Monday, May 14, 2012

Yet another lightbulb moment

I’ve been to some seminars where the presenter never once mentioned playing with your dog and I’ve been to seminars where the presenter never stopped talking about playing with your dog.

Playing with your dog sounds like such a simple thing, yet I know I have seriously failed in this department and I often see students who struggle with the concept, too. It’s much easier to pop a cookie in the dog’s mouth and I have no doubt many dogs posses such a manic food drive that trying to engage them in play (either with or without a toy) seems like a “why bother?” issue. Used correctly, food can be a tremendous motivator and reward. Used incorrectly, it can turn your dog into a stupified zombie with an outrageous sense of entitlement.

Over the weekend, I had an epiphany about play. It seems I’m having epiphanies on a regular basis these days. I should probably quit my job, stay home, assume a zen-like trance and spend the day having epiphanies. So far, none of them have banished our obedience ring issues but each new idea has let me explore a different approach to our problems and with some long term work, I think we’re going to get past our ring funk. To quote Thomas Edison, “I have not failed. I have found 10,000 ways that do not work.”

Back to the weekend. At this point in the game, I know the obedience problems Phoenix and I are having go beyond the mere “He knows I don’t have cookies in the ring” mantra. I’ve been thinking a lot about how much Phoenix values me (not the cookies or toys I provide access to, just ME) and whether or not he values training time with me or views it on a materialistic level as just a quick route to yummies and toys. I suspect I am not as valuable as I'd like to be (ouch) and since the other rewards obviously aren’t available in the ring, their absence means our support structure has collapsed, leaving very little to get us through the exercises.

Well, hallelujah and pass the potatoes! I’m finally figuring this out. It's been a very long and convoluted journey.

Denise Fenzi ( has written a lot on her blog about how our dogs do or do not “value” us and the importance of building the dog’s desire to work with his owner without being coerced or forced to do so, because working with us is a privilege. This is something I had never thought about before. All my previous training theories were pretty much based on dogs working because A) they got a treat, or B) they avoided a correction. I never stopped to think about C) dog wants to be with me, doing this thing called obedience, because working with me is some kind of joyous nirvana.

I never thought about it because my previous dogs all apparently DID want to be with me, doing obedience. I was blessed (have I mentioned that before?!) with Jess, Connor and Jamie.

It’s not that Phoenix doesn’t want to do obedience, but it’s currently clear that doing obedience in the ring at a show is not on his top 10 list of favorite ways to spend a weekend. So I started wondering if he sees working with me as a delightful privilege or just something he does when there’s nothing else going on (that’s pretty much his ring attitude, ho-hum, guess we’ll do this cuz there’s nothing else to do) or because he knows he won’t be allowed to leave and/or quit.

I want him to value me. Just me. Not me with a toy or me with a treat bag. While I think he DOES value me, it’s clear my value is not high enough to support driven, joyful obedience ring work. Changing this isn’t going to happen over night. He’s a very physical dog and I know I can connect with him on a play level, building my value and making me “more funner.” Ironically, play is part of the problem. While I DO play with Phoenix a lot, we always play with a toy. We are sadly deficient in non-toy-play skills.

My goal for the summer (well, one of them), is to improve this. So much emphasis is given to the importance of tugging with your dog that non-toy-based play is often pushed to the back of the shelf. It’s almost like if your dog tugs, that’s the only skill you ever need. If your goal is 20 seconds in the agility ring doing a self-rewarding activity, maybe so. If your goal is a 6-minute obedience routine, maybe not. You have time in the obedience ring to do a lot of playing and my play “toy box” is pretty empty.

So, playing without a toy and building my own value go hand-in-paw.

This morning I wanted to test how strong Phoenix’s desire to work with me was. We went outdoors and I left Jamie in the house. It was 6:30 a.m. and Nix had not had his breakfast. I was carrying a toy and his breakfast in a bowl. He immediately went into squirrel mode even though there were no squirrels around. He completely tuned me out. I was holding his freaking breakfast and he was ignoring me! I didn’t call him or ask him to do anything. He kept squirrel patrolling. I went and got him and put him in the outside kennel.

I let Jamie out of the house, played with him, did a little heeling and fed him treats, all in front of Phoenix. Then put Jamie back in the house and got Phoenix out. He was much more attentive. We worked for about 2 minutes, he tuned me out to obsess about birds flying around. I put him back in the kennel and got Jamie out again.

Played with Jamie and fed him cookies. Put him back in the house, let Phoenix out and he was TOTALLY all about me. We played (tugging and playing push/shove games - which he generally does not see much point in but if he’s chomping on a tug he thinks they’re okay, goal is to build them to the point where they’re fun without the tug) and trained and he had his breakfast and we were done.

I know I could give corrections for inattention (okay, I’ve tried that, didn’t get happy results) but then it’s all MY idea and he’s only working because I’m forcing him to. I want Phoenix to make the decision to work with me. Yes, I know he loves me. He’s silly and affectionate around the house and even outside the ring at trials, but that doesn’t mean he automatically feels the same way about obedience in the ring.

Some days I truly wonder how we managed to get a UD, let alone HITs, HC, OTCh. points, etc. It’s those flashes of brillliance that keep me going. I just keep repeating Thomas Edison’s quote.


  1. Again you bring up some really good points. I have dogs that just aren't that into tugging. So getting them to play with me is a challenge.

  2. I do love Fenzi's "personal play" idea. Worked wonderfully for us, until I couldn't get her enthusiastic without MY being enthusiastic. The tricky part is teaching the dog that when you're not enthusiastic (or purposefully stoic, as you would be in the ring *during* exercises), they're still doing it right and making you just as proud. We're still working on that part. It's an ongoing thing, for sure, though, not a quick fix.

  3. I have the same issues as all of you (and Ximena, I can be enthusiastic in the ring - parred down a bit of course - and I still get that deer in the headlights look). And this past weekend our individuals went better than the last trial (working in Open) but on the down stay he sat up as I left the ring and 30 seconds before we were to return the stewards pops her head out the doorway and says "who is the Weims handlers? He loose in the bldg.". WHAT? So I step in and he's racing back to where our crate is but of course people are trying to block him which is making things worse. Even when he saw me some guy tried to block him from getting to me. Thankfully he wasn't too freaked out and he didn't bother any other dogs or handlers along the way. So now I'm going to have to figure out what happened and why he chose to do what he did (I have my theories and if any of them are true then I have some thoughts on what to do to fix it). I do know that something upset him about 5 min before I was to go in to the ring, so that may have played in to the whole event. And we were the last dog in the class so had to turn right around and do stays. But I'm frustrated and am once again wondering if I will be able to get an Open title on him! Have I mentioned that he excels at agility which is not MY first love? Sigh, I'm not ready to give up on him just yet but...

    I think having epiphanies is what keeps all of us going Melinda. And I'm encouraged by your stories and I have subscribed to Denise's blog as she is looking at things at the level I aspire to see things at. But here's my big question... how do I keep MYSELF motivated to push on when I'm not surrounded by people that talk the language that I talk? Sure, my local friends listen to me but they aren't looking at things deep down like I do. To get that kind of conversation means traveling (and I travel an hour to work with a trainer a couple of times a month if we can swing it) so most of the time I'm working on my own. I'm a self motivator, have to be, but sometimes it's a struggle keeping a super positive outlook on showing this guy in obedience. I feel like I failed the both of us.