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.