Thursday, September 22, 2011


I intended to write about the Port-A-Potty that nearly flew off its trailer while going down the road in front of me but that will have to wait. Sometimes, things just hit you out of the blue (hopefully not a Port-A-Potty) and you feel compelled to share your epiphany with everyone. Or at least that's how it works for me.

Yesterday afternoon Phoenix went to see the chiropractor. He has a standing appointment when a chiropractic vet from an eastern Iowa practice does a “house call” at a local training building and saves a bunch of area people the approximately 100 mile round trip to his clinic.

Anyway, Nix and I went early, because I wanted to train for just a bit before his appointment. That would free up the evening for packing for the weekend and watching the season premiere of “Criminal Minds.” Important stuff.

All I wanted to work were articles and gloves - 10 minutes, max, in keeping with my "less is more" approach. It was such a lovely afternoon, several people who had arrived before me were hanging around outside the building. Nix and I went inside. He had done two (informal) articles with speed and happy attitude when a couple of people and their dogs came into the building. They sat down on one end of the building, very politely, with their dogs not being disruptive.

The change in Phoenix was phenomenal.

He went from being up, bouncy and totally engaged to tense and slow. His body carriage changed. His whole demeanor went from “This is fun!” to “Oh crap.”

I’ve known for a long time that he has no use for most “strange” dogs. He doesn’t have a lot of use for many dogs he knows, either. He has a few doggie friends (two lab girls, a pack of field spaniels, a couple of shelties and a pomeranian, go figure) but otherwise, prefers to pretend other dogs do not exist.

I didn’t realize, however, how much impact the simple presence of other dogs had on his work until seeing the stark before and after contrast yesterday. He was extremely concerned about the new dogs in the building. He wasn’t dysfunctional. He was still working and it was passable but certainly not the dog I’d had 2 minutes before.

He wasn’t distracted in the usual sense. He didn’t want to go see the people and dogs but their presence was clearly disturbing to him. He started giving me slow and sloppy responses, exactly what we’d experienced in the ring.

Hmmm . . .

A few months ago, my reaction would have been “correct it.” Even though my correction wouldn’t have been harsh, I wouldn’t have let him “get away with that.” At least I learned enough from our summer training to know this was not the answer.

Instead, I asked him for the barest element of the exercises, a simple retrieve. When he fronted with the glove and dropped it, body posture still obviously stressed, I laughed at him, grabbed the glove, ran around the building with it (safely away from the dogs and people) and let him chase me and eventually catch the glove. We did the same with articles.

I let him make the choice: fret or play. He lightened up visibly. The focus shifted from the strange dogs to me. No food or toys were needed. No correction was involved. Chasing me and getting to play tug with the glove and article became the reward. If he hadn't responded well, I would have backed down to something he COULD do successfully, maybe just simple attention.

When I thought he was relaxed and back in a comfortable place mentally, I asked for a semi-formal article (sent him from a stand facing the pile, goosed his butt on the way out, asked for a front but no finish and let him leap up an grab the article), then a semi-formal glove (same thing) and ended the session. He was much happier and he was trying. Not perfect but who cares.

Phoenix seems to be a dog who understands WHAT to do but hits a lot of mental walls that inhibit his ability to do it. Just making him do it wasn’t going to help him deal with the elements he found disturbing. By not turning it into a confrontational “me vs. him” situation, I think (again, time will tell), I moved us one step up the ladder in terms of “Hey! Isn’t it more fun to play with ME than worry about THEM?”

Don’t know why it took me so long to figure this out. To paraphrase Thomas Edison, I haven’t failed, just found a lot of ways that don’t work.


  1. This makes sense as a friend of mine here has a dog related to Phoenix and he has pretty much that same problem!

  2. Good for you and good for Phoenix!! What a great discovery, and congrats to you for being able to read him so well and accurately.

  3. Really appreciating this series of posts. I'm really struggling with Taz's attention in utility. There are just so many things in the world that require his supervision that he can't manage to bring his full brain to bear on the exercises. Correcting him just makes him distracted and tense. Not correcting him just leaves us with distracted. So far, no solution. It's hard to be a Belgian and trust someone else to manage the world for a few minutes.

  4. Interesting ... when Louie & I entered the building Phoenix looked very happy in his work. Was that after you made the fun "correction"?