Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Thinking about things

 Two things today.

First - what’s up the negative attitude?

Over the weekend's agility trial, I heard several exhibitors berating themselves and their dogs when they came off the course. There was a lot of toxic energy when they failed to qualify. STOP IT! I thought agility was supposed to be the “fun” sport.

I have a friend who’s dying of cancer in hospice care. She’ll never get to run her dogs again. I’m sorry your dog dropped a bar or a missed contact but you know what? YOU GET TO RUN AGAIN NEXT WEEKEND!

Let’s keep things in perspective. If you’re healthy enough to run agility and your dog is sound enough to run agility and you can step up to the line together and finish the course together, that’s a gift and don’t ever take it for granted. Handler and dog errors on the course are frustrating but they’re part of the game. Deal with it.

Okay, getting off my soap box.

Next topic.

It’s only taken me 5 years to put my finger on this but I’ve come to realize one of The Problems With Obedience (emphasis mine) is that it’s so easy to rely on tangible rewards to teach our dogs the technical skills they need that we overlook the value of simple joy in teamwork. It’s not a specific skill that can be taught, but one that needs to be developed and nurtured right along with teaching all the other behaviors we want.

Here’s what I mean: in most obedience training, the focus is on teaching the dog that Behavior = Reward. Pretty basic. And nothing really wrong with it. I mean, that’s how dogs learn.

Except what happens when Reward is ONLY treats or toys and then you go into the ring and Reward disappears? Now Behavior = Nothing and if your dog is only working for the promise of goodies that will never be delivered in the ring, things can get ugly in a hurry.

What if  you’ve taught the dog that Behavior IS Reward? That there is honest fun in doing obedience with you, as partners, as a team - not as superior giving orders and a subordinate obeying or suffering a consequence (which, let’s face it, is how a lot of us learned to approach obedience training).

I’m not saying anything new here. Lots of other trainers and seminar presenters have said it before. I just didn’t recognize the truth until Phoenix.

For years, I’d been taught if you poked food at your dog or threw a ball when he did what you told him, it was all good. I took for granted that my dogs would naturally enjoy being trained and shown. After all, they did, didn’t they? They wagged their tails and got OTChs and it was all good.

Then I trained Phoenix much the same way, only with drastically different results. It was not all good.

I had focused on teaching technical skills while taking the fun for granted. I got a dog who performed with precision if the cookies kept coming but was bored out of his mind when they stopped. He didn’t see any value in the work for the sake of the work - and he didn’t value me all that much as a working partner. (I have no doubt that he loves me and through all our struggles he was very affectionate and silly beyond the realm of obedience work - but that love was not enough to support what he viewed as a mind-numbing waste of time. I'd made some bad training decisions and that pretty much confirmed his opinion of obedience, too.)

So we’re changing things up. I’m continuing to work on personal play skills and he’s becoming easier to engage with just hands and voice. We play with toys during training not necessarily as rewards but just because I like playing with toys with him. Both types of play (with toys and without) are fun and create all sorts of good vibes that echo through the “work” and make it intrinsically valuable to him. Work is fun. Time working with me is fun. OMG - obedience is fun!

So why don’t more people realize this and why don’t we all have dogs who think obedience is crazy fun?

For one thing, it takes a lot of effort on the trainer's part. Plus, if you see other dogs who naturally gravitate toward owner worship with no apparent effort on the owner’s part, you may think “Well, she gets 199s all the time and I never see her do anything but give her dog treats.”  Clearly that works for that dog and handler and yeah, it worked for my previous dogs but when it came to Phoenix, not so much. Every dog brings a different mindset to the table.

Play is physically and mentally demanding. What kind? How often? For how long? I constantly have to fight the urge to go back to rewarding everything with cookies just because it’s easier on me. Our training is no longer a mindless formula of Dog performs Behavior and receives Reward. I’ve quit going through the motions and being satisfied if my dog "just does it.”

Yes, it’s working. Slowly. I’ve got a lot of bad obedience mojo to clear out. I tend to be a quiet, methodical trainer so I’m having to re-invent my own training style to an extent and that’s not been easy.

The journey continues. Happy training!


  1. I think a major part of the problem is the PP movement, which fostered the "push the cookie" idea, and all the agility people running around claiming their sport is the "fun one", as if obedience could never be fun. Me? I guess I'm weird because I've loved obedience competition for decades . And I'm not really into agility because I don't like the *requirement* to have fun. I'm a human, and if my dog blows me off on a course/in the ring/out in the field, it's going to upset me and I'm not going to be all smiles as I leave the line. I prefer to be able to feel the way I want about our run and not be told I *must* be happy.

    So, I don't run much agility but I think that attitude has run over into obedience, particularly with the introduction of Rally. We aren't supposed to show any negative emotions, and given the competitive nature of obedience, it's hardly polite to only show emotion when we do well! ;-) So, obedience has become "no fun", especially when compared to the frantic required "fun" of agility.

  2. great post! Training without all the food/toys is such a hard change to make. I'm fortunate enough to read people like you who show me the importance of it before it become an issue in our post UD quest.

    Kathy, I think your attitude misses the first point of the post. It's not that we don't have a right to feel disappointed or frustrated in training or trials. But we're the ones choosing to play these sports, not our dogs so yes I do think that we need to keep things in perspective and remember that the opportunity to play with our dogs out there is amazing.

    I personally think training and competing in obedience and/or agility is as fun as you make it. But then again, I am one of those PP people you refer to and I do agility as well as obedience. I also have a blast in both regardless of our "Q rate" that day.

  3. I think one of the challenges is that food is so darn reinforcing for the TRAINER. With a smart, food-motivated dog and a clicker you can train an incredible variety of things really quickly, and it's just so much FUN. (Says the woman whose Aussie had a basic understanding of the utility exercises at 6 months.) The rate of reward for the trainer is enormous, and the dog is having a great time and it's all beautiful. Until the dog figures out there is no food in the ring -- which doesn't take long with a smart, food-motivated dog. Building a training relationship that makes the work intrinsically fun requires a great deal more maturity from both the dog and trainer, and the results are much more incremental. Which means that the trainer also needs to learn to find the work together rewarding in and of itself, without relying so much on the reinforcers of "progress" and "success."

  4. I like to always comment to the grumps "if you can not find one thing in that run that was amazing...your dog was sick, hurt or the dog does not like this sport and YOU need to change for his sake" I admire people that have high drive to be perfect but not people that are blind to the dog they are with.

    Lynn - love your comment.

  5. lost my comment - love both parts of the post
    disagree with the comment that the PP people are to blame for cookies as I don't think it's a fault thing ...
    learning happens over time both for us and our dogs..

    laura i was nodding away reading your comment ;)

  6. Between Susan Garrett and Denise Fenzi, I've learned the importance of play and having fun in training and carrying that into the ring with me. I'm not an expert on it, but have been working hard at it with my current dog (my second) and it has paid off immensely. I love the fact that I don't have to have food or even a toy in the picture in order for us to have fun together. I still use food, but do a lot of mixing it up when it comes to rewards and often find myself in the middle of a training session realizing I haven't even opened up my treat container yet. :-)

  7. I never enjoyed obedience with Jazz and I would also get all bent out of shape when we didn't qualify in agility. I don't think I got angry with him, just disappointed. Anyway - luckily for me I got over that before he wrecked his first knee. I have a wonderful memory of an NQ at Muscatine that was our last "good knees" run - it was sweet and funny and we had fun together - Thank doG!
    I cannot stop grinning about obedience with Coach because I am so totally stunned that he likes it. Not sure where to put the cart and the horse in that equation, but I am having a blast with him and so he loves it too. I believe, in my case the joy is greater because Jazz and I were so truly terrible. Maybe you appreciate it more if you failed the first time around?
    Thanks for the blog - I always look forward to reading your posts.