Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Down a familiar path. Again.

After our delightfully successful return to the obedience ring in February, which netted an Open B win with a lovely score (198), tying for first place in Utility B and earning our first UDX leg and High Combined with work that was focused and happy, Phoenix and I have spiraled gradually downward. Our last few obedience trials have been marked by NQs in both classes, sloppy work and a generally crappy attitude in the ring.

So we’re back to square one. Again. This is becoming a very familiar and well-worn path. The good thing is that I know each trip brings us that much closer to never having to come back here again. I am seeing improvement but so far it’s not genuine, lasting improvement. We’re here again for a reason - my dog still has things to teach me.

It’s not a bad thing. Yes, it’s frustrating and disappointing. I thought we’d put the crappy obedience ring attitude behind us. Yet, we’ve gone from Q-ing and winning to Q-ing and placing to just Q-ing to not Q-ing and not even having any fun in the process.


And here’s the weird thing - amidst each of those recent dismal NQ-ing performances, Phoenix would suddenly snap into brilliance and do something like only lose half a point on Directed Jumping, or score perfect, happy articles. So SOMETHING was alive and well and connecting in the obedience lobe of his brain. But like faulty wiring, it switches on and off without warning.

Believe me, I’ve had more WTF moments in the last three months than in my entire life. When the Farmer asks if "his" dog was good at the show on any given day, he knows there's not going to be a simple yes or no answer.

So. As much as I’m getting really tired of re-inventing my training approach after yet another series of disappointing weekends, it’s forcing me to look outside the dog training box more than ever before. I’m starting to try some new methods that I’d been exposed to before but never felt I needed to use. I'm also not as disheartened by our "failures" as I was initially. True, they're certainly not what I want to see in the ring but they'll only be a true failure if I quit trying to find a solution.

I’ve also become more willing to re-evaluate the root of our problems, such as they are. I’ve decided the basis of our ring problems is not as connected to the use-lots of-rewards-in-training, can’t-use-rewards-in-the-ring as I’d always felt. I mean, that was the standard answer to our problems, right? How many times had I been told I was using too much food in training, needed to train without food, “correct” my dog for errors, blah, blah, blah.

Been there, tried that, didn’t work, sorry. If it works for you and your dog, I’m happy for you. But it wasn’t getting me anywhere I wanted to be. Neither Phoenix nor I were happy about training and if we can’t enjoy our training time, well, really, what’s the point?

However, I’m realizing that our training time may not have been as wonderful as I’d thought. Oh, it was happy enough, but often in a going through the motions, shoving less than excellent stuff under the rug, sort of way on both Phoenix’s AND my part. I had made the mistake of settling for the bare minimum of effort to achieve, then being disappointed when the bare minimum didn’t stand up to trial pressure. Taking that attitude into the ring was just asking for trouble. I need my dog to give me the proverbial 110% in training in order to get 99% in the ring.

Our work with building cue words is coming along. There is a learning curve involved. Phoenix is working for about 80 - 100% of his meals. (That’s 80 to 100% of each meal. Yes, he's working twice a day, very briefly in the morning, longer in the evening but trust me, no marathon sessions). I’ve frequently asked my dogs to work for part of their meals at some stage in their training but have never gone down this road before. Phoenix is very food driven and believe me, he knows when it’s a certain time of day and his food bowl has not been produced. Have I got his attention? That would be yes.

I’ve also learned how much my crazy dog values a tennis ball - to the point of bypassing a bowl of food sitting, partially uncovered on the ground NEXT to the ball. Kind of an eye opener.

The journey continues.


  1. Well, blogger apparently decided I should just shut up and not be fooling around on the internet at work, trying again. I had commented that a long time ago and seasoned handler with UDXumpteen dog said he would routinely, as a part of exercise/attitude maintenance, take one exercise and strip it down to the basic training of it again. As if the dog didn't know any pieces of the exercise, same motivation, reinforcement as when doing the base training. I always thought that an interesting approach/plan.

  2. Your initial blog inspired me to back track and start working on drive and engagement in training along with teaching a cue that means a jackpot (or treat, or whatever) is coming. My weim tends to zone out if I give him a verbal "correction" in the ring (IOW, if we are heeling and he misses a sit I will remind him that he needs to do it with a verbal "sit". This generally happens when the judge says exercise finished and I show him his position and say "where is your sit? Did you forget it?". Now my voice is pleasant, I'm not one to get gruff or loud with my dogs, but I can see his attitude change and that blank look appears. That showed me that I never taught him how to take that kind of information as just that and then move on! So the other week we were doing ok until he forgot his sit on the F8. I said to him "what happened, did you forget your sit? We are not doing breed dog stuff this weekend" and as we headed down to do the DOR I could see his attitude dropping. I told him he was brilliant, set him up and all was good until his finish. Then he didn't move when I sent him for his DB and when he did he did a fly by and tried to come back to which I told him to go get it. The ROHJ and BJ were fine, bad fronts and miserable finishes. I was frustrated but only because I knew that we had only started this new process and it was going to take time. Thank you for posting your trials and tribulations, it helps me to keep plugging forward.

    p.s. Like Phoenix he enjoys agility, which isn't my true love. If I could find a way to meet him halfway... we'll play agility if you will play obedience. Sigh.

  3. This is the post that I meant to reply to. I read on my ipad and it makes it hard to comment/type well, etc...

    This is the one that makes me feel like Phoenix and Loki are so alike. I've been there with Loki where he's so engaged and other times, he's not. It's funny, I started off with a correction-based training, to move toward balanced training (correct when you 100% sure dog knows) to total motivational training (stop working if dog doesn't work, making him choose to work, engagement, etc). And it's funny, i'm still not 100% convinced correction is a tool I shouldn't use with Loki when I need it. Though I use it as last resort and will work 150% on finding motivational ways first. I did this for our silly "Iron dog" competition where we had to send the dog to the car which he did perfectly. but when you call the dog out, you have to change your mind half way and send him back to the car. I swear i worked this everyway possible, keeping the distance small, racing him back to the car, showing him the reward (food, tug, even jackpot), and he would be totally engaged but as soon as I called him back out of the car and went to send him in again he'd find a bird or something else more important and just blow me off. and i was certain he knew what to do. because we did the crate games exactly the same way. this was just the car. and he never failed at coming out of the crate and going back in... So in order to get the final behavior for that darn test, i used a leash correction. and you know what? he's got the tightest "get back in the car" ever! but had we not been going for the test, i probably would still be looking for postive ways to make it work.

    It's funny though, teaching a dog like juno with a strong ego and Loki with such "malinois" sensitivity to correction... i could easily teach juno everything through compulsion/correction and have a decent bond with her. Of course I would and do not. And because of it, Juno has this wild engagement with me everytime we train. I have her, mind, body and spirit 110%. every single time. and if i were a really tight/good trainer, she'd show really well in obedience. as it is, I'm a really sloppy trainer and so we do this for fun. but none-the-less i go through everythng you do as well because i train them so much. anyway, as for Loki, he's is sooooo tight in every single motion. he does everything without a misstep. he looks pretty and is so complete in his movement. his heeling is just gorgeous. i mean, i'm out walking on a trail and he will do his heeling engagement with me. he'll just get right up to my leg and head up and look at me as we walk. (ok it's his way hopping for food, naturally i will reward it the longer he does it)... but it just freaks me out how tight he is when he does work. but like you, he goes through these amazingly blank periods, even if i'm only using drive motivation to work him. whereas with juno, i could take her anytime of day and have 110% effort.

    sometimes i think they just get bored. i donno. just an idea. i DO know when i train, both PREFER learning NEW things over just doing "tricks for treats" no matter how much i vary the order of tricks. whenever we work a NEW behavior, I always have 110% of their brains. they love it. can you take the obedience stuff in new areas perhaps? like on a forest trail or how about around agility equipment? i donno... anything you could do for "new" may help.

    other than that. maybe just a break. but boy, am I ever feeling like these two are kinsdoggies... I still have a lot to learn from Loki too.

  4. Wild Dingo, you may have something there. Who wouldn't want to learn something new? I mean when you are learning there is a ton of reinforcement (be it a cookie, game of tug, lots of praise or with some dogs a good side thumping, etc.) and I can speak for myself here, lots of smiles and excitement in my voice when they get it. Then for the refining part we tone ourselves down so that we begin to mimic what it will be like in the ring. BORING! And most of this is done in our training area (club bldg., back yard, kitchen, matches) and rarely when we are out walking our dogs in the woods or fields (at least in my case).

    So I think I'm going to start to ask for some of these behaviors (set up, drop, a little heeling) when the dog is already in drive and see if it can carry over. The one thing that I have forgotten is to reward when in drive, now that I've been reminded I will only treat or break off in play when Dodge is in that mode. No more rewarding for partial effort in ANY environment.

    Thanks for the reminder and sharing your thoughts everyone!

  5. Hang in there, Melinda. I share your joys and your frustrations, as Miss Q reminds me weekly that Q stands for Queen of WTF moments (for her trainer/handler).

    I guess if we wanted something other than these crazy Belgians, we'd have them, eh? ;)