Come and take a walk down memory lane with me.
In 1988 I graduated from college, got my first real job, my first apartment and my first sheltie, Jess. I joined my first dog club, the Iowa City Shetland Sheepdog Club, and met a small group of wonderful people who also loved obedience.
We got together one night a week to train at a local community center. It was a one-room schoolhouse that was probably built around 1900 (it still had class photos of all the graduates hanging on the walls), with an attached gymnasium that was probably built around 1950. The Sheltie Club stored their mats in the schoolhouse. Every week, we carried them down a small flight of stairs to the gymnasium, rolled them out, set up jumps and ring gates and trained our dogs. When we were done, we rolled everything back up and carried it all back up the stairs to the storage closet.
Our training consisted of trading run-throughs. Full, formal run-throughs, just like we would do at a trial. We didn’t train with food or toys but we gave our dogs cookies and played with them after their run-throughs. We trained like we showed. We didn't know there was any other way to do it.
I loved those training nights. We quit training there shortly before I got Jamie, in 1999. A new club had formed in the area and they rented the local National Guard Armory. Bigger space. Bigger group. More willing hands to carry and roll mats. No stairs. The community center training nights became a fond memory. Years passed. Some of us trained with the new club at the new site. Others grew disillusioned with obedience and drifted away to other venues. The old community center underwent a huge renovation. I’m pretty sure they don’t let people train dogs in the gym any more.
But I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. The place. The people. The way we trained. The way our dogs worked in training and the way they worked in the ring.
Jess was the first dog I trained past a CD. He was my first CDX, UD, UDX and U-UD. He was a consistent worker who knew how to do his job. He qualified a lot and placed occasionally. When sheltie Connor followed, I paid attention to all the things I hadn’t cared about with Jess: fronts, finishes, forging, crowding, bumping, reckless dumbbell pickups and killing the gloves.
All the while, I was going to obedience seminars and learning new things – new ways to train, new ideas, new theories. I have no doubt my dogs benefited from my growth as a trainer. My skills improved, my dogs improved and I was ecstatic to finish my first OTCh. with Connor.
Jamie followed and became my second OTCh. The seminars continued. Ideas and theories changed and the face of obedience reflected training methods that were no longer dominated by force and drilling. Cookies were king and obedience training was full of fresh and exciting new concepts for teaching the same old skills without boring the dog and handler half to death.
I learned about motivators and training in drive. I learned about training games to play with my dog instead of drilling. I Iearned how to break exercises down into their component parts. I learned about clickers, purely positive training, shaping behaviors and teaching body awareness, flexibility and balance. I learned about using targets and how to proof for any possible ring scenario. I learned that “formal” training had become the red-haired stepchild to be locked in the attic and never spoken of.
I taught Phoenix how to walk backward, sit backward and scoot backward in a down. I taught him to chase his tail both to the left and to the right and how to sit up and wave. I taught him how to touch no matter where I held my hand. I taught him to weave between my legs, to chase food and to find heel while I was moving away from him. I incorporated all of these tricks into obedience skills. He loved to tug and I incorporated it into our training routines, too, always having a slobbery tug jammed in the waistband of my pants.
I taught impulse control by working him through food and toys on the ground. I implemented jackpots. I practiced random reinforcement schedules. I was careful to never drill anything. I was careful to only train for short sessions and even started setting a timer to make sure I didn’t over-do it.
Training with Phoenix involved all kinds of fun and goodies. I was careful to avoid anything that looked formal or risked the specter of boredom. The days of the community center run-throughs seemed dull by comparison.
Then, as Phoenix’s obedience career progressed, I realized my dog who was awesome at bouncing, tugging and weaving through my legs was not prepared to deal with seven or eight minutes of quiet, formal, sustained work in the ring.
Stay tuned for Part II.