Wednesday, March 14, 2012

On the road again: a treatise on training away from "home"

Yesterday after work I loaded jumps, ring gates and both dogs into R2 and we set off to a local park for the first official “go train somewhere different” session of the spring. One of my training goals for Phoenix this spring is to train somewhere different at least once a week. By “different” I mean at a site where we do not train routinely, like my own back yard or any of the training buildings we use.

You can’t re-create a trial environment no matter where you go, but I had fallen into the trap of thinking that was what I needed in order to address some of our attention and confidence issues. In reality, we just needed (among other things) to learn how to work in new places — any new places — and especially to build his “choose to work” ethic when faced with distracting new options.

In all honesty, the addition of the Psycho Squirrel Circus in our own back yard may have eliminated much of the need to venture away from home in search of new training environs. The squirrels are a HUGE issue for Phoenix, although in a few brief outdoor sessions this spring he has done a credible job of choosing to ignore the freaky little critters and play with me instead.

But I love training in parks during warm weather, so to parks we will go. Parks, by their very nature, are one humongous distraction. Even if they appear deceptively empty, they hold a buffet line of new scents in the grass. Let’s face it, you have NO IDEA what’s been there before, plus there is the element of the “the great unknown” in terms of wildlife (especially at this park) and human and canine foot traffic. Vehicle traffic comes and goes. Kids on bikes appear and disappear. An obedience trial ring should seem sterile by comparison.

A huge element of training in new places is the importance of my dog choosing to play my games voluntarily and without compulsion. Sure, I could put a pinch collar on him and insist that he work with total attention from the second he jumped out of the van. This would lead to an endless series of corrections, resulting in a downward-spiraling training session full of stress and frustration for both parties. Plus it would totally undermine my goal of showing my dog that performing our “tricks” in new places is fun and rewarding. (Probably one of the biggest things Phoenix has taught me is the importance of/difference between a dog who works out of free will vs. one who works under compulsion.)

Lots of folks will only train within the familiar walls of their club building or back yard. They don’t like seeing their dogs “fall apart” when faced with novel distractions at new places. (The dogs then proceed to fall apart in the show ring, so that makes no sense.) I absolutely do not mind my dog making mistakes when we train in the park. I’d rather have mistakes in the park than perfection in the back yard. Mistakes mean we can stop and work on the root of the confusion or distraction.

How often have you been in the ring at a trial and thought “I wish we could stop and work through that” when your dog makes an error? You can - cuz if you train in enough new places, your dog is going to make those errors (or similar ones) and bingo - there’s the training opp you’ve been lusting after.

The sun was shining and the breeze was light yesterday as I set up jumps and ring gates. We started with articles. The breeze gusted and 40 feet of carefully arranged gates went crashing into the grass. Nix and I were on the other side of the “ring” and he didn’t seem bothered. I said some bad words, we finished articles and I set the gates up again.

Time to work go-outs. I marked Phoenix and sent him. Just as he approached the center stanchion, the breeze gusted again and the gates crashed over. Phoenix tucked his tail and bolted back to me.

Bloody hell. With three weekends of obedience entries (including malinois nationals) signed, sealed and mailed, the last thing I wanted to do was create some kind of bizarre ring gate phobia. We ran back out to the now flattened gates and did some quick “go scratch” exercises. Phoenix quickly conquered the fallen gates. One of the great things about him is that while he has a strong startle response, he usually follows it immediately by going right back to investigate what startled him. Confidence restored, he decided the ring gates were not out to get him.

I decided discretion was the better part of valor, loaded up the gates and jumps and drove to another area of the park where a building blocked any errant breezes. (How can those gates seem so dang heavy when I’m hauling them around, yet apparently are light as a feather when faced with a little breeze?) Reset everything and we managed a credible session of working go-outs without anything crashing to the ground.

Gotta go to the hardware store and get some gardening stakes to anchor my gates. The ones I had last year have disappeared into the black hole of our garage.

Happy training!


  1. Excellent advice for generalizing behaviors! Such an important step that is missed by so many. I can't wait until we're that far along.

    I hope you're able to take videos of all your upcoming weekend shows!

  2. Great Blog!! That was amazing. Your thought processing is wonderful. The way you tell the thing is awesome. You are really a master

  3. yeah, we did hit the same themes, didn't we?:).