Thursday, October 27, 2011

Bye-bye, Obedience Nazi

I’ve had lots of ideas to blog lately but never enough time to get it done. Since my morning started with an oatmeal disaster in the microwave, resulting in the need to eat a wonderful donut for breakfast instead, that might be an indicator I probably shouldn’t tackle anything very complicated today.

Phoenix and I went to an obedience show-n-go last night. I felt like our teamwork was comfortable and happy, with mutual enjoyment of the evening both in and out of the ring. He had several meet-and-greets with other dogs without getting snarky, even though a couple of shelties tag-teamed him unexpectedly for a group sniff.

After one run, a friend commented, “He looks really nice and he looks like he’s having fun. What are you doing different?” (She’s seen Phoenix and I in the ring at our ohgodmakeitstop worst so I appreciated her observation.)

Honestly? I quit being the Obedience Nazi and said to heck with getting on his case for every little thing when we train.

I don't see this as letting him "get away" with stuff but instead focusing on elements that are more important than the technical precision of obedience work.

I started obedience training in the era when using treats and toys were unheard of and the predominant theory was A) you trained your dog and B) once you felt he’d had enough “training,” you “corrected” any mistakes because you didn’t want the dog to think he could “get away” with anything. As if the dog would deliberately and maliciously do things wrong just to annoy you and “earn” a collar pop or ear pinch.

Although I’d like to think I’ve evolved light years beyond those methods, enough of the “make him do it right” mindset has lingered that it is hard for me to overlook even the smallest errors in training. I’m constantly mentally critiquing and nit-picking our performances when we train.

While this is beneficial from the standpoint of technical performance improvement, it had the unintended side effect of being toxic to my obedience relationship with Phoenix. (Our agility relationship was fine, I’ve never taken agility seriously enough to get to that level of nit-pickiness. I tend to have a much more relaxed good-enough-for-who-its-for attitude, which Phoenix responded to with enthusiasm and joy.)

No wonder the poor guy was a stress-ball in the obedience ring. He’d been told he was wrong so many times, frequently when he wasn’t confident of how to be right in the first place, he just started going through the motions, hoping maybe he would eventually get a cookie or a tug. This created the illusion of a dog who knew what he was doing but wasn’t making enough effort. Things got worse when I tried to correct him for lack of effort.

So I quit being the Obedience Nazi. I stopped looking for things that needed correcting and started looking for WHY the behavior was less than what I wanted in the first place.

Some readers will smile and think, “It’s about time.” Others will recoil in horror, thinking “But you can’t let a dog get away with making mistakes!”

It’s my choice. I tried the drill-and-correct route. The corrections weren’t harsh or abusive. But it was terribly demotivating for BOTH of us. If we didn’t in enjoy training, no way in hell would we enjoy showing.

When I stopped nagging my dog about every little error he made, we both relaxed. If he made an error, instead of a traditional “correction,” I asked him to do it again from the point of the error and helped him be successful. Then I asked for a repeat of that skill or exercise and we had a party when he got it right all by himself. Right now I'm more interested in confidence than precision. It should have been this way all along but, well, live and learn and get over it and move forward.

I started asking Phoenix “Why can’t you (fill in the blank)?” and he started telling me “Because I don’t understand what you want” or “Because I’m worried or distracted” Then I worked to figure out how to help him understand and how to eliminate the worry or deal with the distraction. I suspect some of his answers have also been "Because it's stupid and $#@!-ing boring." He's a very honest fellow.

At the match last night, he bounced on his heeling. He wagged his tail. He gave me eye contact with his ears up (ears are a big deal with him, he talks a lot with his ears). He made some little mistakes and the gal who was doing my run-through and I laughed and shouted, “Half point, who cares!”

Yeah, down the road I’ll care about the half points. But until I re-build our foundation of fun and trust, they don’t matter.

Re-thinking the whole “ring stress” scenario, when I see unhappy, unfocussed dogs in the ring, now I wonder if it has less to do with the no-cookies-in-the-ring factor and more to do with confusion and uncertainty stemming from training issues and/or lack of trust in their trainer. Ring problems are training problems first, even when they try to masquerade as something else. Training problems are a complex tapestry of relationship issues and skill issues that should not hinge on bits of cheese or tennis balls.

Of course, these are the ramblings of a 40-something who apparently can’t even cook a bowl of oatmeal without causing an environmental disaster. Tomorrow, I’m not taking chances. They make Pop Tarts for people like us.


  1. Good for you to be able to make the training change. It ain't easy.

  2. You ever had a pap tart burn in the toaster? One evacuated our whole office building, so dont count on error proof there. Glad you and Phoenix are both happier!

  3. I'm working on this same kind of thing with Koira and her flyball box turn. I need her to have a safe box turn, but she doesn't seem to like doing it, and I am currently trying to figure out how to make it fun without it being dangerous. Any tips you might have from an obedience or agility training standpoint would be awesome!

  4. Thank you Denise for helping me change some of my approach to training. I was feeling like I was relying on food too much and then losing the enthusiasm in the ring. What I am coming to realize is that Dodge was more confused than demotivated because of the lack of food and while I do a little bit of play I wasn't doing enough of it in general. So with the addition of a puppy to the household, and the drive to "get it right" with her (more so because she is a HER and I haven't had one of those in over 20 years), I'm playing a lot more with my dogs! And I think it is starting to work. Yes, he still has some confusion in training but we've only been working on this for about 2 months and I haven't hit enough matches or been in the obedience ring in a while. I'm glad to hear that your months of hard work are starting to pay off, it shows me that we can all get to that by putting in the time, energy and having the patience to work through things. Again, thank you!

  5. I recently realized that I had poisoned the cue for my young aussie's finish in just this way. No harsh corrections, but just too many "that wasn't quite right, try again." Don't know if she got confused or just figured it wasn't worth it, but one way or another she definitely wasn't happy. If I use a signal instead of the voice command, apparently it's a whole different exercise.

  6. Good for you Melinda. I'm genuinely excited to hear you are making progress!