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!