Activity Ideas

I am trying to narrow down which activities to work on with both pups, and this is just a huge, high level list of my options and ideas about each for future reference and planning.

Perrin

Tracking – online and local instruction available, hard to practice in my location as there are few appropriate areas that are dog friendly. Not sure if there are any local trialing options.

Nosework- available in my area, lots of training options in person and online. Perrin enjoys it. Have the equipment necessary to start. I don’t really enjoy it and dislike the process/protocols involved with handling scent.

Barnhunt- available in my area, local training available, but a bit of a drive to access. Could acquire the necessary equipment to practice at home, but that involves start up cost I am not sure I want to commit to.  Not something I enjoy overly. Low stress trialing.

Fitness- Just needs to be done to ensure my dog’s safety and quality of life in all activities.

Rally- a myriad of training options, online and in person. Fewer local trialing options, but plenty of online opportunities (which I currently prefer, for my own nerves and for Perrin). More laid back on the details. Online courses do exist that I can set up in the limited space of my back yard. Little to no startup cost (already have signs and training courses for it). Perrin has already started it and has most of the entry level skills individually (at the point of working on chaining a whole course together). Not sure if Perrin enjoys it, or if I have sucked his enthusiasm out by drilling things, moving on too quickly, and getting frustrated.

Obedience- a myriad of training options, online and in person. I already have several online courses on the subject, and Perrin has several of the basic behaviours, but we would have to go back and re teach them. No interest in in-person trialing (registration issues with an intact mixed breed, disagreement with some of the exercises, not an activity that works well with my own weaknesses for perfection and frustration), but TEAM is certainly a viable option.

Freestyle- seems fun, and like Perrin would enjoy it. Online training options available. Trialling options are somewhat limited, but there are a few online venues of different flavours. Could work through a lot of it on my own, but would love to take some more online courses on the subject.

Toy/Play Skills- Do we need these? Should I spend the time on building drive in Perrin for them? Unsure.

Service Dog Tasks- Perrin’s all time favourite activity. I enjoy training them. Win-win. Strictly for fun, no titles to work towards.

Trick Dog Champion Title- Totally within reach, need to clean up some behaviours and train one or two more, but we are close.

Parkour- Perrin enjoys it, easy to train. Online titles available, no training courses necessary. This area is not very dog friendly, so hard to do locally, but I could likely do much of it at the farm.

 

 

Sei

Disc- a given at this point. I need to keep training at a safe level for Sei’s age though. It is easy to get carried away when we are both having so much fun.

Agility- also a given, just trying to decide when to start. Need to buy some equipment to start at home, several in person training options, several online options. Need to pick a handling system, so many choices! May not start even foundations work (even though he is more than old enough to start those now) until next summer due to time and money constraints.

Loose Leash Walking- necessary. Non optional. Hate working on it.

Nosework/Barnhunt: see Perrin’s section above.

Fitness – not optional. Will be required for Sei to remain safe and healthy if we continue onto disc and agility.

Rally/Obedience- see Perrin’s section above. Registration issues not applicable for Sei since he is not a mixed breed. Sei has few/none of the behaviours started, so would be starting right from the beginning. That seems overwhelming to me right now.

Freestyle- see Perrin’s section above. Also seems like it would be great cross training for disc freestyle.

Toy/Play Skills- we NEED these for disc and agility. Willing to spend quite a lot on courses as necessary.

Trick Dog Titles – See Perrin’s section. Same logic applies, just a different title.

Parkour-  see Perrin’s section. Need to wait until he is older for the jumping portions.

Herding – access to stock the limiting factor. Closest trainer I am comfortable with is 3 hours away, so any lessons will be limited to once/2 weeks at best this summer.

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Mindset Problems with Goal Setting

I appear to be running into a problem with my goal setting and planning, and it is all in my head.

It seems that I am able to either have fun training with my dogs, dabbling around in whatever seems appealing that day, OR I can work towards goals I have set. If I have a goal I tend to get militant about it, putting so much pressure on both my dogs and myself that it sucks all of the fun out of the process. Training plans turn training into a chore for me, and make me anxious and demanding towards my dogs such that we ‘stay on schedule’. I become unaccommodating and inflexible. I get extremely frustrated with myself and my dogs in a way that I don’t when we are ‘just training for fun’. Generally, I become a trainer  and a person that I do not want to be. This tends to come out when I am working on manners behaviours as well (the dog should ‘know’ this! Except that obviously they shouldn’t, because I haven’t trained it. But I should have trained it if I had my priorities right, and I didn’t and now I am frustrated at my dog when I know it is not their fault but mine. But instead of making a plan and working on it, I sit and be upset with myself. Not a useful behaviour chain). But it is all supposed to be fun! The logic part of my brain understands this, but the rest just can’t seem to follow.

Part of this problem, I think, is compounded by the fact that I just can’t seem to narrow down my focus with my dogs and decide what sports/activities to focus on. Then I get overwhelmed by ‘needing’ to do ALL THE THINGS by next week.

So shouldn’t I just be able to do the things we find fun? Rally today, mimicry tomorrow, disc tricks next week. There is nothing inherently wrong with just chasing butterflies and having a good time with my dogs after all. Except that this is another thing the logic side understands, but the rest of my brain can’t get behind. If we aren’t working towards some concrete achievement or performance, I have trouble seeing the point and following through. Even though I understand that ‘the point’ is to have a mutually enjoyable time with my best friends.

My mindset is very poor. I need to pick a goal and stick with it, and be able to find that process enjoyable. I need to be able to make a plan, but be happy to change and adapt it to where my dogs and I are right now. I need to decide on something to work on and not get distracted by all the other activities that we ‘should’ be working on too. This is what I would like to see, I’m just not sure I have the tools yet to get myself there.

Stress is Not a Single Category

In the dog world, I have come across the concept of ‘stressing up’ (zoomies in the ring) versus ‘stressing down’ (avoidance, sniffing, scratching, etc) as a dog’s response to stressful situations. It came up during the Intro to Herding workshop that Sei and I took with Kynic Stockdogs a few weeks ago. And I have been thinking about it ever since.

Prior to introducing the dogs to stock, we were asked whether we anticipated our dogs stressing up or stressing down. Thinking back to our work with toys (ball, disc, flirt pole), I guessed that Sei would stress high. When introduced to stock, Sei was pretty unsure/unconfident about the sheep at first, and pretty classically stressed down, avoiding looking at the sheep and sniffing around. This did not surprise me at all. I know that he is often unsure in new situations at first and takes some time to watch the situation before gaining confidence and jumping in. So I had a bit of cognitive dissonance going on. I guessed that he would stressed up, but also expected him to stress down; contradictory beliefs. I could not sort out in my brain the times in which Sei was going to ‘stress high’ or ‘stress low’, but I knew that they are both in his repertoire of reactions to stress.

I explained my lack of understanding to the instructor, and how when frustrated Sei would ‘stress high’, as compared to what she had just seen with his reaction to stock (which I had said at the time didn’t surprise me). Helene pointed out that the stress experience by Sei that was initiated by frustration/unclear criteria caused a different reaction in him (‘stressing up’) than the reaction to stress initiated by anxiety/uncertainty/fear (‘stressing down’/avoidance). This was one of those lightbulb moments for me!

The issue in my thinking was that I was picturing ‘stress’ as one big amorphous thing. I was lumping stress caused by all sorts of different stressors together such that they had one type of behaviour as a reaction. On some level I must have known that this wasn’t a good model for behaviour under adverse conditions, because I recognized that Sei had two different reactions to different kinds of stressful situations. However, I seemed to be getting caught up in the baggage in the human world around the word ‘stress’, and had not been able to look clearly at the behaviour my dogs were showing me.

‘Stress’ is not a single type of situation, but rather a broad category of different kinds of situations that elicit emotional states that the dog needs to find a coping strategy for, such as frustration or anxiety (I’m having trouble coming up with more at the moment, but this will be stuck in my brain for a while, so I’m sure I will come up with more). To be a better trainer and advocate for my dogs, I should be aware of their coping strategies for different kinds of stressors, so that I can better give them what they need to be comfortable in difficult situations. Something to observe and work on going forward!

Release Cue Hesitation Observations

Today I made some really interesting observations while working on playing tug with Sei.

Sei has only recently gotten strong enough at playing tug for me to require an ‘out’/’drop’/’give’ cue, so we were working on that today. One of the ways to teach that, is to say ‘drop’, then put your hands on both sides of the toy near their mouths and wait until they let go, then immediately releasing the dog to the tug again (so dropping the toy on cue always leads to more play). I did this three times times, Sei dropped the toy immediately with my hands pretty far away from his face, and things seemed to be going to plan. Until I held the toy out with both hands horizontally and gave Sei his tug marker (release to tug/marker word), and he hesitated. I had to cue him twice more and take a few steps back before he believed me.

Sei hadn’t shown hesitation before this and it gave me pause. I had come across an article/podcast at some point in the past, I think it might have been something by Sarah Stremming? I can’t remember now, but I had read/heard an article/podcast somewhere on proofing done poorly, and how when dogs get hesitant about their release cues, it’s a sign of confusion. This wasn’t a proofing scenario, but the hesitation around an understood release cue was there, so I started looking at the situation for what Sei might be finding confusing. I figured it was likely that my presentation of the toy, with one hand on either end of the tug, held out horizontally so it is easy for him to grab, might look too similar to me having my hands on either side of his mouth on the toy. Really, the difference between my hands in both scenarios is only a few inches.

So, I tried again, but without the pressure for the release. Adding verbal cues is hard for me, and I generally hesitate to add them until I am *really* sure the behaviour is ready. But I was in experimentation mode so I tried anyway. I tried making the toy as ‘dead’ as I could (no motion, which is hard because Sei will keep backing up until there is tension on the toy again, but I did my best), standing up in a less playful stance, and then said ‘drop’. And he spit the toy out (which he had never done with the body language process alone). Then immediately went back to it when I said tug. We tried a few more times in that session, and again this evening without any more hesitation.

I figured something out on the fly in a training session! That might be a first! I get so worried about having to do everything perfectly the first time with Sei, for fear of ruining behaviours forever that I don’t start working on anything at all. It is the little moments like this one, where something doesn’t quite work, but I am quickly able to notice what is happening and pivot directions with no ill effect, that are slowly getting me out of that analysis paralysis. Its not gone yet, but hopefully it will get a bit better!

October 7-14th, 2017

Between Thanksgiving, midterms and assignments due this week, there was no videoing of training sessions. A quick run down of things worked on this week:

Perrin: Wrapping different objects, discerning the difference between wrapping clockwise and counter clockwise. He also goes along for the ride when Sei works on sits, downs and stays.

Sei: Sei has really got shaping figured out, so now we are playing with ALL THE THINGS. So far this week I have played with shaping front foot targets, ‘be sad’ (face on floor while laying down), holding objects, shaking a paw and we also shaped a bow and started putting it on cue. We also work on sits, downs and stays over the course of the day. Play skills continue to be worked on, specifically bringing back a toy that has been thrown to me rather than dropping it part way back. I’ve been looking up different solutions, but am still trying to decide what approach to try first.

Other revelations this week is that my big goals I made a few weeks ago are just not that helpful to me right now. With so little time in the day, I need to have better planning than a far away goal in order to get anything productive done. I need specific ‘Today I am going to work on sits’ or ‘Today I am going to shape the nose touch portion of a mouth hold’ type steps. So, back to the start on coming up with a cohesive training plan. I also need to decide to focus on something rather than flitting around from flight of fancy to flight of fancy if I want to make any concrete steps towards anything.

There is so much to be worked on too, some of it life skills, some of it ‘fun stuff’: co-op care, stationing skills to make working with two dogs easier (I really need this), life skills for Sei like loose leash walking, stays, happy crating, etc, ‘fun stuff’ with Sei like learning how to shape, tricks, agility foundations, etc., Perrin’s skills work on rally/obedience/tricks, competition skills with Perrin like reducing reinforcement, ring confidence, chaining behaviours, etc, working on Perrin’s online titles for parkour, rally, tricks and freestyle, working towards Sei’s trick dog title… Decisions decisions…

Sei Frustration Musings

Before I picked Sei up, one of the many things his breeder told me about him was that he would demand clarity in training. While that became clear in our other training endeavors, it has become glaringly, in-your-face obvious now that I am attempting to use a frisbee or a ball as a reinforcer. Im suspecting there are two big underlying reasons for this:

1. In shaping and capturing, I am using food as my main reinforcer. Food and toys encourage very different arousal states for Sei, and the arousal state produced by a toy is much more active, energetic, demanding, and less patient. Perfect for teaching many behaviours, but less forgiving of mistakes. Which leads me to…

2. My lack of skills using toys as a reinforcer. Perrin never really liked toys enough or consistently, so they didn’t really come into his list of useful reinforcers. I am just starting to learn what training a dog in a ‘toy arousal’ state looks like: which behaviours lend themselves best, which type of play (chase, catch, tug, etc) works best for which behaviours, where to deliver reinforcement for which toys and which behaviours, which types of reinforcement/delivery locations need different marker words, etc. It’s a bit of a steep learning curve with both theoretical/judgement skills and mechanical skills to learn.

3. I am better at shaping and capturing because I have done it more, so I make fewer mistakes and set up better training plans. This leaves fewer gaps for Sei to be frustrated in.

I’m trying to do my best for Sei by learning as fast as I can, but there are going to be a lot of mistakes for a while. I am going to have to up my planning game and stop setting  Sei and myself up for failure by going into training sessions unprepared.

I’m not skilled at using toys for reinforcement in training yet, but I am just so happy that I at least had the knowledge to identify the likely problem when Sei suddenly started jumping up and biting my arms in the middle of toy training sessions. Knowing even less than I do now, I would have likely put that behaviour down to a ‘lack of self control’ around the toy, rather than recognizing it as a frustration behaviour initiated when I was being confusing and his path to reinforcement was unclear. The pieces of the puzzle that made me think frustration were:

  • It was not happening in the beginning of the session, but in the middle after the novelty of the toy had worn off a bit
  • He doesn’t do it when we are just playing with toys (and I didn’t think what we were doing looked much different than that. It was high on the playing and low on the asking for skills. Clearly Sei disagreed)
  • His body language and bark is different when he is really excited versus when he is frustrated
  • It was only happening when I was trying to cue newer behaviours that had never been practiced with a toy (and quite frankly were not on the verbal well enough for me to be trying it with him so excited and focused on the toy).

This seems childish to me, but I am also happy that I was able to think logically when he was biting me, rather than applying an emotionally driven answer (‘he is an entitled little brat thinking he can just take the toy from me!’), or lashing out when he hurt me. That is progress from where I was three years ago. The last reason is actually one of the reasons why moving to +R philosophies made my world a happier place. I find that the only time +P methods tend to pop into my head as an option is when I am extremely frustrated or in pain (usually the triggers occur in the form of constant barking or being nipped, respectively). And at that point my decisions weren’t logical, or based on behaviours science, its strictly an emotional lashing out. Then I would feel so bad because Perrin would be so sad and I was mad at myself for making him feel that way, and also for letting my emotions take over to the point of lashing out

While I may not know what to do all the time, I’m finding that I am more and more able to at least identify the problem (or at least a short list of likely ones). Which means I can think through them and try a new approach or go out and find more information on the problem. I’m slowly making progress!

So, back to the disc incidents. I continued to use my three different markers for toys that I have so far (catch = the toy is going to be tossed into the air for you to catch, tug= come to me and tug the toy in my hand, chase= I am about to throw this ball/disc/whatever for you to run after), which I think makes a big difference. He clearly knows what each of them means. I also put more thought into what I was asking him to do, where we were and how he is feeling. Rookie mistake assuming that what he can do in the house for food, he can do in the yard for a toy. After re-adjusting my criteria and ensuring I was consistently using the correct markers, I am happy to say that I haven’t been bitten since.

Its a shame for poor Sei that he had to yell so loudly (bit me twice) before I understood the troubles he was having. I will work harder to be better for him.

 

 

Reframing the Question

Sei and I have been working on free stacks in an ultra casual way since he came home. They have not been something we are making much progress on. At first, I was getting a LOT of sitting (really the only thing that had a reinforcement history at the time). I quit working on them for a while, and moved onto other things, one of which was learning how to effectively lure, for other classes.

Both the original way I learned free stacking, and the method taught in the local class we are taking are fairly similar in practice. Hold food out in front of the dog’s nose, quickly take it a short distance from their face, and reward stillness. Well, this was very contradictory to all of the work I had JUST done on teaching Sei to drive into a lure. I could see that it was really confusing to him: “Before I was getting rewarded for driving into your hand with food in it, but now that isn’t working and I can’t see any difference in what we are doing, so why don’t you want the same thing?” To make matters worse, I realized I was using the food to lure Sei to a stand when he sat, and then expected him to leave it alone the next second once he was standing. Not good.

I tried changing how I held the food: if I hold my hand like THIS, drive into it; if I hold my hand like THAT, stay away from it. Turns out, I am not consistent enough to do this in daily training. I may need to simply lure him away from something in day to day life (say, an oven mitt on the floor), and in that split second moment, I have no idea what I am doing with my hand.

This was starting to frustrate me. Why can’t I follow these simple steps that work for many people who follow this method, and get the same results? And I realized I was asking the wrong question.

How would I teach this behaviour (at this stage, it is really just a stand stay) if I didn’t know how it was typically taught? What methods work best for me? For Sei?

For the last two questions, I can unequivocally take anything that resembles luring off of the table. One of my biggest issues with luring is that I can’t seem to split behaviours when I lure. Not sure why, other people have no problems with it, but somewhere in my brain “theory does not compute!” And that is definitely going on here. Things I am currently lumping together:

  • Standing rather than sitting or laying down
  • Standing still rather than moving
  • Standing in a particular relationship to my body positioning (perpendicular to me)
  • Standing with his head in a particular direction (to my right rather than my left)
  • Looking forwards (rather than up or down)
  • Looking straight ahead (rather than at me or at something else)

Okay, thats definitely a problem!

So, here is a guess at a training plan to maximize shaping and clarity. We will see how it works:

  • Taking a cue from the luring for making a functional hand cue in the ring, shape eye contact on a specific hand gesture (in this case, a finger held out perpendicular to the dog). No food should be in the hand making the gesture.
  • Increase the criteria from eye contact with the hand, to standing while looking at the hand.
  • Increase the criteria such that the highest-angle standing orientations are weeded out. So, maybe everything from perpendicular to the hand gesture to 85 degrees are rewarded, then only up to 70 degrees, etc. This would theoretically allow me to remove my body position from the equation, I just have to put my hand in the right place.

ETA 1: I have just taken the food out of my gesture hand, and this has already made a huge difference in Sei’s frustration levels. Whoohoo! We will see how the rest goes.

ETA 2: I think we are getting somewhere! It is still a baby behaviour, but the frustration level is way way down (the most important thing), and I am starting to get some standings still.

I love it when thinking through the problem and analyzing it from a different angle gets me where I was hoping!

Sei’s First Class

Today was Sei’s first live in-person class! We are taking a conformation handling class (tonight) and will start a basic pet obedience class next week.

Lots of things were learned on my end tonight, although few of them focused on conformation.

Sei did amazing! He struggled with the environment at first (new facility, first class setting, first time being around strange dogs he can’t meet, loud barking from the next room over, funny floors, etc), but he quickly bounced back. He focused on me, took food, played with me and even eventually played with a toy (or a strip of muskrat fur, if you can actually call that a ‘toy’). I thought that it was interesting that he was able to play with me (bouncing around, running, chasing me) before he could play with a toy. I knew that when he started trying to chew on my leg that he was ready for the toy! He walked super well on his harness, peed in a new place, and sniffed a few new dogs.

The facility we are going to is marketed as being +R, and the info session I went to yesterday for the basic obedience class (with a different instructor), supported that claim. The instructor tonight however, could be best described as balanced. Things I was told that made me cringe:

  • I was reluctant to put Sei’s lead on the ‘show collar’ (at this point, a thick rope slip collar), because he is not yet trained to yield to collar pressure. He pulls enough right now that I did not want him pulling on a slip. So any time he went to pull, I just put a finger through his harness. The instructor inquired about this, and I explained. I was confused (and a little horrified) to hear “don’t worry about the pulling, he will stop with the leash chokes him”. She had misunderstood what I meant by ‘he isn’t trained for a collar yet’ to mean ‘I don’t think I can control him on a slip collar’ rather than ‘I don’t want him choking himself because he hasn’t been trained not to pull yet’. This never actually came to a head. I continued to use a combination of luring with food, calling his name and engaging him with motion, and grabbing his harness to have Sei move with me, and not go to the other dogs without him tightening the collar. Next week I will make/buy a small martingale show collar to avoid this issue. [To be clear, I have no issue with slip leads being used for showing in general. Just because a slip collar CAN be used to choke a dog, doesn’t mean that it has to be, and by the time the dogs go in the ring, they can certainly be trained not to pull into the collar. I just feel that it is not a suitable choice of equipment for Sei right now, where he is in his training, nor does it really matter what kind of collar he wears for a recreation ‘information’ type class].
  • When another puppy was stopping and sitting during the trotting, his owner was told to pop him on the slip collar, then follow with a reward once he was moving “so that he associates the collar pop with good things, and it becomes a good thing rather than a bad thing”. I hope she didn’t see my face at that point.
  • At one point she took the leash from my hands, to show me how to lure Sei forward on the leash. She gave me the leash back quickly when she saw the shocked look on my face.
  • The ‘bilingual’ class is not really bilingual. For 55 minutes of French instruction, I got about 5 minutes of English (which ultimately worked in my favour, because me sitting on the floor playing Sei could just be taken as the fact I couldn’t understand what was being said, rather than the instructor being offended at me keeping my dog engaged).
  • Finally, I was told as I left that Sei had such great improvement from the beginning to the end of the class (he did!). And that would continue as long as I “quit babying him”. Ha! Coming from this particular instructor, I am going to take that as a compliment. In my opinion, the ‘babying’ was the REASON he improved so much over the course of the session. I acknowledged when he was struggling and tried my best to make him feel better about things, rather than ignoring him or making him press on with whatever inconsequential task we were doing at the time.

Lest I only be a Negative Nancy, I did appreciate how the instructor handled the ‘inspection’ part of the class with Sei. Sei was clearly not going to be happy having her looming over him and touching him. Before I had to say anything, she suggested having her just stand near him and have me feed him cookies, then decreasing her distance over the next few classes. We were all happy with that solution.

Things I did well tonight:

  • Observing Sei, and doing my best to respond to how he was feeling. I don’t think I made the perfect decision every time, but I tried with the knowledge I have to work with. I am a lot farther ahead of where I was with Perrin on this, simply in interpreting what Sei is telling me, and knowing what to do about in in a positive manner.
  • Keeping engaged with Sei the whole time, rather than disengaging with him when the instructor was talking. The goal of taking this class is to build positive associations with the training building and a working environment. If we learn any conformation stuff, that will be cool too.

Things I need to work on for next time:

  • Being more confident in how I handle Sei. I do know some things, and I do know Sei (at least better than the instructor, when I say he is nervous, I know he is nervous). I think that if I am more confident in a quiet, self assured manner, I will invite fewer comments that people think are helpful. I need to be less stressed and flustered for Sei’s sake too.
  • Learning how to say “Thanks, I will think about it!” in a genuine way to comments that I find contrary to my philosophies or are just unkind or unhelpful. This ends the conversation in a positive manner, and prevents me from trying to be all flustered and explain my reasoning and back story for what I was doing and then having that nit-picked, leading me to getting more flustered. Keeps my stress level down, is non-confrontational, and still invites future help on the actual course subject matter (because I certainly DO need that). Win-win.
  • Keep a better hold on my leash so that it cannot be snagged from me while I am flustered.

In hind sight, I wish I had rented ring space at this facility (if they offer it, I don’t actually know), so that Sei could have been familiar with the space and its noises and sights before adding other dogs and people. I think that would have made things easier for him.

Sei rocked all my expectations tonight. He is such a cool guy. I just want to cuddle him now ❤

My Most Embarrassing Dog Incident (AKA The Beginning of the Beginning)

Lots going on at the moment! Perrin continues to enjoy running with his brother on the farm and doing a bit of fitness course work. His inability to wait his turn while I am working with other dogs has become painfully apparent, so that will be a big skill to work now and after the puppy gets here!

In lieu of training notes, I had some more musings to share. In this case, what I feel was the most embarrassing event in my life, and the time I failed Perrin in the biggest way. The therapy test. Before I knew anything at all about dog training, before I even got Perrin, I had decided that I would train my dog to the ‘therapy dog standard’. I really wanted to train and to have a well behaved dog, but didn’t know where to start. The therapy dog standard gave me a direction and a goal. So when a group arrived in Grande Prairie to do testing, and Perrin was old enough to test, I jumped on it! We had been working with a local coercion trainer for about 6 months, and I was pretty happy with Perrin’s skills overall. I almost threw up before the testing started, but that is pretty normal for my performance anxiety nerves.

It was truly the most embarrassing experience of my life. I was sure everyone else was looking at us thinking “Wow, she is a pretty big moron if she thought THAT dog could pass a therapy test!” and/or “What a horrible dog!”. And that mattered to me, what other people thought. Perrin could have passed the test, his skills were great! As long as he had a job to do, he did well, but being able to wait his turn around other dogs? That was another store entirely!

The barking. The lunging on the leash. The frantic games of leash tug. The whining. The rolling around on the ground. The jumping and biting my clothes. The barking.

To make a long story short, although Perrin’s skills were fantastic, we were dismissed before lunch due to the disruption he was causing. I managed to be gracious to the evaluators and hosts, and almost made it to the car before I started crying. Then I quit training for 4 months.

In hindsight, the idea that an adolescent intact male might have difficulty focusing in a room full of other dogs is to be expected under the best of circumstances with a well prepared dog and trainer. And these were not the best of circumstances, nor were either of us well trained. As I learned more after the fact, and looked back at this situation, the more I saw the piling on of factors that made this a recipe for disaster:

  • Perrin was 18 months old at the time, right in the midst of adolescence. Not exactly the best known developmental period for impulse control and attention span, let alone around other dogs! And I had never worked on calmness that close to other dogs. I just expected that because he knew the skills, he should be able to ‘behave himself’.
  • I had no idea about over-arousal or how to deal with it. Everything I did just upped Perrin’s frustration levels and made things worse.
  • There was no treats or toys allowed in the the testing room. That was where we waited, as well as where the examinations were conducted. This worked out to HOURS without classical reinforcement, and I didn’t even know the concept of personal play as a reinforcer at the time, let alone actually having had worked on it. That is a much longer time period without any classical reinforcers than any dog sport venue I am aware of, and there are entire courses devoted to reducing reinforcement schedules for the duration of a ring performance. I was expecting WAY too much here.
  • I was a nervous wreck, which only got worse the more Perrin acted poorly, and I’m sure that directly translated to Perrin’s frustration levels. I was by far the youngest person/trainer in the room and didn’t have the emotional maturity to deal with what was happening, or to understand that I did have an option to end things: I could have left! I could have walked out the minute it was clear I was just stressing Perrin out. It never once occurred to me that I could leave the room and quit the test, and I didn’t yet have the knowledge to understand Perrin’s behaviours as an expression of stress. I just thought he was being ‘disobedient’.

I really didn’t understand any of this at the time. I was angry, and upset with Perrin because he had embarrassed me by behaving so badly in such an inappropriate situation. And I was angry and upset at myself for being mad at my dog because I knew the whole thing was my fault and not his, I just didn’t know how. And not knowing how, or how to fix things made me angry and frustrated and sad and feeling like a failure. Failure has never been something that I deal with well. To this day, I have never been back into that training building or its associated pet store. I quit working with Perrin altogether for months before either of us felt like working together again.

BUT over a year and a half later, I can look back and have an infinitely better idea of what went wrong, how it could be fixed if it were something that we wanted to pursue again in the future, and how to better handle a similar situation if it ever happened again. I can see how much personal growth I needed to do before I could get to where I wanted Perrin and I to be. I can also see this disaster of a day was the catalyst for all of the wonderful things that have happened for Perrin and I since. That incident led me to pursue a different way to train. I never wanted to feel so angry with my dog again, like he was a failure who was acting poorly just to make me look bad. I wanted us to be a team, and enjoy working together. I wanted to have fun with my dog, and for training not to be a chore that left me crying after every session.

Less than 4 months after that test, I took my first online course in shaping, and through that I discovered a new way to train and have a relationship with my dog. A way to train that fostered the relationship with my dog that I always wanted to have. Changing the question from “What is my dog doing wrong?” to “What am I doing wrong?”, and having the knowledge to answer that latter question changed everything fundamentally. I wasn’t just picking on behaviour of Perrin’s I didn’t like and putting the entirety of the responsibility on him. I was acknowledging how I may have set him up for failure, or how I could make the path to success more clear to him. We were a team working through puzzles together, and the only thing that mattered is how we both felt about doing so.

I also got introduced the great wide world of dog sports. I realized that I didn’t even WANT to do therapy work, it was just the only guideline I knew of for training a ‘pet dog’, and what I wanted to do was have a relationship with Perrin. Once I found out about all the other goals we could have, therapy completely dropped off the radar for me. Not because we did badly once and I am afraid to go back. I am confident that I could build a proper training plan, and with the right amount of time, and careful selection of the organization in which we would test (to ensure I agreed with their testing set-up), that Perrin would pass with flying colours. It just doesn’t fall that high on my training priority list anymore (I dont even like people!). That test was leading me to other things: to a better way of life for us. I’m glad to say that I haven’t cried over dog training since!