Wednesday, May 23, 2012

More is not always better

Today's post is subtitled "A Trip Down Memory Lane" or "This Explains A Lot."

I took my first obedience class in 1974. I was 9 years old, training the family beagle. It was a local 4-H dog project class and we met in an empty storefront at a local shopping mall.

The first 30 minutes of class were spent on “showmanship,” also known as “handling,” or for anyone who actually showed at AKC all-breed shows, “juniors.”

Showmanship was followed by an hour of obedience. Most of this was spent marching around the perimeter of the building, popping and releasing and chanting “good dog” like a bunch of little Gregorian monks. Using treats was unheard of and nobody ever played with their dog, with or without a toy. It was largely a bunch of kids with farm dogs and the evening was considered a success if there weren't any dog fights and no humans got bit.

When our 90  minutes of training were over, we were sent home with the instructions to “Train your dog 30 minutes a day, every day.” This was followed by dire threats of what would happen if we didn’t train our dogs and how our instructors would know who had been training and who hadn’t.

Honestly to God, this was how I learned to train 38 years ago.

Okay, I can cut our instructors some slack when it came to the “30 minutes a day” orders. They were talking to kids. Kids generally aren’t big on practicing anything. The admonition to train for 30 minutes every day was given with the desperate hope that we would, maybe, on a good week, manage 15 minutes of training three times before the next class. Or if we actually did train for 30 minutes, they knew most of it would be spent screwing around.

My parents, however, were very literal-minded people. I had been told to train 30 minutes a day and that was what I would do. Once I started showing at AKC obedience trials, they were even more adamant that I train daily. If I didn’t train, they wouldn’t write the entry fee check. I was nobody’s fool. I wanted to show so I trained. It never occurred to anyone involved that perhaps 30 minutes of training, day in, day out, would not produce optimal learning for every dog.

But I enjoyed it. Jury is out on how the dogs felt, but I remember my two 4-H dogs being relatively happy workers in spite of the jerk-and-yank methods I employed. Could they have been happier workers if I’d used kinder and gentler methods? No doubt. But this was the 1970s. The power of the cookie would not reach the Midwest for another 20 years.

Flash forward to the present. Thirty minutes a day is usually overkill for Phoenix but I have a hard time knowing when to say when. I love interacting with my dogs and it’s easy to push beyond the time frame where the dog is actively engaging with me and slip into cookie bribery in order to keep my dog from saying "Enough already" and tuning out.

Bad trainer. Bad, bad, bad.

This summer (okay, it’s not summer yet but it’s been so dang summer-like around here it feels like we’re a month into a season that hasn’t even started yet), one of my goals is to pay better attention to what Phoenix is telling me about the length of our sessions. If he wants to go on we’ll go on. If he’s starting to fade, I’ll set up something to get effort and enthusiasm, then end the session. Some days, we’ll just take the day off and not train at all.

I’ve learned that A) begging my dog to participate in training, B) bribing my dog to participate in training or C) forcing my dog to participate in training is not going to get us where I want to go. This has meant getting over the “train 30 minutes a day” mantra that was carved into my psyche at a tender young age.

I realize this is a weird problem to have. Lots of people love their dogs but struggle to find motivation to train, so over-training is never a problem for them. The up side of forming this habit 38 years ago is that training is very much a part of my daily routine. I look forward to it and I schedule time to make it happen. I just need to pay more attention to my dog and less attention to the clock.


  1. ....Unless it's CAKE!!! Or Snicker Doodles...which we WON'T have next weekend.....slightly bitter!! G

  2. Try setting a timer! I have a problem with this too, because I love training with my dog. But for obedience, small doses are best. Try setting it for ten minutes max. Doesn't your dog already know the exercises? So putting the limit on and stopping before he's ready to just may get his vim & vigor back... hope so!

  3. Take a break! If you reeeeaaaaalllly feel the need to train him, then train some really off the wall exercise that's not going to be used in the ring..... like a high five, or take a bow, or somethimg equally stupid. OR!! Better yet!! Just go for a walk for half an hour. Your parents no longer write the check. Is the Farmer going to with hold your trial allowance if you don't train? PLAY with your dog!!! If you have a trial coming up, then brush up on those fronts and finishes and be done with it! He knows the exercises, and apparently, if you've been doing this for freakin' ever, so do you!!

  4. You guys are great - I HAVE been setting a timer to save me from myself.

    Also taught Phoenix to speak and we're working on offering behaviors for cue words. He's really into that. Hence, the barking.