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.
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!