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As I watched one of my students vigorously stroking and patting her big Gordon Setter, it was clear to me that only one of them was enjoying this activity.

The dog had his ears plastered back, his jaw set and was trying to pull his head away from her massaging fingers. I asked the woman if her dog usually came up to her and solicited petting at home. She thought for a moment and then said that it was rare. "So, " I asked, "why are you petting him right now?" She replied, "To let him know I'm pleased with him and that I love him." "Do you think he's enjoying it?" I asked. She looked down at the big guy, who was still trying to avoid her hands. "I never thought about it before," she said. I pointed out the things I had observed. She was flabbergasted and said, "I never noticed those things. Now what do I do?"

That was a tough question. She was trying to motivate her dog, but all she was really doing was annoying him. It had not occurred to her to observe her dog's response to stroking and handling, and to see that while she enjoyed this interaction, he saw it as unpleasant and perhaps even punishing. No wonder that dog was considered hard to motivate! Which brings me to this month's topic: what motivates your brown beast? And if your answer is food and/or toys, what else motivates him?

IN-THE-RING MOTIVATORS

What motivators can you take into the obedience ring and what kinds of rewards can you use in training? Let's start with in-the-ring motivators. Praise and petting are obvious answers, but for some dogs, they are not all that reinforcing. Even for the dogs that enjoy praise or petting, it must be the right kind. Some folks use such harsh tones in training their dogs that even words of praise can be perceived as corrections. It's usually good to use a higher pitched tone for praise (but not so high-pitched or so loud that the sound again becomes harsh or is likely to shatter glass). Different dogs like different kinds of petting. Some big, physically insensitive dogs really prefer some good solid thumps, while others may only want one part of their bodies gently handled.

How can you tell which type of praise or petting is rewarding to your dog? Use your powers of observation. Watch the set of the ears, mouth and tail. Does the dog act like he wants more (leaning against you, initiating eye contact, nudging your hand) or is he trying to get away like the Gordon Setter? If praise and petting are not sufficiently rewarding to your dog, what other options do you have? I discussed this briefly in a previous article. The way to find out what your dog considers positive reinforcement is to observe him at home, in training and at play. Does he enjoy jumping up and touching your hand? How about a 'high five'? Or a quick spin or two? How about, like my beloved Border Collie Adam, jumping backwards as we moved from exercise to exercise? Or Zeb, who likes to jump up and gently grab my hand. I have a student with a Coonhound who gives her girl a quick belly rub. And one with a very submissive Golden who kneels down and lets the dog lick her cheek. Another student has a Rottweiler who likes to have the owner try to grab her stub of a tail. A woman with a very soft Rat Terrier crouches down and asks in an excited whisper, "Are you ready? Ready" until the dog gives her a play bow in response. Tug games with the leash are another, somewhat limited option, as the leash is only used for half of the Novice class. If you have a dog that growls playfully when tugging, or won't give up the leash immediately, you'd best find some other motivator.

TRAINING MOTIVATORS

Now let's look at motivators you can use in training. Here's a place where tug games are great. Tug games both engage the dog and relieve stress. I know there are some trainers who tell you never to play tug games with your dog, but that's a lot of hooey. As long as tugging does not escalate into snapping and biting, and as long as the dog readily releases the toy or leash when told to, tug games are perfectly fine. If you have a very soft dog who doesn't want to tug with you, you can try tying a soft toy to a string, or attaching it to your leash, and dragging it enticingly in front of the dog. You can buy one of those fuzzy toys with a pocket and put some smelly treats in it. An agility trainer suggested filling an old sock with raw hamburger and using that as your tug toy. Disgusting but creative. When rewarding the dog with toy play, it makes sense that your participation should be a crucial part of the reward. Therefore, it is preferable to use a toy the dog can play tug with, rather than retrieve (which moves the focus of the play away from the handler to the thrown toy). An alternative is to teach the dog to catch a tennis ball or other softish toy, which at least requires the dog to look at you in order to play.

FOOD

When using food rewards, remember that a treat for a Terv-sized dog should be the size of your little fingernail (the natural kind - not the artificial talons). Again, experiment and observe the dog's reaction to different kinds of goodies. Remember that when you are reviewing something the dog knows and working in a familiar setting, kibble, Cheerios or some other less than exciting treat will do the job. When the exercise becomes more difficult, the value of the treat must increase, so move up to soft dog treats like Pupperoni. Soft cat treats can also be a big hit. For the really tough times, when the dog is having a lot of difficulty focusing, bring out the big guns: hot dogs, liver treats, cheese or leftovers. For many dogs, the ultimate food reinforcer is liverwurst, also disgusting unless you are an aficionado.

I strongly recommend Donna Duford's little book, Agility Tricks for Improved Attention, Flexibility and Confidence, available from Clean Run Productions. It details tricks and other behaviors that can add some variety to your obedience work and can be used to combat ring nerves for both you and your brown doggie. I've gotten into the habit of having both my dogs do tricks while we are waiting to show in both agility and obedience. Because these behaviors are just for fun and don't require precision, doing them relaxes both of us. And when we're both relaxed, things go better on the business side of the baby gates.

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Obedience Balance the Beast

  • Random Thoughts
  • Words, Words, Words
  • STAY as Sweet as You Are
  • What to Wear, What to Wear
  • What's Sauce for the goose...
  • Say NO to "NO"
This is an excerpt from Melinda Wichmann's last BALANCE THE BEASTcolumn in the December 2008 issue of the TNT.  Melinda writes: 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 Read More
I had a request from a newcomer to provide some clarification of terms used commonly in obedience, so here goes. AKC OBEDIENCE TITLES What are the titles a dog can earn, and how do you know if a particular dog has a particular title?` Here is a list of obedience titles, which are placed after the dog’s name, except that championship titles and UKC titles (see below) are placed in front of the dog’s name. Companion Dog or CD Companion Dog Excellent or CDX Utility Dog or UD Utility Dog Excellent or UDX Obedience Trial Champion or OTCh Tracking Dog or TD (if a dog has both a UD and a TD, the abbreviation becomes UDT) Tracking Dog Excellent or TDX (if a dog has both a UD and a TDX, the abbreviation becomes UDTX) Variable Surface Tracker or VST Champion Tracker or CT Versatile Companion Dog or VCD 1 through 4 Versatile Companion Champion or VCCH National Obedience Champion or NOC, which can only be earned once a year, by winning the AKC National Obedience Invitational There is a whole series of breed-specific titles for performance events like herding, hunting, lure coursing, etc., as well as a lengthy list Read More
Teaching a reliable stay is the bedrock of most training programs, including obedience, agility, herding, hunting and more.  It's one of the first things most folks teach their dogs. It's not a particularly difficult or complex behavior. So why do so many dogs have so much trouble keeping their little fannies where they were left? I think it's because handlers are in way too big a hurry to get far away from Rover, so they skip all the little steps that produce secure stays. I also think this exercise is more difficult for dogs who lack confidence. If you have such a dog, you'd best plan on doubling or tripling the time it takes to teach the stay, or you'll battle this exercise forever. I'm not going to differentiate between sit, down and stand stays here. The principle is the same. I'm going to start by reminding you about one of the most critical factors in all competition obedience training: dogs do not automatically generalize learning. That means you mustn't assume that a dog that can stay reliably in your living room can repeat this behavior in your back yard, much less at a dog show. Stay must be taught Read More
Collars for the Ring The most recent revision of the Obedience Regulations completely liberalized our choice of collars, with a few exceptions. The collars specifically prohibited are pinch collars, electronic collars and, through a later communication from the AKC, head halters. This means that you can choose a buckle collar, a cloth collar with a plastic snap or a choke collar of any color or material. The restrictions still imposed are that the collar be "properly fitted" and that there be nothing hanging from it. The Regulations also state that "No visible means of identification...may be worn or displayed by anyone..." The reason for this restriction is that the whole process of judging is supposed to be objective, so the judge is not supposed to know the identity of any dog or handler. This is laughable, as anyone who shows long enough to meet the requirements to become a judge is going to know the top handlers and dogs in their area, but I guess the concept of objectivity is worthwhile. My point in mentioning this is to tell you that it's not a good idea to use a collar with your dog's name either printed on it or displayed Read More
As I watched one of my students vigorously stroking and patting her big Gordon Setter, it was clear to me that only one of them was enjoying this activity. The dog had his ears plastered back, his jaw set and was trying to pull his head away from her massaging fingers. I asked the woman if her dog usually came up to her and solicited petting at home. She thought for a moment and then said that it was rare. "So, " I asked, "why are you petting him right now?" She replied, "To let him know I'm pleased with him and that I love him." "Do you think he's enjoying it?" I asked. She looked down at the big guy, who was still trying to avoid her hands. "I never thought about it before," she said. I pointed out the things I had observed. She was flabbergasted and said, "I never noticed those things. Now what do I do?" That was a tough question. She was trying to motivate her dog, but all she was really doing was annoying him. It had not occurred to her to observe her dog's response to stroking and handling, and to see that while Read More
I've said it here before: specific words don't really matter in dog training because dogs don't speak English (or French, or Swahili or any other human language).  Dogs learn to associate certain sounds with certain actions for which they've been rewarded or punished. For example, after a number of repetitions, Rover figures out that when his human makes the sound "sit", he (Rover) has better get his fanny on the floor. How many repetitions it will take depends on a number of factors, including the way the connection of the sound and the behavior is made by the two-legged member of the team, how innately rewarding the behavior is to the dog, how bright and how willing the individual dog is, how persistent the human is, and more. This is pretty common sense stuff, but many people still persist in believing that there is some kind of magic in finding just the right word that will make Rover perform. And if that magic word doesn't work, these folks think, it's because they didn't say it loud enough. Or often enough. Which nonsense brings me to this topic, the judicious use of words. I'm not a clicker trainer, but I certainly Read More
  • Not just a brag, not just a stepping stone to a higher title, not just an adjunct to competitive scores;
  • How is it that some dogs carry themselves with more confidence, and perform with more enthusiasm than others? Is it
  • Dogs can be divided into two groups: folders and crumplers. The folders like everything ritualized and regular and repetitive. It's
  • The first Terv to earn the OTCH, MACH and CH The following was written by Julie Symons, proud owner-handler of
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