Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Choose to work

Thank you guys for confirming what I suspected: very few people truly understand drive in a dog - what it is, why you want it, how to get it, how to keep it, how to use it. A lot of people think they understand drive but mistakenly believe energy and drive are interchangeable. Many people just go “Huh?”

I tend to fall into the latter category although I’m slowly making progress to a higher state of enlightenment.

We would probably agree that all our dogs have certain drives although they manifest in different ways: drives to sniff, hunt, bite, play, chase, protect, eat, etc. It’s easy to take these for granted. It’s just our dogs being dogs. Why would we need to understand any of this for obedience work?

Because obedience is boring.

There. I said it.

There is very little that is intrinsically rewarding to the dog about obedience exercises. They are all performed at moderate speed under stringent control in a small area. Compare this to the adrenaline rush of agility, a hunt test, lure coursing, protection work, freestyle, etc. and obedience is going to pale in comparison.

Dogs do not come with an “obedience drive.” You have to create one. Tapping into a dog’s food drive or prey drive is going to be the key to get many dogs jazzed about trotting around the ring with their heads in a very unnatural position, performing one brief and precisely choreographed exercise at a time without any tangible rewards.

Amy and Graydogz asked about the “choose to work” exercises I referred to yesterday. I thought it would be so simple to refer you guys to Denise Fenzi’s blog because in the course of working her puppy Lyra she’s written several excellent posts on the topic. Then I tried to pinpoint them exactly and couldn’t. So I’ll refer you to her blog in general, There is no part of it that is not beneficial reading.

The “choose to work” theory is based on allowing the dog to make the decision to engage with the handler versus the handler using compulsion to make the dog work. The dog values his interaction with the handler and is working because he WANTS to, not because he is being MADE to. Obviously there’s more to it than just waiting around until your dog decides he’s checked off everything else on his to-do list and suddenly becomes aware that you’re standing there waiting for him.

Here’s a brief "choose to work" sequence (my apologies to Denise if I’ve misunderstood any part of this): play with your dog (tugging, chasing cookies, doing an obedience exercise that he genuinely LOVES), then release him to “go be a dog.” Initially, keep the dog on a leash but you’re giving him permission to tune you out, go sniff, look around, etc. Stand quietly and just watch him.

How long does it take for your dog to decide he’d rather do something with you than without you? Re-connecting with you may range from grabbing the toy and shoving it at you or simple eye contact so pay close attention. You want to mark that moment - acknowledge your dog and re-start the game by tugging, playing, etc.

If he hasn’t re-connected with you after 1 minute, pick up his toy, tap his butt gently and show him what he’s missing. Play. Now that you’ve got his mind, ask for obedience behaviors. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Goal is to have your dog CHOOSE to play with you instead of self-entertaining with the environment. Obviously you wouldn’t do this in a room full of squirrels with a baby dog. Control the environment to a certain degree.

I like this exercise because it keeps me from starting a training session with a dog whose mind is elsewhere. If I DID start training with a passive, distracted dog, both Phoenix and I would soon reach a state of mutual frustration and confrontation, which isn’t going to yield anything either one of us likes.

Okay, enough for today. Tomorrow I get to go on an archaeological dig! The local historical society, along with the Office of the State Archaeologist and some other folks are excavating a mid-1800s trading post site along the Iowa River here in the county and they’ve invited me along for media coverage. Cue “Raiders of the Lost Ark” theme now . . .


  1. I do love Choose to Work! I need to practice it in less familiar places, though -- Elli's totally figured it out. We went into a familiar field today and instead of sniffing around like she would've a week ago, she barked at me! When she was quiet, we worked, but goodness, call me flabbergasted.

  2. Nice explanation of it. Koira LOVES working with me, and if I have been playing with her and give her permission to go be a dog, she might go sniff something, but greatly prefers to play with me. Pallo, however, could probably use some work with this. In flyball, he is totally engaged with me, but elsewhere, he gives me only passing attention.

  3. Oh dear. I just lived this yesterday and today! With my younger, green dog who (shall we say) does not have the innate (and taught) drive that my older dog has.

    Yesterday I decided I really needed to work Tip in heeling, and needed to do so outside in larger spaces than the small house or the overgrown back yard. So clipped on a lead and grabbed a few treats and tried to work. I should've listened when he did not want to even eat the treats. Things went downhill from there. A few hours later I looked at the dog who was gleefully chasing and killing a toy and realized my mistake. I had grabbed the dog but had not ENGAGED the dog.

    So today I took both dogs to a different setting and took turns playing and working with them, in an engaged way. And Tip worked himself into exhaustion, trying to heel the way I wanted him to ... because we had that energy between us. I don't know how else to describe it.

  4. Thanks for the description. Yes, I have been reading Denise's blog (thanks for mentioning her a while ago, I enjoy reading about Lyra and getting the OTCH on Cisu). My puppy has a better grasp of the "choose" than my male but I'm going to start to work on it with him (he's a momma's boy and will try to do stuff to please me).

    i think I have a grasp of when each one is in drive (they are all in drive when we do kitchen training since I don't gate them off from each other, rivalry is a good thing in some instances), it is getting them there (specifically my male) which needs work. Hopefully my trainer and I will put a dent in that at our next lesson. I play with him but not enough IMO.