Friday, November 16, 2012

Training and/or playing

Mutually exclusive: Adj. 1. unable to be both true at the same time. contradictory . incompatible.

Are training and playing mutually exclusive?

Until this summer, I would have said the two were distinctly separate activities. Play was play and training was training and ne’er the twain shall meet.

Learning more about playing with Phoenix has been an adventure. It’s fun. It’s physical. It’s occasionally painful (which has spurred me to find ways to play beyond tugging - these hands and wrists can only take so much.) It’s shown me the weak spots in my approach to improving his obedience work. It’s shown me that people interpret play in very different ways and they use it in very different ways. Or they don’t use it at all, often because they don’t know how or don’t think their dog will play with them.

Phoenix and I played from the start, when he was an itty bitty baby dog. He was the first dog I’d ever had who genuinely loved to tug and I was delighted. My previous dogs ran hot and cold on tugging. So Phoenix and I mostly tugged or fetched a ball. What else was there, right?

So we trained. And we played. Distinctly. Separate. Activities.

I used food during training as “rewards” and as a “motivator.” Or so I thought. In reality, the food wasn’t doing much motivating. When it disappeared, Phoenix didn’t try harder to make it come back. All it did was create a sense of false enthusiasm that never managed to carry through in the ring.

If the food was present and being delivered at regular intervals, it was all good. When the food disappeared from the equation, or when external pressures increased (show ring), Phoenix didn’t really see any particular reason to continue being an active participant in what he thought was a very unrewarding activity. I bribed him to work through a fairly high level of achievement but struggled to understand why we were getting worse as a team and not better, in spite of mastery of technical skills.

I blamed stress, confusion and lack of confidence for our lousy ring presentation and I’m sure those were all elements, to a degree, of our downward spiral. But the bottom line was my dog did not think I was much fun. Great Pez dispenser. Not much fun otherwise. We did not know how to have fun doing obedience if it didn’t involve eating food.

It’s taken me the better part of 5 years to get a grip on the power of play and start using it to our advantage. I wouldn’t say we’re ready to start getting 200s but our obedience training sessions throughout this fall have improved tremendously, with a marked increase in play and a marked reduction in food. I no longer have a weekly cheese budget! (Well, okay, I do, but now it’s all MINE. That’s another issue.)

Tug is still the foundation of our play but I’ve been putting a lot of time into building personal play - chase games, hand touches, push games and just silliness in general that is not dependent on a toy.

We finished our “training” session last night and it occurred to me that I had spent the entire time focused on elements of play. Obedience skills were there, but they were not the object of the session. Whoa. First time in YEARS that has ever happened. Big step for me, the obedience OCD poster child.

Phoenix is a well-trained obedience dog. He has earned a UD. His Novice and Open scores were all above 195. His Utility work was a roller coaster but he was generally in the lower to mid 190s, with occasional surges to the upper 190s. He has given me some very lovely, solid work. He has HITs from AKC and UKC trials.

Knowing this, there is no point in continuing to drill technical skills in the name of “training.” He has shown me he knows how to do them. When he is happy and truly enjoying working with me, he is amazing. This has been evidenced in brief flashes throughout his obedience career to date. Where I’ve failed is learning how to keep him in that happy place with any consistency.

Having finally figured this out, our “training” time is no longer a black and white division between playing and training. We heel, tug, heel, leap and chase (he leaps, he chases - not me), we do a recall, we heel, we tug, etc. It’s very different from my previous approach to “working” specific exercises.

Most trainers would agree that playing with our dogs is fun. So why don’t more people tap into play? There’s the cookie addiction that most of us have suffered from at one time or another. It was hard for me to put the cookies up and offer interaction with myself as the reward and motivator. What if I was rejected? And I was, frequently, initially. I got over it. Phoenix wasn’t rejecting me personally, he just didn’t understand that fun existed beyond the cookie zone.

Plus, if you have a non-tuggy dog and don’t know any other way to play, food seems like the only way to go. It’s generally very easy to use and most dogs turn on for it, at least on the surface. It lets you make behaviors happen quickly, which makes your dog look brilliant and make you feel like Trainer Of The Year.

Probably the biggest reason more people don’t use play more is play takes energy on the handler’s part, especially if you have a big athletic dog. It’s one thing to tug with a 25 pound Sheltie. Tugging with a 55 pound Malinois is a whole different ball game. Plus, you can’t turn your dog onto running and leaping if you’re standing still, so you have to burn a calorie. (Privately, I think there’s a whole diet plan here just waiting to be marketed.)

It’s not all about tugging. It’s not all about balls or all about food. It’s about doing things that make your dog smile and say “I want to be with YOU and do what YOU’RE doing.”

I’d like to do a series of “thankfulness” posts leading up to Thanksgiving. Today, I am thankful for dogs and people who make me think and help me learn.


  1. "It’s about doing things that make your dog smile and say “I want to be with YOU and do what YOU’RE doing.”"

    Amen!!!! Coming from another pez dispenser, but my dogs don't even need to do anything really, just breathe and look cute...

  2. A problem I have had with incorporating that much play into training is it spills over into the ring, in attempts to start a play session. With my dog, it was things like trying to grab the glove as she went to heel, nipping at clothes, jumping into the air at inopportune times, etc. Just like weaning off food, it can be a difficult balance getting play in the ring, without getting too much!

  3. One of Susan Garrett's mantras is: "work=play and play=work". It took me a while to get the full meaning of that, besides the obvious of making work genuinely fun for the dog. The play=work realization came later and it means that if I (the handler) ask you (the dog) to play, it doesn't mean you can decide you don't want to. This is of course assuming the dog has previously been happy to play with whatever you are offering, in the environment you are in. Just because there's a pile of cookies nearby doesn't mean you can say 'no' to tugging. Because if the dog is allowed to say 'no thanks, don't feel like it' in these situations, it sends the message to them that they can also say 'no thanks, don't feel like it' in training situations. And the converse is also true. The dog cannot steal reinforcement, i.e. they don't take the tug toy unless you cue them to - they can't just decide for themselves to go grab the tuggy. Positive does not mean permissive.