Phoenix and I have enjoyed some great training time through September and October. I know this is partly because I don’t plan to enter him in Open/Utility again until spring, so there’s no “gotta fix this by next weekend” pressure. (I really hate that self-inflicted pressure, it often ends up doing more harm than good.) We’re just relaxing and taking time to address a few things that need some patient long term work. We might do Open at a local UKC trial next month just for kicks.
Part of what we’re doing with training is new, part isn’t. A lot of it has to do with rewards: what kind, how often, when to use them and when not to. Food (reward-based) training isn’t evil but I know I’ve used it badly in the past. That’s the big problem with using food - it’s a powerful thing and it’s sooooo easy to fall into really bad habits with it and let it get in the way of developing an honest relationship with your dog.
It’s hard to write clearly about relationship issues because everyone views their relationship with their dogs differently — we all have different dreams and expectations for them in terms of daily life and ring achievement. Yes, I would like Phoenix and I to be competitive in obedience but it’s not my number one priority right now. It’s been amazingly easy to put that on a back burner while we work to re-establish the simple basics of trust and fun that we lost somewhere between his CDX and his UD.
I never thought much about the relationships I had with my dogs until I realized Phoenix and I weren’t clicking like my previous furkids. I’ve screwed up (but not damaged beyond the point of no return) my relationship with him by putting too much pressure on him to perform before he was ready (even though I thought he was) and by letting my disappointment show too much when things didn’t go well, not realizing what a sensitive, emotional little beast he is. Throw in a complete misunderstanding of some of his behaviors and we had the perfect storm of confusion, doubt and mistrust that sent us crashing into an obedience black hole in spite of finishing his UD this spring. We weren’t a complete train wreck but I didn’t have the happy, flowing ring work under any conditions that marked my relationships with Connor and Jamie.
A lot of what we’re doing this fall is addressing some issues that have absolutely nothing to do with working on technical obedience skills. I’m pretty sure that while Phoenix loves his mama and adores her as an agility handler (although she’s not always a very good one), he is reserved and hesitant when it comes to trusting her as an obedience partner. I don’t think he is being dominant or willful or any other kind of “naughty” dog. There’s no “correction” in the world that can fix our problems.
I think one of our biggest issues came from doing too much formal work, which I thought was the yellow brick road to success. Instead of creating a dog who worked with confident focus, all I did was convince Phoenix he could never be right, was always causing me some degree of displeasure and that obedience was a pretty dull job that made Mom unhappy. Great fun, huh?
With that in mind, we’re spending a lot of time flipping between formal (1/4 of the time or less) and informal (3/4 of the time or more) work in our training sessions, which are short, sweet, to the point and do not happen every day. We might do an informal dumbbell retrieve, an informal glove retrieve, play tug with the glove, do a formal drop on recall and then do a formal go-out, releasing to a food reward for scratching the stanchion on command.
Phoenix KNOWS how to do the exercises. He doesn’t need to be beat over the head by endless repetition. He needs to view them as fun, not drudgery, which was where we were getting bogged down. It’s easy to tell someone to “make it fun” but it’s hard for me to break out of a 15-year habit of doing pretty much everything with a calm, serious, formal approach. Granted, this worked just fine with Connor and Jamie — with Phoenix, not so much. I’m really not a lampshade-on-my-head type of person so I feel like I’m reinventing myself to a certain extent.
I’m laughing more, trying a few new approaches and not taking training so seriously. I’m learning to see Phoenix’ stress reactions for what they are — not defiance but discomfort because of a new environment or a strange dog coming too close — and responding in a way that helps him deal with that stress.
Our autumn training time is precious. Daylight is dwindling. In a few weeks the time will change and training outdoors in the evening after work will end until spring. I need to clean out the spare bedroom that serves as our indoor training room at home. We can work fronts and finishes, lots of tricks, small heeling doodles and signals and retrieves down the hallway. The Farmer points out this means there will soon be more cracks in the dining room ceiling.