Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The UKC weekend

For the first time in a long time, I’ve come home from an obedience trial weekend feeling like Phoenix and I are making genuine progress - not merely spinning in circles or going backward. YIPPEE!

We did three days of UKC Utility at a local trial and they were a brilliant success. We came home with one U-UD leg (and 1st place) and a clearer understanding of what is working in our training and what needs more work.

Since early September, I’ve put a much greater emphasis on play in our training - both as a reward and just playing because it’s fun to play with my dog. We’ve done much playing with tugs and balls and not quite as much playing with just the two of us (no toys). We need to work more on play between the two of us -  that’s one thing I learned over the weekend. I still use a little food but have reduced overall food use by probably 90 percent.

Since Phoenix was not used to getting much food in training any more, he didn’t expect it — or  miss it — in the ring. This was a huge step for us. Although earlier this year I’d incorporated play in training, I’d also continued to use (what was apparently an over-abundance of) food, as well. Removing most of the food allowed us to concentrate on play and true interaction, not me just being a Pez dispenser.

One might argue that I’d only substituted tugs for food but playing with my dog created more lasting energy, built more fun into the work and established more value for ME than simply popping a cookie in his mouth as a reward. And YES - it carried over into the ring. He was much brighter and happier in the ring than he’s been in months, played willingly with me between exercises and even on the third day, he was starting to initiate play before I asked for it. I really didn’t care about the Qs - this weekend was about attitude and I got it.

Several times I am sure he was looking for his tug and was slightly disappointed when it did not appear. That’s okay - at least he considers it worth looking for now. Phoenix is a wonderful dog because he has both strong food drive and strong toy drive. (I need to learn more about using his food drive in a constructive way, too, not just plugging him with cookies and calling it good.)

Phoenix went into the ring with enthusiasm, set up and gave me a hard muzzle punch when asked to touch before we started heeling and signals, which are always the first exercise in UKC Utility, no matter if it’s the A or B class.

Friday and Saturday, his heeling was lovely even though he missed a sit each day. Not sure why he was missing the sits except that we honestly haven’t worked them much with someone calling commands and my footwork is probably rusty.

Signals remain our weakest skill. We got the signals on Saturday; Friday and Sunday he did not drop. I have decided, after watching him miss the drop signal more often than not throughout the year, that he is not confused or distracted or being deliberately obtuse. He is worried. I’m fairly sure he’s worried about the presence of the judge behind him.

Not sure where this came from, since he’s Mr. I Love You Here Let Me Lean On You Now Scratch My Butt to total strangers. But it’s different when he’s under command and the stranger is lurking behind him and he is not free to handle the situation as he sees fit. In any case, he’s very reluctant to lie down and that’s what has been screwing us in Utility all year.

But he gave me a beautiful drop on Saturday, the day we Q’d. Why drop that day? Dunno. Judge was the same, ring was the same. Who knows? It’s his secret and he’s not telling.

Articles are still his favorite exercise, guaranteed to get the tail up and wagging. Not being able to watch the articles being set out was not an issue.

He aced the dual glove exercises at all three trials and I was happy see all the work I’ve done on turning his gloves into “toys” paid off as his retrieves were happy and bright and much better than the AKC work he had given me previously. (You should see his “training” gloves - talk about tattered rags, hope Santa brings some new ones.)

The back-to-back drop-on-recall/straight recalls went okay, although lacked the speed I’d like to see. Admittedly, I’d probably overworked them in the days preceding the trials.

Go-outs and directed jumping were lovely without any sign of the dreaded “short go-out” which can become a side-effect of the second glove exercise if you’re not careful to keep the training balanced and maintain the long “goes” separately.

Sunday night I sat down and made a list of what we need to focus on this winter because now we are really and truly done with obedience trials until mid-February. Our list is heavy on play and informal elements of exercises and light on technical skills.

One thing I especially want to work on are our personal play skills. Phoenix is a fun dog to play with because he engages easily and is an enthusiastic tugger. The downside is that he is a physically strong dog and his play style is often rougher than is comfortable or enjoyable for me. I’d like to be able to engage him on a toy-less level that is fun for both of us and will be meaningful in the ring.

And I have no problem using food in training if I can do it in a way that builds and rewards energy, not rewards my dog for sitting there like a lump. My use of food has previously been mostly in the “lump” category.

It’s dark by the time I get home from work on most nights now, so we’ll move back into the empty upstairs bedroom for winter training at home. Not the most spacious digs but they’ll do, even though the Farmer says we are putting cracks in the dining room ceiling.


  1. That is super Congrats on your successful wknd of all the hard work you have put in to keeping it fun for Phoenix.

  2. YEAH!!! Way to go team Phoenix!!! Great update. :) Love reading about your adventures with Nix. I would love to hear what you figure out with keeping the focus on play and yet not ending up bloodies and bruised. LOL Flirty is a rough player too and I am trying to figure out the balance for her. Maybe she's telling me she wants to be a Schutzhund Dane too. LOL

  3. I'm working on hard on the concept of food as play too. So glad your weekend went well :) congrats!

  4. Congratulations!!! Your hard work is paying off!