Monday, July 29, 2013

Epiphany #4793

Okay, this is nothing new. I just had to get a grip on it.

Ever notice how problem solving is like peeling an onion? There's just one stinkin' layer after another to figure out.

I’ve heard people discuss training problems versus showing problems but never really understood the difference. I always figured if your dog was REALLY trained and reasonably proofed, he would work at a show just like he worked in training. Right?

Duh. My first two OTChs. pretty much ruined me. They had a few show ring glitches here and there but looking back, their careers were absurdly free of any problems with long-term hair-pulling-out potential.

So, how do you know if it’s a training problem or a showing problem? Essentially if the dog works fine in training, it's not a training problem.

Example: Phoenix’s here-today-gone-tomorrow drop signal in the Utility ring. Unless he is ridiculously distracted (kitten launching at his tail) he nails his drop signal consistently in training and at distances much further than the required 30 feet. In the ring, he drops maybe 25 to 50 percent of the time.

It’s not a training problem. He’s shown me time after time that he understands the signal. He will drop in a ridiculous number of places around the farm, at parks, on nature trails, at random in the kitchen, etc.

It’s a showing problem. He does not want to lie down in the ring with a judge standing behind him and frequently chooses not to even though he “knows better.”

The reason for this is twofold.

First, for all his bravado and bluster, Phoenix has some confidence issues. He has personal demons and a ridiculous amount of emotional baggage, some of which I have unwittingly created and some of which he packed himself. This means NO WAY is he lying down when there’s a stranger standing behind him, holding a clipboard and waving their arms around. This registers as Threat Level Red. You can argue about dominant dogs and submissive dogs until you’re blue in the face but the bottom line is that Phoenix is not comfortable moving from a standing position where he could quickly run if needed, thus removing himself from Stranger Danger, to voluntarily put himself in a submissive position (down) with that stranger nearby.

If released from the “stay” command, he would happily go greet the judge. He’s a very social creature. But being under command creates conflict - he can’t engage with the judge because he has work to do and that puts a lot of pressure on his little brain. Plus the judge is usually an unknown quantity - maybe they ARE dangerous. It’s not in Phoenix’s nature to turn his back on people he doesn’t know.

The second reason it’s a ring issue - I know he manages to disengage from me quickly (again, due to pressure from the judge) after I give the “stay” hand signal and walk away. By the time I reach the opposite end of the ring, 30 feet away, he has mentally trotted off to his happy place and I can tell by the blank stare on his face and his ears at half mast that I could stand there and wave my signal arm until it fell off and there would be no response.

It has taken me a long time to figure this out. Bad handler. Slow handler. My ego is reluctant to say stupid handler but that might be appropriate. Phoenix would probably agree, with love in his eyes while he pins his ears back, shows me his incisors and gives me a big wet kiss. Yeah, he shows teeth before he kisses. Sweet boy.

This summer’s trials have been an odd combination of drop/no drop in Utility. It seems to depend on when the signal exercise takes place in the order of exercises, who the judge is and where he/she stands in relation to where Phoenix stands and how I’ve warmed him up before we go into the ring.

While some trainers would argue the value of “setting him up” (to fail) in training so I could go in and make a correction (gee, let’s add some MORE stress to this issue), I am working to keep him mentally engaged and on task as I walk away. This boils down to releasing him to a toy as I walk away or breaking into a run and letting him chase me (and catch me) or breaking into a run and not releasing him, then turning and asking for a drop. All build his focus on ME and hopefully will relieve his concerns about the judge. He can’t be worried about one thing and intensely anticipating another at the same time, can he?

It’s working. Slowly. Everything with this dog comes slowly. It’s taken me a while to figure that out, too. Good thing Phoenix is a patient dog.

Geez, did I type that out loud?


  1. Why don't you have strangers stand behind him and work on attention and signals while you are close up?

  2. Man, does this sound like Taz the Terv (although he worries about dogs in the environment more than people). I think going down on the the job runs contrary to the Belgian need to be in charge of the environment at all times.

  3. I know you didn't ask for a training advice and who am I, really to give you one, but I'll voice my opinion anyway:-)
    I was taught that you teach the exercise, then start shifting responsibility onto the dog. When you hit a situation the dog is not comfortable with, then you "backwash" meaning go back to the place where the dog was comfortable. In your case I would go back to basics and work on down signal with a person standing near by and you are right there in front of the dog. If the dog makes a mistake, show him how to do it right. The more times he gets it right the more confident he will be. you can gradually adjust the distance between a person and the dog to make him successful. When he does it well with you right in front of him, you can start increasing the distance.