Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The 7-month vacation

Well, it's not exactly going to be a vacation.

But Phoenix and I are staying out of the obedience ring for the next 7 months. That's not a magic number, it just happens that a lot of the nice local (day trip) trials start in 7 months (April) and I'd like to start showing him again then.

April. That seems like years away. We've got a lot to do between now and then!

A lot of people have asked what I'm going to do in terms of training now. I've gotten lots of suggestions, ranging from give him a year off from obedience to try rally to get a puppy.

You people are funny. Really, really funny.

I do not think I could go an entire year without training obedience. Seriously. I can train less, do fewer and shorter sessions. But I cannot NOT train. Working with my dog is like an addiction. If I miss a couple of days, I start craving it, needing a fix. I treasure the time we spend together and that's even more important to me now, as Phoenix and I face the challenge of re-establishing that obedience is something to be enjoyed, not something to be endured without enthusiasm and constant reminders that he's not doing it well enough to suit me.

Rally. Hmmm. Theoretically, I have nothing against Rally. It has its place. I will not be in that place with Phoenix until they stop cramming Rally courses into 40 x 50-foot rings where there are only three steps between stations. It seems counter-productive to teach a dog to heel with power and impulsion, then take him into a ring where he has to stop or turn just as he hits his stride. But maybe that's just me.

Finally - get a puppy. While I have no doubt that would shake Phoenix out of his funk (whether it would be for good or bad is anybody's guess), it would also throw our entire household into chaos and upheaval. I'm so not ready for that! I promised Jamie that I would not get a puppy while was still with me. I want to enjoy his senior years and I know if I get a puppy, Jamie would slip quietly into that place where old dogs simply exist on the fringes of the household while the younger dog(s) demand all the attention.

So what are we going to do?

I'm shifting our focus from "re-training" to "re-animating."

There is no doubt in my mind that Phoenix understands how to do the Open and Utility exercises and how to do them well (straight, fast, clean, smooth, etc.) That may seem like a profoundly foolish statement from a dog and handler team who hasn't managed to pass Utility since finishing our UD last spring and has, for all intents and purposes, fallen completely to pieces.

But in keeping with my theory that Phoenix has lost the "want to," thanks largely to me putting so much pressure on him that he felt he could never be right so why bother (once again, what I TAUGHT was not what he LEARNED), he doesn't need any more "training." He's been "trained" to the nines and that has not gotten us to a good place.

He needs to know he's right. With previous dogs, I could always tell when they had a "light bulb moment" and figured something out - they KNEW they were right and there was no stopping them after that. The confidence and joy in their work carried into the ring and they were brilliant. Somehow, I missed that with Phoenix even though he showed me he had mastered the skills and could do the exercises. He never had the light bulb moment where HE knew he could do them and that I was truly pleased with and proud of him.

In other words - I'm going to get off his case. Training is going to be much less formal. There will be rewards but he will work for them, no luring, no over-treating, no cookies for no reason. Well, maybe a few. Because he's awfully cute. Especially when he does that Malinois tooth clack thing. Mal owners know what I'm talking about. (Do other breeds do that??)

My immediate goal is to have a happy dog in the ring. Not a perfect dog. Not a dog who never makes a mistake. Just a dog who enjoys his job and is happy to make an effort to do it with me. Once we have that, I'll decide where to go next.


  1. "Especially when he does that Malinois tooth clack thing. Mal owners know what I'm talking about. (Do other breeds do that??)"

    At special times... ;-)

    You can really hear it towards the end.

  2. You mentioned in an earlier post that you would stop showing until spring and that put the same bug in my ear. I have entered my Welsh Springer in a couple trials in the next month, her first since just after earning her UD last spring, and the first since we took the summer off to work on attitude.

    Her problems are so similar to what you write about Phoenix. And when she knows she's right and I'm happy, she just can't contain herself. So cute. But I can't keep that momentum until the next session.

    At any rate, we are going to to these shows, maybe not even go if she's really blah, then stop again until spring. I don't understand why this very smart dog cannot maintain her enthusiasm and look joyful in the ring. She is SO happy to be spending time with me, it just isn't enough I guess.

  3. Hey Melinda,
    Just can't help but post after reading your saga. For what it's worth, I think you've hit the nail on the head with Phoenix thinking he isn't doing things right. I see this with Seeker every now and then if I repeat something too often or don't give him adequate feedback. For being as tough a dog as they are, they are oddly sensitive and emotional at the same time. I thought German Shepherds were sensitive..nothing compared to the Mal. Seeker needs to be right most of the time and doesn't tolerate much repetition without being shown how to be right. Once I show him..he's very happy to do it the way I want. Anyway...good luck on your new path and I know you'll get him back. (without adding a puppy or rally...) CJ

  4. Rally rings are pretty crowded.