Thursday, February 26, 2015

Tricks by any other name

Some food for thought on a brutal winter day while I’m at home, sucking down cold medicine and trying to keep the dogs from stealing my tissues. (Why are dogs so fascinated by tissues?)

Teaching "parlor tricks" has gained a lot of popularity among competition trainers (both obedience and agility) in recent years. When I started obedience training back in the day, tricks were not given a lot of credibility. We taught the obedience exercises and if there was any time left after that, well, if you wanted to teach tricks, no one was going to say you couldn’t but they’d probably turn the lights out on you when they left.

Tricks burst on the scene, at least onto my scene, during Phoenix’s generation. Suddenly, it was all the rage for dogs of every discipline to have a repertoire of tricks totally unrelated to anything they did “in the ring.” 

Until then, I taught my dogs to shake hands (usually as an assist to wiping muddy paws when they came in the house) and that was about it. I had my hands full teaching the skills I needed to reach my goals in the obedience ring.

Until Phoenix. He knows more tricks than any of my previous dogs combined. He will shake, sit up and beg, dance on his hind legs, roll over (both directions), back across a room, scuttle backward in a down, chase his tail (both directions), back up a flight of stairs, retrieve and stack bowls, put four feet in a box, pivot with his feet on an overturned bowl, bounce in the air and snap his teeth on command. Has any of this improved our obedience scores? I don’t know.

The popularity of teaching tricks surged as trainers started incorporating them to teach body awareness,  mostly for agility skills, although they can be helpful for obedience, too. The phrase “relationship building” also became a popular buzzword, and tricks were touted as being a fun way to build your relationship with your dog.

Call me a renegade, but I have a problem with this. I don’t have a problem with teaching tricks – they’re fun and sometimes have useful applications. I have a problem with the implication that “regular” training (i.e., teaching performance skills) is not a good enough way to build your relationship with your dog and you must rely on something else in order to “have fun” and achieve that end.

Granted, tricks are delightfully pressure-free. They come with no expectation of creating a performance that will be judged according to a set of scoreable standards in order to earn titles. You’ll never mail an entry, then freak out when your dog forgets how to do his tricks. You can use lots of cookies for tricks and you can use them forever, who cares? Generally, you don’t need a lot of room to train tricks. You don’t need a building or a field or expensive, heavy, specialized, customized equipment. Tricks are silly. They make us laugh. Who wouldn’t laugh at a huge dog daintily putting his feet in a small box or flipping the lid open and climbing into a suitcase?

But can’t teaching a dog to lie down from a stand or pick up a dumbbell also be viewed as a trick?

I’m guessing our dogs don’t care one way or the other if something is called a trick or an exercise. They DO care about how things are taught and how rewarding they find the experience to be.

I tend to be a lazy trainer. If a behavior doesn’t have an application to obedience skills, I’m probably not going to take the time to teach it. That’s just me. There’s a lot of cute stuff that I could teach my dog but since I don’t have unlimited training time, I gravitate toward things that are going to help him gain the physical and mental skills he needs to succeed in the obedience ring. Sometimes those  are tricks. Sometimes they are traditional "exercises."

With that in mind, what if you decided instead of teaching your dog to do obedience “work,” you would teach him to do obedience “tricks”? Straight fronts or perfect heel position with total engagement might not be as adorably cute as watching a 53 pound malinois put his feet in a tiny little box (seriously, WHY is that so cute?) but it’s gonna make me smile, nonetheless.

Phoenix’s trick repertoire was generally the result of living with a high energy breed who constantly sought mental stimulation and if left to his own devices would go eat the couch. Those of you who have dogs like this know what I’m talking about. I taught him tricks almost in self defense, to fill those empty winter evenings and to keep his mind out of trouble while waiting at trials.

Banner is nothing like Phoenix and I haven’t taught him any tricks yet, except for four-feet-in-a-box. Our 6 months together so far has been spent laying obedience foundation. For the most part, he thinks it’s all grand fun, although he finds the concept of “stay” a bit disappointing. 

I’ve worked hard to make the obedience training time we share together is fun, full of energy and praise and tangible rewards. I wonder if trainers who are struggling with obedience exercises approached them with the same carefree spirit as they would train parlor tricks, if they could shed the boredom and monotony that plagues many obedience partnerships?

Food for thought. And now I’m off to find another dose of cold meds.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Here, kitty, kitty, kitty

Adding a puppy to Phoenix’s world last summer was a piece of cake compared to adding a cat.

While I am not in the habit of adding either at random, we’ve gained five cats at our place since the summer of 2013 (3 of them intentionally, 2 by accident) and all of them are still alive and as normal as cats ever get. Phoenix has come to terms with all of them in his own special bitey way. I suspect a couple of them may attend therapy for malinois-induced neurosis but on the surface they appear to be your average Iowa barn cats.

Cat number seven arrived earlier this month.

In case you’re counting, I didn’t skip cat number six. She is Winnie The Cat and she was here before Phoenix. Technically, she was here before Jamie, if that gives you an idea of how insanely old she is. She was actually cat number one. Cats number two through six – Siren, Gryphon, Weezel (intentional), Wild and Bonus (accidental) - came in 2013. 2014 was relatively peaceful, if you don’t count Banner’s arrival, which lit off all sorts of fireworks until Phoenix decided he wuuuuuved his little bob-tailed bro.

And that brings us to cat number seven.
I’m not averse to having multiple outdoor cats. We have a big farm. There’s plenty of room for everyone. There are plenty of mice for everyone. There’s plenty of room around the communal food bowl, too. The price of eating out of the communal bowl is a round trip to the vet. That entitles the recipient to sit on the patio, two squares a day and free run of the farm without being molested by the dogs. Unless, of course, the cat wants to be molested and then it can just roll over and stick its paws in the air and let the dogs sniff and poke. This happens frequently.

That’s where Phoenix and I see things a little differently.

With a malinois, there are no shades of gray. It’s either black or it’s white. In this case, it’s both.

Cat number seven, hereafter known as Freeloader, is black and white. He showed up earlier this month. He keeps a low profile but has figured out the morning and evening feeding times. He’s not a touchy-feely sort of cat but he talks to me a lot.

Phoenix does not approve. Freeloader is not one of “his” cats. He has not cleared whatever passes for a background check in Phoenix’s world. Therefore he does not belong. He should leave. He should leave now.
Phoenix, barking hysterically: Insurgent! Intruder! Battle stations! Scramble the fighters! This is not a drill!

Me: What? What! It’s a cat! Freddie Krueger is not on the back porch!

Phoenix: Yes! Cat! Not my cat! Strange cat! Who’s Freddie Krueger?
Me: Will you relax? It can stay.

Phoenix: No! Strange cat! Not okay! Must leave! I will make it leave!

Banner: New kitty? Where? Want it!

Freeloader: Holy crap. This place has good chow but the natives are a little over the top.
Phoenix: I will give you the malinois death stare. You want to run so I can chase you. You want to run now. Run. Now. RUN! Why aren’t you running?

Banner bouncing enthusiastically: Here, kitty, kitty, kitty!
Me: Freeloader, here’s the deal. You’re welcome to stay. There are two house rules. Number one, once you’re settled in, you win an overnight trip to the vet. Number two, don’t run from the dogs. Ever. It's better that way. Trust me.

Freeloader: Are you crazy, woman? I’m not going anywhere near those dogs. The big one drools when he looks at me and the little one looks insane. Why does it keep bouncing up and down like that? Is something wrong with it?
Me: I don’t have time to explain. Phoenix, put your teeth back in your mouth and quit staring at the cat. It makes him uncomfortable. Banner, stop acting like a rabbit on crack.

Phoenix: He started it.

Banner: Like the kitty! Pretty kitty! Want to sniff it!

Me: He doesn’t want to sniff you, I’m pretty sure of that.

Freeloader: This place is an asylum. Can I get my meal to go?

Me: What is it now?

Phoenix: I thought I saw Freddie Krueger.