temporarily store the meat in the grocery store's coolers. Yes, but it was still going to have to be roughly butchered since a dressed out steer is really not much smaller than a steer on the hoof. About the only thing missing was the head, hide and guts.

The Farmer and his brother, with their pocket knives, and a fellow from the meat department of the grocery store, with a bone cutter, finished butchering the carcass, wrapped it in plastic and hauled it to town where it is now resting in peace. Err . . . pieces.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Big weekend ahead

I'm excited about this weekend! Phoenix and I have two fun matches, one at a local club on Saturday and one that is part of the Iowa State Fair on Sunday. Saturday's match is at a familiar training building. Sunday's is in a livestock pavilion amidst the chaos of the state fair. Both will be an excellent chance to test our summer training. (Holy crap, it's late August — where did that summer go?!)

My overall goals for the summer have been:

1) Make sure Phoenix understands his job (the exercises). This was a deceptively simple notion and it meant looking beyond my assumption that he really DID know how to perform each exercise. In retrospect, he didn't, and that was causing a lot of our mess in the ring. We've spent the last 10 weeks rebuilding some exercises, along with solidifying the understanding of what is expected and that it is ALWAYS expected. I don't expect him to start leaping around with the gung-ho enthusiasm of a field-bred golden — that simply isn't who he IS — now but I DO think having a much clearer picture of what I expect from him should help us show with more confidence and mutual enjoyment.

2) Make sure he can sustain that understanding and effort for the amount of time it takes to run through the exercises in any given class. An average Open run takes less than 5 minutes and Utility is only 6-7 minutes and substantially shorter if you have a brisk dog. Is it asking too much to be able to interact with your dog without relying on treats or toys for 6 minutes?

That's definitely a problem that I and a lot of "food trainers" create for ourselves — rewarding so generously that when the food disappears (in the ring) the dog truly believes he has done something wrong because his human Pez dispenser has shut down. When I feel we're on truly solid ground, the food is going to come back into the picture, but my criteria for using it will be much more stringent than before.

3) Show him the value of ME as the reward. This includes not only verbal and physical praise but the simple fun of doing things together. I know we've made progress on this. Does this mean he'll never get to tug or chase a ball during training? Of course not. But I'm seeing play for its face value only — it's just plain FUN. I'm not expecting it to create some miraculous transformation in our training. Play is fun but it doesn't intrinsically improve a dog's understanding of how to heel or how to drop on recall. Is play really a reward? Maybe. Or maybe the dog just thinks "Oh thank God I get the toy now cuz I understand THAT but I have no idea what she wanted me to do before."

This weekend, I want to pay more attention to warm up routines and how to get into the ring with Phoenix and I both in a good place mentally. For me, that means relaxed and with a plan in my head how to handle each exercise. I don't want to get up at 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, drive 1 1/2 hours, sit in state fair traffic and go through the hassle of getting unloaded and parked just to go through the motions in the ring!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

From the "It seemed like a good idea at the time" files

It was all Phoenix's fault.

Or maybe it was the toad's fault.

Or maybe it was nobody's fault at all, just the slow progression of time and Mother Nature.

Whatever it was, the 8-foot square hosta bed in one corner of the yard looked like hell. The plants were crowded and overgrown, choking each other out, with the big plants smothering the little ones and all of them competing for limited resources. Their leaves were sunburned and broken. The whole thing was a mess. This was not helped by the fact Phoenix was thrashing around in the middle of it, chasing a toad. I THINK that's what he was chasing. In any event, leaves were flying and great clods of mulch and dirt were being flung about with great enthusiasm. I didn't have the heart to scold him.

It wasn't a great loss. The hosta were in pretty bad shape. I'd set the bed about 7 years ago. I remember because it was the spring of 2004 and Jamie and I were going to a lot of TDX tests that spring. Not only were we going, we were failing to the tune of $100 per entry fee. We had some oh-so-close tests and some WTF tests and my frustration level was running pretty high. You know how people moan and wail about having a dog who's ready to go but they can't get drawn for a test? Not only were Jamie and I ready, we got drawn for every bloody test I entered that spring. Six - count 'em, six -TDX tests. That came to $600 in entry fees alone, not to mention gas, motels, food, etc. And still no TDX. The judges all agreed we were ready. We had two stunningly lovely tests that we "almost" passed. In TDX work, "almost" is still a failure.

It was shortly after that I decided I could pursue Jamie's TDX or his OTCh. but I couldn't do both of them at the same time with any hope of achieving either one. So I opted for the OTCh. and well, the rest is history.

But like I said, it was spring and I was so frustrated I needed to take it out on something (not my poor dog, who was doing his best) so I grabbed a shovel and started digging up part of the lawn. Really, this seemed like a very sensible plan. The Farmer just gave me the hairy eyeball and stayed out of my way. My lawn carnage resulted in the "hosta jungle," a bunch of different types of hosta grouped with columbine and ferns. The hosta jungle was pretty at first. Over the years, it got big. And bigger. And bigger. And started being not so pretty. We did some tree trimming which changed the amount of sunshine the bed received. Tree limbs not falling on house - good. More sunshine beating down on plants that like shade - bad.

Phoenix and his never-ending toad patrol was the final straw this summer. If I dug that mess out, I thought, watching leaves and dirt flying, I could plant something in there next spring that's actually pretty. I do very little with annual flowers because they're often more work than they're worth for one short growing season but I was having visions of colorful impatiens and coleus in this spot. And a fence. A really big fence to keep the toad patrol at bay.

Which is why I spent three hours this morning digging. I had comp time from work and thought tackling the digging when it was still cool seemed sensible. That was about the ONLY thing sensible about this project. For all their charming foliage, hosta are made of iron. They turn the ground around to them to iron. Or maybe that's just because we haven't had much rain to speak of in the last three weeks.

Hosta #1 came out easily. Hosta #2 came out sort of easily. Hostas #3 through 8, not so much. My back ached, my legs ached, sweat was running into my eyes and the hosta clumps got bigger and heavier with each successive plant. I was hoping the spade wouldn't break. Or maybe I was hoping it WOULD, then I could quit.

Three hours later, I heaved the last one out of the ground. I've seen trees with smaller root systems. Seriously. In reality, hosta roots aren't that deep. They just feel like they're anchored to our sister city in China and are very, very reluctant to release their grip on the earth.

I cut the clumps apart with a spade and reset a bunch of them in a new location where there is plenty of space and water. I strategically re-planted a couple of select favorites back into the former bed. I hauled the rest of the carcasses away. I pulled weeds and raked mulch. I went around the yard and picked up all the semi-shredded leaves Phoenix had been entertaining himself with.

Then I took ibuprofen and a shower. Things are good, for now, although I can feel muscles tightening in places I didn't even know I had them. If I need more ibuprofen, someone is gonna have to get it for me cuz I'm not sure I'll be able to get out of this chair.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The "shut up" toy

Jamie never mastered the art of being quiet while I train Phoenix. If he can see or hear us, he has an opinion on what we're doing and he's not afraid to share it. I don't know if he thinks we're doing everything wrong or just that he could do it better. He has an incredible range of vocalizations.

This spring I bought a Kibble Nibble. I call it Jamie's Easter egg or his Shut Up toy. It unscrews into two halves and you put food or treats in it and screw it back together. The dog rolls it around until the food falls out through holes on each end. It's like the Buster Cubes, remember those? I think I still have one but darned if I know where it is. This toy is a little nicer because if the dog can't get all the food out, you can unscrew it and clean it out. It doesn't stay in there forever, getting moldy and gross.

When Phoenix and I go out to train at home, half of Jamie's supper goes in his toy. It's not only a toy, it's a timer. By the time he's done smacking it around and has gotten all the food out and starts voicing his opinion on Phoenix's work, I know we've trained for about 20-30 minutes and it's time to quit.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A sheltie, a terv and a malinois walk into a bar . . .

During the two brief years that Connor, Jamie and Phoenix were with me like some furry, fanged version of the Three Muskateers, I always figured there was a really good joke in there somewhere. While their motto was probably NOT “All for one and one for all,” the three of them gave me a gift I haven’t appreciated until now.

This summer has made me realize how each dog is an individual and no matter how much experience you have or how many dogs you’ve trained, it’s in your best interests as a trainer to see each dog honestly for who he really is, not just as an imagined reflection or shadow of a previous, much-loved partner. Although our previous dogs influence our training style, each new dog will insist on smacking us up side the head with something we’ve never encountered before.

With this in mind, the Drop On Recall has been one of the toughest exercises for me to teach Phoenix. While working on it recently, I thought about Connor and Jamie and how their drops compared to Phoenix’s. The following is shameless anthropomorphizing (wow, I’ve used that word twice in a week!) but I think it comes pretty close to each dog’s individual thoughts about the Drop On Recall.

Connor: I will drop with spectacular flair. I will put my front end down and skid along the mats with my butt in the air, wagging my tail, until I run out of momentum, then I will plop my butt down. Everyone will stop to watch me do this thing they call a Drop On Recall because I am the best they’ve ever seen. I am God’s gift to obedience. I am beyond brilliant, I am incredibly awesome. I am . . . the Skunk Dog! Behold my greatness.

Jamie: Mom wants me to drop so I drop. It’s that simple. I will drop quickly but in such a way that my fur does not get mussed. I like people to admire me. I like to admire myself. I will drop with grace. I will drop because it makes Mom happy and I like that. I will drop on wet grass but I will not drop in standing water. Really. No. Not going to happen.

Phoenix: Make up your mind, lady. You want a recall or you want a drop? I haven’t got all day. Why don’t I go bite something while you decide.

Yeah, that pretty much covers it. Connor was an arrogant show-off. Jamie was (and still is) mom’s pretty boy. Phoenix? Phoenix has to be the most honest, down-to-earth, practical, sensible dog I’ve ever trained. He’s not arrogant or a diva. He just wants to know what his job is and how to do it. Realizing this has been one of the biggest lessons he’s had to teach me. His approach to learning is not tempered by an intrinsic love of all things obedience nor is it driven by any dubious "desire to please." It's more of a "Let's do this thing together, you and me, cuz it's good to do things together and then you can throw the ball."

Now . . . back to a sheltie, a terv and a malinois walk into a bar. I’m not sure how this ends but there’s going to be barking and furballs involved and something is going to get ripped up.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Things I learned this summer

Every dog and every trainer will face problems on their journey. It’s not the end of the journey, just a detour. I was totally freaked with Phoenix fell apart on the way to and immediately following his UD. I'd never had a "detour" with a dog to this extent. Once I got over that, I decided, well, we were both going to have to make some changes if we were going to get better. Here are some of the things I’ve learned this summer, in no particular order. Granted, not all of this is new knowledge.

• Having 2 1/2 months off from the obedience ring has been a welcome break. The summer has flown.

• If what you’re doing isn’t working, don’t be afraid to try something new. You have nothing to lose. You’re not going to “break” anything because obviously it wasn’t “whole” to begin with.

• Previous success is just that: PREVIOUS. Deal with the dog you are training NOW.

• Every dog is an individual. A method that worked wonderfully for a previous dog may leave your current dog thinking WTF does she want?

• Take the challenge. Put down the food. Train your dog. See what happens.

• Sometimes a correction can answer a dog’s questions and help him figure out how to be right.

• A correction is never harsh or abusive. It is guidance and information. It might be a soft “Uh-oh” or a frown. Oh! The horror! I truly hope my dog is not such a prima donna that being told “Uh-oh” devastates him for life.

• You can’t correct a dog who is confused or fearful.

• Corrections won’t help if the dog doesn’t understand how to be right in the first place. If you find yourself needing to repeat a correction more than twice, your dog needs more training on that particular skill - not more corrections.

• Believe that your dog can do something and he can. Of course, the opposite is equally true.

• Everything happens for a reason.

• Some dogs respond well to being “molded” with hands-on training and/or corrections.

• Some dogs are fine with being “molded” in some circumstances but not others.

• Other dogs view being “molded” as confrontational and respond with opposition reflex. Know your dog.

• Even if you’re working through sticky problems, take a deep breath, smile at your dog and find one thing that he did just a little bit better today. Focus on that success, not everything else that is going wrong.

• Sometimes, the answer to improving an attitude problem is to focus on a performance problem. Fixing the dog’s ability to perform a skill may improve his confidence, and conversely, his attitude, about that skill, once gray areas of confusion and concern are relieved.

• There are many tools you can have in your training toolbox. There’s never just one way to do anything.

• The training method is only as good as the trainer. Leashes, chokers, pinch collars, tabs, long lines, clickers, treats and toys will not produce brilliant results if poorly used.

• Bottom line: your dog must be able to perform without constant delivery of treats/toys if you realistically want to qualify in your chosen sport’s trials.

• Giving treats for every little behavior when you train is an easy habit to get into. You can turn yourself into a Pez dispenser in no time. And now you want your dog to go into the ring and do a 7-8 minute Utility run with ZERO treats? Good luck with that.

• Your dog needs to value YOU. Treats are not evil but don’t make the mistake of letting them become a substitute for genuine, sincere, honest, heartfelt happy praise and interaction between you and your dog.

• The only thing two dog trainers are likely to agree on is that a third trainer is doing it wrong. (Thanks, Running With Dogs!)

• Some sports are intrinsically rewarding for the dog. You can’t expect to have your agility dog in the obedience ring because obedience is a totally different sport.

• Be patient. Retraining will take as long as it takes. Enjoy the time you have with your dog.

• You guys are generous and sincere with your comments, opinions, suggestions, encouragement, questions and criticisms. I suspect some “advice” came from people who have never trained a dog for or competed in formal obedience but that’s okay - I admire your passion. I hope you get the chance to experience the show ring some day.

• Choose your training methods and style based on what you’re mentally comfortable with, what you can physically do and what will help you reach the goals you have for your dog. The perfect training method “means that everyone’s needs and style are taken into account so that a good time is had by all.” (Thanks, Lynn!)

• Don’t accidentally step on your dog’s foot on a glove turn. No good will come of this.

• If you leave pieces of string cheese in your pocket and run them through the washer and dryer, they come out in hard little plastic-like discs. The dogs still want them.

There are probably a lot of things I’m forgetting. I’ll add them in later.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Back in the ring

I just mailed entries for a local obedience cluster on Labor Day weekend. There are 5 trials over 5 days. Phoenix and I entered 3 of them. We're on the every-other-day plan. These shows are very close to home so we won't have to get up at the butt-crack of dawn to drive there and can come home every afternoon. Can't beat that.

I'm looking forward to getting back in the ring. These will be our first obedience trials since the end of June. It will be a chance to see what we've learned from this summer's training. I've learned a LOT. I hope the same is true for Phoenix! While it would be fun to just keep training with no shows on the horizon, I won't know if what I've been doing is working until we test it in the ring.

And I really NEED to know because there aren't many obedience trials on our schedule this fall. I need to find out what's improved and what hasn't before we go into another long stretch of training with no trials this winter. My goals for our few autumn obedience trials are to see a solid understanding and willingness to work in the absence of treats and toys, plus having Phoenix see my verbal praise (and thus, ME) in the ring as a genuine and desirable reward.

In the future, I'll do a "What we learned this summer" post! Amazing how the time has flown since late June when I realized our training needed a major overhaul and dropped out of trialing to focus on fixing some holes in our foundation. Back then it seemed like summer would last forever. Now kids are headed back to school here next week and it's only three weeks until those Labor Day trials.

To address a few comments from yesterday's post: yes, in the obedience ring you CAN give second commands to help your dog if he's struggling. Give too many and you flunk but if things are going that badly, you're probably not going to pass anyway so give your dog some support and try to make the best of it.

If you've already flunked, the run becomes a training session, at least as much as is possible in the ring. You can't touch your dog during an exercise and you can't move forward toward a dog when he's working away from you, but you can give extra commands. A problem can be that sometimes handlers are so upset by that point, their voice is not happy, which can make their poor dog even more confused and stressed.

BUT! Now there are Wildcard obedience classes where you can give extra commands for support and praise without being penalized. More clubs are offering these classes and people use them to bring out green dogs at a new level or to help dogs who are having problems. The general consensus from exhibitors seems to be that no one really cares about "winning" a Wildcard class, they just want the opportunity to verbally work their dog through problem exercises. Finally, the AKC may have come up with a sensible non-regular obedience class!

Yes, you can ask to be excused from the obedience ring but it's looked on a little differently than it is in agility. I don't want to say it's considered poor sportsmanship if you bail out when your dog starts having a bad run because that's not exactly it. If your dog is running amok in agility, the judge and other exhibitors would probably wholeheartedly agree it's fine to respectfully tell the judge, "Thank you, we're done" and leave the course.

If you're having a bad obedience run, I think most people feel obligated to stick it out. That's probably the difference between a 30 second agility run and a 6 minute Utility run. In agility, it may be obvious that things aren't going to get better in the remaining allowed time but in obedience, maybe we hope the next exercise will be better or that we can salvage something positive from the experience if we stay in the ring. I've BEEN excused (Connor! Can you believe it?!) and I've ASKED to be excused (Connor again!).

The bottom line for any training method is that we want to be able to go into the ring with a dog who knows his job and WANTS to do it. Any time your dog fails to perform, don't blame him or worse, take it out on him with rough handling or training - review how you trained that exercise or obstacle. How can you make it better? Clearer? Faster? Straighter? More confident? More funner?

Something that helps me keep a level head is remembering that my dog did not ASK to do any of these things. Sure, he thinks they're generally fun or rewarding or he just enjoys the time doing stuff with me, but the competing, earning titles, etc. is all MY idea. I would like to think he's proud to go into the ring with me and knows when he's done a good job but that might be anthropomorphizing a bit too much.

Happy training.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Touch or touch not?


I am amazed. Or dismayed.

Am I living in my own little fantasy bubble? Is there THAT MUCH rough handling/training going on out there? And I'm just oblivious? Maybe I don't see it because I don't WANT to see it. Denial is a fine thing.

Some of the folks who commented on yesterday's post expressed a preference for clicker training over physical (hands on-guiding-molding) training methods because they've seen so much horrible force-based training it had the effect of sending them in the opposite direction.

Well . . . okay . . . but if you're old enough to train a dog, aren't you old enough to control your temper? Or mature enough to understand that might doesn't equal right? If you're training a dog, you have a responsibility to do it without causing pain and fear.

Yeah, I KNOW some people don't get it. We've all seen examples in our own clubs and at trials. Sigh.

I suppose it would be hard to hurt a dog with a clicker unless you threw the clicker at him.

There are a lot of aspects of training/showing that people fail to consider that aren't even connected to your training method but play a huge part in its success: conditioning the dog (like Tammy mentioned) so he can safely, physically perform the job you're asking him to do; the handler's mental approach - are we having fun together or do I just want the title at any expense?; who gets the blame when things go badly in the ring - the handler or the dog?; can I accept that my universal worth as a person is not defined by a 30-second agility run or a Q in the obedience ring? There are lots more. Whether you train with a clicker or a choker is not going to resolve any of those. It's up to the handler, ultimately, to put the responsibility for the dog's success or failure on THEIR OWN shoulders and to chose to do so in a way that is, at minimum, pleasant and enjoyable for the dog.

Have we reached a point in the evolution of training that it is no longer in vogue to touch our dogs to help them learn? I'm glad there are so many training methods available and people can pick what suits them and their dog best. In the case of allergies or a physical disability that prevents the handler being able to bend, touch, position, etc., then a clicker is a great answer.

Clearly, not all dogs respond well to being physically positioned so it would be pointless to pursue that method of training unless you're just trying to do things the hard way. And not all dogs respond well to clickers (I know a few who are actively terrified of the sound) or not all handlers feel comfortable using one because they aren't confident in their ability to actually click when they should.

And great point about making sure your dog allows and welcomes your touch from the very start of your lives together - if there's ever an emergency, your dog will be used to being touched even if he is scared or hurt. A few years ago Phoenix chased a cat though a rotary hoe that was parked in a machine shed. The cat fit through the hoe just fine. Phoenix didn't. When he came out of the shed, I could see a long gash along his ribcage. He let me inspect the wounded area (touching), then we were off to the emergency vet (of course it happened on a Sunday afternoon) to get examined (more touching) and stitched up (under anesthesia) without a major freak-out, even though that HAD to hurt.

Last winter when Jamie was spending so much time at the vet, having test after test prior to his IBD diagnosis, the vets and techs all commented that even though he was scared, he was a very easy dog to work with because he was clearly used to being handled, unlike a lot of the dogs they treat.

I'm glad the jerk and yank days are behind us. I'm glad we have different training methods available today. No matter which method you choose, the best thing to remember is to lead by example.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Reach out and touch someone

STOP! Go no further until you read the following disclaimer!

I am NOT bashing clicker training. I use a clicker for some things in training. I do not click everything. I do not think people who want to click everything are bad, misguided, stupid or lazy. I think they just choose to train differently than I do. And that’s fine. I am not so egocentric that I expect everyone to do exactly what I do. I do not advocate harsh physical training. But I do like to touch my dogs. A lot. I am a certified dog-toucher. And that’s what I want to write about today.

Thank you. Read on.

The Random House College Dictionary defines “compulsion” as “The state or condition of being compelled.” If I jerk my dog’s head up and shove his bottom down on the floor, I am compelling him to sit. If I lure him with a hot dog over his head until he collapses backward into a sit (an awful, rock-back sit, by the way), I am also compelling him to sit.

By that definition, every person who trains a dog to perform a certain behavior is compulsion trainer because we are COMPELLING our dogs to do things they probably wouldn’t be doing at that moment if left to their own devices.

But admittedly, this is probably not what most people think of when the word “compulsion” is used in the context of dog training. Like “correction” it comes negatively loaded with images of force and dominance that relies on pain or threat to achieve the desired end. (I think people must have thought I was beating Phoenix with a nail-studded 2x4, from some of the reactions I got when I mentioned giving him “corrections.” Seriously.)

With that in mind, it’s little wonder the popularity of “shaping” behaviors by using a clicker has never been higher. I have taught Phoenix a number of things using a clicker — including weavepoles that are accurate and fast about 99 percent of the time in the ring, providing I do my part as a handler. I’ve also taught him some silly tricks and a few other behaviors that are connected to obedience skills, so I recognize the value of this type of training. It’s a tool in my training toolbox but it’s not the ONLY tool.

I am seeing more and more people these days who seem reluctant to actually put their hands on their dogs to help them learn and would prefer to click away, never touching their dog. This baffles me. But if it works for you (and I know it does, at least for some), then it’s a wonderful thing and don’t stop. And yes, I know there are some things you just CAN’T teach by physical positioning and the clicker is perfect for that.

I’m certainly NOT advocating a return to the jerk and yank days of training. It makes me CRAZY to watch someone trying to physically force their dog into a position. Too often, pulling and pushing just generates opposition reflex (which can be useful when teaching the dog to “lock up” on stays) but otherwise just turns into a battle of wills if you’re trying to force a dog into a position he does not want to assume.

And you’ll lose every time, even if you DO manage to shove the dog into the desired position, because depending on your dog’s temperament, he’ll either be very annoyed or very confused or very scared or possibly all three. Clicker training DOES manage to avoid this scenario because you can (eventually) get a behavior without having to touch the dog. Maybe I already said that.

Some obedience behaviors must be performed in specific way and I’m just not patient enough to wait for my dog to do something vaguely related to the end product so I can click and treat it. ( I think that’s the real basis of why I don’t click more things — I’m not patient enough.) Yeah, I’ll use a clicker to teach tricks because they’re silly and frankly, I don’t care if we ever totally master them. Plus, I don’t know how in the world I’d teach some of the goofy tricks Phoenix does without shaping them with a clicker.

But when it comes to obedience skills, I have a very clear picture of the desired end result and (hopefully!) a clear set of steps I plan to use to achieve it in a reasonable amount of time. While I totally agree that dogs learn, remember and perform best when they are taught using methods that encourage them to think, not react to a show of force, I want to cut through that vague gray area of “Is this what you want?” “Or this?” “Or maybe this?” and be as specific as I can from the very start. THIS is how you do a sit. THIS is how you do a down. And I want to teach “hands on,” with my touch being part of the training experience from Day One.

Personally, I cannot keep my hands off my dogs, either in training or day to day life. I love touching them. Jamie and Phoenix touch each other a lot. They nuzzle, poke, paw, nibble, push, sniff and bite. They touch ME a lot, too, very often in the same way. They seek out my touch, resting their head in my lap or nudging my hands or — heaven forbid — jumping up on me to lick my face. I love petting them, ruffling their fur, stroking their ears, sliding my hands over lean ribs and hard muscles, playing with their feet. They wiggle and lean into my touch, pushing at me and returning the affection. It seems a natural thing to touch them in the context of training. I want that sense of mutual enjoyment to transfer into training, as both encouragement, support and reward.

Here’s an example - the tuck sit. I love sitting on the floor with a new puppy and bowl of treats, guiding his head up and forward while scooping his little butt forward, tucking his paws in, stroking him and encouraging him to sit “tight.” This IS shaping, although not in the purists’ sense of the word, which would involve rewarding a small string of behaviors until arriving at the final behavior, apparently without ever touching the dog. I can’t do that. It’s a puppy. I have to touch it, guide it, mold it, help it learn. With luck, it will only be in my life for 10-15 years. I can’t possibly touch it enough in that short time.

See, I keep coming back to that. I’m really not a touchy-feely person. I would prefer NOT to be touched by people beyond close friends. But I can’t keep my hands off dogs - my dogs, your dogs . . . it’s a wonder I never got bitten as a child before I knew better because if I saw a dog, I had to touch it. It took a while before I learned how to recognize when a dog didn’t WANT to be touched and that was valuable, too.

Just food for thought today. Happy training.

Friday, August 5, 2011

A walk on a hot summer night

Phoenix and I went for a walk last night. It was a more sensible 82 degrees in the evening, not 100, like it has been for the last couple of weeks. One of my favorite places to walk in the summer is in the waterways in cornfields. Simply put, these are places for rainwater to run and collect, allowing the land to drain and preventing erosion. You can see the waterways are slightly lower than the level of the surrounding field.

The Farmer mows and bales most of the waterways. He had mowed these today. How convenient.

Ooh, wonder what's around the bend?

Another bend

Which way should we go, left or right?

Phoenix, I hope you remember how to get home!

Jamie didn't go walking with us last night. It's still about 20 degrees too hot for him.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Seeing red

I got my hair colored earlier this week. I've never had this done before. Had it highlighted now and then but never colored. It was time for a change. I wanted something different.

I told my stylist I did NOT want to be blonde. No blonde. No. No. No.

We looked at those silly little hair samples. It's like trying to chose paint color for a 20 ft. x 20 ft. room by looking at a 1 inch square paint chip. Experience has taught me that paint on the walls NEVER looks like it does on the paint chip. Why did I think hair would be any different?

My ideal color was light brown. Pretty simple, huh? Not asking for too much? Just light brown.

My stylist assured me she could do light brown. Not a problem. I trust Robin. I've known her forever. We were good friends when I lived in town. Heck, she was in our wedding!

Long story short, my hair is now blonde. And red. Sort of blondish-red. It looks different colors under different lights. But it doesn't look light brown under ANY lights.

I'm not sure where things went wrong. Actually, it's not a horrible look so I can't say it actually went wrong. It's not flaming red and it's not punk pink. I don't need to hide it under a hat. But it's not light brown either.

Years ago, I joked that I was going to take Jamie to Robin and ask her to make my hair match his gorgeous auburn/mahogany/cinnamon/fawn/russet coat. I never intended to actually do it! Maybe I should pull Jamie out of retirement and start showing him again, since my hair now matches part of his fur.

The Farmer has started calling me Red. He thinks he's very clever. I tell him at least I HAVE hair.

In six weeks, we'll give "light brown" another shot.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

About confusion

Another installment of correction vs confusion. Today’s topic: the confused dog.

In other words, the dog knows his job well enough to qualify part of the time but it isn’t the confident, pretty performance you want and it frequently falls apart completely. All the while you keep telling yourself, “But he KNOWS how to do this.”

Well, obviously he doesn't.

When things went south with Phoenix’s ring performance, this was the hardest part for me to accept — that what I thought I had taught him and what he actually learned were two very different things.

This falls under the category of “Stuff I cannot correct because my dog doesn’t know how to be right in the first place.” This is the category most of my training issues fall into. I wish I could say that through the years I’ve become a brilliant trainer who always avoids making mistakes like this in the first place and never screws up her dog in the name of training but that’s clearly not true. I CAN say I’m not making the same mistakes twice, I’m making brand new ones!

One of our biggest problems in the ring has been the death march (walk back). Phoenix didn’t walk every exercise in every show. He just walked at random. Of course, I made all sorts of excuses for the behavior and blamed it on the vague “ring stress” problem and thought when I solved the “ring stress,” the walk backs would magically cure themselves.

It WAS ring stress causing the walk backs but the root of that stress was confusion about how he was supposed to do the exercise, so until I addressed that, it wasn’t going to get any better.

I suppose some people would just go ahead and give a traditional recall correction for a walk back — going to the dog and jerking the collar forward while repeating “Come!” — but I know Phoenix well enough to know he would see that as a very confrontational approach, which would either confuse him even more or possibly cause him to bolt in total avoidance, neither of which was going to fix anything.

Besides, it was my fault he hadn’t learned it right in the first place. I didn’t want to make him pay for my oversight by getting on his case.

Hindsight being what it is, I totally believe I trained the walk back. Unintentionally, of course, but I don’t think I could have done a better job if I’d deliberately set out to teach him to do it on purpose. In training, as he returned to me from any kind of recall or retrieve exercise I ran backwards, let him chase me, threw cookies, threw toys, cheered, clapped, jumped up and down and generally acted like an idiot. OF COURSE he trotted or ran back to me. In the ring, I stood silently with my hands at my sides.

Poor Phoenix. He’d never seen that picture before. (Well, okay, he HAD seen it in training, but not often.) No doubt he was thinking, “WTF did I do wrong? She’s not moving.” I thought my smiling stationary silence was encouraging. He thought it meant he was wrong. No wonder he wasn't in a hurry to get back to me.

Clearing up this confusion has been our biggest summer re-training project. It’s actually been a good problem to have since it plays into so many different exercises that once I get the overall concept back on solid ground, it SHOULD improve every single exercise that includes the dog returning to the handler from a signal, retrieve or jumping exercise. Which in Open and Utility is pretty much all of them.

First, I had to make it a point for Phoenix to see me STANDING STILL as he returned. He needed to understand his speed on the return was not dependent on my motion or on a food or toy being thrown. There’s nothing wrong with running backward or throwing food or toys while teaching recalls but I’d used them so long they had become a crutch. If they weren’t there, Phoenix didn’t understand he still needed to come in briskly. Next dog, I’ll fade them much earlier and/or use them much more randomly. I just gave Phoenix too much of a good thing.

Using a tracking line, I left him on a sit, went about 30 feet away, stood still, called him and gave him a little pop on the line immediately after I called. A LITTLE pop. NOT a jerk and YES, there is a difference, at least in my mind. A pop is quick and informative. A jerk is an angry, powerful reaction. Please don't tell me I'm a horrible person for giving my 53 pounds of solid muscle dog a little tug on his collar.

The pop initiated a return speed faster than a walk. It wasn't necessarily a dead run but I am willing to negotiate on that at this point. I can't fix everything at once. Once Phoenix was up and moving briskly, I dropped the line and ignored it, didn’t try to gather it up or anything. Initially, I gave lots of verbal praise once he was moving but kept my feet still. When I made part of the exercise harder for him (me not moving, no food, no toys), I had to balance it with another element to help him succeed - thus the verbal praise. I was quickly able to fade the verbal encouragement once the brisk return came back into the picture and Phoenix could be responsible for trotting in without either a pop or verbal cheerleading.

When I started working this, Phoenix really didn’t get it. When I gave him the standing still “ring picture” he gave me what he thought was the “ring response” — walking in. It was frustrating for both of us but it was a relief to have him do it in training so I could finally address it. If I’d gone back to lobbing cookies and toys around, OF COURSE he would have come racing in. You can “motivate” all you want but some dogs are such literal thinkers they believe it’s a totally different exercise when the “motivators” are out of the picture.

And no, if you’d told me that a year ago, I wouldn’t have believed you. My previous dogs were fine with the cheese and tennis balls disappearing. They didn’t care and continued to work well in the absence of visible rewards. For Phoenix, I might as well have started speaking Swahili. Again, our bottom line was “Is my dog working for the cheese or is he working for me?” If the performance heads south when the cheese disappears, there’s your answer.

More on correction vs. confusion in the future.