Just ONE more time….

How many times have you been in a situation where things are just not going well? You keep telling your dog (or yourself), “Just do it right ONE time and we will quit!”. Things keep spiraling downwards and you finally decide to make the request easier for your dog to be successful.

Lets look at an example – your goal for the day was to build on the training from the day before and increase the number of steps of attention heeling. The training location did not change and there was no significant change in the level of distractions or your handling (dog has been off a visible lure for some time, but is still heavily rewarded during sessions).

After a few good reps, however, your dog regresses. All of a sudden they can not even heel a few steps without breaking their attention. After several failed attempts, you take a cookie out of your pocket and go back to a visible lure to get the attention you want. But did you really? Unfortunately, you don’t have attention, you have a bribe. Your dog is no longer heeling for you, he is heeling for his cookie.

So let’s look at what you have just taught your dog…you have taught him less effort equals my making the job easier. I am not saying you should not help your dog get the behavior correct. But what I am saying, is to work harder on motivating and reinforcing your dog for effort.

Ten years ago when I started training, I’m sure I pulled out a cookie…or I over-corrected and killed my dog’s motivation. So what would I do differently now? I would put my hands in my dog’s buckle collar, hold his head in position and require that he heel in the manner in which I taught him. After I got a few steps of good attention, he would be released with a motivational pop to a toy or cookie (which had not been visible previously). I would play for 5-10 seconds and immediately ask my dog to heel again. But now, I am going to ask for A LOT more effort. With Gunner this means a very strong hand push during heeling, which requires him to drive with his rear and elevate in the front. On the next rep, I will go back to formal heeling, and see if he gets me the level of attention and drive I want. If he does, he is released and we play a rousing game of tug or chase the cookie.

How you handle errors is a personal decision. Some people put their dog back in the crate if the dog does not want to work. Some people will attempt to work through the problem. I will occasionally put a dog away, but it depends on the type of error and why the error is happening. Unfortunately, I do not have the luxury at a trial to tell the judge “Sorry, but can I give my dog a 10 minute time out before I come into the ring?”, so I will often deal with a lack of effort error immediately during training. But, if you ever start to feel yourself getting frustrated and you notice that you are beginning to deal with your dog differently, than just put him away. I would rather cut a training session short, than cause myself another problem to deal with later.

But, always, always, always keep the desired criteria in mind. For example, if one of your criterion is 100% focused attention in heel position, require it (and reinforce it!) EVERY time you train your dog. If you start to layer in proofing, than maintain your criteria, but shorten the duration. If your dog is having a problem, work through it, but reinforce (not bribe) effort from your dog. And always remember, they are dogs. Just like us, they have bad days or days they just don’t feel like working. Hopefully these don’t fall on the day of the big show, but by working through problems in practice, you will lessen the likelihood of them occurring later…or, if they do happen, you will be more equipped with how to handle them.

Train hard. Play harder.

Energy Levels

Most people who show their dog in obedience have a specific picture in their head of how they want their dog to work. But, yet, when it comes to the amount of effort THEY put into their training, it does not seem to match what they expect from their dog.

I do not mean making sure you get up early most days of the week to beat the heat and take your dog out to train. (In Florida right now, this is about 5:00am!) I am talking about the amount of effort and energy you put into each and every minute you spend interacting with your dog during training. Personally, if I am not sweating (and sometimes bleeding!) at the end of a training session, I did not do my job. This does not mean I am running constantly or cheerleading my dog, but if I expect my dog to expend energy, I should be doing the same.

Some of my expectations from my dog include:

  1. “Engaged” attention (not just attention)
  2. Fast responses to commands
  3. Correct performance of behaviors…or more accurately, the performance of behaviors as they have been taught, which may or may not be “correct” in the handler’s opinion
  4. Speed moving away from me and speed returning to me

What should my dog expect from me in return?

  1. “Engaged” attention
  2. Rewards the dog desires – food, toys or personal play, delivered in a motivational manner
  3. Verbal praise when working through problems or in challenging situations, or for general encouragement for greener dogs
  4. Consistent training and handling, which does not change just because the dog makes an error
  5. An expectation of my properly teaching each step to a desired behavior
  6. A thoughtful and laid out plan for training sessions (which are always subject to change depending on training challenges!)
  7. Opportunities to rest – both physically and mentally

Not on the list, is energy. As a handler, I should be exuding energy to match the desired energy level I wish to see from my dog. I did not put this on my list above, because I feel it can easily be misconstrued and needs more explanation. And, as always, every dog is different. I know handlers who can not even touch their dogs during a competition because the dog is wound so tightly. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I never can make up my mind), this does not apply to the majority of us.

If I want my dog quivering with excitement at the mere thought of my throwing his dumbbell, if I started jumping around and squealing when I picked up his dumbbell, I will (more than likely) transfer the wrong type of energy to my dog. Personally, my dogs would stop thinking altogether, start barking and begin leaping into the air. If I proceeded to throw the dumbbell, they would likely break their sit-stay and fumble the dumbbell pickup in their excitement. This is NOT what I want to pattern to my dog when I pick up the dumbbell. So, instead, when I pick up their dumbbell, I start talking in a low tone, while I’m walking towards my set up. I will be giving the dog their (trained) cue words, to bring their energy level up. My older Springer, Gunner, will become tighter through his body and he will lower his body and close his mouth. In practice, these physical changes are rewarded, either by letting him jump up and grab the dumbbell (on command only) or by aborting the exercise for play or food. But, just because my energy is not as visible to others watching, my energy has changed. I have become more focused and intense to my dog. I’m looking him in the eyes as he is backing away from me. I am giving him his cue words in hushed tones. I am cueing him to bring up his energy level to match mine.

Now, think about what would be different if I walked over to pick up my dumbbell without being focused on my dog. After picking up the dumbbell, I walked to the setup spot without engaging with my dog and told him to get into position. I accept a less than speedy setup and throw the dumbbell. He waits for me to send him, then trots out to get his dumbbell, carefully picks it up, turns and trots back.

Is anything scoreable in the second scenario? Probably not. Maybe my dog actually lucked out and got a decent front and finish, so we even earned a decent score on the exercise. So, what is the problem? MY problem is that I want energy from my dog. I want my dog to have a super crisp set up, run back and forth after snatching his dumbbell and fly into front. Yet, in the second scenario, I did not want to put forth any more energy than absolutely necessary. So, what’s left? I correct the dog for being slow. I require him to do retrieve after retrieve, trying to obtain the picture in my head. Unfortunately, the picture will never change, unless I change.

If you are fighting an issue with your dog’s energy level, look at yourself first. Are you doing an adequate job of motivating him to perform a specific behavior? I am not saying that a lack of effort should never be corrected. If I have done my job and have worked all of the pieces and built up a behavior, I do require accuracy from my dog. But, things break. Exercises fall apart. Dogs get stressed and forget. Sh*t happens. Don’t be afraid to step backwards and retrain something.

Often, what I notice, is people exude energy during the training process, but this energy starts to wane after time. Young dogs are fun and accuracy is not quite as important, so we work on game play, drive building and pieces of future skills. But, as training progresses, our mentality changes…we think “My dog understands what is required, so I don’t have to work as hard anymore.” In some ways, yes, but in other ways, no. Maybe our timing does not have to be quite as crisp, since we are not marking complex pieces of behaviors. But, we still have to be alert, focused and engaged with our dog.

Filming your training sessions allows you to keep an eye on your energy levels. Watch the film when you get home (while the training session is still fresh in your mind) and turn off the sound. Watch your body language and how your dog responds. What is your dog’s energy level? What is your energy level? What could you do differently to bring up (or in some cases, bring down) your dog’s arousal? How does your dog’s body posture change at different times during training, especially after an error? Does he respond the way you want him to? Was the error an effort error or a lack of effort error?

If you are newer to the sport of obedience, try to find someone knowledgeable to watch you train or to review your filmed sessions. Listen to their advice and develop a plan to work on yourself, not just your dog. There are, after all, two parts to the team. And, if you expect your dog to uphold his end, you certainly should uphold yours.

Train hard. Play harder.

** Do not expect your dog to all of a sudden bring up his energy level to match your new, increased levels. This is a trained behavior, just like anything else. If you have an energy or motivation issue with your dog, so back and work on building drive and arousal outside of a training environment. Reward engaged attention during informal training sessions. Start teaching your dog cue words to turn on his arousal…two of mine are “reaaadddddyyyyy” and “wanna play?”. Break down exercises and reward speed. For example, if your dog has a slow (or non-existent) drop during signals, work this skill separately, releasing your dog AS SOON AS his elbows hit the ground. Then, gradually work the improved drop back into the exercise.