I’d like to introduce the current canine members of my household – not only are they a huge part of my life, but each has contributed greatly to my current ideas about training for competition.
My plan was to start with Cisu; after all, she is the oldest.
Then I thought about how many dogs live here; 2.5 to be exact. I”m concerned that some reader or two will get hung up on the idea of a half dog, so I’d better start with the half-dog, Juno, and get that explained right away.
Juno is a day care resident; she lives in my home four days a week while her owner works, and often for extended periods when her mom travels. Many people believe Juno is mine since she is featured in my you tube videos and she is the daughter of my dog, Raika.
As a regular resident, Juno was trained in competition obedience skills, but I did not work to develop a deeper relationship with her – to make her feel special and amazing. I wasn’t comfortable making her “mine” – because she wasn’t. I kept a wall between us. It felt unfair to her owner if I bonded with Juno as one of my own – after all, what if she decided she preferred me to mom? Honestly, I thought it was the right thing to do, and it didn’t’ occur to me that our “business” relationship might cause problems in competition work.
I was oblivious to the negative effects of this approach for almost two years. I knew that Juno was more challenging to train than my other dogs. It took almost six months to develop her obsession with a ball, and I neglected her tugging altogether – I figured that as a working bred dog she’d be a great tugger if I needed that skill later on. I also knew that her endurance for work was very poor and her reliance on frequent toy rewards was inordinately high. As long as the ball was available, Juno was able to work reasonably hard and stayed well focused.
The problem didn’t become visible until she was asked to work without the promise of a toy. In the ring there are no toys, and I felt that she needed to develop the skills to cope with this reality. I hate fooling dogs into believing I can provide more in the ring than I can deliver.
To remedy her ball focus, I removed the ball from training and attempted to use ring objects (dumbbells, gloves and articles) as the rewards for hard work. The process was extremely challenging for me, and a misery for her. She wanted her ball. A chance to interact with me and whatever alternatives I was offering; play, ring objects, or mental stimulation merited almost no value in her eyes. Juno began disengaging and leaving in the middle of training sessions – exactly what I believed could happen in the ring if this issue were not addressed. Her attitude deteriorated to the point where I brought back the ball. To get a sense of how the process looked, see this short video from May of 2011:
As the weeks went by and my ability to directly engage Juno continued to fail, I began to study her more carefully in the house. I noticed that when she showed up in the morning, she ran straight past me to check in with my dogs – I was not so important. I saw that she would play with my kids and my husband, but with me, she was a little bit…distant. She never tried to push to the front of the dogs when they were greeting me nor did she hang out by my chair at the computer as the other dogs did. It occurred to me that maybe I had been approaching it backwards; trying to build relationship through training rather than building training through relationship.
I set about making her “my” dog. When she arrived in the morning, I separated her from the other dogs for several hours a day. I invited her to a place of attention at my side when I worked on the computer. I ignored minor transgressions of the house rules if she was breaking them to be closer to me. I watched her style of play carefully and started spending a few minutes each day running around the back yard and trying to engage her when she was at her most energetic – truly an exhausting activity. In training, I worked very hard to add value to myself by thoroughly integrating toy rewards with celebration, play and ring objects. Even when I let her have the ball, I worked to continue playing with her while she held it.
I became very familiar with Juno’s “baleful stare” – my description for Juno’s non- response to many of my attempts at engagement. Honestly, it wasnt’ much fun, but I felt I had no choice if she were to succeed.
Slowly, I noticed change. Juno started to assert herself in the house; demanding her share of special attention. She greeted me first at the door, and then checked in with the dogs. She started working even when she knew there was no ball. When she did win the ball, she’d still engage with me; jumping at my hands and staying close to me for company – a huge change from taking it away and chewing it, or only returning so I could throw it again. As I saw her giving a little to me, I found it easier to give back. I celebrated each change in her behavior, both in the house and during training. And suddenly it snowballed; almost overnight. She was working hard, staying focused and driving interactions with or without a ball present.
Juno is a work in process, but right now I’m so excited by what I see that I train her several times a day, never for more than a few minutes. We are finally able to play together in work – just small bits at a time, but we’re on the journey. I could not honestly say if our changed relationship caused the change in work, or if she simply learned to tolerate a dramatically lower reward schedule – my instinct tells me it’s both. How well she holds up in the ring remains to be seen, and I suspect will largely be a function of how well her owner is able to develop their special relationship.
Competing with a dog that cannot comfortably work for the amount of time they will be in the ring (about five minutes initially) is asking for trouble. Juno must demonstrate her tolerance before she should compete.
The longer you wait to create your “value package”, the more you risk being seen as the dispenser of valued objects rather than being a fundamental part of the whole. Juno taught me that with some dogs, relationship is neither optional nor automatic. It must be developed both in and out of formal work.
What I’m learning from Juno will be a factor in how I raise the new puppy. From the beginning, I plan to work hard to develop every possible motivator for work. I want to be the “package deal”, not a dispenser. I want to offer food, toys, play, praise, and emotional support, all wrapped up in one fabulous human. I know that many dogs do not require this special effort; they will work in the ring regardless of external rewards or relationship. I’m not going to take the chance.
Here’s a four minute video of Juno working this morning – mistakes are not edited out. I used one ball reward, a couple of ring object (dumbbell) rewards, and several “personal play” rewards. She will work again for a few minutes this afternoon – we’ll focus on tightening up her heeling. Since that will be a learning session, I’ll be more generous with the toy. And she’ll have one last session today with no toy rewards at all. Three sessions for about fifteen minutes of work in total.