Sunday, July 31, 2011

What is Success?

Before I started this blog, Maisy already had her first title- the APDT RL1 which she earned with an Award of Excellence- as well as her second- the RL1X. She had already had numerous placements in trials, including her first blue ribbons and high-scoring honors. She was well on her way to being nationally ranked.

My mindset matched her accomplishments. I had dreams of high level titles, starting with the ARCH, but eventually tackling the OTCh. That is, in fact, how my blog got its name.

But we haven't shown for a year now, and I don't know when we'll show next. Meanwhile, my friends continue to enter and excel at dog sports. While I'm happy for them, I've also been jealous, because I want to be out there with Maisy, showing the world how awesome she is. I've wanted to compete and win. I've wanted to be successful, too.

I've learned a lot since I started this blog, but I think the most important thing I've learned is that titles and placements and championships are not the only way to be successful. In fact, I still dream big. I still yearn for that championship title. I definitely hope we can be nationally ranked again, and I spend more time than I should obsessing about ribbons.

But I know that we don't need to compete to be successful, because I know now what success is:

Success is the quiet moments at home and afternoon puppy-naps.

Success is being able to walk your dog without having to scan the horizon for the unexpected.

Success is being the one your dog turns to when she's scared.

Success is learning how to read your dog's body language, and then respecting what it tells you.

Success is off-leash hikes in the woods. 

Success is being able to put your dog's needs before your own wants.

Success is knowing that your dog is awesome, not because she has letters before or after her name, but because she is herself.

That is success.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Dear Boston, I Hate You

Dear Boston,

I am writing to lodge a formal complaint against you. While I have never even set foot in Massachusetts, I believe I am justified in my hatred of you.

You see, two years ago, Maisy had a reactive meltdown at a trial while in the ring. Afterward, a very nice woman named Robin approached me, handed me a business card, and invited us to join her reactive dog class. I accepted. A month later, that same trainer would assign the class some homework: What is Your Goal for Your Dog? I think we were just supposed to think about the question and answer it, but I turned in five typed pages on how and when Maisy would earn her ARCH. Despite her horror (or perhaps because of it?), that trainer grew to be a friend.

This week, my trainer-slash-friend Robin moved to your fair city.

I will miss her terribly. All of the late night chats, snarky emails, road trips (okay, there was only one, but still, I wanted more!), and even the Kidlet- you have stolen them all from me, Boston. And while it's true that I've learned a lot from her- how to put so much of that book knowledge into practice, that I'm the expert on my own dog, the fact that I can say no to a suggestion from a trainer (although I suspect that she regreted that sometimes), the importance of protecting my dog, that ribbons aren't everything, and that sometimes, a flawless off-leash recall in the woods is far more satisfying than a perfect score- while I've learned all that from her, I feel like there's so much more left to learn!

And yet I have no choice, Boston, because you have stolen her away from me. Therefore, I must once again state my displeasure with you and your trainer-slash-friend stealing ways.

No Love,

PS- Is this karma? I know you gave us my friend Elizabeth, but I'm selfish and really would like to have both.

PPS- If you have any citizens that are looking for a good dog trainer (especially for crazy dogs), tell them to let me know.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Denise Fenzi Seminar: Working Spot

Maisy and I had a working spot on the final day of the seminar. The night before, a bunch of us went out for supper with Denise, during which she let it slip that she already had an idea of what she was going to see with Maisy and I the next day. This piqued my curiousity, so I begged her to tell me, and she said, “At some point, you will ask your dog to do something, and she'll do it wrong. But you'll think the way she did it was cute and funny, so you'll laugh and maybe even give a treat anyway.”

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.

Personal Qs
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.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Denise Fenzi Seminar: Work is a Privilege

I've heard competitive sports people say that they don't care if a dog likes an activity- they give their dogs a great life, and in return, he can pay them back by performing in the ring for five to ten minutes. I've certainly seen lots of miserable dogs and stressed handlers at trials. And while I believe the vast majority of dog people have only good intentions, the joy of working together is often missing in the ring.

It's probably obvious at this point that Denise Fenzi's style is different. It places a lot of emphasis on having fun, from making the work interesting and engaging to giving her dog her undivided attention to using tons of play as a reward. I love this concept, but Denise took it to the next level when she said that work is not something the dog is obligated to do for the handler, but rather, that it is a privilege that the human allows him.

It sounds a bit weird at first, but it makes sense if you consider that her goal is to build value for training in and of itself. If you've done that, then the dog should want to work. More than that, he should ask and even beg you to train.

The implication is that if you aren't both enjoying what you're doing, you're probably doing something wrong and need to adjust your approach. This doesn't mean abandoning a fun-centric style; one of the things that I love about training is its creativity. Even when you limit yourself to using only positive-based techniques, there are still many ways to teach a given task. Denise demonstrated this well- I was absolutely amazed by her ability to size up a team and create an individual training plan that might be the polar opposite of how she instructed another team to work on the same task.

That's not really the point, though, because Denise said you should actually refuse to work with a dog who isn't interested. If work is a privilege, then it's only given to dogs who are willing to put forth some effort. If the dog is only humoring you for the sake of a cookie- don't work him! Sure, he's willing to work and get paid, but as Denise pointed out, there's a huge difference between the job you get paid for, and volunteer work. Although I enjoy my job, there are days that I go only for the money. When I volunteer with my dog club, though, it's because I want to do it. My motivation is internal rather than external.

So what should you do if your dog is going through the motions?

Stop working. Denise advised us that we should never reward subpar effort with the opportunity to work. You might stop for a few minutes, or you might stop for a week- that's up to you, but during this time, you need to figure out what you should change in your approach. You might need to teach the skill in an entirely different way, but often, Denise said that if your dog is bored, it's because you aren't pushing him hard enough. Make the job harder.

I was initially surprised by this advice because I've always followed the clicker rule of splitting, not lumping, but what Denise was getting at was the fact that while many trainers are great at breaking tasks down, they don't raise the criteria fast enough. Sticking around at any given level too long often results in a dog who thinks that step is the finished behavior instead of simply a stepping stone on the way to the final product. Making the task more difficult makes the dog think, and when he's thinking, he can't be bored. Denise said that this is especially true with smart dogs, who can work beautifully with only 5% of their brain engaged.

Better yet, prevent ho-hum behavior by being observant for signs of stress that might result in a displacement behavior like sniffing. It's much better to tell the dog to take a break than for him to disengage from you on his own. That said, it is unreasonable to expect that your dog will never experience stress- learning is, by definition, stressful. Nor should you protect him from all stress. Instead, your goal as a handler is to learn to recognize when your dog is feeling unsure and support him through that. This results in a dog who can continue to work in the face of stress. (As a side note, Denise did say that you should never try to work through stress caused by “safety issues.” Address the fear or anxiety separately, outside of an obedience context, before returning to training.)

In addition to using your voice to support your dog, Denise also recommended that handlers always honor the working space. Since dogs are very contextual, it's important that training and trialing spaces be about interaction with you, not other dogs. You will never play as good as another dog can, so don't even try. You should make it clear to a dog when and where he's expected to perform.

This handler is honoring the working space by making it clear 
to her dog that he is on a break. Photo by Robin Sallie.

Like I said, I really like this approach. It really meshes with my desire for dog sports to be about something fun that I do with my dog. I have ruled out entire activities that I'm interested in simply because I know that Maisy is not well suited to them. But I also think that treating work as a privilege helps create a certain amount of desire and enthusiasm in the dog. I'll admit, though, I don't have a ton of practical competition experience to apply to this idea though. If you do (or even if you don't), I'd love to hear what you think. Does the concept of work is a privilege work for you? Leave a comment and let me know!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Denise Fenzi Seminar: The Only Thing You Can Take in the Ring

Denise Fenzi told us that while you can trick a dog into thinking that you have food or toys in the ring, you can't do it indefinitely. If you're lucky, you'll fool the dog through his UD, but if you plan to try for the UDX or the OTCh, things will probably fall apart. At some point, you need to create inherent value for both the work and for yourself.

Take a moment to think about your closest friends. What do they have in common? For me, there are three main things. First, my friends and I often do fun things together- whether it's a silly board game or tubing on the lake. Next, I find them endlessly interesting. We come from all sorts of backgrounds, so I'm always learning something new from them. Finally, and most importantly,  my best friends are the ones who support me when I make mistakes, who encourage me to try harder, and who celebrate with me when I succeed.

My good friend Sara and I talking to Denise Fenzi.
Photo by another good friend, Robin Sallie.

While my answers are honest, they're also convenient, because many of the things I saw Denise do (or that she encouraged us to do) fit into these three categories. The way she trains lends itself well to developing great relationships with dogs, and I really think this is the part of the seminar that will change my training life.

Let's start by talking about play. Part of the reason Denise spent so much time talking about tugging is because it's a great way to play with your dog. But you can't take toys in the ring, so you need to find ways to play without them. On day two of the seminar, Denise had each of the working teams play without toys. This was easy for some, and harder for others, but Denise coached each pair on how to have fun together.

For example, she played a tag and chase game that many of the dogs loved- when the dog got into heel position, she would lightly touch his shoulder or chest, and then turn quickly and run away so the dog would chase her. She also encouraged the dogs to be physical; running and jumping is rewarding to most dogs. She did this by using things like the opposition reflex (where she pulled the dog back and then let him shoot away towards a jump or dumbbell) or hand touches in order to get the dog to jump in the air.

Play is a great way to reward the dog, but you need to make the work itself interesting, too. Simply drilling the exercises is boring, even if it is interspersed with play, and most dogs will droop under the weight of endless repetitions. Denise encouraged us to think outside the box- you don't need to train the exercises in a set order, nor do you need to do the full exercise every time you train. Instead, she recommended mixing things up each time so that the dog never knows what to expect. Sometimes you might recall the dog to sit in front of you, and other times you might have him run between your legs. Do signals backwards, or start from a down instead of a stand. Have the dog sit on recall instead of drop. The opportunities are endless.

While most people don't think about it this way, heeling really is just one long drill. Walking in straight lines? Not that exciting. Your job as the trainer is to mix it up, and Denise does this by walking erratically. She drifts left and right, makes frequent turns, and spins in circles. She does serpentines. She keeps it interesting by being unpredictable. And when she goes in the ring and walks in a straight line? Well, since that's so unusual compared to what she does in training, her dogs find it interesting too.

Finally, a good relationship will be supportive. One of the things that was so absolutely revolutionary to me was the way Denise used her voice in training. She is always talking to the dogs she's training. I am often rather quiet while training- that's what many of the leading clicker trainers recommend you do, after all. But one of Denise's cricitisms of clicker purists is that it uses silence as a “No Reward Marker.” In other words, clicker trainers tend to allow silence to let the dog know he hasn't got it quite right yet, and uses a marker- either a click or a verbal word like “Yes!”- to let him know when he's got it right.

This can backfire in the ring, where the handler must remain silent, even when the dog has it right. Denise's solution is both brilliant and obvious, and it makes me feel a bit stupid that I never thought of it myself. Simply put, she talks to the dog when he hasn't quite met her criteria yet, and then falls silent when he's got it right. After a few seconds (or longer, depending on the dog's level of training), she'll break the silence to reward him with praise and play. Thus, the silence begins to act as a secondary reinforcer by predicting exciting things. Genius.

But remember what I said about being supportive? It's important to note that she isn't scolding her dog or using a stern tone- she said that suppresses behavior instead of increasing it. Rather, she's encouraging the dog to try harder by being his own personal cheerleader. As I've begun to incorporate this into my heeling training with Maisy, I find myself saying things like, “Where's my puppy? I know she's around here somewhere! She should be right by my side!” in a very happy, upbeat tone. When she gets there, I'm quiet for a moment, and then BAM! I throw a verbal party.

In order to help the dog understand the difference between "you're almost there" and "you've got it," Denise said that you need to have two different levels of tone and energy when you're praising your dog. The “encouragement praise” is cheerful talk meant to keep the dog in the game, while the “party praise” should be over the top excitement. Both will be happy and positive, but it should be obvious to the casual bystander when the dog has gotten it right. In other words, Denise praises the dog for his efforts, and rewards the dog for success.

When the whole package is put together, what happens is that working becomes interesting and engaging because the handler is keeping things fresh and unpredictable. The dog remains motivated to keep trying because he's encouraged to do so. And when he gets it right, his reward is to celebrate with his trainer. Sometimes that means he is told how amazing he is, sometimes he gets a bit of food, and sometimes he gets to run and play. The common thread is that he always gets 100% of his person's attention, and the reward becomes more than just the tangible item he's given. It's about the interaction and relationship with his person.

Look, I know it sounds a little crazy. I don't entirely understand how it works myself- and I certainly can't explain it all in scientific terms- I just know that it does. Not only do Denise's accomplishments speak for themselves, but in a few short training sessions, I'm already seeing improvement in Maisy's enthusiasm and performance in both heeling and her dumbbell retrieve. Better yet- Maisy and I are having fun together.

What do you guys think? Do you talk during training, and how or when do you use silent? What troubles have you encountered? Do you think some of these ideas would help, or are you a bit skeptical? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Denise Fenzi Seminar: Be the Bunny

When people say they can't tug with their dog, they usually mean one of two things. Either they literally cannot tug with their dog because he isn't interested, or they refuse to tug with their dog because he becomes out of control and refuses to drop the toy when told. But no matter which problem you're facing with your dog, Denise's advice is the same: be the bunny.

It's honestly that easy. Since tugging taps into prey drive, you need to think like the small, furry mammal that your dog wants to catch. This means you need to do two things: you need to choose the correct toys, and you need to use those toys correctly. Of course, “correct” is relative to your dog's level of drive, so today I'm going to tell you about the different options Denise shared with us.

Choose the Correct Toy
Anyone who has wandered down a pet store aisle knows that there are tons of toy options out there, from the floppy fleeces to the tough tugs. Denise outlined four basic things to consider when choosing a toy.

A tug toy for every dog. Photo by Robin Sallie.

Length. Generally speaking, the length of the toy you choose is dependent on how willing your dog is to tug. Reluctant tuggers sometimes do better with longer toys because it reduces social pressure. Dogs who are high-drive, on the other hand, typically do better with a shorter toy. As odd as it sounds, Denise demonstrated that the dog who accidentally mouths you in play will usually do so less often when he has a shorter toy because it helps him understand exactly where he can and cannot put his mouth.

Stiffness. The amount of floppiness or stiffness in a tug toy can make a huge difference in how your dog plays. Limp toys tend to encourage the more reserved dog to grab hold of it because it has more movement and thus better simulates a bunny. For dogs who don't easily “out” or drop a toy, though, this can actually make the problem worse. Since limp toys keep moving, even if you're trying to hold it still, the dog's already high prey drive is continually simulated by the sight of the movement. A stiffer toy is a better bet as a result.

Fill. This category is very similar to the prior one, but it is slightly different. While the level of stiffness in a toy refers to how easily it bends and moves, the amount of fill has to do with how densely it is stuffed. A toy can be stiff yet squishy. In fact, squishier toys tend to be more engaging, probably due to their resemblance to bunnies. But, as above, this will make it harder for the dog to “kill” the toy, and thus make the more motivated dog feel less inclined to drop the toy.

Cover. Finally, we need to consider the exterior of the toy. Denise said that 90% of all dogs will probably work best for a toy with a more textured cover. This is because something that is rougher, like burlap, is easier to grip, and thus tug on. And while a slick outer shell made of something like firehose material is demotivating for a lower drive dog, for the truly determined dog, it's the best choice because it makes him work harder than you do.

Use the Toy Correctly
Tugging requires you to do two things: first to engage the dog, and then to disengage him when you're done playing. I've already written about how your choice of toy can impact a dog's willingness to play, but that's only half the story.

To teach us how to tug well, Denise encouraged us to think about what a bunny would do if a dog was chasing it. It would run, and it would not stop moving until it was far, far away. It would probably move erratically, in hopes of fooling the dog. It would probably panic, and get quicker, too. Even once caught, it would keep fighting back, hoping to somehow escape. But bunnies don't slow down, beg the dog to bite them, and they certainly aren't suicidal enough to move towards the dog.

With that in mind, when you're trying to engage a lower drive dog, Denise said you should try to pique his interest by keeping that toy away from the dog. In fact, she challenged us to keep the tug out of the dog's mouth for a full fifteen seconds. The point of playing with prey drive has nothing to do with whether or not the dog puts his mouth on the toy. Rather, the goal is for the dog to enjoy himself.. By telling us not to let our dogs grab the toy, Denise allowed us humans to let go of the “rules” and instead focus on the fun.

Once the dog does grab the toy, you need to keep it moving. Of course, the amount of movement you choose will need to be matched to the dog's interest, but the toy should never stop moving. If the dog isn't gripping well, short, quick tugs tend to make most dogs bite down harder since it will seem like the bunny is escaping.

Denise recommended playing in a figure 8 pattern, sweeping the toy back and forth in front of you instead of pushing and pulling it towards the dog. Not only does that come dangerously close to a suicidal rabbit, but for higher-drive dogs, that can tilt the game from a mutually enjoyable interaction to a contest to be won.

Speaking of higher-drive dogs, those are the ones that can be difficult to disengage. At the seminar, we saw dogs who either didn't want to let go, or who would let go when told but then immediately regrab the toy- and usually accidentally nailing his handler in the process. To get the dog to “out” the toy, you must again think like a bunny.

Dogs do not let go of their prey until it is dead. Dropping an injured bunny often means losing dinner- adrenaline allows even gravely injured animals to escape. So, to get your high-drive dog to drop the toy, you need to do three things.

First, lock up your arms, and hold the toy still. With more powerful dogs, Denise would sort of brace the toy between her legs so that she had enough leverage to keep it from moving. Again, your toy choice matters here. If you have a floppy toy- or even a stiff one but with a floppy handle- it will be very difficult to “kill” the bunny.

Next, wait until the dog lets go. You don't need to yell at him, or grab his collar, or even force it out of his mouth. If you can keep the toy from moving, he will probably let go of it pretty quickly. Denise showed us lots of neat things to accelerate this process- she's pretty deliberate about how she positions her hands and wrists- but you'll have to go to one of her seminars yourself to get all the finer points.

Finally, once your dog has let go, reward him by allowing him to grab it again! There is no better reward for a toy-obsessed dog.

And that, my friends, is a very quick overview of how to play tug with your dog. I was amazed to discover that when I was mindful of the no suicidal rabbits edict in conjunction with the 15-second rule, I had a dog that liked to tug! In fact, Maisy was so enthusiastic about it that she woke my husband up in the middle of the night to ask him to play. (He was unamused.) Tugging isn't Maisy's favorite thing ever, but she does seem to enjoy it. Since Denise told us that the drives we use are the ones that get stronger, I'm going to play with Maisy now and then. If her desire becomes large enough, maybe I can use it in training. Or maybe not. Either way, it will be fun for us both, and will help develop our relationship further- and that will make a difference in her performance, too!

I would love to hear if you try any of these suggestions, and better yet, if you have any break-throughs as a result, like we did. That said, it's very difficult to describe in words what Denise so wonderfully demonstrated, so if it doesn't work, please, blame the me as the messenger, and not her techniques. I assure you, Denise was brilliant in her ability to solve tugging issues, and just watching her play with the various dogs was worth the cost of the seminar alone. (Have I mentioned yet that you should totally go if you get the chance?)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Denise Fenzi Seminar: Drives and Why They Matter

 Saturday and Sunday of the Denise Fenzi seminar was about “Drives and Motivation in Obedience.” I was pretty excited about the topic because the concept of “drive” has always perplexed me just a little. You often hear people say that a dog is “high drive,” but so much of the time it seems like they're just talking about energy level, or worse, a dog who is out of control.

While it's true that a high drive dog is typically pretty energetic, drive is so much more than that. Drives are more like instinct, and are linked to survival. If a dog doesn't have the drive to hunt, stalk, chase, kill, or eat... well, he's not likely to survive! Therefore, Denise told us that when a dog satisfies a drive, he's also satisfying a basic need.

Drives are also innate. It is either in the dog or it's not, largely because we humans have impacted drives by selectively breeding dogs to perform various jobs for us. Herding, hunting, live-stock guarding- all these tasks use different drives. While a terrier has been bred to seek and destroy, a retriever has been bred to seek and return. Each dog, therefore, has it's own unique mixture of drives, high in some areas and low in others. While we can't create drive in an individual dog, Denise did say that we can strengthen what already exists by using it.

Maisy's prey drive- at least the chasing aspect of it- is well-developed.

So what are the different drives? Denise identified four main drives that are useful in dog training:

Hunt drive is the act of finding something, typically with scent. A dog needs hunt drive in order to search for and get close to his food source (a bunny, chipmunk, whatever). Denise said that there are relatively few opportunities to use hunt drive in training. That said, when the opportunity arises, it can make boring exercises quite exciting! It is particularly useful for building obsession for an object- Denise showed us how to make a dog love his dumbbell by playing hide-and-seek games with it. Hunt drive can also be useful for teaching scent articles, as well as exercises that are not handler focused or require the dog to work at a distance from his handler. The downside to hunt drive is that it creates a lot of energy, and with that can come hectic thinking that can be difficult to channel into the task at hand. 

Prey drive is a complementary drive. Once a dog has gotten close to his quarry, he switches into prey drive, and uses his sense of sight to find and catch it. We can harness prey drive in both tugging and retrieving games, both of which make great training rewards for known behaviors because they help increase speed, intensity, endurance and enthusiasm for the task at hand. Harnessing prey drive in training also lets us give distance rewards (by throwing a toy), can relieve stress, and is a great relationship builder.

We spent lots and lots of time discussing the application of prey drive to training, specifically with tugging. So much, in fact, that I'll have to devote a separate blog post to the proper way to play tug. I didn't really think there was that much to it, but considering the fact that before the seminar, Maisy wouldn't tug, and now she's waking me up in the middle of the night asking to play, well... clearly it's more complicated than I thought!

Food drive is... not that interesting. I mean, yes, a dog needs to eat, and I consider myself a consummate cookie pusher, but as Denise said: even a five year old can feed a dog. Food drive is great for teaching behaviors, because it allows you to get many repetitions in a short amount of time. It's also great for puppies who don't have much hunt or prey drive yet, for promoting calm, thinking behaviors, and for use in behavior modification.

The downside to the use of food in training is that trainers are often too generous with it. While this sounded like heresy to me, Denise shared that being liberal with the cookies actually devalues their power. She compared it to M&Ms: if you get one every 3 seconds, you'll probably get bored of them pretty quickly. If, on the other hand, you only get one every 3 minutes, they'll remain interesting much longer, and you'll be willing to work for them harder.

Finally, pack drive. This drive is all about relationship, which Denise described in her handout as a “fluid, dynamic process which is continually being reinforced or undermined.” You need to be fully present when training with your dog in order to harness this relationship to its fullest.

I have tons and tons to say about this in future posts (this woman is amazing at interacting with and engaging dogs), but for now I'll simply leave you with a few of Denise's suggestions to develop and maintain a strong relationship with your dog. Always support his needs and recognize his limitations. Protect him from scary people, places, and things, not only during training or at trials, but in everyday life. Make sure that you're meeting all his needs- physical, mental, and emotional. And ensure he gets plenty of attention from you. In return, you'll receive natural focus and obedience.

So, why is it important to understand drives?

While work like herding or hunting is directly tied to a drive, performance sports are not. There is very little in obedience that intrisincally motivates a dog- heeling does not satisfy any dog's needs, for example- but we can use drives indirectly to engage and reward a dog for his performance. Denise said that handlers who develop their dog's drives to a high level will have reliable and intense competitors because the dog, when well-trained, will perform with the same enthusiasm that he plays- and that's a gorgeous picture!

The take away message is that you should figure out the drives that your dog naturally engages in, and then find a way to use them during training. Part of the reason we spent so much time learning to tug well with our dogs is because it is a very easy way to tap into prey drive. Doing this will not only help build value for obedience exercises, but also build value for the handler. Since using drives satisfies basic needs, we can make it very fulfilling for our dogs to interact with us! Considering that we can't take toys or food into the ring, but we can take ourselves... well, it should be obvious that this is a huge benefit for competition!

As for Maisy, well, she's huge into chasing things (prey drive), although she's not so interested in the catching and killing part of the prey sequence. That's okay- I can still use the portions of that particular drive that she's interested in, work on building up the rest (it's there, just not well developed), and get some amazingly flashy performances as a result. Our heeling has already improved by leaps and bounds, far more than when we used food alone, and Maisy has tons of food drive!

I'd like to build on Maisy's hunt drive. She likes to sniff and search for things, but we haven't done much with this. Still, creating a bit of obsession for her dumbbell would be awesome, so I see some hide-and-seek games in our future.

And as for pack drive, well, I like to think we have a good relationship. Denise did say during our working spot on Monday that she was impressed by the way Maisy hung in there with me-she didn't wander off or give up- even when she wasn't sure what I expected from her. I just need to work on making sure Maisy knows how pleased I am with her. I can't take that relationship for granted, but rather, continually nurture it.

But more on that later. For now, I'd love to hear from you. Which drives does your dog naturally engage in? Which would you like to build up? How do you think it might affect your training? I can't wait to find out what you think!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Denise Fenzi Seminar: Introduction

This past weekend, I had the extreme pleasure of going to a seminar presented by Denise Fenzi. I'll be honest; I didn't know who she was until a few months ago, when she put an OTCh on one of her dogs using positive training. In a happy coincidence, shortly after I learned who she was, I heard about the seminar (and it was local), so I signed up.

The seminar was actually more like two in one. Saturday and Sunday was about drives and motivation in obedience, while Monday was devoted specifically to problem-solving. I audited the first two days, and had a working spot on the final day. Although I'd been hesitant about signing up- I really wasn't sure if Maisy would be up to eight full hours of seminar-ing- I am so glad I did. (And Maisy was awesome, so I needn't have worried.)

I came away from the weekened with a great deal of respect and admiration for Denise. It's clear that she's a very skilled trainer. I was incredibly impressed with her ability to quickly read both people and dogs, and then tailor her advice to that team. I really enjoyed her message that methods don't matter if they don't work- and that not every approach will work for every dog. That's not to say that she advocates compulsion-based training, because she doesn't, but rather that she thinks there are many, many ways to approach any given exercise. Luring, shaping, physically prompting- it all has a place with the right dog and the right handler.

Unfortunately, this strength of Denise's is also a bit frustrating for me as blog writer: since so much of her advice was directly related to any given working team, taken as a whole, it could seem contradictory. After all, what worked for one team won't work for another. Another frustration was the fact that I know next to nothing about AKC obedience, so many of the finer points went right over my head. As a result, I've decided that while Denise offered lots and lots and lots of advice for particular obedience exercises, I won't be writing about that. (If you're disappointed by this, I highly recommend you go check out her youtube channel. She has tons of great videos over there.) Instead, I'll post more of the general stuff: about drives, and relationships, and rewards. And, of course, I'll write about our working spot on Monday.

I was also incredibly impressed by Denise's attitude. Sometimes, positive trainers can seem holier-than-thou, myself included. But Denise doesn't lecture people on why positive training is superior. Instead, she simply shows people how to do it successfully. She helps identify their training issues, and then gives suggestions on how to approach them. Often, you could see immediate improvement in the working teams. It wasn't uncommon to hear someone exclaim, "You fixed it!" I left the seminar feeling that Denise made a real difference, not only in terms of performance, but also in the relationships between dogs and handlers.

As a result, I cannot recommend her enough. Although her primary focus is obedience, I really think that anyone, in any sport, could benefit from working with her. If you ever get a chance to attend a seminar with her, take it. And while the auditors in attendance all agreed that they learned a ton, I would highly encourage you to snag a working spot if you can. Not only can she assess you and your dog specifically, but getting a chance to practice what you've learned with immediate feedback is invaluable. Even though I tried to apply what I'd learned during the first two days in my session with her on the third day, her coaching really helped me incorporate those lessons into my work and relationship with Maisy.

The best part of the seminar, though, was that it left me feeling totally invigorated. She helped me figure out how to take my training to the next level, and as a result, I had an amazing heeling session with Maisy this evening. I am so, so very excited. Watch out, Minnesota: Maisy and I are going to blow you away!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Be Careful What You Wish For

As the owner of a high-energy dog, I have often longed wistfully for something a bit quieter. I have specifically envied my friend Elizabeth, who has a greyhound. For those of you who foolishly believe that as ex-racing dogs, greyhounds must be impossible to live with, let me reassure you: they take retirement very seriously. If a surface is horizontal, a greyound will lie on it. Which, of course, makes Elizabeth's greyhound Beckett seem perfect to me and my fellow crazy-dog-owning friends.

That said, this weekend, when we tried out clonidine as our new short-acting "event" drug, I realized that I sort of prefer a crazy dog over a more mild-mannered one.

Ahhh, that's much better.

Maisy has had some mixed responses to medication. Paroxetine has been a wonder-drug for her, but her experience with trazodone was awful. So, I was nervous when I gave her half of a 0.1 mg tab of clonidine last Saturday. I shouldn't have been- I didn't really see much of a difference in her demeanor.

Still, it was a pretty low-key day to go with a pretty low dose, so the next day we tried a full one. We also happened to be going to a BBQ with dog-friends, and they all commented that Maisy seemed more subdued than usual. She wasn't lethargic, they said, just a bit slower.

I should have been thrilled. I've been saying for years that I want a quieter dog, but to be honest, it wasn't quite as awesome as I'd hoped. I missed Maisy's flitting about, her obnoxious begging, and her quirky antics. While the paroxetine seems to filter out the "static," the clonidine just turns the volume down entirely.

When I shared that with Dr. Duxbury, she replied that she understood completely. While she felt the response was favorable, she recommended only using it for high-anxiety situations. I can use it up to twice a day, but if I need to use it for several days in a row, it's best to taper it off. For example, at the end of the month, Maisy will be staying at a boarding kennel for four days. Once I return, I will give her half doses twice a day for two to three days, and then once a day for a few more days after that. I foresee a very boring week...

While the medication will be helpful for situations like boarding or emergency vet visits, I know I won't be using it regularly, nor for things like trials. I just don't like the quiet Maisy. I'd much rather have my enthusiastic, outgoing, crazy dog. So, be careful what you wish for, guys- you might find that you've been wrong!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Hard Work Remains

Maisy is doing great these days. It is wonderful to be able to take her places and do things with her without having to worry that she's going to have a reactive outburst. It's nice to be able to relax and enjoy our daily walk. It's absolutely amazing that she can handle just sitting outside a petstore, watching the other dogs come and go.

Maisy with Fritz and my super awesome friend, Megan.

And yet... I've come to the conclusion that we are possibly at the most critical part of her rehabilitation. Instead of enjoying the fruits of our labor, now is the time to redouble our efforts and work even harder. This realization hit me pretty hard, but I have two main reasons for believing it's true.

First, Maisy is inarguably awesome these days. In fact, she's so awesome that it is easy to forget that she has issues. It is easy to believe they are in the past, and as a result, to take her good behavior for granted. You wouldn't think that after only six or seven months I'd forget where we started, but when you see something day in and day out, it's easy to get used to. Why else would the difference between these videos surprise me so much?

At any rate, it is easy to forget that this new state of being is still tentative. Although Maisy's had several months of excellent behavior, she has several years of lunging, barking and growling to overcome. It's going to take time to turn these new neural pathways from sparsely populated jungle trails into well-traveled interstate highways. I need to make sure I'm reinforcing Maisy's good choices every chance I get instead of relaxing and going easy on the cookies.

Second, it's much harder to tell when Maisy is feeling anxious now. This is because the way she expresses stress has changed- gone are the days of impossible-to-miss, over-the-top reactive displays. This is great, of course, but it also means that I must pay much closer attention to her body language now. When your dog is lunging and barking at the end of her leash, it's obvious that she's not feeling so great. But when you have to rely on such subtle indicators such as a change in muscle tension, breathing patterns, or tailset... well, it requires a lot more effort.

This effort is critical, though. If I can't see these much smaller signs of stress, I won't be able to adjust the environment for her. I won't be able to change my expectations, nor will I be able to increase the rate of reinforcement for the good choices she makes in order to really help cement those new roadways we're building. In short, I will be setting her up for failure instead of success.

So what's the new plan of action? Well, there isn't one, not really. Instead, I'm just holding the course, doing all the same desensitization and counter-conditioning and Control Unleashed techniques that I've done all along. The big thing right now is being mentally present with my dog. I need to remain in tune with how she's feeling, and what she's telling me. I need to continually remind myself that no matter how well she's doing, hard work remains. And I am confident that if I do, good things await us.