Sunday, October 13, 2013

Old School Part III: The why's and wherefore's

While doing formal run-throughs as part of our training may seem un-inspiring, I’m finding it fun because Phoenix and I get to fly through the exercises without anything disrupting the flow of our teamwork AND I get to give my dog the cookies and toys he wants afterward – currently we’re breaking for reward after 2 or 3 formal exercises. 

We’ve only been training like this for a couple of weeks and asking for a complete Utility run before getting a reward would not help build the idea of delayed gratification, which is my secondary goal. (More on “the rules” in the next post.)

This ability to give rewards is an important consideration for this training approach. I would love it if Phoenix found playing obedience with me to be enough of a reward that he didn’t need/want anything else to drive a happy and confident performance, but at this point in our journey, it isn’t. Perhaps it might be in the future. Or it might never be. That’s okay – that’s who he is and that's the dog I'm training.

The dog determines the motivator and right now, Phoenix loves his cookies and balls. (Tugging, too, but until I get healed from recent surgery, being yanked around by the malinut is not an option.)

I very much like the “your dog should find it a privilege to work with you above all else” training approach, but this is not a realistic expectation for Phoenix and me right now. My dog loves me. I love him. We enjoy long hikes in the timber, playing with toys and snuggling while watching TV. He’s a fun, complicated, challenging creature and I am delighted to share my life with him. He may not share my world-view on the importance of 40-point heeling and I’m okay with that, too. It’s my job to make 40-point heeling worth his time, so if he wants cookies and balls, that’s okay.

My primary goal for the run-throughs is to make Phoenix comfortable with the picture he will see in the ring, to blur the line between training and showing. This picture includes exercises that begin and end formally and a quiet handler who is not spontaneously pulling cookies or toys out of her pockets or asking for a spinning release in the middle of an exercise - just engaged, confident work without disappointment (and the resultant wheels falling off) when there are no immediate goodies.

I know there are folks out there shaking their heads and saying, “But all you’re teaching your dog is that he will never get any food in the ring.”

And you would be right. Although there's a little more to it.

Unless the AKC makes a drastic rule change, I will never be allowed to give my dog food in the ring. My previous training with Phoenix, which included food and toys as part of the exercises (delivered directly, placed on a target, chased or leaped for), unintentionally created a sense of expectation that can never be fulfilled in the ring. When food failed to be delivered when we showed, I think he perceived it as being wrong, at best, or as punishment, at worst.

BUT! There are tons of food available outside the ring and if my dog works with me, he can have it. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

Next installment: The Rules. Honestly, I only intended this to be a 3-part series. But it got away from me and no one in their right mind would want to read the entire thing all at once. If you haven't read Parts I and II, please do, to get the complete picture of where I'm going with this.


  1. Well dogs are smart and figure out they never get food in the ring at a trial. So I think it's a good way to train once your dog knows his job.

  2. I think you are doing what is right for the dog you are training. I like that you are willing to continue to search for what works for Phoenix. Too many trainers are "locked in a box" of what has "always worked before" and not willing to try other things. And sometimes, going back to the beginning is what is needed. Keep on trying!

  3. I used precisely this method for Ivy and it made a world of difference. She has no "want to" but was the only dog I had at the time and learned all of the obedience exercises so easily. I started by breaking after 2 or 3 exercises, building to a complete series, beginning with her favorites. I took her to matches & just did her momentum building exercises for a while... it worked pretty well. As you say, train the dog you have.

  4. This is an excellent series so far, Melinda. I look forward to seeing part IV. You are absolutely right that more time needs to be spent conditioning the dog both mentally and physically to the duration of formal, high concentration work that you need in the ring. And you are also absolutely right that you can't go from 98% pieces and parts to the whole run through all at once. I look forward to hearing how this goes for you!

  5. Well Laura's comment just caused a light bulb to come on. "conditioning the dog both MENTALLY and physically..." That is the piece that has totally escaped me with my male who can physically perform the exercises but mentally breaks down in the ring. Thank you! And like you Melinda I do not, as a rule, train formal run thrus but I think that is what I need to start to do if I want to get back in the ring with him. Yes, he prefers other sports but I think he should play the game that I prefer. Is that asking too much? I don't think so.