A couple of people asked me that after Phoenix had a very happy return to the obedience rings last weekend after the previous year was marked by repeated crash and burns.
I wish I could tell you! First of all, I’m not under any illusion that all our issues are resolved and we’ll have nothing but blue skies from here on. We still have a lot of things that need work and a lot of ways we can improve. Plus I know how easily things “break” even though you’d swear your dog knew a particular skill inside and out.
But here are the big changes I made, starting last September. Most of the changes had more to do with improving our relationship and less to do with training technical skills. This came after a summer spent trying to do just the opposite, which clearly got us nowhere good.
• I quit being the obedience Nazi. I quit getting on my dog’s case for every little imperfection and nagging him about every error. My quest for a brilliant obedience partner was creating one who saw no point in trying because he was never good enough.
• This didn’t mean letting him “get away” with things. If he made a mistake in training, yippee! We repeated the part of the exercise that was giving him trouble and I helped him be right by making it easier in some way. Once he could do it with just a little help, then I gave him a little less help and eventually, he was doing it right without any help.
• I also had to decide if the mistake was the result of A) being distracted/lazy/lack of effort/boredom B) confusion or C) fear/worry/anxiety. Just following an error with a "correction" wasn't the solution many trainers believe it is.
• Sometimes there is a cookie and sometimes there isn’t. Food is still part of our training. So are toys. But it’s not all about the food or the toys. It’s about me. And the work. And having fun with me and the work. And the work being fun. How’s that for a perfectly foggy explanation?
• Cleaned up my criteria for what gets cookies and what doesn’t. Cut back on my Pez-dispenser habits. Worked harder on play and interaction that didn’t depend on cookies.
• I accepted Phoenix for who he is. This might sound weird but I wanted so badly for him to love obedience the way Connor and Jamie loved it that I was constantly comparing him to them. He’ll never work like them. He’s already much better at several skills than either of them ever were. He’s also much worse at several skills than either of them ever were (but getting better!). Bottom line, he’ll never be exactly like them and I don’t want him to be.
• Changed my warm up to reflect what he needs to relax in a show environment vs. “polishing” him up for a perfect ring performance. If he isn’t in a good place mentally, all the last minute heeling and fronts drilling aren’t going to do a damn bit of good. At Des Moines, we did tricks and a little heeling and some tugging. Went in the ring with a happy dog. Happy things happened.
• If I don’t feel like training, we don’t train. Okay, this doesn’t happen very often but it DOES happen and before, I would have “pushed through it” and trained anyway because I felt like I had to. Any time I work with Phoenix, I have to be there for him 110 percent. Since that’s what I want back from him, it’s not fair for me to drag my tired, cranky, distracted self to the training building and expect him to be brilliant. Sometimes it’s okay to take a night off and eat popcorn in front of the TV.
• I made sure we had multiple days off during the week with no training. He doesn't need to be worked very single day.
• We play a lot when we train. Sometimes it’s as a reward for good effort (at least I think it is, I don’t really know if Phoenix sees it that way or not) and sometimes it’s just because I like to play with my dog.
• Relaxed about stuff instead of trying to “fix” everything by the next weekend or the next trial or whatever. It will take as long as it takes and that's that.