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Three weeks ago, I took Carlin up to the Academy. January 9th, it was. A Saturday. I left him there, and I came home.

When I left him, I hoped they could succeed where I had been failing — helping Carlin feel comfortable while he’s on leash. I wanted (and want) him to not have to worry about being attacked out of the blue. And if he does start to see and then react to something that worries him, I hoped that he would have a quiver of other behaviors that I could ask him to do instead of worrying.

You see, about four months prior, Carlin was viciously attacked by a Malamute, a big dog, twice his weight and at least half again his height. Physically, Carlin was wounded, but not badly. But mentally, he began to worry every time I took him out on a leash. When I took him to Obedience lessons, he worried about the other dog in the room. And if another dog got too close on a walk or in the obedience building, Carlin would lunge and bark.

Carlin was obviously scared on our walks, and I was scared too. Left untreated, behavior like this can be (or at least become) very dangerous. To Carlin, because lunging and barking could incite another dog to attack. To me, because I could get pulled over.

So I sent Carlin to the Academy, where they have a controlled environment, experienced trainers, and a wide variety of dogs to practice around.

Friday was my first visit with Carlin since I left him at the Academy. It reminded me very much of our second visit to Cooper during his stay at the Academy almost 7 years ago.

I sat quietly on a couch in one of their training spaces, while Amanda took Carlin through his paces. I got to watch, but she asked me to sit still and not speak. I’m a good student, so I did my part, while I observed Carlin ace a variety of commands: sit, down, wait, stay, let’s go, and right here. Carlin did a great job following all those commands, even though he was in a confined space with a string of other dogs working around him.

Then the tough test: Off. He made the wrong choice on this at first. He was led over to me, told to sit, and then I was asked to say, “Good sit.” At the sound of my voice, Carlin lost his self control. All he wanted to do was throw himself into my arms. This was so like Cooper in that long-ago visit. Cooper shook so hard with his attempt to follow the sit command. He really tried, but finally, just like Carlin, he couldn’t help himself.

Finally, after several corrections and reminders to “Off” and “Sit”, Carlin regained control of himself and sat. After just a few seconds, Amanda released him, and I stood up and gave the command he really wanted to hear: “Hugs!” Carlin threw his whole body into my arms, back legs scrabbling on my thighs, front leg wrapped around my neck, tongue licking my face (and glasses), ears, neck, and hair, and back to my face.

We were both so happy to see each other.

Then we went outside, where a bunch of other dogs “just happened” to be, and I put him through all the exercises that Amanda had demonstrated. I made my share of mistakes — the biggest one was using the leash correction on him while repeating the command rather than using the correction together with the “No” that should precede the repeated command. I have homework this week to help me train my reactions to time that stuff correctly. But the thing that made me happiest, was that Carlin did not seem to resent the corrections when I gave them correctly. He seemed to react as if my corrections were reminders rather than any sort of punishment.

After we were done with my practice session, we went inside again, and I was told to put Carlin in a down-stay for about 10 minutes while the trainers took a break and did some paper work. In the picture below, you can see him nested up against my legs, staying in his down-stay. A few minutes after this photo, he turned over onto his side in the shelter of my legs, and went to sleep.

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So this week, I have my homework and I know Carlin will have his. I’ll get to see and work with him again next weekend.

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With Carlin away at the Academy, it’s been a long, quiet week here at home.

Tooey has no one to play with, except Russ and I, and neither of us are very good at bitey face. True, we go for walks and to the park, but it’s not the same without the puppy boy running circles around us.

I have no one to go to obedience lessons with. I went once last week by myself, just to learn about signals, but it’s not the same without a dog. I guess I could take Tooey, but she’s not really happy to go into the obedience ring again, so…

Sleep is a lot more restful, if a little lonelier than usual. Tooey still sleeps down at the foot of the bed, but where is that soft bundle of warm curls who plops himself down on the pillows between our heads at 3 AM?

The new squeaky balls just lie in their toy box, not squeaking much at all, and definitely not being rolled toward my feet, pushed by a brown nose attached to the boy who wants to fetch.

The trainers tell me Carlin is doing well with his training. He’s gaining confidence. He’s been going to Home Depot to practice walking calmly in strange situations. He’s training in the same room as another dog, and paying attention. He’s walking past other dogs without lunging and barking. He’s getting a chance to play and chase balls, and lots of attention.

Pretty good for him. Except I bet (I hope) he misses us. I sure do miss him.

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While Russ and Tooey were off hunting, I took a short dog-free trip to visit my cousin in Marin County in California. So I sent Cooper and Carlin off to camp at Classy Canines.

Jayme, who owns Classy Canines, was the person who groomed, trained, and showed Cooper at the beginning of his show career, so I thought Carlin would benefit greatly from her attentions. She’s also a fabulous dog trainer — her dogs have Rally, Obedience, and Hunting Test titles, so she knows where we want to go with Carlin. And plus, I’m hoping she’ll help Cooper learn the elusive Three Steps Backwards exercise for Rally Excellent.

And last but definitely not least, her boarding dogs get to go for daily runs in a multi-acre open space, and I knew both Cooper and Carlin would love that.

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Carlin and Cooper running with the pack — photo by Jayme Nelson

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Carlin and Cooper running with the pack and Cooper’s Springer buddy, Stryker — photo by Jayme Nelson

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Cooper — photo by Jayme Nelson

Here are Carlin and the most of the pack practicing their Sit-Stay for the camera.

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Sit! Stay! Camera click! Good dogs! — photo by Jayme Nelson

Cooper, amazingly enough, is not in the picture. Usually he’s a real camera hog. But instead, he was apparently off with his English Springer buddy, Stryker. They had flushed a pheasant earlier in the walk, and were convinced that they could find another one. Good dogs!

Russ, Tooey, and I are all home now, but the boys are still with Jayme. It’s a long story involving a broken-down truck and expensive repairs, but when the truck is fixed, Russ will go get the truck and the dogs, and we’ll all be home together again.

I’m sure Coop and Carlin will be very happy to be home, but I bet they will really miss running with Jayme and her pack.

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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.

Taken from the AKC Obedience Regulations, amended January 1, 2012, page 73

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.

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Almost one year ago today, at the Rose City Classic dog show, Cooper got his show championship. And that’s the last time I spent any time near a regular conformation ring. (I did show Cooper at the IWSCOPS specialty show in August.)

Today, even though the sun was out, our field training group was flooded out of its training grounds, so Russ and I decided to go to watch the Irish Water Spaniels at this year’s Rose City Classic. We left the dogs at home, hopped in the car, and drove the few miles over to the Expo Center.

About half way there, the area around my solar plexus got tight, I found it harder to breathe, and my stomach started to churn.

This went on for a few minutes until I realized, “Hey! I’m feeling nervous. Why am I nervous? I’m not showing any dogs in this show.”

Hmm…

I guess that I have been nervous driving to dog shows for a long time, ever since I started showing my dogs. So some part of me has made this dog show = nervousness into an automatic connection, one that I seem to have no control over.

It’s like watching Tooey start to drool when I start getting out the field training bumpers. She often gets treats when she retrieves those bumpers, and some part of her brain has made the connection bumpers = salivation.

We’ve both been classically conditioned.

I am beginning to realize that if I’m going to keep showing my dogs at dog shows, I had better deal with this. It’s understandable to be nervous when there is something to be nervous about. But when I start reacting for no reason based in reality, well, that needs some attention.

I think it’s connected to the high rate of failure at dog shows. Conformation shows are the worst at this — only one dog and one bitch can get points toward their championship — everyone else loses. I lost a lot — it took more than three years of regular showing for Cooper to get his championship.

And for Obedience, the problem has been me. Every dog who passes the trial, earns a leg toward the title. But the dog and handler have to be trained and ready to pass. I’ve been eager for Cooper to earn his CD title in Obedience (for a lot of reasons), and so I started showing him as soon as I thought he remotely had a chance — as it turns out, before he was ready. Resulting also in a high rate of failure.

So mostly my experiences with dog shows have been uncomfortable, linking a strong desire to succeed and a fear of failure, with the regular experience of failure.

So. What to do?

I am taking some steps. I haven’t shown Cooper in Obedience for quite awhile. And all that time, we’ve been taking classes, going to private lessons, attending matches, and practicing at home. Am doing my best to make sure we are prepared when we go next time.

But I am puzzled as to what to do with that extra layer of nervousness that appears to affect me without reason. What to do with that nervous feeling that arrives just because I am driving to a dog show. It’s got to be a mental game of some kind, but what, I don’t know.

Perhaps you do.

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Most of this morning we watched frozen precipitation. It ranged from tiny particles, to fat flakes, to hail pounding on the roof.

But then we noticed sunshine. Odd… Hmmm… better go training now.

Tooey obeying the "Hold" command for a few minutes after an 100-yard blind

Cooper learning that he has to pay attention to his handler before said handler will throw the ball

We worked on

  • a repeat of yesterday’s long V-blind, but in a new location for Cooper,
  • a couple of 100-yard blinds for Tooey,
  • a “Hold” practice for Tooey
  • an honor for Cooper while watching Tooey go off for her blinds, and
  • paying attention to the handler for Cooper

This paying attention is hard for Cooper when it comes to toys. For about a week, we’ve been working on a new rule: Cooper has to look at his handler before the handler will throw a toy.

Usually Cooper is so focused on the toy, or whatever else he’s distracted by, that he doesn’t even really know his person is there. This does not work well in Obedience, particularly during heeling, when the dog has to be paying attention to the handler so that the dog stays in correct heel position, no matter where the handler goes. So if we can convince Cooper that very good things happen when he looks at his handler, we are hoping that he will actually want to pay attention to his handler. This would, in theory, make correcting his tendency to get distracted during heeling much easier.

But you know, teaching a new thing can be dangerous. Students “forget” things they’ve long known while they are learning new things. This is normal, and it happens to people and dogs. Eventually, the new thing becomes integrated and the old things come back.

In particular, I’m hoping that teaching attention will not mess up his marking ability. Marking is crucial to fieldwork, during which he’s supposed to be looking out so he can “mark” where birds fall. We may have to re-introduce the “Find your mark” command, which tells him to look out and around for birds. He’s never really needed that command because he’s always been looking out without being told to.

So we got in about 1/2 hour of training. Then we noticed that the sky was getting suddenly darker, and that all the other people and their dogs had gone.

Hmmm… better leave now. And just as we got the dogs back in their crates and the bumpers and chuck-it put away, the hail started up again, pummeling the car and dancing off the windshield.

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How to know the best thing to do is WAY different from actually knowing.

And I’m starting to realize that the biggest task in being a beginner is learning how to judge what is best.

I am not one who learns well from books or DVDs. That may sound odd coming from a person with an M.A. in English. But I find instructional books and DVDs difficult to follow, mostly because the authors, despite their best intentions, fail to explain the one crucial thing I don’t get. Or they assume I know things that I don’t. Or they go on and on about stuff I learned long ago.

And with a book or a DVD, you can’t get help.

With a person, when you’re not getting what you need, you can at least ask, and they can explain again. And with a person, they can observe and make comments when you’re doing well or making a mistake.

Now, if there were only one teacher in the world, that would be simple. But there are many more than one. Many have credentials, others have long experience, and some have both. A few of those actually know how to work with people. And only a small fraction are available at the same time and place as I am.

So, those are the people I work with (or try to, anyway).

So here’s the problem: they don’t agree with each other. Here are two example:

In hunt tests, you stand with your dog at the start line, facing the area where the first bird is going to fall. Sounds simple. But no.

You have to stand correctly, and how “correctly” is defined is not universally agreed upon. Let’s take just foot position. I’ve been told three different things by three different (and successful) pro trainers. The dog is on your left in heel position, so the question is just where to put your feet next to the dog.

  • both feet parallel to each other, toes pointing straight toward the area of the fall and even with each other, feet about 6″-10″ apart
  • the left foot (the one next to the dog) is pointed toward the area of the fall, with the other foot slightly behind and angled with toe pointing away from the dog
  • the right foot (the one away from the dog) is pointed toward the area of the fall, with the other foot slightly behind and angled with toe pointing toward the dog

All of these positions have advantages. The first one keeps everything squared in the direction you want the dog to go: feet, hips, and shoulders. The second and third provide a bit more ease in your ability to maintain balance on uneven ground, and still have a foot that can indicate direction.

Okay, now here’s another one — about how to hold the leash when you’re training your dog to heel.

  • Hold the leash loosely so that the clip end of the leash hangs from the dog’s collar in a J-shape. The leash should never be tight, even when the dog is somewhat out of position. For Cooper and me, this equals about a 3-1/2′ leash. You keep the dog in heel position with rewards, food lures, verbal encouragement.
  • Hold the leash so that when the dog is in heel position, the leash is loose, but whenever the dog is out of heel position, the leash is tight. For us, this is about an 14″ leash. Of course, you can still reward the dog when he’s in the correct position with treats or praise.

In the first case, the dog learns to heel without depending on information from the leash and collar. In the second case, the dog is given information when needed by the leash and collar.

I won’t even get into the discussion about what kind of collar to use.

So the point of this post is not to argue about which one of the suggested methods is best — it’s to help me think about how to know which method is best.

One obvious answer is that whichever one works for the dog is the one that I should choose. But it’s not that easy.

  • First off, I am a beginner. I can’t really tell which method works better. With heeling, I’ve just begun to figure out how to see if the dog is in heel position without looking down and back at him when he’s behind me (another no-no). I will get better at this, but I’m not there yet. With foot position in the field, well… there are so many other variables out there that I have no way of knowing which might be enticing my dog off the straight path to the bird.
  • I go to a lot of training classes and sessions because I want training partners and, other than my living room, I don’t have a training space of my own. So I end up in the company of a lot of experienced people who don’t agree with each other and who are trying to help me. I find this both helpful and very confusing.

It seems like I need to just pick one way to do a thing and stick with it. That way, my dog can get consistent information from me.

But then, what am I supposed to do when I’ve picked a way that seems to be working, but the teacher/pro/expert wants me to do it another way? Particularly in the case when I have developed a relationship with this person, am paying them for the expertise, and/or need a training partner or their training space.

I mean, I don’t want to insult these people, and I do want their help.

If I knew how to pick and could justify my choice, it’d be much easier to talk to these people about why I am doing what I am doing.

But that’s the problem.

It’s a circle, and one of those vicious ones, too.

I am getting dizzy.

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