This is an excerpt from Melinda Wichmann's last column in the December 2008 issue of the TNT.
I'd like to leave you with some random thoughts about obedience training, many of which I learned from Jamie (OTCH U-UD Ariel's Escape Through Time UDX3 VCD2 TD MX MXJ MXP MJP RE NF) who is a wonderful patient teacher.
- Think positively and surround yourself with friends who think positively.
- Communicate clearly with your dog. Show him exactly what you want and help him achieve it. Gray areas lead to confusion, doubt and inconsistent performances.
- Give your dog the benefit of the doubt.
- Be patient. Training certain skills will take as long as it takes. (You can speed up the process by being a clear, consistent communicator.)
- When at all possible, make training look like showing.
- Check your look in the mirror every now and then. Is your dog's heel position correct? How about your posture? Do you like the reflection you see? How can you make it better?
- Build a strong foundation. Do not hesitate to back up and strengthen it if needed.
- Training happens any time you are interacting with your dog, not only when he is wearing a collar and leash at the training building.
- The behaviours you get in the show ring are a by-product of your relationship with your dog. If you're having problems in the ring, it might not be an 'exercise problem', per se, but might be connected to the overall relationship you have with your dog. What things can you change to establish yourself as a strong, fair leader who is respected and obeyed whether you are in the back yard or the show ring? Are you bribing your dog to interact with you or building a strong bond which allows your dog to think of you as the most wonderful thing in his world?
- There are no boring obedience exercises, only boring trainers. It's up to you as the trainer to make the exercise fun and upbeat. You'll enjoy it more, too.
- A dog cannot learn if he is scared. Resolve the fear issues first before doing any training, even if it takes weeks or months.
- Smile. A lot. Smile at your dog. Smile at the people you train with. Smile at the judge when you go into the ring.
- Corrections don't do a bit of good if the dog does not know how to perform the desired behavior in the first place. Before giving any correction, ask yourself if your dog truly understands how to do what you are asking.
- Think of your dog in positive terms: bright, funny, eager, a work in progress.
- Speak of your dog in positive terms. Imagine how he would feel if he understood English and heard you talking about him.
- Choke collars, pinch collars, clickers, target sticks, chutes, tabs, dowels, leashes, long-lines, light-lines, Flexi's, toys and cookies are simply tools. They will not produce a brilliantly trained dog unless they are used correctly and consistently by brilliant trainers.
- Training should be a matter of quality over quantity.
- Always have a clear picture in your mind of what you want to accomplish during a training session.
- Treat your dog like an athlete, not a robot. Pay attention to warm ups and cool downs. If your dog is reluctant to perform an exercise he previously delighted in, ask yourself if he is sore, has cut a pad, has a bad tooth, etc., before giving corrections.
- Practice perfection. If you want straight fronts, don't repeatedly allow your dog to give you crooked fronts. Help him do it right.
- As you raise your criteria for an exercise, relax other related areas (i.e., if you're working signals in a new, distracting environment), stay closer to the dog at first then gradually lengthen the distance so you can build on success vs making corrections.
- Challenge your dog with creative proofing. Start low key and gradually make exercises more difficult. This will keep your dog from becoming bored with the same-old, same-old.
- Set goals but be realistic.
- Make play a part of training, not just a brief reward at the end of the session. Vary the amount of time you ask your dog to focus between play rewards.
- Keep an open mind. Never say never when it comes to what you believe your dog can achieve.
- Keep a training journal. It doesn't have to be Pulitzer Prize material, just a way to record the ups and downs of your training progression. It's helpful to be able to look back and see how far your dog has come (or not) on a particular skill.
- Training should not only teach specific exercises. It should build confidence, joy, teamwork and enthusiasm for the job.
- Enjoy every second you spend training. To you, it may just be 15 minutes sandwiched between work and household chores. To your dog, spending time with you is the highlight of his day.
Thank you Melinda for these thoughts and for the years that you spent writing the Balance the Beast column.