Thursday, November 3, 2011

Ready? Really?

Something I’ve learned this fall is the importance of making sure Phoenix is ready before we start a training session. Just being physically present isn’t enough. I want him to be in a happy mental place, comfortable and engaged before I ask him to do anything. Frequently this means dealing with distractions BEFORE we start training.

This doesn’t mean waiting until he gets done sniffing mice out of the corners of the building or begging cookies off friends. But if he shows visible concern about nearby dogs or anything in the environment, asking him to work and then “correcting” him for making an error is not going to get happy results.

Doing that lays another layer of worry on top of the already existing dog-worry or environment-worry, which is going to contaminate whatever skill we’re working and make it even more stressful than it may have been to begin with. Experience has taught me that “make him do it no matter what” style training may produce technically correct results but they are likely to come at the expense of the dog’s enthusiasm for the project.

As trainers, we all know distractions are a part of life and a dog’s ability to work through them can determine the level of success we enjoy as a team. Knowing the difference between a fear/worry distraction and a “Squirrel!” distraction is vital to helping your dog close the gap between what he thinks is important and what you think is important. If you’ve trained for longer than five minutes, you know these two things are often miles apart!

While some dogs are instantly at home and have their head in the game no matter what’s going on around them, the reality for many of us is that our dogs need a mental warm up before they can walk onto the training floor or into the ring with perfect confidence and clear mental focus, ready to learn and perform. A great deal has been written about physical warm ups but I think the mental end of the equation gets neglected more often than not.

If your dog is a worrier, has fear issues or doesn’t settle into a building quickly, give him a bit of time to get his act together before begin your training agenda. This doesn’t mean he gets a ticket to run off and do as he pleases. He can do a quiet stay while you get your equipment organized or set up the ring. He can just sit next to you and look around. Reward him for voluntarily checking in, even if it’s just a smile and a happy word. If he’s scared of something new in the building, you can go investigate it together. He can do some simple tricks or toy play. When he seems settled and able to give you voluntary (not forced) attention, THEN begin your training session. Otherwise you’re making things harder than they need to be.

Dealing with what I call the “dingbat dog” is another thing entirely. If Phoenix is getting obsessed about another dog’s toy or wants the squirrel on the fence I’ll:

A) first make sure those distractions are not attainable (let’s NOT self-reward!)
B) make it impossible for him to obsess about the distraction, usually by running with him in the opposite direction until we’re out of the distraction zone, then producing a toy for play or asking for rewardable behaviors (making ME more rewarding that whatever else might be going on, now at a distance).
C) use a “look at that!” exercise from “Control Unleashed,” where I can reward him for acknowledging the distraction and checking back in.

None of these methods rely on traditional jerk and yank “corrections” for inattention and they help him learn that just because he wants something doesn’t mean he can have it (this is an ongoing lesson for a very impulsive dog) and if he plays MY game MY way, he’ll get a reward — even though the reward won’t be a squirrel, it WILL be attainable, unlike the squirrel.

Getting in a good place mentally before training is one more block in building the foundation of a happy, trusting relationship that you can eventually take into the ring.


  1. Doing some Premack work, also known as dismissal or the "gimme a break" game from Control Unleashed can also work wonders for quickly getting a dog's attention off of environmental distractions. Kikopup has a good demonstration of this concept here:

    My cattle dog is highly distractible and I use this a lot to get his focus. And, the more we do it, the less we have to do it!

  2. very informative post! I usually give Sophie a few minutes in a new setting to look around and settle before we begin working.

  3. Very true. I've always thought if you have to beg your dog to work with you (constantly having to ask for their attention, etc), it is time to step back and do some training so your dog wants to work with you. The dog should be begging for work, not the other way around.

  4. 100% in agreement, you can not expect your dog or yourself to train or show if you aren't mentally in the game. I call it hooking up and I do a lot of doodling (fronts, free stacking since my guys do breed, lateral moves, etc.) to get their focus on me and vice versa. And I'll do some tugging and body touching like dogs will do to dogs to engage one another. Of course this is after we've walked in to the new place and checked things out.

    Just checked out Ninso's video, cool stuff that I can use and show to other folks, thanks!

    Melinda, do you let your friends treat your dog? One problem I've run in to is that my dogs have learned that they can mooch off of certain folks when they are not training, so that is the one distraction that gets them every time (if I'm training and they walk in the bldg.). Perhaps I need to enforce 'don't feed my dog anything at any time'. At least not in a training environment. Thoughts/comments?