Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Formal vs. informal

Okay. Finally, a training column because there’s only so much baking and cleaning and shopping a person can do.

I train alone most of the time. This is good because I can do whatever I want without having to share floor time and space. This is bad because A) I don’t have anyone to trouble shoot and make “What if?” suggestions and B) my dog and I get entirely too used to working in a vacuum.

Which brings me to today’s topic:

With Phoenix more than any of my previous dogs, I’ve struggled to find a balance between formal and informal training. Do too much formal stuff and the dog quickly burns out on the (boring - yawn) repetition. Yet I worry if I’m too informal, my dog won’t be realistically prepared to assemble all the pieces when asked to perform complete exercises in the ring. Really, if your job was to build airplane parts and you were very good at building individual airplane parts, would that mean you could assemble an entire airplane if someone suddenly asked?

As we moved through Open and Utility, most of Phoenix’s training was very informal. I focused on individual skills (for example, a quick drop out of motion) rather than complete exercises (formal drop on recall). I didn’t ask for formal set-ups before each skill and I worked fronts and finishes separately from the rest of the exercise. Heck, I worked fronts and finishes separately from each other.

I would occasionally assemble everything and run Phoenix through an entire exercise by myself because I felt it was unfair to him to ask for only 8-second behaviors in training, then expect a smoothly executed 30-second behavior chain in the ring. (Amazing - get a stopwatch and time some of the individual Open and Utility exercises - they don’t take very long to perform from start to finish.)

Even at fun matches, I never went marching around the ring according to the judge’s commands. I did my own thing. Judges laughed and threw their arms in the air. They knew I usually had my own agenda for the day and were always helpful.

Looking back, that may be one of the biggest mistakes I made with Phoenix. When we went into the ring for real and suddenly all my actions were being dictated by someone else’s orders and timing, the picture changed. Phoenix had rarely seen this picture and while you could say, “If the dog is trained it shouldn’t matter and he ought to perform no matter what” (which is true), it DID matter to this particular dog, which means all the “should’s” and “ought to’s” don’t matter at all.

To Phoenix, the formality of the ring didn’t feel anything like our loosely structured informal training sessions. Although it didn’t throw him completely off track, it was enough to cause some slight concern which caused him to stress down a little further, on top all the other weird issues we were dealing with.

For us, it would have been very helpful to do a little more formal work, at least in the sense of having a friend play judge and call commands for one or two exercises each time we had a group training session. We don’t need a steady diet of this, but it would have given me a chance to get better at balancing my handling with responding to judge’s commands and keeping my own timing and rhythms in line. This was a no brainer with Connor and Jamie but, um, Phoenix is not Connor or Jamie.

By doing some things formally, Phoenix can see that yes, the rules are the same and this is indeed a fine and fun thing. Phoenix is a very literal dog. Things are very black and white to him - they are either normal/good/fun/familiar or they are strange/suspicious/odd/uncomfortable. The difference between my informal training and the formality of the ring was painfully apparent to him. I would like this line to eventually become so blurred it doesn’t matter whether we are training alone or responding to a judge’s call.

While some trainers swear they never do anything formally until they step foot in the ring and others swear that drilling is the only way to make the dog understand, once again Phoenix has taught me the important thing is to train the dog you have. What THAT dog needs is what’s important.

One of my goals for this winter is to make better use of group training time when I can get a friend to call an exercise so Phoenix and I can practice being formal with the same enthusiasm we have practiced being informal.

I need to go bake more cookies now.


  1. As someone who doesn't compete (and has never been to a real live competition) I wonder if it isn't all in raising criteria appropriately? I agree that you should work on each piece separately until you like where it is and then put all the pieces together one by one, twos by twos, etc. until you can regularly practice longer-than-in-the-ring segments with the same enthusiasm that you practice short sequences you deem "fun." Maybe taking out the lines in your own mind about formal and informal can help? Make it all informal and fun - but so that informal and fun encompasses ring-quality sequences? And this is all assuming the only difference between formal and informal, for you, is length of the behavior (or difficulty).

  2. GREAT post!!! We train on our way too much too and Falkor is a dog that is affected by the "different picture" of the trial environment. So I am trying to mix it up more for him as well.

  3. I faced the same problem with my two border collies. They are full sisters but SO different in how they view the world and respond to training. WIth Beckett I went into the ring and had rarely chained the pieces together (until Utility and that is a whole 'nuther ball game).

    With Trey, my marshmallow and worrier, I had to do the fine balancing act of practicing the entire exercise without drilling. VERY difficult - both to find that line and to adjust my training style (which is very loose and informal).

    It was an eye-opening experience but taught me alot about dog training. Until one has experienced both types of dogs, one really has no idea the difficulty presented.