Saturday, May 18, 2013

Obedience IS fun!!!

Life is what you make it...  a commonly heard truth.

It is also true that dog obedience is what you make it!

I have always loved training dog obedience.  I've also been lucky to have had inspirational instructors from the very beginning who never made it boring, helped break down each behavior/exercise into its pieces, never taught with corrections and never ever bored me with heeling around a room in circles.  And yes I learned obedience in 1990.  So there were inspirational trainers and instructors 20 years ago.  

While I am laid up yet again with another knee injury I am having fun training my dogs in obedience.  It is helping me think about different training problems to solve.  I love problem solving.  I love watching lightbulbs go on with my dogs.  My dogs know how to do agility and while there are some fine tuning of things we could do in agility and improving some skills here and there it is not as challenging for me as training for competing in open and utility. Just like in agility for me I get bored if I only trial in one organization because I like the training and handling challenges posed by different organizations the same is true of obedience.  The challenges in the different obedience organization pose interesting problems for me to solve.  I also have three very different dogs I am training.

So many people have negative feelings toward obedience and that is unfortunate.  Obedience is really a series of tricks chained together.  It can be just as fun to train those tricks as roll over, walking on hind legs, bowing etc.  It took almost a year to teach two of my dogs to retrieve.  I went slowly and always made it fun.  Now both dogs are nuts for their dumbbells and I have some of the same issues as people have with labs who want to play with their dumbbell rather than retrieve it.  It is a wonderful problem to have and one that I'm learning a lot as I problem solve it.  If I had force trained it I would not have this problem but I also would not have dogs who are so excited to go and train obedience and dogs who actually like the dumbbell so much I can use it as a reward for other behaviors.  I have dogs who do fast retrieves.  Just like in agility, speed can not be forced.  It has to be nurtured and rewarded and right now I'm working through the sloppiness that comes with happy fast retrieves.  Again a good problem to have.

To prepare for competition there is proofing to be done which helps build confidence in the dogs and helps the dogs solve problems too.  Dogs who have been trained using shaping are great problem solvers so it is not stressful for them.   Obedience requires a lot of independent and confident thinking and problem solving on the part of the dogs.  Dogs who love challenges will love proofing.  My dogs get so happy and silly when they work through a proofing situation or when they figure out what I wanted.  They are not stressed by the challenge because I try never to over face them.  We add distractions when we know a dog understands what we want in order to build their focus.  Obedience competition requires a lot of thinking and focus for a rather long period of time compared to agility.  To help build that focus and concentration we add distractions in training so the dog learns to stay focused on task.  Often the distraction becomes the reward which in turn can make it more distracting.  Dogs often work faster and more accurately when they learn to focus this way and they exude self confidence.

It is when we take on the responsibility for the dog for their performance that stress occurs because now the dog is heavily dependent on us to do something instead of having the self confidence to do it on their own.   I try to encourage my dogs to be independent thinkers and I relish it when they are creative thinkers.  I never expect perfection when learning new things. While we think we are helping a dog to succeed by showing them what we want or by using training aids/props too long or by using our body language to make a dog do what we want, what we are actually doing is enabling the dog to become a co-dependent.  In agility I see this a lot with weave poles.  Handlers use their body language such as hands or hip checks to help the dog stay in the weave poles and this keeps the dog from learning how to do the obstacle on their own.  I also see this when gates or wires or off sets or 2 x 2s are used too long.  It is ok for the dog to make mistakes when it is learning.  It helps the learning process.  Again I don't expect perfection.  Helping the dog be right becomes an unhealthy and stressful situation for the dog in the long run.  The problem is that if we train them to be dependent on us then we have to behave exactly the same way in training and competition for the dog to perform.  That is not realistic for us and then the dog becomes stressed because our behavior is different at a trial than in training.  Hence all of the body and verbal cues we have inadvertently taught the dog in training need to be present in the trial setting for the dog to perform.  When this happens handlers think their dogs understand the required behavior but in fact the dogs understand it only in the context of the handler aids.  So now we have a stressed dog in a trial setting because the handler aids are gone.

In obedience because of the requirements of the sport we have to remove the handler aids well before trialing.  This means that training has to really be done to encourage independent thinking and clear focus and we have to be careful how we train the dogs.  Agility is more lenient in terms of what handlers are allowed to do but obedience is not.  I do like this in terms of making training for obedience a challenge.  I like challenges.

For those who find AKC obedience trial settings stressful there are other organizations such as CDSP - Companion Dog Sports Program which are more laid back.  There are more options now than 20 years ago and that is good.  Obedience and Rally are good options for those of us who are not able to run in agility whether temporarily or permanently.

I participated in my second CDSP trial last weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it.  My dogs liked it too.  The exercises are a bit different, praise is allowed and treats at the end of an exercise are allowed.  This goes a long way to relieving handler and dog stress when trialing.  

While my friends are at the agility trials this summer I will be doing obedience and having fun!