Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Effort and mirrors

One of the best things Phoenix and I have accomplished so far this summer is building a strong response to a cue word. “Ready?” sends him leaping around in paroxysms of malinois delight. Well, it does most of the time. He’s such a “pressure sensitive” dog that if other people are standing close, he is not sure he can leap around and get excited. So we’re still working on that and he’s getting more comfortable offering it with people standing close and even touching him. 

This will translate to energy and silliness on ring entries which are typically “pressurized” places (lots of people milling around) for him and where he often deflates. Getting an enthusiastic “Ready?” response puts him in a good frame of mind for whatever comes next and should go miles in preventing that initial ring entry funk. 

One of the biggest errors I’ve made in my training with Phoenix has been rewarding for too little effort. This created a dog who was happy to deliver a performance as long as the rewards were coming thick and fast. But when the rewards dwindled, so did the performance. Phoenix did not understand how to give MORE in order to earn his cookie.

That’s been our major focus this summer and blending it with his “Ready?” cue allows me to get him animated and engaged, then ask for an obedience behavior while he’s in that frame of mind. We are gradually drawing out the duration of the behavior (more complex heeling sequences, several retrieves in a row, etc.) before he gets his cookie or ball. Building this understanding of effort-yields-cookie/tug/ball, combined with interactive play with me, will greatly improve the strength we need as a team to work through 4-7 minutes in the obedience ring without losing attitude. 

Weaning me off the cookie habit is something else.

It’s easy to get into the “one behavior equals one cookie” habit because that’s how most of our training starts. Heck, in the early stages, the puppy or young dog doesn’t even have to perform an entire behavior, just offer the beginning of it, to get a goodie.

Then somewhere along the line, we get our dogs to the point where they are capable of performing complex behavior chains and we’re still poking cookies at them for every little thing. It’s no wonder they’re a bit disappointed when they go in the ring and find it devoid of treats. For a dog who relies heavily on cookie delivery to confirm that he’s performing correctly, it’s a sudden and unpleasant shock.

Getting ME to remember to ask for more effort has almost been harder than getting Phoenix to give it. I’m still so excited to see him perform certain skills that I want to stop and treat him for being such a brilliant dog. Yeah, I know that’s silly but I NEVER want to reach the point where watching my dog nail a straight front or do a fast signal drop leaves me thinking “Ho-hum.”

Now, about mirrors. I think dogs by their very natures become attuned to the emotions and body language of their human partners. All of my dogs have done this, to an extent, but Phoenix is the hands down winner. In fact, I swear the dog reads my mind because more than once I’ve thought, “This would be a good time to trim toenails” and he’ll bolt from the room. Seriously. Kinda spooky.

If there is any conflict or tension in my mind when we start working an exercise, he is reluctant to engage. This used to make the conflict even worse in my mind - I wasn’t sure how to handle a training issue and now my dog didn’t even want to look at me! Recognizing that Phoenix was reflecting my unsettled emotions has helped me clear my mind so I can focus clearly on what I need to do to make it a good session.

This has happened several times when I’ve been training with friends. We’re working heeling and they’re shouting encouragement and suggestions. This is all fine and good but you know what it’s like when you’re concentrating hard and other people, even good friends, are shouting out things you should be doing differently or new things you should try. I must have really tensed up because Phoenix immediately pinned his ears back and went wide. He mirrored my tension perfectly.

I’ve also noticed when I am short of breath (exercise induced asthma and yes, too much brisk heeling will trigger it), he reads that I am not enjoying the activity and his engagement level drops. Before I realized what was happening, I would ask for more heeling so I could work on his engagement, which made my breathing worse, which made his heeling worse, and round and round we went. I think our heeling is the best when I don’t push myself beyond the point of being short of breath and my own stress vibes start to kick in. This means asking for effort in other ways, like spins, touches, pushing him out of position so he can catch up, etc.

Lesson of the week: if the dog is just going through the motions, maybe the handler is, too.

Burn a calorie, make extra effort, hug your dog and enjoy every day together.


  1. I'd love to "fix" Legend the way you are doing with Phoenix. I just don't know if I have the dedication. It took so much work to "fix" her in the agility ring and she's still not "normal" but enough better we are both somewhat content. Right now working on that NATCH seems more inviting than a CDX, although I'd love to have it all...

  2. I also think that dogs know illness when they see/smell/hear/sense it. I twisted my ankle very slightly and Coach would not pay attention to anything I said. He was obsessing about my ankle! I think Nix is better trained than Coach so he can't stick his nose in your mouth or whatever dog thing he would do to investigate the problem so he shuts down. I have some totally wacky dog theories, but I have FINALLY learned to trust my instincts and some of them have been right on. So - he may really be trying to calm you down so you will get better. That "look away" so everybody settles down thing is a big behavior in our house since "someone" is over the top excited about almost everything! Great post as usual.

  3. Let me chime in to your wonderful discussion of working with your dog. When training animals, who notice many little things/differences, it seems to be very helpful for the human to first have a clear mental picture of what behavior they are trying to get from the animal. If you do not have a clear picture you are unlikely to communicate well with your trainee and get good results. If you don't know what you are looking for, how will you ever give the dog timely feedback? So I concur about being clear and unconflicted when training with your dog.
    Lynnda L
    and the Spotted Dotties plus a very wiggily spaniel
    in Minneapolis, MN