Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Why I love training my dogs...

Finally, a post about DOGS!

This past weekend, I planned to attend a "show-n-go" at my dog training club, Queen City Dog Training, in Sharonville. I had a lot of work-related paperwork to wade through, so I decided to work on that in the morning and get there shortly before they stopped taking entries in the afternoon; then a few of us planned to hang around, train a little after, and then eat Mexican for dinner. I let the dogs out at about noon; there was a flurry or two in the air but nothing much going on. I came back in and spent about half an hour printing off some tax forms and show entries, and about 12:30 headed out into the garage to load the dogs up and go. When I opened the garage door, you could have knocked me over with a feather- the street and yard were totally snow covered and it was coming down hard and fast. About half an inch had accumulated since I'd looked outside a few minutes ago. I called a friend who was already at the club and she reported no snow there, so I decided to brave it. It was coming down so quickly that the roads were totally covered and very slick; 18 was bumper to bumper all the way in to the expressway and there were accidents everywhere. It was a little annoying to sit in the car and listen to the canned weather reports talking about "scattered flurries". I guess they don't have windows in the TV studio. And snow on a Sunday is definitely not as newsworthy as it is during the week! Luckily it didn't last long, but I managed to pass out of the front going through downtown, then into it again as I neared 275 north of town. All told, my normal 40 minute drive took me 90 minutes.

So why didn't I curl up at home and enjoy a relaxing Sunday afternoon watching the snow fall?

I confess....I am an addict. Neither rain, nor sleet, nor dark of night will keep me from my dog training activities. That is the ONLY thing that will get me out of bed in the wee hours of the morning when it is still dark outside.

People who are not addicted to dog sports don't really understand why we do it. To the rest of the world, "dog obedience" brings to mind a vision of a handler with a passing resemblence to Hitler, barking out orders and executing militaristic maneuvers with their dogs marching along beside them. Agility and other sports are just elaborate tricks. If you ask the average guy on the street to explain obedience training to you, he will probably start to ramble about dominance and alpha and showing the dog whose boss.

MY reality of obedience training falls pretty far from this description (as it does for most of my friends who train). When I got my first dog Levi, I thought I would like to do obedience with him, because it looked like fun, but also because I wanted a well trained dog who could go anywhere with me. What I found, in working with him and my subsequent two dogs, is that "training" should not be something you do TO your dogs, it is something you do WITH your dogs...while the end product is a dog who can perform a lot of snazzy looking behaviors which ultimately should make him easier to live with and a more pleasant pet, the true joy of training is that with each passing day your communication with your dog reaches a whole new level. If you have never trained a dog to a high level and experienced that teamwork that comes from years of working together, it is hard to explain to you how it deepens and enriches that relationship in a way you never would have thought possible. I don't even have words to describe how much those dogs come to mean to me. I LOVED them from the day I brought them home, but the difference is like the difference between that junior high crush, and the marriage that has lasted 50 years.

I used to think if I had one wish it would be to be able to talk to my animals...now I don't so much feel that need anymore; talking would just clutter our relationship with minutia and I might find we had different political views or that they would natter on and on about the squirrels in the yard ;-). We communicate just fine the way we are...the hell with being able to talk to them, I'll use my wish for a million dollars so I can retire and we can spend every day training or showing!

One thing that I have learned over the years is that there is a big difference between an "obedience dog" and an obedient dog! The exercises we teach in obedience certainly are based on a good foundation of behaviors that result in an excellent pet. However, competition obedience is a bit stylized; there is a big focus on drive and attitude. In other words, we not only want our dogs to DO the exercises, we want them to do them with pizzazz- speed, style, focus, and drive. So from the beginning as little puppies, we reinforce that drive and attitude, and then spend the rest of their careers trying to keep it under the fine control needed for high scoring competition work. Often we find that reinforcing that drive becomes more important than having a perfectly behaved pet! The irony is that often our FIRST obedience dog is our most "obedient" dog. We started training because we wanted a dog who would behave, and then got hooked. In our next dogs we wanted the attitude, and having a dog who drags us around on lead OUTSIDE the ring doesn't seem so important anymore ;-).

The beauty of training though, is that there is room for all. Whether your priority is a dog who will behave perfectly under all situations, or a dog who will do the exercises with flash and drive but may be a bit of a "wild child", there is a place for you. Your relationship with your dog will be better for it. Watching a well trained dog and handler can be an inspiring experience...at its best it is truly a love story in action. Now, some of us may be epic like Romeo and Juliet, and others may be more everyday comedy like the Honeymooners!

Train your dogs! They will be better for it, you will love them more, they will be easier to live with, and their lives will be much fuller for the mental stimulation. WHAT you do with them is not so important- a little obedience is essential as the foundation for all other dog activities, but whether your "thing" is obedience, agility, tracking, herding, flyball, hunting, earthdog...it doesn't so much matter. You don't have to become an addict, a few minutes a few times a week can make a huge difference. What matters is you will have a happier, mentally healthier dog and a whole closet full of memories to make you smile when that dog is gone.
Exercise finished!


  1. Nice post! (Although, I am sorry that you won't get up early for birding, LOL!) I like the differentiation between an "obedience" dog and one who is "obedient." I have seen people come out of the ring, take off their training collar and switch it for a prong collar, because the dog won't mind outside the ring. That's just wrong.

    I like dog sports, just not addicted to it enough to put in the extra time. We just do it for fun.

    I tried obedience competition once, and didn't like the strictness of that discipline. I do like Rally Obedience, though - more relaxed and varied, not the same cookie-cutter pattern every time - and a lot more fun, IMO. Have you ever tried Rally? I enjoyed Agility classes, too.

    I say I have my Obedience dog (Holly) and my Agility dog (Grace, before the ACL.) Holly believes in rules and is afraid of heights, Grace thinks rules are optional and loves to go-go-go.

    I'd like to hear your thoughts about different dogs' interest and ability in one sport over another.


  2. Those pictures are just priceless! This dog MUST be the 1/2 brother to Payson. They look very similar- right down to the white eye lashes. I just love the face!

  3. Both my boys have their rally novice titles (we haven't entered advanced because of the jump and return to heel- I have a feeling they will be off to the races and I might actually have to TRAIN for it!). I like the formal obedience exercises better though; rally is just kind of like doodling in the backyard.

    I did very little obedience for more than 7 years after I retired my old guy Levi (he had his UDX). Now that I am back into it with Andy and Cory is getting there, I do hate the SILENCE at the trials (well, until Andy gets in the ring ;-( ) and the tension level. I love teaching the exercises though and the challenge of pulling it all together on the day (I had forgotten just how darn HARD utility A is though!). I have lost a lot of my drive to perfect the exercises- I like teaching new stuff best.

    For both of my dogs their first love is agility. They would rather do agility than eat (right now I am struggling with Cory- I want to reinforce his contacts with a treat during a run, he can't be bothered to stop and eat it- and he LOVES food. He will actually let it fall out of his mouth). They'll even ignore a bitch in season to do agility. Reminds me of guys at a sports bar oggling the waitress during the commercials, but as soon as the game cmoes back on, that's where their focus is!

    Tracking is a close second for Cory and Andy likes it pretty well too. They both loved the little bit of herding they have gotten to do.

    My dogs love doing obedience, but I don't think in their minds they differentiate all that much between "agility" and "obedience" when we train. We mix up the exercises a lot. They like to run and jump best, so go outs/directed jumping are a favorite. They both enjoy retrieving and I make a game out of creating a little jealousy between the two dogs as to who is "allowed" to retrieve, the dumbell especially but also anything I happen to drop around the house. You should see them scramble for the TV remote when it hits the floor! They both especially enjoy scent articles. Cory really likes to heel, and because he enjoys it I like practicing it a little more so I have been working on that lately. I rarely practice heeling with Andy anymore, we are not going for scores, we just want to Q. I find his attention to the detail needed for accurate heeling is not so good now that he is older- he is a little slower to read my body cues and react. And my footwork has gotten sloppy too- I need to work on cleaning it up.

    When it comes to showing, they prefer agility to obedience because they don't have to have the same kind of mental concentration level and they get to release all that pent up energy. Andy especially is not a "thinker" he is a "reactor" which has made utility a struggle for us! But in general they just want to do SOMETHING, anything I have in mind is ok as long as it's not a bath. They are just as happy to get to club and see the obedience rings set up as they are to see agility equipment. I DO vary the level of treats I use to "stack the deck" towards exercises that are not as innately reinforcing. In general, most of our agility training gets them pretty mundane treats, once we are past the early teaching stages, and we don't really use tons of them when training any more. Obedience gets better treats, and obedience trials I bring REALLY good stuff, so they have a very good mental attitude towards them and it helps them to deal with the more pressured atmosphere.

    When I have picked my dogs, I have chosen carefully knowing that I want a dog who will enjoy the same things I do, and I put a lot of work into building that positive mental association with working early on. But if I had a dog who just didn't like something, we'd find another sport to do. And, as they age, we try to find activities that they can continue to do at some level to keep them active. Given Andy's heart issues that have shown up recently I am afraid his agility competition days are over, but we will keep trying for that last UD leg, keep tracking, he can play at agility at low heights and short spurts when we train, and we may work on rally a little more again.

  4. PS- nah, nah nah nah nah Kathy- as I hit post the sapsucker came to my feeder! I am snowbound today watching birds, blogging, and trying to figure out how to upload my webpage updates! Now everyone's been here today but the pileated, and I'm sure they'll show up (well, the red heads haven't been here but they're gone til spring). So far a five woodpecker day, if the pileated comes it will be six species.

  5. Yes, Andy is Payson's half brother. His eyelashes didn't used to be white till he got old! He will be 12 in June.

  6. Snowbound - Hah! Slacker! I went to work today; spayed a dog and a cat (female, this time!) and did a dental/lumpectomy. Bugged out at 4pm in order to make it home before the ice, and got my car stuck sideways in the driveway.

    I may be birding at home tomorrow if I can't move the car.