Um... Yeah, I think I might be guilty of the occasional Cuteness Cookie. The implication was that I probably make things too easy for Maisy. I don't raise my criteria fast enough, and I settle for “good enough” instead of holding out for truly good performances. I was surprised that she nailed me so completely, without having even seen Maisy yet. And I was a little nervous. What would she find when she saw us together?
I shouldn't have been worried. Maisy and I had two sessions with Denise. The first was devoted to heeling, and the second to a formal retrieve (with just a bit of heeling thrown in), and both were awesome. Denise is a brilliant trainer, it's true, and it was really helpful to get a chance to put what I'd learned into practice, with the benefit of immediate feedback and suggestions tailored specifically to us. But she was also kind and funny, and she never made me feel dumb. At the same time, she pushed me. It was hard work, but wow! I learned so much.
Before we started, I shared that Maisy is a recovering reactive dog, and that I sometimes struggle to remember who Maisy is now instead of who she was before. I said that my primary goal is to support her during training and at trials, and that my focus is on us having a good time instead of a good score. The great irony is that I completely failed at this. When Denise had me show her Maisy's heeling, I immediately fell back into my old habits of being silent. Maisy lagged and got droopy, and Denise stopped us. Despite my good intentions, Densie told me that my silence was not supportive, and in fact, was confusing and stressful for my dog.
Denise coached me through using my voice effectively with Maisy. When I spoke to her with more enthusiasm, she drove into heel position, at which time I could reward her. I initially used cookies, but Denise said that the way I was handing out the treats (slowly and calmly, likely a holdover from all of our reactivity work) was only contributing to Maisy's overall sobriety. What I needed to do was be exciting and create more energy, and make the rewards more about our interaction.
I worked on being over the top with my rewards. Instead of simply handing Maisy a treat and continuing on, Denise had me mark the behavior, and then crouch on the floor in front of Maisy as I fed her the treat and told her what a good girl she is. Denise had us do this for two reasons. First, getting down on Maisy's level is more interactive, and second, it allows Maisy to chew and swallow the food. If you just hand a dog a treat, they typically disengage momentarily to eat it, and Denise does not want dogs to learn to disconnect with you for any reason, and especially not as part of the reward sequence!
After I got the hang of using my voice to encourage Maisy, I asked Denise to help coach us through using the ball as a reward. In the past, I've really struggled with this, because while she loves it and it's obviously higher value for her, it also seems like her brain melts out of her head and she has trouble doing what I ask. I end up frustrated and Maisy learns nothing.
The moment I got the ball out, Maisy went from mild lagging to forging! Although this is a better problem to have (apparently it is easier to scale back too much enthusiasm than it is to build it up in the first place), I still wasn't sure what to do. Thankfully, Denise was there to help us. She advised that every time Maisy got ahead of me, I should turn around and walk in the other direction. I did this a lot, and then Maisy fell into position and bam! I threw the ball! We discussed the proper way to use the ball- always use the left hand to prevent too much shoulder rotation, toss the ball behind you if the dog is forging, ahead if she's lagging. Sometimes even toss it to the side so the dog doesn't know what to expect.
What I found really interesting was that despite the fact that I've done tons of “Choose to Heel” work with Maisy, Denise doesn't really think that Maisy is a Choose to Heel dog. She said that Maisy is one of those dogs who, when she gets more than about a foot out of position, just can't seem to fix it on her own. The dog then starts to worry, which typically pushes her further out of position, creating a terrible cycle. Denise's advice was that I not try to wait it out, and instead, simply turn to face her, show her a cookie (but not give it), and then try again, using my voice to encourage her.
During our second session, we worked on Maisy's retrieve. Again, I struggled to use my voice with Maisy. At one point, Denise said, “Are you pleased with your dog?” When I nodded, she asked, “Well then could you make it more obvious?!”
Denise shows me how it's down in this video still.
(Thanks to Robin Sallie for taking the video!)
Denise had me praise Maisy like crazy when she picked up the dumbbell in order to encourage her to bring it back. Unfortunately, every time I praised her, she would drop it. My theory is that Maisy thinks praise is a verbal marker (and I certainly have quite a few of those, including the words “yes!” “here” and “good”). Denise said we needed to work through that, because Maisy was pretty slow and methodical about bringing back the dumbbell and praise will help create more enthusiasm.
Maisy found this whole process rather confusing, which was beneficial in a lot of ways because it meant Denise could help me figure out how to help Maisy through it. She coached me to wiggle my fingers to get Maisy to bring the dumbbell to my hand. If Maisy didn't pick it up at all, she had me snatch it away and gleefully say that it's mine. She recommended that I make the dumbbell into a toy, to play hiding games with it, and... she recommended that I teach Maisy to retrieve her ball to my hand.
Denise, I know you're reading this, so maybe you should skip this paragraph. Okay? Are you gone? Great, because I sorta haven't really followed this advice. Maisy has this absolutely adorable behavior where she drops the ball about five feet from me, and then pushes it towards me with her nose. It's so cute and I do not want to extinguish this behavior. I know that I could create cues, but let's be honest- I suck at cuing. And, while I understand Denise's point that muscle memory may kick in and Maisy may drop her dumbbell and push it to me in the ring... well, I guess that's something I'm willing to risk.
She was right about me, you know. I do reward cute-but-incorrect behaviors.
We also tried a combination heeling and retrieving exercise that was pretty neat. I had Maisy walking next to me, and then I'd hold out the dumbbell at Maisy height while encouraging her to grab it. When she did, I'd start walking backwards, encouraging her to come towards me and place the dumbbell in my hand. This helped Maisy begin to experience the concept of bringing the dumbbell to front.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention our personal Qs for the day. I had been very worried about how Maisy would handle the day. It was over eight hours, with lots of crate time, and plenty of strange dogs. That's a long time for any dog, I think, but especially for Maisy. Still, she did great. She did lunge (silently) at a dog once, and another time she gave a dalmatian the hairy eyeball, but she was responsive and wonderful while out of her crate. In fact, Denise gave us the biggest compliment when she said that she expected to see Maisy kind of fall apart and quit working. Instead, Maisy hung in there with me, and remained engaged despite all the stress.
Maisy did wonderful in her crate, too. She did bark a handful of times, but for the most part, she laid quietly. She cleaned out a Kong and ate a beef trachea- things she's never done in her crate in public before! She also laid flat on her side in there, and while I don't think she actually fell asleep, she did seem fairly relaxed. I was very happy with that!
Even more amazing, when I went to take behavior logs for the week after the seminar, I found that I didn't have anything to right down. That's right- despite the stress of the day, it had no long-lasting impact. I think this was the part I'm most excited about. For Maisy to be able to bounce back from stress like that, for her to not experience any long-lasting effects... well, I'm just thrilled.
All in all, I'm really glad I did a working spot. It was lovely to get some excellent coaching, and it was thrilling to see how well Maisy did in that environment. I definitely recommend Denise Fenzi's seminars for anyone interested in obedience. I know the auditors learned a lot, but I honestly think the working spot made the difference for me. It was a great weekend, full of fun, and I really feel like it will make a lasting difference in training.