"Curiouser and curiouser!" cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English). (From "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll)
Phoenix frequently seems to have the same effect on me.
We showed at the Hawkeye KC trials in Iowa City this weekend. We showed in Utility only and NQ'd the signal drop both days . . . but wait, there's more!
My goal for the weekend was to play more with Phoenix in the ring and we totally achieved that.
Saturday he gave me all-four-feet-off-the-floor leaps and hand touches on releases and between exercises. Unfortunately, that lovely "up" attitude did not carry over into execution of the actual exercises. He went through the motions but truly seemed to enjoy the leaping and carrying on when I released him. Okay. I can build on that.
Today, I did something I have never, ever, ever done with this dog. I warmed him up without any food. None. Zero. Zip. Wow. Honestly, I meant to get out some cookies but never got around to it. This turned out to be a happy accident.
We tugged on a toy and tugged on a ball on a rope and did hand touches and were just generally silly. When it was our turn, I was letting him tug his leash. The judge called our number, I rescued the leash from Phoenix's teeth (really, this is why we can't have anything nice) and headed into the ring.
This is where Phoenix frequently pulls his "Oh, woe is me, abandon all fun, ye who enter the obedience ring" act. But not today. He grabbed his leash, flipped around in front of me and backed, tugging and dragging me, into the ring.
Holy cow, whose dog is this! I'm not sure the judge was very impressed but WHO CARES!!! It was our best ring entry in years and I just went with it. His ring play was even better today and his overall work seemed better. Set-ups were brisker and he seemed generally more tuned in and less "ho-hum." His heeling still left a lot to be desired and we failed signals because he had pretty much disengaged by the time we got to that point.
But I feel better about using play as a reward than I ever have. Before, I never felt like it was "enough." I'm getting better at play with Phoenix and he's getting better at playing with me - initially I think he was a little concerned about this bizarre new behavior his mom was exhibiting.
Could I actually train without food? I dunno! Apparently I'M the one with the cookie addiction, not my dog! Right now, I still plan use food when we train but it will be much smaller amounts and will be used in a jackpot context after back-chaining several skill sets (instead of giving treats for each little thing) and will be carefully blended with "handler play" (vs. toy play) to keep building value for interaction with me. And always, building the concept of "sustained effort gets fun and goodies." I've been very guilty of letting him develop a sense of entitlement for goodies after every little effort.
In peeling through the layers of our ring issues, I realize now that part of Phoenix's attitude nosedive in the ring was not so much because I didn't have treats with which to lure him into performing. It was because of the concern that treats were not forthcoming when he felt he'd made a legitimate effort. Why weren't there any cookies? Was he doing something wrong? That's when doubt and subsequent confidence issues set in. Oh, there's nothing like malinois angst and worry.
Now we have two glorious months off from trialing (and only 2 agility trials in that time - YAY, weekends at home! What a concept.) I've already started The List of things I want to work before we trial again at the end of August. Most involve making the obedience exercises more challenging and fun to sweep away the boredom and/or frustration demons. This means a lot of very informal, high energy training and continuing to build play skills.
I'll address The List in a future post.