Proofing vs. Confidence Building

I sat at a trial last weekend, watching utility A after utility A dog fail exercises. For some reason, no one expects Utility A dogs to pass, why is that?? My last German Shepherd earned her Utility Dog title in two weekends. While I know she is the exception to the rule, I do not understand why people are showing dogs who are not ready for the ring. Yes, I know dogs make mistakes, people are nervous, etc…all of these factors play a part in why dogs fail in the ring.

While watching one dog struggle in the article pile, someone came up to me. “Can I ask your opinion,” she said. “Of course,” I said. She went on to tell me she was helping the team currently in the ring. The dog was visibly stressed on articles (staring at handler, repeatedly picking up and setting down articles, circling the pile…handler eventually called the dog in), and she wanted to know what I would recommend doing to “fix” the problem. This is an awkward position to be placed in. While I have known the dog for a while, I can not say I know him well. When I did not answer her right away, she went on to tell me what she thought they needed to do…which was to put more pressure on the dog in the article pile and apply harder proofing situations. She believed the dog needed to be required to work through the pressure and find his article.

Honestly, looking back, I think I visibly sighed. Everyone seems to think when something fails in the ring, the dog has not been proofed enough. That the dog was not required to work through enough pressure on a daily training basis to handle the pressure in the ring. I shrugged, and (politely as I could) said that is not what I would do. The dog lacked confidence. Take a dog who lacks confidence on an exercise and start applying a lot of pressure, and all you are going to do is make the dog’s world explode. You have now turned the scary article pile into a horrible place where there are toys or food laying around to trick you or the person standing close by (who you thought was safe) is now there to pull you out of the pile if you do something wrong.

If you start putting a lot of pressure on a dog who lacks confidence, especially on an ‘away from the handler’ type of exercise like articles, you are going to create a problem with the entire exercise. Not to mention risk damaging your relationship with your dog altogether. I told her, while I did not know the dog very well, I would recommend stepping back and retraining how to work an article pile with CONFIDENCE. I would consider going back to working small article piles, in easy locations, and with high rewards. The dog would have to be successful and very confident, before I started making the exercise harder or applying any proofing at all.

This does not mean proofing does not have its place or that it can not be used to help a dog GAIN confidence. But I really believe it depends on the exercise, the problem you are experiencing and the overall relationship between the dog and handler. I will use my older Springer, Gunner, as an example. Gunner is (and has always been) very environmentally sensitive. Thunder (or even rain), diesel trucks, motorcycle noise, air conditioners turning on…all of these were enough to send him running for the ring gate. If he had a visual to pair with the noise, it was even worse. Seeing the large truck making the noise did not make it any better, it only confirmed there was something to be afraid of.

Years ago, before I even started showing in Novice, it was recommended to me to take Gunner to difficult environments and REQUIRE him to heel with attention. The well-known instructor clearly told me, “You will NOT like what you have, especially in the beginning. But it will get better. The more you expose him to difficult environments and help him work through his anxiety, the better he will be able to handle easier environments in the future.” Looking back, I do not think I followed her advice right away. I wanted to work through the anxiety more positively. But nothing I did could recreate a more difficult show situation. He could handle quiet shows, where nothing out of the ordinary happened, but he could not hold any level of concentration under more difficult scenarios. While I did not go heeling in a train yard, I did go to places he felt were difficult…an empty grass lot behind a park-n-go lot being his biggest problem area. To me, there was nothing super distracting about his lot. The main road was on the other side of the parking lot, and the lot itself did not have a lot of traffic. Sometimes there was a large truck making a delivery at the nearby pharmacy, but other than that, not much going on. But Gunner decided the lot was hard, so this is where we went…often.

To be clear, my dog was NOT being flooded. He was always willing to take cookies, he was never frozen in fear. But it was difficult for him. And, six years later, it is STILL difficult for him. But, I can tell when I do not do enough of this highly distracting work with him. By heeling in these difficult (for him) situations, it makes the ring pressure easier.

But heeling is different than articles. Articles are worked 20 feet away from the handler. The dog is by himself in the middle of the ring with a judge standing right next to him, sometimes with dogs in the next ring with dumbbells being thrown, commands being shouted, etc. Articles (and other utility exercises) require A LOT of confidence on the dog’s part, you can not rush to the dog and help him in the ring. So, if your dog lacks confidence and you start applying pressure, all you are doing is adding stress to the exercise. In contrast to my above heeling example, while heeling I can support my dog. I can help him through problems, I can completely break from the exercise and do whatever I need to do to help him be successful. Who cares if my OTCH dog is heeling to a cookie in my hand? I don’t!! What is important is that my dog knows I am there to help him, to support him, and to reward him…very, very heavily.

So, now that I have droned on and on for eight paragraphs (oops!), let me pull the article situation back to my own dog. Last I checked in, Kazee was doing articles on a tie down board. I hated it….and Kazee hated it. I was not providing enough information and Kazee was getting frustrated. He would scent the pile well one day, then try to snatch and grab the next. So I broke it completely and went all the way back to the beginning.

Kazee does NOT like the scent-a-whirl, he hates it actually. But, he hates it because he has to put his entire face and head down into bins. This is an issue in other ways for Kazee, which (I believe) is what led to some of our initial problems on the scent-a-whirl. So, I went a similar, but different route. I decided to teach it initially like a nosework game. All I wanted him to do was FIND the scent, he did not have to pick up anything at all. I bought 12 new, shorter plastic tubs, which would allow him to pick up an article (when the time came) without him having to put his entire face into it.

We stayed at this “nosework” stage for almost two weeks, starting with only 1 bin and building up to 12 bins. His confidence came back up, he was eagerly running to do his “find it” game and I was not seeing any stress signals from him. We did the game in different locations – inside my house, in the driveway, on the back porch, in the garage, at the dog club. I will not say that he never indicated the incorrect bin, but he was actively using his nose and searching for the correct scent.

I will not post all of the early (working up to 12 bins) videos, but I will post two videos at the end of this step, as they show different issues –

The main thing I wanted to see was a happy, confident dog in the article “pile”. A dog who could easily take a negative marker, if needed, and eagerly go back to work. I definitely saw this from Kazee, so at the end of last week, I decided to move to the next step, which was having him pick up the article after he found it. Because I added new requirements, I made the exercise easier, going back down to only two bins. Today, I add two more bins, bringing it up to four bins total.

I am in no hurry to train articles. I know, in my mind, what I want his article work to look like, so we are working towards that vision as our goal. Some people would look at our earlier article work and say “he knows he is supposed to scent in the article pile” and would have started to apply more pressure to the dog. They would have then, essentially, taken all of the joy out of the exercise. I want my dogs oozing joy. I want people to stop ringside and watch them work. I want people to look at my non-traditional obedience dogs and see that they can be successful with something other than a Golden or a Border Collie. And my definition of successful does not necessarily mean in the winner’s circle, it means showing the judge what a true obedience TEAM looks like. And, sometimes, you have to have a sense of humor…if we go down in flames, we go down together. 🙂

As always, train hard, but play harder!

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3 thoughts on “Proofing vs. Confidence Building

  1. Brandy

    Wonderful work, just love your voice, has energy and with a positive assertive quality. You never rush and you do a great job defining a problem and coming up with positive solutions. I do enjoy your blog.

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  2. Elizabeth Knebel

    How does he know to stop and stand by the container with the article in it? I am beginning to train the articles with my sheltie.
    Liz Knebel

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    1. Shannon Shepherd

      If you back and revisit the early scent-a-whirl work, it may help it make sense. But by using the loose bins, it is more flexible and you can use more size appropriate containers. In the beginning, when you have only ONE bin, you are going to be rewarding ANY interaction with the bin (which has a scented article in it). I would work up to only rewarding a nose touch/hold on the lid with the article in it. Or, like Kazee a couple touches, just make sure it is a clear indication. The next bin I added would NOT have an article in it. Again, reward for a nose touch to the bin with the article. As the dog builds confidence, then start adding more and more empty bins. The next step would then be to start adding unscented articles (or even random objects) to the other bins…one at a time. In the beginning, your dog WILL indicate a bin with an unscented article in it. Just ignore it or give another command if he gets stuck, just like I did on the March 27th video where Kazee was sure he was correct. My scented bin never changes, but since Kazee is a little further along, I am using a newly scented article (leather or wood) each time I send him to the pile. With a new dog, I would just use the same article over and over, to build up a much stronger scent. Make sure you still scent the article each time. The bin that holds my scented article has a mark on the lid, to make sure I can easily identify it in the pile. This entire time, I am NOT asking the dog to pick anything up, only find the correct bin. Make sure you are rewarding AT the scented bin for each find and use something of very high value for articles. Kazee has homemade tuna fish treats specifically for articles. 🙂

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