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.