Me: It is a lovely spring evening. The sky is clear, the breeze is light. We will train outside at home. Look, I have all the ring gates and jumps set up. The Farmer is in the field. We have the place to ourselves. We can train as long as we like on this beautiful evening. Nothing can disturb us.
Phoenix: Squirrel! Up a tree! Didja see it? I saw it! Ran right across the ring! I want to chase it!
Me: Oh (bad word)!
Me, rolling eyes heavenward: This is a training opportunity. We can work through it. I do not need a gun.
Phoenix, staring at the tree: Where’d it go? I wanna chase it! It wants me to chase it.
Me: Phoenix? PHOENIX? PHOENIX?
Phoenix: Oh, you’re still here. Whattaya want?
Me: Your attention.
Phoenix: Busy. Hunting. Great squirrel hunter.
Me: Yeah, I get that. But here’s the deal: I’m not going to let you chase squirrels. You can stand here and watch squirrels you can’t have or you can play with me.
Phoenix: Bummer. Sucks. Want the squirrel.
Me: I’m not begging you to play with me. And I’m not going to fight with you about attention. It’s your choice: me or the squirrel.
Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
Phoenix: ‘kay. Whatcha got?
Me: Hey! That’s better! Wanna do go-outs! Run fast, get food!
Phoenix: ‘kay. Get squirrel?
Me: Um, no. Where’s your go-out spot? Look at your spot. Spot!
Phoenix: I’m looking at the squirrel. Little tree rat. Thinks its clever. I could bite its tail.
Me: Um, yeah, no. Your go-out spot is not in a tree. Dear God in heaven give me patience. And remind me I do not need a gun.
About 5 minutes and several lovely, squirrel-free go-outs later . . .
Me: Last one! Ready? Where’s your spot?
Phoenix: LOOK THERE’S A SQUIRREL ON THE GROUND BY THE RING!
Me: Oh (bad word)! We could stop. We could just stop right now and cut our losses and no one would ever know.
Phoenix, vibrating: Look lady, either send me on the go-out or let me get the squirrel. This sitting here is killing me.
Me: Really? Okay. Spot! GO!
Phoenix, not moving: I can’t.
Me: You can’t? Why not?
Phoenix: Squirrel. Can’t deal. Head might explode. Just sit here. Can’t be wrong that way.
Me: Okay. We’ll go together.
Phoenix: ‘kay, I’ll get the squirrel, you do the go-out.
Me: Um, yeah, no. We’ll do the go-out together. In spite of the squirrel.
Phoenix: You're a freak.
Me: I also have your supper.
Phoenix: Supper? Supper! SUPPER!!
Me: You are insane. I love you.
Phoenix: Look! CAT! HERE, KITTY KITTY!
If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be working Phoenix off-leash while squirrels played in the trees above us and farm cats strolled around, I’d have said you were out of your ever-loving mind. It hasn’t been easy and he’s far from perfect, but last night’s training session was a success on so many different levels. I was proud of him for working through it and of me for not losing my patience and letting him make choices.
He was off-leash the entire time and never tried to leave the training area. Oh yeah, he thought about it, I’m won’t say he didn’t. But he made the right choices and he got rewarded for them. On any given day I’m not totally convinced he wouldn’t choose a squirrel over me but that’s who he is and that’s where we are right now.
It wasn't the carefully choreographed training session I'd hoped for but I'm getting better about doing damage control when things head south in our training. In the end, I think the whole crazy squirrel episode probably strengthened the weak spots in our go-outs more than if I'd just set him up and done 10 perfectly flawless go-outs with no interference.
He learned he could work though a pretty major distraction and I learned I could be patient. And laugh. And not try shooting the squirrel. Which I'm pretty sure would have caused more problems than it solved.