Phoenix has been shown in Utility about a dozen times. That includes getting his UD last spring in a quick but uninspired fashion, a few horrible ring experiences last summer and fall and a few wonderful ring experiences this spring.
During that time, his go-outs have run the spectrum from a fast trot, a slow trot, a meandering and wobbly trot and the occasional refusal to even go out. Although I did his initial go-out training to food on the center stanchion, I switched about a year ago to a paw-touch behavior. I like it because it's not dependent on running out to "load" the gate all the time in training and since there's no food involved, there's no sniffing or extended hunting expeditions. Nix likes it because he has freaky monkey paws and it's one more thing he can do with his feet that earns him cookies.
I know go-outs are one of the hardest things for a dog to generalize. Getting fast, straight go-outs in your club's training building does not automatically mean you're going to get fast, straight go-outs at show sites, no matter how much we think the ring picture looks exactly the same: four 10-foot sections of accordion-fold baby gates, separated by wooden uprights. (That's the Midwest picture about 98 percent of the time.)
With this in mind, we worked go-outs every stinkin' chance we got. We did them in multiple training buildings. We did them in multiple parks. I set up my ring gates in all sorts of different places around the farm. He was awesome, flying out and spinning to turn and sit on command. Then we went into the ring and sometimes they were great, sometimes they weren't.
I spent a lot of time scratching my head, trying to figure out what was going on in Phoenix's head. It's taken me this long to figure out it's not the ring picture that's the issue. It's about what's BEYOND the ring. More specifically, it's about AVOIDING what's beyond the ring.
Phoenix is not fond of other dogs. This is nothing new. He would be perfectly happy at obedience and agility trials if all the other dogs would go away. Small dogs are usually okay, although size is no guarantee of acceptance on his part. Big dogs are not okay. Big, boisterous dogs are definitely not okay. Even dogs who are minding their own business exert "pressure" on him just by being there.
Looking back, Nix has done his best go-outs in rings where I was sending him to a wall or at least to a gate with nothing beyond it. He's done his worst go-outs to gates where people and dogs were milling around on the other side.
People and dogs milling around is pretty standard fare at an obedience trial. It's only taken the better part of a year for me to figure out the problem is not lack of training or using an incorrect technique or confusion on my dog's part.
The problem is I'm telling him to run away from me straight into something that worries him. To me, there's no threat. Yeah, there are people and dogs standing around, no big deal. But to Nix, that same picture clearly launches his mind into Red Alert status. It's avoidance behavior that either slows him down or stops him completely.
We had a chance to work on this in training yesterday when I got together with some friends. They played with their dogs opposite where I was sending Nix for his go-out. They weren't doing anything threatening but he went about half way out, pulled up and veered off. My initial reaction was "You have got to be kidding me, what part of this is scary?!"
But it clearly was. Phoenix didn't want any part of going there.
I needed to show him that he MUST go there but I needed to do it in a way that wasn't going to turn him into a stressball about the whole exercise. I've made THAT mistake too many times. There's a fine line between forcing a dog to do something and making him think it's his own great idea in the first place.
I had my friends back off a little, then took his collar (gently) and ran with him out to his go-out spot (running is always good for us, Phoenix would happily run straight into the mouth of hell, he likes running very much). When we got there, I had him do his stanchion touch behavior. Verbal marker for being right but no cookies.
My friends kept playing with their dogs and generally being chaotic. We did more touches, sending from up close at first and gradually backing up. He got cookies for successful touches. We went back between the jumps and I sent him from there, doing both touches and sits. Success! We backed up to the far end of the ring. Success! Friends resumed their full-bore mayhem, including one dog doing stanchion touches on the opposite side of same stanchion Phoenix was running to.
Is the problem fixed? Probably not in one session. It may never be truly "fixed." As long as Phoenix worries about dogs on the other side of the gate I'll need to do maintenance work on this exercise for as long as I show him.
But I felt good at the end of the session: I'd managed to re-create the problem in training so we could address it. We addressed it in a way that A) didn't make it worse and B) showed him that he COULD be right. I hadn't assumed my dog was being stubborn or wilfull or that he "knew better." (The mindset that creates those excuses will never be able to solve them in a positive way.)
When we train alone, I think I can re-create the problem to a degree by putting toys, bowls, treat containers, etc. on the far end of the ring. I can hang coats, towels and other odds and ends on the gates. I'm pretty sure he'll do some avoidance behaviors, which will give me the opportunity to show him how to be right again.
He's a bright fellow. When he does something, either right or wrong, it's very clear that there is a reason. I wish I was a little quicker at interpreting those reasons.
Our dance card continues this weekend with the ICDOC trials at Amana. We're showing two days out of three, then we have a day off (Phoenix has a day off, I have to go back to work and do a million things in a single day) before heading to Malinois nationals.
Thank heaven for Wal-mart because packing is going to get done at the last minute and I know I'm going to forget at least one thing in spite of my lists.