Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The faces of fun

Wow. Two posts in one week. It's a post-Beltane miracle. Or maybe I just really need a break from house cleaning.

Today's post is from the “Things it took me a while to learn” file. This seems to be one of my bigger files.


What a simple concept.

It brings to mind images of happy smiles and laughter.  Doing something you find rewarding. Hanging out with friends in the park on a summer afternoon. Being with someone whose presence you enjoy tremendously. Those are all fun.

What about fun in obedience training? What does fun look like there?

John Q. Public recognizes the classic “happy dog” indicators: wagging tail, relaxed body, “smiling” facial expression. There are plenty of dogs who display that in their obedience work and it’s genuine. The dog is having fun.

Early in my training career, I made the mistake of thinking my dog had to present all the classic “happy dog” indicators all the time during training and showing. I thought if he wasn’t wagging his tail and dancing around, I had somehow failed as a trainer. While I understood the value of “attitude” in training, I completely neglected to recognize that not all dogs will present “fun” in the same way.

The result of this was that my desire to make sure my dog was always “having fun” often got in the way of helping my dog learn whatever it was I wanted to teach him.

It has taken me several years and several dogs to learn this. When my dog’s tail lowered or his ears went back, I used to immediately switch into “happy-happy” mode, determined my dog should constantly be the happiest one in the room. This usually meant producing toys or treats, which immediately derailed whatever skill we were working on. Since they were handed over basically for free, to “make him have fun,” Dog Brain immediately disconnected from learning mode into treat-eating or ball-chasing mode.

Once I learned to recognize that a lowered, non-wagging tail could be a sign of intense focus OR a symptom of anxiety, it became much easier to know when to keep moving forward in training vs. stopping for a break to relieve unintentional training stress.

While the concept of “having fun” in training IS vitally important, I’m less concerned with how the “fun” looks than I am with what other messages my dog is sending and the overall tone of what we’re doing together. Sometimes we need to stop and re-set our mutual attitude. Other times we can push ahead through a degree of pressure and move closer to my end goal, knowing my dog is a willing, curious, engaged participant.

I’ve been blessed with dogs who thought whatever we were doing at the moment was absolutely the most fun anyone could have. I am currently blessed with a dog who does not believe obedience is automatically the pinnacle of tail-wagging delight.

I can tell when Phoenix is “in the moment” and I can recognize his “having fun/not having fun” indicators. Seeing the sparkle in his eye before I send him for a scent article (his all-time favorite exercise), there is no doubt in my mind that even though he looks intensely serious, he is absolutely having fun and I can throw challenges at him. Other times, his seriousness means the "not fun" sign is on and it's time to address whatever problem is interfering - boredom, confusion, worry, etc.

Training, playing and living with this creature has been a journey that almost immediately drove off the carefully scripted map I had in my mind. He continues to teach me and to stretch my abilities as a trainer to limits I’d never imagined.

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