Saturday, September 29, 2012

Septemberfest . . . um . . . Oktoberfest

I got to take a day off from running at the Scott County KC agility trials this weekend to cover Oktoberfest. It's still September but that doesn't stop the Amana Colonies. They're ahead of their time.

Can't have Oktoberfest without a polka band and dancing.
I would have dressed up, too, but my dirndl is at the cleaners.

You're never to old to wear lederhosen.
The gentleman in the center was being honored 
for helping start Oktoberfest in the Amana Colonies back in the mid-60s. 
I guess that was in the last century.

This is Barefoot Becky and the Ivanhoe Dutchmen, one of the musical acts entertaining this weekend. She's barefoot. Trust me. The steins were full. Trust me.

This is the Middle Amana float in this morning's parade. This proves A) you can drive a semi tractor trailer through "downtown" Amana and not run over any one and B) someone in Middle Amana thinks they're funny.

Explanation: this year's Oktoberfest theme is "Amana Colonies, Seven Villages, Seven Wonders." There are 7 Amana villages - Amana, Middle Amana, High Amana, South Amana, West Amana, East Amana and  . . . Homestead, where I live.

Homestead was not originally an Amana village. It was already established before the colonies were settled. The Amana colonists BOUGHT Homestead (you can do that?) after setting the other 6 villages to get access to the railroad. Middle Amana was the last village settled and is celebrating its 150th birthday this year. The kicker on their float was "Why did we bother to buy Homestead if Middle is so perfect?" Wise guys.

There were activities for kids, too, including a bunch of straw bales they could jump back and forth on. It was an amazingly popular attraction. Only at Septemberfest in Amana.

Alas, I was not able to photograph the bratwurst races this year. Either I had my schedule wrong or nobody signed up to do it. Last year's event featured people drinking beer, wearing bratwurst costumes and drinking more beer. Yep. Beer and weiner suits. Really. Just let your imagination run with that and it will be as good as any actual photo.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Thinking about relationship

In comments on yesterday's post, Lynn Ungar wrote: “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.”

Thank you, Lynn, for your insightful comment. It speaks volumes, especially the last two sentences, which I highlighted.

Clickers ARE fun. A person with a reasonably good sense of timing and clear criteria can take a clicker and a handful of treats and have a clicker-savvy dog dancing on the proverbial head of a pin in a very short amount of time. This is incredibly rewarding for the trainer. Wow! Look what I taught my brilliant dog!

Does this mean the person has established a strong enough relationship with the dog through the training that the dog would happily and reliably perform the same behaviors in a brand new environment without any treats?

Yes. No. Maybe. It depends.

My initial response is no, probably not (although I'm willing to allow for exceptions). Training methods CAN enhance the relationship you have with your dog, depending on how they are used, but it’s not a guarantee that just because your dog learns to do the work that he has learned to love working with you in the absence of other rewards.

Phoenix is Exhibit A in that regard. He loves some obedience work. He loves more obedience work now than he did six months ago. In another six months, I hope he loves it even more. But in spite of achieving a UD in 4 trials with scores in the 190s last spring, he did not automatically love being in the Utility ring with me.

I’d done a great job of teaching the exercises and a lousy job of building the relationship. I totally overlooked it because my previous dogs were so different in their approach to obedience. With them, there was no challenge, no struggle, no battle of wills. I was not prepared for what Phoenix threw at me - Mr. Highly Intelligent Physically Tough Super Sensitive I Don’t Wanna I’m Not Gonna You Can’t Make Me Oh Look A Cat!

Relationship is more than the 20 minutes a day we spend trying to teach our dogs to do un-natural behaviors like heel with their heads up or sit squarely in front of us. You can’t build a relationship using only your training time. That’s an important part of it but that’s not the whole thing.

I think relationship is a lot about discovering who your dog “is” and then sharing that with him beyond the brief window of “training.” There are about a million different ways Phoenix and I interact on a daily basis that have nothing to do with obedience training. Now that I’ve started paying more attention to how I engage with him beyond the context of training, I’m trying to take advantage of these little interactions and give them a genuine response, not just a casual pat on the head as I walk by. They’re not cued in any formal way - they’re just how we live together. The joy of living with this fascinating dog. The joy of taking time to engage my dog on his level, when he invites me. This is giving me better insight into what Phoenix thinks is fun. Or funny. (Belgians have the oddest sense of humor.)

We play spontaneously in the house and in the yard. I have him do silly tricks for nothing more than effusive applause and laughter (he likes it). I find ways he can “help” me around the house - fetching laundry or delivering mail to the Farmer. None of these involve cookies. We do them because they’re fun. I’m starting to approach obedience in much the same context - less formal, more relaxed, silly, happy, fun. Which I should have done in the first place but live and learn.

Denise Fenzi said it best: “Simply put, relationship is not food and toys; relationship is what’s left when the food and toys are gone.” (

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!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Ears - a photo essay

Ears are the window to Phoenix’s soul.

I don’t know if other dogs are like this, but his ear-set speaks volumes. I can tell exactly what frame of mind he’s in by looking at his ears.

His tail is no good.

It’s a lovely furry tail and is adorable to watch wag and is apparently quite excellent for chasing, but trying to read his state of mind by how he carries his tail is a waste of time. He can be ecstatically happy, in the peak of drive and working hard and his tail will be carried low. If he carries his tail high, trouble is probably brewing.

So I watch his ears. Of course, his overall body language tells the whole story but it's those ears that are the key.

Here is an essay of ears. Thank you to my photographer friends for capturing these moments.

First, let’s look at what I call “working ears.” His ears are all over the place when he's in motion and on task - forward, backward, sideways - I think they reflect the intensity of the moment. They are the equivalent of sticking your tongue between your teeth in concentration.

 Ears slightly back, tail slightly down and all four paws in the air.
(Photo by Marsha Kingsley)

There's some fierce concentration here, with slightly flicked back ears.
And working up to a good forge but who cares.
(Photo by Sheryl McCormick)

His "lead" ear is pinned back, "new direction" ear is flicking forward. 
Tail is apparently acting as a rudder.
(Photo by Nieder Arts)

Concentration ears.
"I WILL do the table, I WILL do the table . . ."
(Photo by Marsha Kingsley)

Alternating the "up" ear during weaves
(Photo by Nieder Arts)

Next are what I’m calling “bored ears.” There’s not a lot of active interest in any of these pics. He’s going through the motions. Bored. Bored. Bored. Not surprisingly, they are all from one very bad Open run earlier this year.

 "Are we done yet?"
(All photos in this series by Sheryl McCormick)

"Here's your stupid dumbbell.
And a bad front. Ask me if I care."

"And we're marching, marching, marching . . ."

Here is the category “happy ears.” These speak for themselves. They lack the tongue-between-teeth concentration of working ears or the expressionlessness flop of bored ears. They are simply happy in an alert, “What’s next?” sort of way.

Drop on recall
(Photo by Sheryl McCormick)

Summer evening at the park
(Photo by me)

The pre-send-to-the-articles stare. 
(Photo by Sheryl McCormick)

Finally, nirvana ears. Only one pic here. When Phoenix is given to the sheer joy of what he’s doing, usually running around with a ball or purloined sock in his mouth, his ears virtually disappear. Like little pieces of furry origami, he simply folds them back to his skull in the sheer bliss of living.

"I have a ball and  you don't."
(Photo by me)

There are two categories I do not have pictures for:

1) scary ears. These are the “hard” ears that happen immediately before Phoenix does something snarky. It’s not just the ears but the whole facial expression - his eyes, jaw, the arch of his neck. It’s usually directed at a dog who is coming up in his face too fast or is taking liberties with a casual sniff-in-passing. I would love to be able to photograph the moment but it’s not something that’s easy (or advisable) to set up.

2) “Hey baby” sexy ears. His ears cross at the tips when he meets a girl. It’s the funniest thing. Phoenix is neutered. But apparently he doesn’t care. He still puts his sexy ears on when he gets the (rare) chance to flirt with a girl.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


Love, love, love this time of year!

The autumn equinox is Saturday, officially welcoming my favorite season. This year, it’s even more welcome than usual after our record-setting hatefully evil hot and dry summer. I’m ready for frost in the morning and fresh milled apple cider and wearing hoodies again.

I even put the flannel sheets on the bed over the weekend, a sure sign that summer is fading into the distance. The Farmer and I will soon start playing the “I can wait longer than you can to turn on the furnace” game, so it’s definitely flannel sheet season. We usually make it to about mid October and then it’s a tooth-chattering consensus in the morning that yeah, if we can see our breath in the house maybe it’s time to flip the switch.

I know the trade-off is that the daylight hours are getting shorter and the long warm evenings for playing outdoors are disappearing quickly but I’m fine with that. Autumn leads to Halloween and then right into the holidays. Friends, gatherings, food and laughter. It’s all good.

For the last seven years or so, a group of dog friends and I have celebrated the arrival of autumn by camping at a three-day agility trial. We must have looked like a band of gypsies, rolling into the campgrounds, lining up our mini-vans with military precision and commandeering an area of the campgrounds for tents and a couple of RVs.

At our peak one year we had about a dozen people in eight tents and easily 25 dogs among us. We probably looked like some kind of itinerant petting zoo, with the dogs all lounging in their x-pens while we cooked over a campfire and socialized. This made the park ranger nervous. He kept stopping to check on us through the evening. Yep, we were a wild and risky looking bunch, sitting around the campfire, setting marshmallows on fire.

“You know, we hesitate to allow so many tents on one site because these large groups can get out of hand,” he informed us. How disappointed he must have been when we all went to bed by 9 p.m. and refused to get out of hand. The rowdy bunch was the group of three men with apparently unlimited alcoholic beverages down the hill from our site. They were still whooping it up at 3 a.m. Ranger Rick didn't seem to notice them.

Year after year, it was a delightful autumn getaway. Agility at a nearby horse arena during the day, camping during the evening. Almost without exception, we were blessed with pleasant, dry weather. We walked the dogs on park trails and let them splash in the reservoir. We built campfires and roasted hot dogs and told stories and laughed as the sun set and the stars came out. In the morning, we drove slowly through the still sleeping campground to the shower house, pausing to let deer and raccoons cross through the misty dark ahead of us.

The shower house was well-lit and clean but the showers themselves left a bit to be desired. This was a conservation area. Conservation focuses on natural resources. Water is a natural resource. Water conservation is a gentle word for Water Nazis. No water for you!

To start the shower, you pushed a button and leaped out of the way. Icy water sprayed out. For about 30 seconds. Then it shut off. You had to push the button again. And again. And again. Avoiding the spray encouraged good reflexes. Or creative language.

The water heater was apparently located in another zip code and there was much pushing of the shower button before anything resembling warm water appeared. The only thing worse than stepping into a shower on a 40 degree morning was stepping out.

Over the years, our camping numbers have dwindled as the siren song of warm, dry rooms and instant hot running water at a nearby motel lured my friends away. Two years ago, there was only a handful of us. It rained. My tent suffered a broken pole for no apparent reason and I woke up with half of it on my head. Last year, we played fast and loose with predicted overnight lows in the mid 40s. The weather forecasters were wrong. It was in the upper 30s. There’s nothing wrong with waking up in a tent when it’s 38 degrees outside . . . until you have to get up. Don’t even bring up having to pee in the middle of the night.

This year, decision by committee reigned. Our group will be camping at the Motel 6. Someone will bring a bottle of Jose Cuervo Gold margaritas and we’ll toast the arrival of autumn. Slainté!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Of mice and malinois

Phoenix: Whatcha doin’?

Me: Baiting mousetraps.

Phoenix: Why?

Me: To catch mice.

Phoenix: I could catch mice.

Me: Um. Yeah. Feel free to start any time.

Phoenix: Put peanut butter on me?

Me: Not a chance.

Phoenix: But need peanut butter to catch mice.

Me: Only on the trap.

Phoenix: Oh. Peanut butter makes mice come in the house to get caught?

Me: Um. Not exactly. They’re already here. God help me if I’m attracting any more.

Phoenix: I will help you.

Me: Okay. This trap goes under the kitchen sink. Right . . . here . . . like . . . this . .

Phoenix: MOUSE!

Me: WTF?!

Trap: SNAP!

Me: Phoenix . . .

Phoenix (squinty eyes): Sorry.

Me: There was no mouse under there just now.

Phoenix: Could have been.

Me: Okay, I’m resetting the trap. Be good.

Phoenix: I’m very good. See. Being good.

Me: Setting . . . the . . . trap . . . now . . .


Me: WTF?!

Trap: SNAP!

Me: Phoenix . . .

Phoenix (eyes squinty, tail wagging): Sorry.

Me: No you’re not. Go lie down.

Phoenix: You are no fun.

Later that night, 1:30 a.m.

Trap: SNAP!


Me: Okay already. Let me get out of bed.

Phoenix: HURRY! GET IT!

Me: It’s in a trap. It’s not going anywhere.

Phoenix: Then why is it making that noise?

Mouse in trap: Bang! Clatter! Smack! Rattle!

Me: (Bad word.)


Me: No dead mouse in a trap ever made noise like that.

Phoenix (bouncing off cupboard door): I will get it! Evil vermin! Will dispatch the vermin! Vermin  flees before me!

Me: Are you part terrier?

Phoenix: What’s a terrier?

Me: Never mind. Move so I can open the door.

Phoenix, bouncing: HURRY!

Mouse (sounding angry): Smack! Rattle! Thump!

Me, opening door: Oh (bad word). It’s caught by one leg.

Phoenix, diving into the cupboard: GETITGETITGETIT!!!

Trash can, dish soap and bottle of cleaner go flying.

Me, lunging after Phoenix: NO!!!

Phoenix: WHEE!!! I’m hunting mice!

Me: You’re going to knock it out of the trap and then we’ll have an angry three-legged mouse running around the kitchen in the middle of the night.

Phoenix, snapping teeth: Who cares! This is FUN!

Mouse: What kind of a freak show is this! No one needs peanut butter this bad.

Me, grabbing trap and heading outside, bare foot and in pajamas: I cannot believe I’m doing mouse catch-and-release in the middle of the night.

Phoenix, leaping and snapping: GIT THE MOUSE! GIT THE MOUSE!

Me, opening trap and tossing mouse over the fence: It’s your lucky day, buddy. Run, um, limp free!

Phoenix: I could have caught that.

Me: Then what would you do?

Phoenix: Eat it.

Me: I don’t even want to think about that.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Training outlook

For the last week and a half, I’ve been using extremely limited food in Phoenix’s training sessions. By extremely limited, I mean 2-3 pieces, total. And it’s not the super exciting greasy smelly treats I used when he was a baby dog, either. It’s a Charlee Bear or a Zukes or something relatively small and dry.

How does he feel about this? Well, honestly, he doesn’t really seem to care.

I’ve also reduced the amount of ball-throwing and tugging we do as rewards. I’m making an honest effort to use personal play instead, especially touch games and push-and-shove games, which he seems to enjoy most. He DOES seem to miss the use of actual toys . . .

. . . but I’ve substituted tugging with his dumbbell and gloves to good effect. In fact, over the weekend at the Des Moines shows, he was actively trying to grab the dumbbell from me outside the ring. This enthusiasm did not carry over into the ring, which was unfortunate but not unexpected, since we’ve only truly embraced the “ring objects as toys” approach in the last couple of weeks and I’m long past the point of expecting miracle cures.

I am still using a ball or jute tug as a reward but on a very limited basis and even then, am combining them with personal play.

My approach is to make our training look like showing as much as possible and this is focused on A) reduced use of food and toys and B) increased use of personal play as part of the work itself. I’m the only reward I can offer in the ring and I’ve done a pretty good job of de-valuing myself by always offering food or toys first. Why would he value playing with me if I rarely offer it?

As usual, it’s MY habits that need to change. Starting the session with only a few pieces of food in my pocket obviously takes the emphasis off the food because it simply isn’t available in the quantities I used before. Talk about a self-inflicted intervention! While I WILL reward occasionally with food, the primary reward is genuine verbal praise and silly play.

In fact, the food is often delivered as an afterthought. Does Phoenix see it that way? It’s hard to tell what’s going on in his mind but given that he wolfs down treats with nary a second thought (no prolonged relishing or enjoyment, just gulp and gone), I’m hoping he views the stopping of play to get a small dry treat as somewhat anticlimactic and lessens the value of food - as opposed to the trainer who routinely doles out handfuls of juicy garlic roasted chicken breast. (I’m talking about using this approach with a dog who is thoroughly trained, not a puppy in the beginning stages of learning. I would use food much differently there.)

This is the only way I know how to get over our cookie addiction and the resulting lack of enthusiasm about the obedience ring, which Phoenix finds lacking in the reward and/or fun department.

We’re taking a long break from showing. I don’t anticipate being back in the AKC obedience ring until February of next year, which is five months from now. We’ll continue to do agility about one trial weekend a month. I would really like to show at a local UKC trial in November if I feel comfortable with our work at that point. We’ll see.

In the meantime, I plan to cultivate local matches and training with friends to simulate the ring and take the time to emphasize attitude and fun, even if it means we only do a couple of exercises in each run.

Our training motto is “Tomorrow’s bruises brought to you by today’s malinois.”

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Malinois as storm spotter

Wednesday, Sept. 5, 3:30 a.m., thunder, lightning and heavy rain. The house is closed up, AC is on, thanks to yesterday’s 90 degree air temps and dew points in the 70s. September in Iowa. Autumn? Yeah. Maybe autumn at the equator.


Phoenix (poke-poke): Mom?

Me: Mmmblahhrgh

Phoenix (poke-poke): Mom?

Me: G’way.

Phoenix (poke-poke): Mom?

Me: Whaayawant?

Phoenix: Storming. Big storming. Scared.

Me: You have never been scared of storms a day in your life.

Phoenix: Okay, not scared. Get on the bed?

Me: Why?

Phoenix: Cuz.


Me: Cuz why? It’s not that bad of a storm. Jamie’s not even freaking out.

Phoenix: He’s asleep. He can’t hear. So he sleeps. It COULD be a big storm. Huge. Dangerous. I protect you. Need to be on the bed.

Me: It’s a garden variety t-storm. If it can’t wake up Jamie, it’s not a dogs-on-the-bed storm.

Phoenix: If I woke him up he’d see the lightning and bet he’d freak out and he’d get on the bed and I then I could get on the bed, too, so I should just get on the bed now.

Me: Your logic scares me. DO NOT wake up your brother.

Phoenix: Bed?

Me: No! Go lie down. Be a good dog.

Phoenix: I’m a very good dog. I can be a good dog on the bed.

Me: No dogs on the bed unless it’s a legitimate severe storm and I don’t hear the weather radio going off with any watches or warnings.

Phoenix: D*mn radio. I will bite it.

Me: You will NOT bite it. If Jamie is fine on the floor,  you’re fine on the floor, too.

Phoenix: Hmmm . . . .

Me: DO NOT wake up your brother. Because then he WILL freak out and your papa is not a fan of dogs on his head at 3:30 a.m.


Phoenix: I could make him stop making that noise.

Me: Yeah, and then he’d be making a different noise.

And my co-workers wonder why I am the way I am some mornings when I get to the office.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Big Red Dog

Here are a few pics from Jamie's veterans sweepstakes class over the weekend. Thanks Marsha for being our photographer! Really glad she got shots of Jamie's butt and not mine.

Is he a handsome fellow or what?

Phoenix, Part II

So basically where our training is headed now is two-fold:

1) much more emphasis on building excitement for gloves, dumbbell and articles. These will become "toys with rules." Not a big stretch since he very much enjoys retrieving and tugging. Yes, there will still be other toys to play with, but the "ring objects" will be used a majority of the time.

While the ultimate goal is to have the mere sight of a dumbbell send him into paroxysms of ecstasy, in reality, I'd be totally happy with a bounce and tail wag.

2) making personal play (touch, push, bounce, chase and other silly games) a higher priority as rewards with much less emphasis on food. I KNOW he enjoys this, I've just not made it a priority because it's easier to pull out a tug or deliver a treat. Because those rewards had worked so well for me with other dogs, I was determined they WOULD work for Phoenix. And they did. Except when they didn't.

This means our training sessions will be brief and informal, which isn't such a change. I've made a list of exercises/skills and how I can incorporate play into each of them. Again, Phoenix is forcing me to re-think how obedience training works, how dogs learn and how dogs perceive different situations.

I am very sure that somewhere between Novice and Open, Phoenix began to perceive the obedience ring as "The Place With No Treats Where Mom Is Unhappy and This Is Not Fun." Changing his world view isn't going to happen over night.

I'm not trying to show him that "obedience is fun" as much as I'm trying to show him "playing games with Mom is fun." He thinks they are, sort of, but not all the time and not necessarily when pressure is on. I very much want our training to look like showing and the right now, there's a big neon sign  hanging over the ring entry that says "Abandon all hope for reward ye who enter here."

You can call it relationship building if you like. Relationships with our dogs are very complex and often change in relation to environment and situation.

Much of our "new" approach (it isn't new at all, trainers who are smarter than I am have done this for years) is based on breaking the cookie habit and giving my dog a chance to learn than he can play and have fun with me, no props needed. I relied heavily on cookies for rewards and my dog relied on them for information, even when they were delivered infrequently. He showed me over the weekend that he can play and have fun in the ring between exercises - in fact, I found myself looking forward to the end of each exercise so I could release him for a moment of silliness before plunging into what came next. With time, I'm confident I can build play and the anticipation of play and the simple enjoyment of working with me into all obedience skills.

Leaving the cookies and tugs in the training bag is daunting. If your instructor told you the only reward you could use for your dog in class was YOU, would you have a good training session?

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.