All I Really Want is Good Attitude In The Ring..."

(Previously published in Front and Finish, The Dog Trainers' News http://www.frontandfinish.com/

 

 

             We’ve all said it, right? It seems like such a simple request. But what are we really asking for, and how in the world can we get it?

            First, let’s talk about attitude. There is a lot of it in each obedience ring, and only a little bit of it is coming from the dog. There is owner attitude, judge attitude, and steward attitude.  Any one of those three can affect the others, and one bad attitude in a ring can bring all of the other ones down, too, not to mention the dog, who is there because some person decided to make a bet without consulting the dog. So make sure YOUR attitude is good. What is good? Confidence is good, based on thorough training and successful proofing of the dog. Clarity is good, based on knowledge of the rules, match experience, and constructive criticism from instructors. Commitment is good; that’s you focused on your dog and on your job in the ring, and not worried about anything outside the barrier.

            What do we think “good attitude” is in our dogs? I believe it is pretty much the same as described above, along with learned comfort within the ring setting. But I think that many folks think good attitude is shown by sparkle and speed, regardless of accuracy, although accuracy with sparkle and speed is definitely excellent attitude expression. Many of us see exactly that elusive combination in training every day. So what happens to it in the ring? I don’t know for sure, but here are some of my guesses.

            The first and obvious problem is that the sparkle and speed we see in training is largely attributable to the high likelihood of rewards that the dogs have learned to anticipate in your usual training venues. With some exceptions (the once-in-a-lifetime dogs we all dream about), the highest level of sparkle is likely not related to how much the dog enjoys the actual activity, nor unfortunately to how much the dog enjoys pleasing his owner. A lot of sparkle is related to how much he values the rewards associated with certain behaviors. Right there is a frequent hitch. Are you rewarding your dog, or bribing him? When he’s wrong in training how does he know? If he knows because he doesn’t get the reward, then how does he know when he’s right in the ring, where rewards don’t come? If “no treats” means, “you’re wrong” in your dog’s vocabulary, then how do you expect him to feel in the empty ring?

            This is not a call to stop using food or toys in training. This is a reminder of just how significant the motivators are to your dog, and how bare you may appear to your dog when the motivators aren’t there if you aren’t taking the precaution of training past the “tricks for treats” stage for each skill, and you forget to make your own wonderful self valuable to your dog.

            So what about that sparkle? It’s thrilling, it’s cute, and it’s exciting. But is it necessary? Not really. Is it “good”? Yes, if it is accompanied by consistency and at least some accuracy. It’s not so good when it is accompanied by frequent command anticipation, fidgeting on stays, bumping and bouncing on heeling and fronts, barking during exercises, dumbbell or glove killing, or thoughts from other exhibitors along the lines of, “Boy, I love to watch that dog, but I’m sure glad I don’t live with him.”

            How about the sparkle on YOUR end of the leash? Do you sparkle in your dog’s eyes, or are you just a tree that holds a treat bag? My observation, which I admit is not logged as scientific data, is that the best trainers I’ve ever seen could dazzle their dogs all by themselves. Some are, or were, extroverts with their dogs, comfortable doing the dance of joy and smiling, hugging, patting, kissing, running with, patting and playing games with their dogs in the public eye, and you could see that their dogs just adored them. Others, mostly guys, were less vocal in general, but every single thing they said to their dogs was honest in content and tone, and approval or disapproval was clear, sincere and heartfelt. Their dogs may not have wiggled and danced as much as those belonging to extroverts, but they wagged with delight and adoring gazes as they accepted well deserved praise.

            Most of those trainers who are still active also use food and toys as part of their regular interaction with their dogs. But they don’t rely on the motivators to do the communication. One thing that I see quite a bit in the dog training world is people who are quiet and self-contained flocking to clicker training. They are so happy with the success they can get, and all of the excitement that their dogs display, all without the people having to extend their emotional displays past their usual comfort zones. It’s great, it really is. If you never have to walk into a competition ring and check your clicker and treats or toys at the gate, you and your dog will live happy lives.  But if you do have performance aspirations, and you want your dog to perform honestly for YOU in a more distracting place than your usual training haunts, you must be sure that you put the clicker down, put the treats and toys someplace safe, accessible, but not in your hands, and spend some time focusing on communicating to your dog YOUR pleasure about your dog’s achievements.

            You should start small. Start with name response and a sit command, and follow it with praise along with patting and scratching your dog in his favorite places (you do know where those are, don’t you?), and keep it up until your dog stops trying to evade your hands to get to your pocket, and actually looks at you. He MUST allow you to pet him. He may not love it as much as he loves eating, but you need to push him to accept the experience and learn to appreciate it. At first, you do follow up the petting and praising with the treats or toys that he loves. This helps him learn that petting and praise is not a substitute for treats, but rather a sign that you approve of his behavior, you enjoy him, and the treat or toy affirms that his impression of your approval is accurate. But that’s 15 to 20 seconds of communication backed up by one measly treat. Over repetition, he will still be excited about the treat, but he will be more focused on you during the praise, and he will be excited about the praise and interaction well before the treat appears.

           As he becomes more relaxed about accepting expressions of approval without trying to evade them in the name of speed eating, you can start praising every correct response, and only rewarding some of them, or only the best responses if you’re working on repetitions.  Jackpotting is fine when you’re trying to raise criteria, but for maintenance training, you’re often better off really punching up the praise, and making the food presentation more of an afterthought event. If the presence of food occupies a smaller part of your dog’s communication picture, its absence doesn’t leave quite so large a gaping hole in the picture.

          What I have found in my own reward/ praise balancing work is this: I don’t get quite the sparkle that I used to during a behavior when the food is accurately removed from the position of motivator and placed as a delayed reward. But I do get confidence, smoothness, thoughtfulness, and eventually more sparkle directed at me rather than at my pocket. It’s lower level, but it’s more consistent at home and in the ring. Occasionally in training runthroughs without breaks or in the ring, I see some anxious barking, some anticipation as we get to the end of a ring routine, and sometimes some recreational pants leg grabbing between exercises since there aren’t any toys available; but the dogs are confident that they are correct based on the praise, even when they are mildly frustrated about reward delay. There is some reduced sparkle in the training, but the ring performances are not so different from what we get in training anymore. The dogs are still thrilled when it’s time to train, and yes they still love their cookies and get plenty of them. But we talk more before we eat. That works for many relationships these days.

         Of course, attitude in the ring is related to attitude about things in and around the ring, too. If your attitude in the ring is nervous and worried, it’s not going to help your dog. Why are you nervous? If it’s fear that your dog won’t do an exercise, why are you afraid? Because you need to train more, proof more? Then do that, and don’t show until you feel like walking into the ring will be easy for your dog compared to what you two do in training. Are you afraid of what the judge might think of you if your dog fails? Trust me, your judge has flunked with his or her own dogs! But again, focus on your training so that failure is less likely. If your dog is nervous, is it about noises, sights, smells or social pressure? Find out. Socialize. Desensitize.

        Are you afraid of what other exhibitors think? The ones who are your friends will support you no matter what your dog does. You will have more supporters at the end of the day if you flunk than you will have if you nail the performance, so if popularity is a priority with you, then you can relax if you get a mistake. The ones who are not your friends are either feeling relief when you make a mistake because you are no longer competition, or they are tempting fate by feeling smug, or they are gratefully nostalgic that they worked through the same sort of problems with their own dogs months or years ago, and remember exactly what it felt like when things went wrong. Most of the people you see in the ribbons often are folks who have paid their dues with hard work, hard knocks, and some heavy research before they became routinely successful. You can do it too.

        Not all dogs are created equal. There’s no question that a short-coated dog is not going to do a drop on recall in wet grass with the same abandon that a Sheltie might. You need to know what your dog can and cannot tolerate, and pick your show venues, or train your dog to tolerate the venues available.

        Some dogs live to retrieve, and others think you should not have thrown the stupid bone away in the first place if you just wanted it back, especially when you haven’t got any food or better toys to trade for the task. They have to learn to do it because you said so, and that means that you have to come up with some appropriate correction that gets your point across without freaking out your dog. That’s a very individual process, but I can tell you that the approach that won’t work is breaking out the cookie every time the dog looks up at you and says, “I don’t believe I feel like doing this today.” unless your plan is to give that cookie away to a more deserving dog at that moment.

        Some dogs thrive on close contact and strong eye contact, and heeling is an exercise that meets those desires. Others are more interested in the hunt out in front of them, and you will have to work hard to convince them that you could turn into a bunny just any minute, so you need close watching. Some dogs innately like petting, while others tolerate it at first, and have to actually be taught to enjoy it. Some of those more independent dogs will perhaps enjoy chasing you rather than having you “catch” them for petting. A dance of joy with mirrored movements and play bows between you and your dog can be very effective without ever laying a hand on your dog.

        You do have to embrace the dog that is currently on the end of your leash and work within his particular drives and talents. But if you work hard on conditioning your dog to appreciate your praise that you can take with you into the ring, you will find that instead of working on a “cash basis” with your rewards, you can use the praise to effectively deliver vouchers on the way to the big payoff at the end of the job on show day.