Monday, September 3, 2012

A long post after a long weekend

The Five Seasons cluster is behind us. Phoenix and I showed in Open and/or Utility 3 of the 5 days and Jamie had a wonderful time in veterans sweepstakes on Saturday.

Jamie first. Because he’s the oldest and (if you ask him, the most important).

Showing in breed was a lot of fun! We had wonderful weather that day, which was great since the Tervs showed outside and 4 of the 5 days were hot and humid as only Iowa can be in early September. Thank you Sheryl for organizing the cool temps, cloudy skies and gusty breeze on Saturday.

Yes. There will be photos. It’s just a matter of getting them downloaded and uploaded or unloaded or re-loaded or whatever. Takes time. And mental acuity. Both of which I seem to be lacking.

Yes. There will be video. I hope. YouTube keeps giving me error messages when I try to upload. Plus since it takes about 3 hours to upload a 3 minute video, this is no small undertaking either.

Jamie showed in the 11 year old plus class. There were 3 dogs entered, him and 2 breed champions. He came in 2nd place. Good job, Big Red Dog!

Huge thanks to all my friends who came to cheer for Jamie and all the veterans. It was really fun to be in the ring with my ’99 model again.

Then there was Phoenix. The roller coaster continues.

He held his out-of-sight stays both days in Open with nary a twitch. Shifted his front paws slightly toward the direction I left but HIS BUTT STAYED IN ONE PLACE AND HE DID NOT CRAWL AROUND ON THE DOWN. For us, this is huge. I was delighted that at least one of the things we worked so hard on this summer seemed to have sunk in.

The rest of his work was all over the place. It ranged from flat and uninspired to precise and mechanical to relaxed and joyful. About the only consistency we had was very nice personal play on releases between exercises. I wish I could say this carried over and brought energy and enthusiasm to the exercises themselves but it did not. But still, it’s a step in the right direction, albeit a smaller one than I’d hoped for.

We spent all summer emphasizing play in training and building (what I thought was) an understanding of effort=reward and I’d really hoped for overall much better performances this weekend. I’m very happy he gave me better, genuine play between exercises than he ever has before. That shows me he DOES value me and values play with me, but clearly not enough (yet) to carry us through a series of exercises that are not supplemented by cookies or a tug.

Even though I’d worked much more play into our training this summer, I was also rewarding with treats and toys. Maybe one-third treat rewards, one-third toy rewards, one-third play rewards. So basically two-thirds of his rewards were still based on things he could not receive in the ring.

I had been counseled to build value for “ring objects” (dumbbell, gloves, articles) – to use them as toys in training, building excitement and enthusiasm about them since they are the only “toys” he can have in the ring.

While we did this to a degree, I admit I could have worked a little harder on it. Still, I was happy to see him leap for his glove on the release after the directed retrieve and he was generally excited by the prospect of doing articles, which seem to be his favorite exercise in the whole world. He remained unimpressed about his dumbbell, which seems odd because he loves to retrieve although it didn’t show in the ring this weekend.

So although we were tugging with gloves and his dumbbell and doing play retrieves with articles, the majority of his rewards this summer were still cookies or balls.

Emphasizing treats and toys as the primary rewards in training tends to emphasize their absence in the ring as well. While this absence doesn’t bother some dogs at all, other dogs find the lack of reward a very dismal state of affairs. Or worse, they think they are being punished when they perform and no reward is forthcoming. Although their handler may be verbally praising and petting them, that clearly does not hold enough value for the dog who expects to be “paid” with a treat.

I know Phoenix values me. At the moment, he doesn’t value me ENOUGH to find obedience work rewarding when the cookies aren’t coming. The methods I’ve tried, using delayed gratification or sustained-effort-earns-reward, have all been based on him receiving cookies or a tug or a ball – things that had little connection to ME beyond being the hand that presented them.

It’s obvious I need to make a dramatic change in our training if I ever hope to show a dog who is truly happy and driven to work simply because he loves the interaction and does not expect anything else. My previous dogs were all like that and that. I never had to build value for myself. The shelties and Jamie were happy to put me on a pedestal and do whatever I asked. What a blessing! What a curse! What a huge cosmic joke at my expense to get a dog who says, “I love you Mom, but this obedience crap really isn’t all that great when you take the goodies out of the picture.”

It’s been a long journey to this realization. I always felt I could “wean” a dog off the tangible rewards, go in the ring and get a wonderful performance. And for some dogs, that is absolutely all you need to do. For others, the cheese and tennis balls remain bribes to perform long after we think we’ve cleverly turned them into rewards.

So. Can I take the majority of cookies and toys out of our training and base “rewards” solely on play with me? On personal interaction and playing malinois games? I know the kind of games Phoenix finds rewarding – anything that involves chasing, catching, biting and jumping around like a complete nutcase.

I tried eliminating tangible rewards from our training for a brief period about a year ago. It didn’t go well. But at that time I was stupidly trying a boot camp approach – drilling until we got it right. Yeah. And THAT worked out so well. Maybe for some handlers and dogs but not for me or mine.

I’m not saying no cookies or toys in training ever again. But they need to become the minority reward, not the majority. How will my dog ever learn that I have worth if I’m constantly rewarding him with everything BUT me? It’s easy to let treats and toys build a false sense of security about how much your dog values you. Even the most interactive game of tug is based on the presence of the tug. Will your dog play with you if you don’t have a toy?

I think as trainers, a lot of us have forgotten how to give genuine praise. It’s easier to pop a cookie or throw a ball. Plus,genuine praise and interactive play is hard work!

Some readers are probably thinking, “Well, duh! What took her so long to realize this!” And they may be right. But when you have shown dogs who thought you walked on water, then you get one who doesn’t, well, there’s a learning curve.

I don’t want an artificial relationship with my dog in the ring. I don’t want to have to constantly maintain that fragile balance between cookie bank deposits and cookie bank withdrawals. I don’t want to show based on “tricking” my dog or making false promises of rewards that are never delivered.

Who ever thought training a dog was such a complex, philosophical undertaking?!

The journey continues. Phoenix is a delight to train and a never-ending source of laughter and head-shaking to live with. He’s my “box of chocolates” dog. I never know what I’m going to get.


  1. Youve said several times that you think Phoenixes issues in the obed ring are partly that he thinks hes wrong when teh cookies stop coming. Is there a way to continue to let him know that he IS doing right, even in the midst of an event?

  2. A piece of food in the mouth doesn't invovle the handler much. "Maligator games" are going to make you sweaty. And don't forget Pavlov [classical conditioning] is "always on your shoulder", as I have heard clicker [operant conditioning] trainers say. Those pesky emotions can produce powerful effects on behavior. [Just ask someone afraid of spiders or snakes.] Just some thoughts.
    Lynnda L in Minneapolis, MN