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Cisu – The Normal One

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It’s Cisu’s turn in the limelight. She’s will remind some people of their own dogs because she’s rather typical of “dog”.

Cisu has many interests, of which I am only one.  She enjoys food and toys and exploring.  She likes humans too; both those she is familiar with and those she has just met.   While trained motivationally, my guess is that she could have been trained with a variety of methods.  She’s calm, adaptable, thinking, capable and clear-headed.  Cisu can be emotionally sensitive but she’s not a worrier.

My competition dog before Cisu was Soja, an energizer bunny of effort and concentration, and I assumed Cisu would be this way as well.  Not so;  I had to put out a little effort this time.  Cisu wasn’t going to ask to be trained 20 times a day – I needed to build her love of work. While not highly distractable, she was also not particularly attentive.

In other words, Cisu was normal.

It was a full six years before I realized I wasn’t meeting her needs; that my style of training and trialing was taking advantage of her stability and capacity for work.  For six years, Cisu titled and excelled.  She earned very high scores in schutzhund and AKC competition.  She worked with joy, animation and presence.  I used her as a demo dog in seminars, and she made me look like an excellent trainer.

Cisu never failed a trial until she had her Schutzhund 3 with all excellent ratings, 9 UDX legs, and  a small pile of OTCH points.  She never let me down.  Not one class; not one exercise.

And then she’d had enough.  Overnight (it seemed at the time but not so much with hindsight), Cisu went in the ring and refused to work. She failed class after class, exercise after exercise.

At first I made excuses.  The show grounds were “sniffy”  The jumps were facing the sun.  She was tired from the prior shows.  But when the string of failures grew longer, it became hard to keep up the pretense that everything is fine.

As I look back, I see the stress.  I had never experieneced “stressing up”, and I did not recognize what was happening.  Cisu started to refuse to release the ring objects.  She vocalized in competition and instead of the extraordinary heeling I knew she was capable of, she started to forge and wrap around me. I ignored the signs.  If you want to see the beginning of the end, check out this video.  This is her 8th UDX leg, still looking good but the start of the end:

Notice my calm (disengaged?) handling. To be honest, it makes me want to cry when I watch this video.  Cisu was begging for my presence and I didn’t give it to her.  I look like a handler on valium.

Note the refusal to release the dumbbell after the high jump.

Cisu gave everything she had for years; jumping, retrieving, and all the speed I’ve ever requested or trained for.  And what did I give her?  A pat on her head. Shame on me.  I don’t have on tape what happened nexxt, and I doubt I would have kept it if I did.

She stopped working.  Cisu would enter the ring looking ok, and then the exercises became a free for all.  Retrieve the dumbbell? Stop and sniff instead.  Send out? Wander about aimlessly.  Articles?  Take it to the judge.  Signals?  Perfect attention with no response.  That became our hallmark of stress; Cisu would stare right at me and fail to respond.

l won’t take you through all of the paths I explored trying to understand Cisu’s decline.  Let me just say it was a year, a full year, before I started to feel I had discovered the root of the problem, and another year to devise and implement a plan to pull her out of the hole I had dug for us.

Where did I go wrong?   Cisu was heavily rewarded in practice; every perfect exercise merited a toy reward.  It was rare to non existent that I would engage myself as a reward for good work.  I would estimate that she almost never worked longer than one minute without a toy reward in training.

With time, Cisu associated recieving a toy with being right. For some dogs, the lack of reward in the ring isn’t an issue, or the handler has adequately trained the dog to expect long stretches of work without reward, but I had not done that.  Cisu believed good work earned a toy, and in the ring, she could stand on her head with energy and brilliance, and still the toy would not appear.  So she stoped trying.

Cisu’s retraining was two fold; first, I stopped rewarding each exercise with a toy – instead she might have to work several exercises or even several sessions before recieving a toy.  Second, I learned to interject myself  instead of an object as the reward for good work. Good work earned ME; my enthusiastic, over the top excitement for her efforts. Indeed, that is the primary form of reward that she reieves today both in practice and in the ring.

We have since returned to the ring with some success, both in scores and in what is important to me; engagememt and attitude.  I don’t think we’ll ever have what I had before, and I see that as a lesson learned.  I hope to do better next time.  I will not take advantage of a dog’s good nature again; I will train properly and condition rewards and a reward schedule that I can maintain, even in competition.

Here’s Cisu’s debut after two years of retraining – she also earned her UDX this day.  Note how I am completely engaged and aware of her at all times, even before entering the ring:

I owe Cisu a lot.  The new puppy will be her great granddaughter, and I hope they have a lot in common.

Thanks for your patience, Cisu.

About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

15 responses »

  1. Thank you for sharing this story… it means a lot that you are so willing to share the pain, as well as the pleasure. I think most of us have dogs we have failed in the past. You are fortunate that you were able to rectify your mistakes while you still have Cisu, to give her a tangible reward for the effort and lessons learned. Some of us are only able to correct our mistakes with the dogs that follow; instead of with the dogs who gave their all to train us. Thanks again.

  2. “I will not take advantage of a dog’s good nature again; I will train properly and condition rewards and a reward schedule that I can maintain, even in competition.”

    I love this.

    Difficult dogs demand our best training, because they are less tolerant of poor timing, criteria jumps, erratic rates of reinforcement. But easy dogs deserve it too.

  3. Cisu’s daughter “the Perfect Storm” thanks you for sharing this story about her Mama. Cisu’s F litter ( with Rudy) continues to be one of the biggest most storied of any of your litters. Cisu looks and acts like the family dog–all in all a very good thing!

  4. Cisu and Quiz are quite similar. I’ve struggled with “Valium Face” in the ring before too. When you’re on the other end of the leash from a rabid, heavy-breathing fire-cracker of a dog, you start to worry that you’re barely keeping things together and one little hint of animation on your part will launch the dog into a whirlwind of activity incapable of accuracy and precision. At least I do … or used to.

    I try to be mindful of rates of reinforcement and using what I bring to the picture vs. what toys do, and I’m hoping I’ve struck a decent balance. We’ve shown in utility twice now … and failed twice. Too early to draw conclusions. Perhaps failing the first exercise each time has been a blessing, b/c it’s been the push I needed to relax just a bit and make the rest of my ring as “training-like” as I can get away with in terms of dodging the traditionally “stodgy” and “stone-faced” nature of the sport. I know I still make it more “serious” at a show than in training … my poor dog! This post is a good reminder to try and lose that. I know he’s trained. I know what he’s capable of. I need to just let him “be” the dog I’ve trained and give him a chance to shine. And hell, a huge part of why we’ve failed 2 for 2 is probably b/c I hardly get to work him anymore now that I’ve gone back to school. Grrrrr. Not liking this part of my new life as a grad student.

    Tomorrow is another day, another dog show, and Q or no Q, he’s still MY Q! 🙂

  5. Hummm, small gulp. What do you/will you do in Schutzhund OB when only a brief pat between exercises is acceptable? In practice I try to go longer and longer between exercises for reward, and placing it further and further away from the practice session-many times in the car- and then having to go get it and bring it back to him for reward, so he knows he is going to get paid, but also knows he has to wait and work before he does. As usual, you’ve given me more to think about. 🙂

    • Kathy, It’s not really a problem in schutzhund for a few reasons. first of all, you don’t trial nearly as much; in AKC multiple days are common and frequent. Also, in schutzhund you are normally allowed some time on the trial field before the event. And the judge is further away. So…this is one challenge you aren’t likely to struggle with. You’ll have others:).

  6. Denise, this is mildly off-topic, but I have noticed you mention lots of ball playing in your posts. I have my first ball-crazy dog and I was wondering if you could point me toward any good resources (books, DVDs, etc) that will help me channel this obsession. My older dog is a tugger and likes balls, too, but will play with anything I deem an object — this pup will tug but wants ‘da round thing’ ASAP.

    Your blog is wonderful, by the way — I am really enjoying reading it!

    • I dont’ know of any obedience resources of the type you are asking for. But in agility, you might check out susan garett’s stuff. her emphasis is on control followed by explosion. You apply the ideas to the obedience exercises.

      • Okay, thanks — that’s what I have been doing. (Did Recallers 2.0 and am a member of Puppy Peaks now.) I know that some schutzhund trainers use balls for heeling and recalls, like tucked under their chins or presented between their legs as the dog comes running towards them, and I wasn’t sure if you did any of that sort of thing. Right now I’m doing LOTS of IYC with Finch and the balls. The first time I tried it, it took him 12 minutes to stop looking at the ball and to look at me instead (which earned him the ball) and now he does it within 5-20 seconds, so we’re definitely making progress.

      • A blogger friend of mine went to a positive Schutzhund seminar this summer and talked a little about some of the cool gadgets/toys they used.

  7. Thank you for sharing these two videos together Denise. This was so much easier to understand by watching then just imagining what you both were going through. I’ve heard myself say before “We’ll my next dog will be” and instead need to just get that out of my head and love and appreciate my special boy that I have now. He IS the irreplaceable one!!! My one in a million:o) Keep on training we will!!!

  8. Again, this is an amazing post. You seem to have found “the secret” and I feel very lucky that you are sharing it with us. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this information. My Norton is 8 years old and I still have time to train him with these new ideas.

    Our journey has been very rocky. He is my Novice A dog. When he was 3 years old and I was getting scores in Novice that were < 180 I did what any intelligent and analytical person would do. I went to trials and I talked to the people who were doing well. I talked to people who placed, whose dogs were animated, who had the same breed of dog that I had (Keeshond). And I tried to follow their advice.

    They told me who they trained with. And I drove 12 hours (each way) to take lessons with these people. I read the books they told me to read and I watched the DVDs they told me to watch. In fact I read them over and over again and played the DVDs hundreds of times. I took vidoes of my lessons and I studied them. I tried to do what my trainers were telling me to do even though sometimes it just seemed wrong.

    Norton got worse and worse. He earned one UD leg in 2008 and now is unable to pass even one exercise in Utility. He completely panics in any ring situation. Everyone who watches continues to tell me "he is blowing me off" and needs to be corrected. Even the best trainers.

    One year ago, in desperation I called Diane Bauman on the phone (because she had been successful in training Keeshonden). I had read her book "Beyond Basic Obedience" because my friend Sandy Schmidt spoke so highly of it. Diane was extremely generous in watching videos of my training sessions, meeting with me (another 15 hour drive!) emailing back and forth and talking to me on the phone. She told me that Norton was not "blowing me off", that he was confused, frustrated and wanted to be right. It has taken me a year to realize the truth of this statement.

    My other three dogs are benefitting greatly from what Norton has taught me. Sadly, I doubt that Norton will ever earn the other 2 legs that he needs to finish his Utility title. But I am so blessed to have time to continue to train him and learn from him. He is my heart dog and my greatest teacher.

    After your post from last week, I ordered CU and received it Friday night. Can you talk more about the applications of its ideas for highly trained dogs that either "shut down" or "panic"? In every day training situtions, my dogs are extremely attentive and focused. It is only in the ring where there is a strange person standing close by and there are no toys or food that they exhibit unfocused lack of confidence.

    Thank you every so much.

    Robin, Norton, Victor, Secret, and Olive

  9. Pingback: OTCH « Denise Fenzi

  10. Thank you for this article Denise. I am in the same place with my dog Rosco right now. Your article gives me hope. Thank you.

  11. Kasia Mikurda

    I just can’t believe it. This sounds so much like Spyker. The perfect attention on signals and lack of response story has made me cry. I feel that I’ve done the same mistake over and over and over. It’s also probably why my dog works so great as a Service Dog (I don’t have food or toys on me, but I’m very enthusiastic when he performs well, like a great medical alert etc… even after all this years of him working as my service dog). And he stresses and disconnects when we enter the ring. People are joking that he should compete with his Service Dog vest on – but now I see that it’s simply me, and the way I choose to reward service dog work vs performance work. He’s my Novice A dog and I have so much too learn, but this post just made so much sense to me.


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