The problem with rules is that when someone tells me “You have to do it this way,” I immediately start thinking of reasons why no, I don’t have to do it that way. This is probably human nature – I’m not that much of a rebel and generally, I’m pretty good about following directions. But rules are often restricting and don’t encourage the experimenting and “what if . . .” thinking that can make training a dog even more fun.
So posting a set of training rules is probably not a good idea for me because A) too many rules equal too much rigidity which leads to cookie cutter training where there are no allowances for individual dogs and B) as soon as I think I’ve established a hard and fast rule, Phoenix immediately presents a reason for an exception.
On the other hand, if there is no structure to guide what you’re doing, it can be entirely too easy to stay in your (or your dog’s) comfort zone, thus missing the chance to work through some problems and improve as a team.
So the rules I’m listing here are the baseline I’ve set up for Phoenix and me. It reflects where we are right now. It could change tomorrow!
Keep in mind my primary goal with this plan is to make a substantial portion of our training look like showing so my dog becomes comfortable being asked for formal work without any tangible rewards over a period of time that would mimic our ring time at a trial, and to teach him that the rewards he values are still very much available.
Having said all that, here are The Rules.
• This approach (using formal run-throughs as part of my training routine) is only for a dog who is truly “ring ready.” It wouldn’t be appropriate for dogs who are still learning individual skills.
• We can still work on specific skills in separate training sessions. In fact, we will NEED to because run-throughs don’t involve active “training.” They are tests. (Major exception – if the wheels totally fall off, STOP and go back to training mode. Don’t practice a bad run through just because it was on your agenda for the day.)
• We can have a real ring set up with gates and stanchions (indoors or out) or an imaginary one where I designate part of the building or back yard as the ring and part as the crating area. I put my crate or chair with all my stuff on it outside the ring. Phoenix and I can do anything outside the ring that we would do a real trial – play, give cookies, do tricks, etc.
• When I’ve warmed up my dog, I give my “it’s time to work now” cue (verbal and/or body language) and we go into the ring. No food or toys on me or near the ring.
• Phoenix is wearing a ring-approved collar.
• We enter the ring, I take off his leash, set up and we do whatever I’ve chosen as the first exercise. Complete the exercise and release.
• Now I have a choice – we can go on to the next exercise OR return to the ring gate, put the leash back on, leave the ring, go back to the chair/crate and have cookies. Putting the leash back on is in important. I can’t let my dog run out of the ring (real or imaginary) to get his goodies. He wouldn’t do that at a trial, right? We need to go together. Have a cookie, play with a toy, then back into the ring, leash off, set up . . .
And so it goes. My goal is to make it black and white to my dog what is expected of him and what he can expect as a result. There will never be cookies in the ring. There will never be toys in the ring. But there can always be cookies outside the ring and I want him to know they are available and he CAN earn them. Going into the ring is not the end of all things wonderful.
One thing we're working is the engagement factor before, during and after exercises. He'll drop his head and go into "ho-hum" mode at any given time. I've been doing a hand-in-the-collar hand-touch "correction." Take collar with one hand, ask for a touch with the other hand, touch, touch, verbal praise, leash back on, leave the ring, have a cookie, then back into the ring and start again. This seems to be working for us and gets him in the right frame of mind to stay engaged without being verbally rescued or putting the leash back on and giving a collar pop correction. I know it's working because I'm having to do it less and less. Unfortunately, we have a couple of years of practicing disengagement and the ho-hum attitude to overcome because I allowed it. Bad trainer, bad, bad.
Initially, I started doing run-through training by just going into the ring, setting up and releasing to go back out and get cookies. We’ve built from there. Right now, releases for cookies come either at the conclusion of an exercise OR after we’ve moved to the set-up spot for the next exercise. I want Phoenix to know food is available, food can be earned with sustained effort and food will not be delivered in the ring. That’s very clear to me but it’s a concept that has been difficult for him to grasp. For him, the formality of the ring procedure, combined with the cessation of food delivery, pretty much spelled the end of the world. It looked nothing like our training sessions with all their wonderful informality, working bits and pieces and inclusion of food/toys as part of the training.
If he commits an error during a run-through, I correct it with a minimum of fuss and we move on to whatever comes next. There are no do-overs. We can repeat the exercise later in the session if I want to. Error correction is a gray area. It’s an individual decision on what to fix and what to let go during a run-through. I’m willing to allow minor errors. We can address those in skill-training sessions. A run-through is not about being perfect – it’s about sustained effort with good attitude and earning something he wants.
If you have an exercise that needs serious work or a certain skill that is weak, take it off the table when doing run-throughs and work it separately. Don’t practice doing something badly.
One of the major benefits of doing run-throughs is that it forces me to present the “silent handler” my dog will see in the ring. Left to my own devices, I will happily chatter and cheerlead during training. The handler Phoenix had in training was often a very different person than the handler he had in the ring.
What if the session starts to head south? This happened to us after a week of really great sessions. The farm next to the park where we do a lot of our outdoor training moved a herd of cows into a nearby pasture. Phoenix acted like he had never seen cows before in his life. This, the dog who lives on a cattle farm and sees, smells and hears cows every day. But these were new cows. In a place where there had never been cows before. So fascinating. Who knew?
He could not function for keeping an eye on those cows. After struggling with set-ups and two very distracted exercises I gave up on using the run-through approach for that session. We finished by working on attention skills. Add flexibility to the rule list.
Having written this series of posts, I will be the first to agree that yes, I would rather train bits and pieces of exercises that do a lot of formal work. I would rather teach tricks and games that enhance the exercises than focus on repeating the entire exercise much of the time. I would love to have the kind of dog who needs no cookies or toys to make our obedience work sparkle. But that isn’t working for us right now.
I also realize that the instant I post this, I am going to think up a dozen other points I wanted to make. So there may be more to come on this topic.
The journey continues.