Wednesday, September 7, 2011

'This will make you a better trainer'

Random thoughts about me, Phoenix, training, the past, the future, stupidity, hindsight and forgiveness

Over the years, I’ve frequently heard people say “My dog hates obedience.” I never really understood what they meant because I’d never had a dog who hated obedience. That was something I had no point of reference for. Jess, Connor and Jamie all had hang-ups on certain exercises but as a whole, they loved going into the ring. I think this was just who they were, not the result of any brilliant training skill on my part.

“My dog hates obedience” have always been fightin’ words for me. I thought “Well, it must be your fault, what have you done to make him hate it?” Never thought I’d be asking myself that question!

Maybe that’s a little extreme. I don’t think Phoenix hates obedience. After this summer’s training experiences, I absolutely believe he KNOWS what to do, he just doesn’t have the “want to” to do it in the ring when the pressure is on. After a great deal of woolgathering on this, I’ve decided the problem is not rooted in Training Method A vs Training Method B.

I think I have managed to convince him he can never be right so why should he even bother. Wish I could pinpoint when this happened in our training but of course, it wasn’t during any particular year or at any particular level. It just happened.

Although I thought I was helping him understand what to do by tweaking, adjusting, correcting and repeating, repeating, repeating the individual skills and complete exercises, the message I was actually sending was “You’re never right. You cannot make me happy.”

Well, that sucks! No wonder the poor guy looked miserable in the ring. He was pretty sure he was being set up to fail and there wasn’t even the outside chance of getting a cookie or a ball there to offset the constant reminders that he was wrong.

Here’s one of the places I totally misread my dog: on one hand, I have Phoenix, Dog Of Steel. He is the most incredibly athletic and physically hard dog I have ever owned. No wonder the military jumps out of airplanes with malinois! On the other hand I have Phoenix, Dog of Marshmallow Fluff. He is by far mentally the softest dog I have ever trained. (Not to say he is soft in the head. I think that’s ME.)

He reads and reacts to my emotions to a much higher degree than any dog I’ve trained. Although I was trying so hard to teach him how to be a brilliant obedience dog, instead I taught him frustration. Training and showing was an endless void of performances that just weren’t good enough, all wrapped up with my disappointment in the ring. Since I wanted more than just qualifying scores, I put a tremendous amount of pressure on both of us. Neither of us handled it well!

So maybe there is another type of performance crisis in addition to the dog who can’t perform without cookies — the dog who can’t perform, no matter how careful his training has been, because he has no self-confidence?

More than once this year I’ve found myself wondering if Phoenix’s obedience career was going to end with his UD. While that wouldn’t be the end of the world, it wasn’t the picture I’d always held in my mind of our journey together. I contemplated an obedience-less future for Phoenix for about 5 minutes. Then I thought, this is absurd. I can’t NOT do obedience with him.

I am convinced beyond a doubt he knows how to do the exercises. It’s not a training problem. It’s not dependent on the show site or the time of day or who the judge is. It’s a relationship problem. You can’t correct a dog for being unhappy. I don’t think the answer is throwing cookies at him all the time but I don’t think the answer is grinding away with drilling and constant formal training, either. I refuse to show a dog who doesn’t want to be in the ring with me. I don’t care how technically perfect we might become as a team, if we can’t do it happily, then we’re not going to do it. I've never been a fan of "making" a dog do something - it's akin to dragging a terrified dog across the teeter in agility and then saying "There! He did it!"

With Jess, Connor and Jamie, building the “want to” for obedience was never a problem. They CAME with it. How did I get so lucky! (Of course, now I am clueless about what to do with a dog who DIDN'T come with it.) I could tweak their “have to” without unbalancing their “want to.” Right now, Phoenix and I are seriously unbalanced. He isn’t being deliberately disobedient in the ring. He’s doing the best he can — and given that he clearly doesn’t want to be doing it at all, I’m amazed he’s even bothering to try. He loves me even though he probably thinks I am a flaming idiot.

I never put much stock in a dog’s “desire to please” until now. My previous dogs all had plenty of desire to please — desire to please THEMSELVES. But maybe with Phoenix, he really cares about making me happy, even though I’ve been pretty oblivious to it.

So what’s next for us? We’re entered in Wild Card Utility and Versatility this weekend, then nothing after that. What exactly are we going to do in training now? First, nothing formal. Forget being OCD about everything. That’s about as far as I’ve gotten. I want to recapture that "I don't care about scores I just want to have fun" attitude I had with my very first sheltie. If that means sacrificing precision for the time being, that's fine. If we don't get the joy back, there's no need to worry about precision.

Having a dog who’s not crazy about obedience is very much a new experience for me. Everyone tells me it will make me a better trainer and I know they’re right! Oddly enough, I’m not totally devastated by the fact my dog is a total mess in the obedience ring. Disappointed and frustrated, yeah, cuz I sure didn’t see any of this coming and I really hate that I’ve put Phoenix through this. He is being very patient with me. I know he forgives me for my blundering and bad training decisions.

This is getting long. I’m babbling.

Tonight I’m going to take my tree climbing, bubble chasing, flower-pot-carrying, tooth snapping, funny, silly, goofy dog to a park. We’re going to chase a ball, do some recalls, go for a walk and enjoy the wonderful cool pre-autumn weather we’re having.


  1. You aren't babbling. Your thread on this echoes perfectly what I'm coming to believe about my own dog. In fact, last night at training we did a little then we just played. And wrestled. And played. In the training building. And her tail was going 100mph.

    You and Phoenix are not the only ones on this journey.

  2. Woofs, I think your training was really fun!

    Dog Fence | It's All About Pet Fences

  3. Exactly where I am with my marshmallow, "I-don't-want-to-be-wrong-so-I-won't-do-anything" dog. She is tough as nails while herding but ask for an obedience exercise and she is a puddle of insecure mush.

    I, too, am very disappointed because I love obedience and only do herding because she likes it. I came to my realization of her obedience insecurities a couple years ago. I'm still plugging away at her CDX (Phoenix and Trey started out in Novice about the same time as we were in the same classes occasionally). She took off time twice to whelp puppies (and more time to get her hormones back to normal).

    She can do the exercises and hold her groups so we will get those last two remaining legs for her title but then she is done. Not exactly my plan when I got her but I have to do what is best for her. She doesn't even enjoy training with me and since this is a team sport I have to consider my team member and partner.

    Luckily I have her 4 month old daughter who seems to be wild to play any game with me and so will pursue obedience with her. Hopefully she'll turn out more like her aunt Beckett UDX than her mother Trey. We'll see. . .

  4. This sounds like our Mal. He is very in tune with my husband's emotions. If my husband is playing a video game and gets to a stressful point, Egan will knock the keyboard away and try to jump into his lap. Egan seems to want to "fix" Dad if he detects stress.

    Egan also hates to be wrong! If he has to repeat an agility exercise more than a couple of times, he starts to shut down -- he seems to think that if we ask him to do it again, he must be doing it wrong.

  5. I still vote for the doggy psychic.

    My first dog was an enthusiastic, athletic one with high food drive, who did not just hate being wrong -- he found it stressful and demotivating. He also could not take repetitions, whether he was right or wrong. They would signal to him that he had clearly not done it correctly the first time so he had to repeat it, and that was very confusing and demotivating. He also learned things very rapidly and could make intuitive leaps.

    My current dog is one whose idea of a good time is doing whatever I ask, however often I ask him to. If I have him repeat, its not only fun but he tries even HARDER!!! Whee!!!!!