I took Brito to  a formal practice run last week.  I wanted to see where we’re at in our training and what we need to work on.  Apparently….stuff!

I try to treat myself with the same kindness that I offer others, so let’s start with what went well.  Here’s a video of the off leash heeling:

I’m happy with that picture – he’s happy, crisp and engaged.  That’s what I’m looking for.

Now let’s consider the on-leash figure eight:

Something is clearly wrong here.  He’s avoiding sitting (the start of work), he is not looking at me, his ears look like satellites and his tail wag is low and unsure.

If you work with fragile dogs, you might want to prepare for something like this because meltdowns happen.  It could be the pressure of the figure eight posts.  It could be the handler transmitting nerves down the leash.  It could be the formality, or the building, or the low rate of reinforcement.   And while it’s important to figure it out for your long term goals, it’s also important to have a short term strategy, to get you through the situation with minimal damage.

Here were my options:

  1. Jolly him out of it.  Over the years I have watched a lot of people jolly their dogs to try and recover them.  And as far as I can tell it never actually works.  So for me, that option is off the table – it’s a waste of time and it adds inordinate pressure to an already stressed dog.
  2. Bring out food or toys.  That might work for some dogs and is a perfectly fine temporary strategy, but if you have to do that, then you better do some hard thinking about your training.  You have a serious hole, and you don’t want to compete until you’ve figured out why your dog is reliant on the sight of a reinforcer to feel better.  But if it gets you through the moment, then what the heck.  Do it.
  3. Wait.  Just wait – comfort your dog, and see if they move past it.  If you run out of time, then that’s fine.   Leave the ring at that point.
  4.  Leave.  This is actually a more viable option than most people recognize.  Leaving the ring without judgement would have been an excellent option in this scenario.

I opted for #3.  He wasn’t so far gone that I felt that I was doing harm, and I really wanted to see where he was going to go with his behavior.  Since I was paying for a set period of time, no one really cares how I choose to use it.

Looking back, what I probably should have done was released him back to exploration – given him about two minutes to acclimate inside the ring (his first time in this ring), and then, if he requested work, gone forwards from there.  If not, simply left when time was up.

That’s why having a plan in advance is useful – it’s hard to make good choices on the fly.  Next time I have a plan.

That’s the answer that makes sense for this dog under these circumstances.  Brito became unsure.  In a case like that I want to give him a chance to feel comfortable AND I want to give him a chance to request work again.

What makes sense for your dog?  I don’t know.  Why is your dog struggling?  Fear? Curiosity?  Distraction?  Lack of reinforcement?  Start there – once you have an answer to that, you’ll be able to progress.  Just make sure you have a plan or two in mind before you head for the ring – even a practice one.

I went home a little bit depressed.  Would I ever get this dog competition ready?

And then I watched the tape.  What seemed like a total and complete meltdown didn’t look so bad after all! Our on and off leash heeling was downright cute, as was his stand for exam.

Why is it that our human brain is so determined to dwell on what goes wrong rather than what goes right?  My plan is to hold in my head all of his wonderful effort while I simultaneously work towards strengthening his weaker spots.  My goal is to have even more bright spots at our next run through.  I’m excited to get  back to work!  I got what I needed – information on where to go next.

Now it’s time to go there.