I think I had one of those ah-ha moments. It was another one of those things that my teachers have told me, but which I hadn’t really started to understand for myself. The moment occurred last Tuesday, while I was practicing Obedience with Tooey, and it maybe explains why she refused to go into the water at the last hunt test of the season.
Tooey and I have been working on the broad jump. The broad jump consists of four white telescoping hurdles, all about 8 inches wide. (See the diagram.)
We’ve been gradually adding hurdles — starting with her jumping over one hurdle and then two. On Tuesday, after several beautiful jumps over two hurdles, I added a third. I gave her the command to “Fly” over the hurdles, she trotted toward them as usual, really slowed down as she got closer, stopped when she got to them, put one front paw on the nearest hurdle, and looked up at me.
Her expression clearly said, “What am I supposed to do now?”
Just that one change, from two hurdles to three hurdles, was enough to stop and confuse her.
My teachers (and many of the books I’ve read) have all said that environment and context are as much a part of the correct execution of a behavior as the command or signal. That a command to “Sit” in the living room does not necessarily mean the same thing to the dog as a “Sit” in the backyard or at the park. You have to practice it many times in many situations until the dog “generalizes” the behavior, and understands that “Sit” means butt down no matter where you are, who else is around, and what else is happening.
Similarly, to Tooey, “Fly” over two hurdles is one thing; “Fly” over three hurdles is clearly something else. She understood the first, but not the second. So I went back to the beginning, throwing cookies over the three hurdles until Tooey was as happily flying over them as she had been over two.
So, what might this say about her performance at the hunt test last weekend?
Tooey had made it through the land series really well. She did her usual workmanlike job of going out and retrieving the ducks, and she did it with little of the hunting around that many of the other Junior dogs were doing. We were pleased and very excited. This meant that if Tooey also got her two ducks in the water series, she’d pass her 4th retriever Junior Hunter test, and would have her Junior Hunter title.
But when she and Russ got to the start line at the edge of a deep pond, she was clearly distracted and confused. She sat at Russ’s side, marked where the duck had fallen on the other side of the pond, heard Russ send her, but then wouldn’t get into the water. She looked up a Russ a couple of times, clearly confused. He sent her again, and she moved out along the bank for a few feet or so, and then came back to Russ. That was it — she was out.
Russ leashed her up, and we went home, without the pass or the title, and ourselves clearly confused as to what the problem could have been. Tooey loves the water. She has always loved the water. Getting into any kind of water has never been a problem. If we had been asked to predict what might fail Tooey in a hunt test, not getting into the water would never have occurred to either of us.
But on Tuesday night, maybe the problem was at least partially defined: A command in one environment is not necessarily the same as the same command in another, new environment.
We’ve practiced at all kinds of ponds and rivers — still water and moving water, deep swimming water and shallow running water, and steep banks and flat banks. But this test was set up at water unlike anywhere we’ve practiced. This was deep water with a 90 degree drop for a bank, just the pond’s edge with tall grass. At the line, the dog sat on the edge; take one step and the dog is in deep water, needing to swim right away. Nothing gradual about it.
Tooey doesn’t usually do the water-spaniel leap like Cooper does (see the banner photo at the top of the blog). She usually walks in, at least part of the way. But to get into the water at this test, there was nothing to walk on. So she was confused, just like she was on Tuesday with the hurdles. Her look up at me on Tuesday was just like her look up at Russ on Sunday: “What am I supposed to do now?”
That is exactly the question. But now, at least, having formulated a hypothesis as to what the problem might be, we can keep working on it, and see what happens next year.