FINDING THE JOY IN OBEDIENCE
Joy is especially wonderful when it is shared. When a handler and dog can share this joy while doing activities together, it is always easy for others to see. This is one reason why I believe agility has taken a firm foothold throughout the dog fancy. The dogs have so much joy in this activity that it spreads to the handlers and the audience. While it is much easier and more common to squelch any joy in obedience work, it is possible to train and ultimately trial competitively in obedience with joy. Watching a team who have found the joy in obedience work at any level is a delight. Being part of that team who has found joy in working together is very satisfying.
Such a team usually doesn’t just happen. It evolves, often very slowly; as the handler’s abilities to communicate, appreciate, and educate the canine partner grow. In this and future columns, I shall share my dogs and my metamorphosis along the road from starting a puppy to being able to trial competitively with joy. My intention is not to blow my own proverbial horn as such by sharing how my journey has evolved, perhaps it will help others. Because "formal obedience" deals with specific exercises for trails, I shall also cover how I have changed my teaching of these often dry and boring exercises to my dogs. In addition, I shall mention other exercises and skills that I do with my dogs that enhance the obedience exercises or just add variety – and joy – to our training sessions. So, patient reader, do follow along as we educate our pups.
I have always enjoyed the challenge and mental exercises of dog and horse training. But when I had to use various skills and tools I’d learned to turn my own life around, the education of the four-footies had to be put aside until the two-footie (me) was straightened around. Happily, that dynamic project has been progressing well so I’ve been once again reacquainting myself with the joy of training.
In my own personal journey, I’ve done (and still do) a lot of reading/studying in psychology and related topics along with keeping up with my eclectic reading in animal husbandry and training. I have always believed that a thinking trainer is one who is constantly learning and experimenting with different techniques to find what works best for particular situations or participants. This on-going self-education is imperative when working with highly intelligent and independent dogs such as Alaskan Malamutes. Part of my own dog-training education has been geared towards "increasing the tools" in my tool box of training ideas. This gives me a wide variety of approaches to specifically tailor each dog’s education.
A year ago, I was becoming mentally ready to once again return to more formalized dog training. I joined the small but very dynamic all-breed Cariboo Kennel Club in Williams Lake, B.C. As a direct result, I now have a variety of venues in which to train, classes to attend, different breeds of dogs to train with, seminars to attend, and matches to trial at. This has been wonderful for me in keeping my own motivation up at the same time as broadening my dogs’ education. I also had five young dogs (ages 1 year to 4 years) and a new puppy who were ready to start learning.
As every dog is an individual, each dog does need to be considered individually in their education even while following a general outline of a training program. To clarify, while the basics of teaching an exercise may remain the same, the many little steps from the introduction to polishing must be tailored for each dog.
I have always maintained that my best teachers have been my canine students. As I will be illustrating different suggestions, techniques or progress in learning with my own dogs, permit me to introduce the dogs that I am working with. I shall give a brief personality profile of each dog. This personality profile will delineate their intelligence level, pack rating, and confidence level as I perceive it to be with each dog. I shall also comment about their pack ranking and any personality trait that I must consider during their education.
The oldest dog I am working with is my alpha male, Geoffrey. His personality profile is: Canine Einstein, beta/gentle, fairly confident. Even though Geoffrey is also my smallest male, he is a playful yet benevolent alpha male. Geoffrey loves laughter/clowning, flood, kids, and being included in anything. He is also an awesome lead dog on my pleasure team.
Drala, Geoffrey’s son, is the beta male. His profile is very bright, gentle/beta, somewhat insecure. If I choose one word to describe Drala, it’d be enthusiastic. He loves to work at anything and puts the same level of enthusiasm in his work (obedience or harness) as he does in his play. Drala does become very unfocussed mentally when stressed. This is a definitive sign of his lower level of desired confidence.
Sila is the fifth ranking bitch of my housegirl pack. Her profile is Canine Einstein, gentle/beta, insecure. Sila is the most innately intelligent and highly intuitive dog I have ever lived with and so can present the most challenges. She does have issues with resource guarding which I believe stem from her insecurity. The majority of Canine Einsteins that I’ve seen/worked with have also had decreased levels of confidence. Sila and I are also very tightly bonded. Like her litterbrother, Drala, Sila has the potential of being an awesome working obedience dog once her confidence level and mental focus improves. She is an excellent worker in harness, knows all the commands, and is starting to run double lead with Geoffrey.
Zhouma, Drala and Maia’s daughter, is the omega of my housegirl pack. Her profile is very bright, gentle/beta, fairly confident. Zhouma has really inherited her father’s delight in all things fun! She is a thinking and independent dog. Most of Zhouma’s education must be structured around reaching her mind. Try to force anything with her and she resists – some would call this being stubborn! A huge example of this is the times that she has gotten out of the safe yard and is running free. I live on a very busy road this is potentially a lethal situation – a playful dog laying "you can’t catch me" and cars traveling at 50+ mph. The more concerned, angry, or frustrated vocal tones she heard, the faster she ran. She has also played this "game" while in the yard and refusing to come inside when called. It has been a strong mental struggle between us to break this potentially dangerous behavior. Positive reinforcement has certainly been far more successful in changing this behavior than negative. She’s still not 100% reliable, but the frustrating mental battles are getting fewer and less intense.
Anakin is the youngest male in my pack. His personality is very bright, beta/gentle, confident. He is a very loving, sensitive (like my other dogs), outgoing, playful, and confident puppy. As he is still young, I am still learning "who" he is. As he matures, his education will be tailored specifically for him as needed.
Over the 30+ years that I’ve been training, my methods have evolved. When I began in the 1970’s, I trained with the usual method that was used. This incorporated using corrections with the choke/slip collar any time the dog made a mistake, wasn’t paying attention, etc. I did get CD’s on my first dogs but admittedly they did not work happily. In fact, negative corrections I feel were instrumental in crushing the confidence of my first Malamute, Akela, who could never manage the group exercises.
I can still clearly remember the evening when I started "training" my first Canine Einstein, Orion, to "heel". I gave the verbal command, gave him a collar "pop"… and he didn’t move. The look he gave me, as he remained sitting immobile, shot right to my soul. I quickly re-thought what I did, pulled out a treat from my pocket, showed it to him, gave the verbal command to "heel" but did not pull on the lead. He got up and walked politely in heel position. That evening, Orion trained "the trainer". In less than five minutes, he clearly demonstrated how positive reinforcement/motivation is more effective than the correction/negative based reinforcement method I had been using. Orion’s first training session of me precipitated more learning (on my behalf), starting to teach obedience classes to my clients (which in turn sped up my own learning rate), and eventually to writing my first book "HAPPY DOG! Canine Behavior and Basic Training." (Hoflin 1989)
In the 1980’s dog halters were being developed and slowly started to sift into canine education. As I had been training horses for a few years by then, I knew the basic principle of control the head, control the rest of the animal’s body. Knowing that Malamutes are "hard wired" to pull if they feel anything against their neck/chest, I thought that halters might be an excellent tool to explore. I experimented with them and, as they weren’t commercially available where I lived, started to make my own. The halter I ended up developing (Inharmony’s Magic Halter), using, and still use is a variation on the original "Figure 8" halter that British trainer, Roy Hunter, developed. As my own skills improved in both alter handling and the basics of operant conditioning, my book "Educating the Happy Dog!" (Inharmony 1994) was written and self-published. This was the first book to teach how to safely use halters. The respected British trainer, the late John Fisher, reviewed the draft and wrote a complementary forward for this book.
In my recent hiatus from formalized training, I started to understand and learn how to teach more effectively with operant conditioning specifically using a marker signal of a "clicker". As I was seeing faster results with happier and more motivated dogs, I began to "clicker train" routinely. As I’ve learned over the years, the key to teaching Malamutes is to reach their minds. Clicker training does this very effectively.
Laying the Foundation
The early puppy months between two and eight months are critical, I feel, in establishing a solid foundation for any kind of future work. At two months of age, a puppy’s Central Nervous System is fully developed. This is the time to start "programming the puppy’s brain" with positive and desired skills, actions, and reactions.
Early and varied socialization combined with basic skills lay a foundation of desired behavior and introduce a puppy to learning new tasks from a human teacher. The initial learning the puppy must do is immense and compacted in a very short time. Learning canine social skills, house manners, house training, very basic obedience skills encompasses a lot of lessons. If the owner//handler teaches the puppy clearly, positively, with consistent, gentle, and appropriate corrections, the pup will eagerly embrace new lessons as they are presented. It is entirely possible to have a well mannered puppy at six months of age. It all depends upon the handler’s commitment to the pup’s education.
I define "formal obedience" as skills that are precise, exact, and what is aimed for in order to enter and compete in obedience trials. Ideally the handler and dog become a true team. Watching such a team do any heeling work is like watching high level dressage or a dance team. Achieving this level is the result of a lot of time and focus of both team members. Working at the highest level of precision heeling can be very stressful for a dog because of the intensity of concentration demanded of the dog.
In order for a dog to learn precision heeling, he must be mature enough to focus on the job at hand. Puppies do not have that kind of focus. They have the attention span equal to a gnat! A similar level of focus coupled with inner self-control is imperative for the stationary exercises (stand for examination, group sits and downs). To expect a three month old puppy – or even a six month old puppy form a 3 minute down in a group exercise is, in my mind, unrealistic. There may be dogs who have done that – but at what cost? Did the handler push the puppy so hard that the pup lost the inner joy of working in obedience?
My goal in working with my dogs is to be able to have my dogs and I work truly as a team with joy. No matter what I ask my dog to do – whether it be one of the delineated "formal" exercises or other behaviors or tricks, I want my dogs to understand what is been asked, do what is being asked correctly, and enjoy what we do together. This may seem like an ambitious goal – but it is attainable. I can honestly say that all of the dogs I am teaching now love working. Even when I’m working with "polishing" an exercise, the dogs continue to view our time together as a fun activity – one they enjoy!
Early Puppy Education
Before a new puppy joins a household, it is certainly advisable to determine what kind of behaviors and skills you’d like a six month old puppy to have. For myself, I expect my six month old puppy to be fully house trained, have good house manners, and have an understanding of these important obedience commands: come when called, sit, down, stand, give, and leave it. As I covered the various things I do in my puppy rearing in a previous column "Bringing Up A Lady," I’d like to focus now on teaching the actual obedience exercises and a few different ones that I use. Other trainers may consider adding these exercises for variety and fun with their puppies. I will emphasize that these very basic skills should be taught to all dogs – even those who will never see the inside of an obedience ring. First and foremost, our dogs must be our companions. A well-mannered and educated companion is a delight to live with.
As mentioned previously, I am a clicker trainer convert! So the very first thing the pup must understand is the concept of "behavior change/do something = click + treat". If the pup is one I’ve raised, he will have already heard the "click" before dinners. But not introducing the click sound to a up at an early age does not affect their very quick understanding of "’click = treat". To make the equation complete, the pup usually figures out that if he does something, he can "make" that click sound happen. Then it becomes a game – a fun thing – to make the handler "click" and to give him a treat!
Anakin quickly understood what I was asking in his first lesson. By his quick responses in his second lesson, I knew I had to keep him thinking! When a pup like this is soaking up the information, I really like to keep offering new "games" so the pup continues to enjoy learning. It also helps them learn how to learn new tasks. In more advanced work, this is a real asset if the dog has learned how to learn, think, and ultimately problem solve. At the tender age of 8 weeks, Anakin learned the first lessons of sit, down, stand, and then added "leave it", "give", and the very important "come when called."
At ten weeks of age, Anakin was ready for more ‘games". So he started learning a variety of tricks. His first trick was "Paw". At first, I just asked him to put his paw on my hand. Then it progressed over the next weeks to "high fives" and "waving." He learned to do with both paws according to which hand I was curing with. As having a dog lie flat on command is very helpful in daily life for grooming, any sort of medical attention or for the all important tummy rubs, Anakin’s next trick was "Bang". As a fun thing to do as well as keep the spine supple, Anakin easily learned Circles/spins. Teaching a pup to circle (clockwise) or spin (counter clockwise) is easy using a lure and clicker. After teaching this trick to adults, teaching this to a smaller puppy was considerably easier! Another trick or exercise for helping to keep the dog supple is the "Bow". While dogs do play bows routinely in play, this is also a fun trick to do with a person! With thinking of future obedience work, Anakin was taught "Watch me" – which is the foundation for attention work or what is referred to as "eye-line" work in the movies. In this, the pup is rewarded for first establishing eye contact with the handler. Then he is asked to focus on the hand (usually holding a treat) as the hand is moved in different directions. Move the hand up and down and the dog "nods". Move the hand from side to side and dog seems to say "no!" During eye-line work, the position of the body remains unchanged. Anakin also started learning how to "back" in the position of facing me and going backwards and forwards. When this is refined, just small finger cues will be enough to have the dog move forwards or backwards. This creates a foundation for backing in heel positions as well as being very helpful in conformation showing.
After Anakin "outgrew" the puppy classes, he then joined me and two of the other dogs we went to the clubhouse weekly to work in a different venue. Again, he met different dogs and continued to be comfortable riding in the truck, going places, and being polite waiting in the truck until it was "his" turn. When we had club meetings, he’d lie quietly at my feet ignoring the other dogs who were also there.
As puppies absorb a lot of skills in a very short period of time, I use the time after puppy classes until the pup is ready to start more "formal" work to reinforce the skills they have learned, continue the socialization, and let them be puppies …. But puppies who must be well-mannered! The pups are entering a time of puberty which usually involves some type of testing behavior. They are also in a rapid growth phase physically. Then it is just a matter of waiting until their mental and emotional maturity catch up to the larger bodies they have grown into before starting more "formalized" training.
Teaching the Novice Exercises
When to start focusing on the particular novice exercises is dependent upon different factors – the handler’s expertise and/or availability of positively orientated/motivational classes, and, most importantly, the physical, mental, and emotional readiness of the dog. Some dogs re not ready to start these lessons until they are over one or two years of age while other dogs are ready at a younger age. Keeping the mantra "Every dog is an individual" circulating in our minds will help us determine when certain exercises can be taught, polished, and eventually put together in trial-ready format.
Before I start any of my dogs in more intensive education, they must have all their puppy lessons learned well. These lessons are what future learning will be built upon so it is important to have a solid foundation laid. To refresh, the pup must know sit, down, stand, come when called, leave it, and give. They must have excellent house manners, walk on a lead without an excess amount of pulling, and in short behave like a lady or gentleman. At my home, I expect my pups to have the foundation by six months’ their more intensive "obedience training" is deferred until they have gone through puberty (with all the teenage and testing behaviors that entails) and have started to show more maturity.
While I shall break down the novice skills into specific exercises in this article, in a training session, I may work on two or more exercises depending upon the individual dog. My training sessions with each dog are short in length. This helps to keep the dog’s focus on the work and decrease the chance of boredom rearing its ugly head. As I am currently working six dogs now, I usually have the dogs kenneled or crated watching their buddy being worked. This is more time efficient, the dogs do learn by mimicry, and it helps the anticipation factor so when it is "their" turn, the dog is really eager to work. Hearing the clicks and seeing the other dog get treats is an effective way to reinforce to other dogs how much fun "working" is. If a dog isn’t focused on the work or me, the session ends quickly! Shortened sessions equal fewer treats! (For treats, I use a high quality "fishy" dog food that has small kibbles. These dogs all really like it but only get it when we "work.")
Attention, attention, attention
I have always used the "watch me" exercise when teaching my dogs. Admittedly, I didn’t used to put a huge amount of importance on it. No wonder my dogs lagged, lollygagged or even ignored me! Now I realize the huge importance this simple exercise has. No attention creates a poor working dog. (Yes, even "old" handlers can learn "new" tricks!)
There are as many different styles of teaching this as there are different style of trainers. Essentially, the goal is to have the dog’s attention on some part of the handler. Some handlers spit food at their dogs; their dogs focus on the handler’s mouth. Some handlers prefer the focus to be on a hand or foot. I prefer eye contact – direct eye contact of the dog to the handler on cue. Now it is not natural for dogs to stare at another’s eyes. If they do, it is a dominating action (termed the "hard stare") that an alpha dog does to a subordinate. As we have pack-orientated dogs, I do not expect my dogs to gaze adoringly into my eyes. It rarely happens. But to give me direct eye contact when I ask is different and is also a gentle way for the dog to acknowledge the handler’s pack leadership. When the dog is working, I am comfortable if the dog chooses to focus on my hand or something else; but if I cue a "watch me", I expect direct eye contact.
This is a useful exercise to have available in trial settings right before the judge asks at the beginning of each exercise "Are you ready?" This quick eye:eye /mind:mind connection readies the dog and handler team for the actual exercise.
Probably one of the most versatile and well used pieces of equipment that I have is my sturdy agility pause table. It is three foot square, eighteen inches high, and has a non-slip finish. It is used as an obstacle in agility work, grooming table, place for harnesses to be put on (easier on my back), obedience/trick training aid, and a place where cuddles always happen. Due to all the positive reinforcement the dogs receive there, the table becomes a very nice place to go with or without a direct command. My dogs seem to pick up the command "Go to the table" without any intentional teaching. A secondary benefit I discovered when Zhouma was testing (by not coming when called) is that if I cued "table", she (or other dogs) would happily go to the table. Then, after praise and a treat, I could slip on a kennel lead and have her under direct control. This eliminated the "catch me if you can" game that she delighted in playing.
The target stick is another versatile tool that can help the dog to understand where to go or how to position his body when stationary or moving. When held, it acts like an extension of the handler’s arm. While there are lovely commercial target sticks available, anything can be used. For instance, I used an empty milk jug when I taught this concept to my young mare, a hand or weighted plunger was used in classes I attended, a plastic lid or weighted plunger can be used as a "go to the mark/target" exercise, or a slender stick/rod with a small nylon tag can be used.
I choose to introduce the dog to the target stick early in the dog’s training. My rationale is it reinforces the concept of clicker training of move the body or do something = click and treat. It is an easy "game" for any dog to learn quickly. Following or touching something that is not the handler’s hand (which may have a treat in it) helps the dog to start thinking about something other than treats in the handler’s hands.
Many years ago, I attended a seminar with top British obedience trainer, Robert Harlow. He emphasized teaching the "heel" positions with the handler standing still before moving at all. This was a very radical way of training to our North American way of thinking. Admittedly, I didn’t start utilizing this concept until recently. What a difference it makes!
For a dog, "heeling" is a complex exercise. The dog must stay on the handler’s left side at all times – moving when the handler moves in any direction and then sitting immediately and squarely in the desired position when the handler halts. For a trainer, the heeling exercises are the most important in obedience trials as they are in every level, account for a large percentage of the marks and can make the difference between a non-qualifying score and a high in trial win.
In this section of training, I train "heel" (sit at left side), "front" (sitting squarely in front of handler), and "around" (Moving past the handler’s right side to end sitting in the heel position). Depending on the dog and where I am training, I’ll either work on or off lead. If the dog has a lead on, it is purely to keep the dog somewhat contained. I teach "heel" or "front" before "around". The first two are true stationary positions and I want the dogs to understand them well before adding the moving cue to his repertoire. Either stationary position is shaped into the final/desired spot slowly. I use whatever works to encourage the dog into the desired position. Some dogs respond to following the target stick, following the hand as a lure, verbal encouragement or body movements of the handler (et. Stepping backwards when curing for the "front") or any combination of these. To illustrate, Drala responded to verbal encouragement and pats on my leg. He was very verbal as he was figuring out what I wanted. Maia and Zhouma are excellent at following the lure (hand with a goodie in it). Anakin is responding well to following the target stick as it "twirls" into position.
In the early stages of Novice work, I do not expect polished performances. As the dog’s education progresses, then the handler increases the expectations of the dog’s performances. I will revisit this exercise later in the "Polishing Novice" section.
The command "wait’ is a useful skill for the dog and handler. It means "stay in whatever position you are in until another command to do something is given." Some handlers use this in the recall exercise to prevent confusion or erosion of a sit-stay. In daily life, it is a useful "pause" cue before a dog exits something – a door, kennel, car.
In the early stages of Novice work, a very short/momentary wait is expected. This will be built upon as the dog’s education progresses. Progressing slowly at increasing the difficulty of the wait command will take less over-all training time as the necessity for re-training or correcting is eliminated. When starting to teach this, I do recommend using a gentle restraint such as a buckle collar/leash.
To teach a "wait", have the dog in heel position. Give the verbal (and hand signal if desired) command to "wait", keep gentle pressure in a backwards direction on the collar/lead, step forward with the right foot. Immediately when the left foot reaches the fight foot, command "heel", release the leash pressure, and encourage the dog back into heel position. Slowly, and I emphasize slowly, increase the pause between the wait and hell commands.
When the dog understands this concept, then introduce the wait while the dog is in the front position. Similarly to the previous exercise, command a "wait" while the dog is sitting in front, while maintaining leash pressure upwards this time), step with one foot backwards. When the second foot reaches the first foot, command "front," release leash pressure, and encourage a straight front. ‘Again take slow increments increasing times and distances.
Combining the wait exercise with the stationary position exercises creates more interesting and challenging exercises for the Polishing level.
Beginning Heeling Work
When the dog is starting to understand "heel" means sit at the handler’s left side, then the criteria can be changed. The goal at this level is to have the dog start to understand that "heel" also means moving. Remember, any time new criterion is added, previously learned behaviors will "slip" as the dog processes the new information. Don’t dwell on these mistakes – doing so will only cement them in place. Keep encouraging and giving lots of positive reinforcement for good sits and ignore the poor ones. (This is called "extinction" of behaviors.)
When I start teaching heeling work, the time spent moving is minimal. If the dog can do two or three paces in good heeling position and be rewarded for that, it is far more valuable overall than walking many steps trying to get the dog into good position before rewarding. In beginning heeling work, I choose to use my clicker liberally. In this, the ‘click" doesn’t mean "good job, exercise over" but rather "good job – keep going!" I’ve certainly found my dogs have understood that. To encourage the dog to be in good heel position, I’ll use whatever works for that particular dog. Some dogs follow the target stick well (hold it so the end is parallel to the ground when heeling.) Other dogs respond to luring with treats in hand and/or verbal encouragement.
For easier handling, I’ve found it best to hold a loose lead (as it isn’t being used to "control" the dog) and the clicker in my left hand and the treat and/or target stick in my right hand.
In the introduction to heeling, the dog is introduced to distinct changes of pace and directions. Lots of halts are done. The intention is to encourage the dog to stay as close to the handler’s side when moving and sitting promptly when halting.
In the recall exercise, the dog must come directly and promptly to the handler. As a puppy, the young dog should have learned that coming when called is pleasurable. This should not be allowed to deteriorate. Keeping the fun and joy alive while building towards a reliable, yes disciplined, formal "come" is possible. The handler must guard against becoming too serious and work at being upbeat – someone who’d be fun to be with. After all, who would want to run to a sourpuss?
The come-fore exercise is an effective exercise for encouraging fast recalls, fast response times of the dog, and increased canine attention. Correctly executed, it is seamless and when done with a more advanced dog off lead as part of a heeling exercise is almost dance-like. But it is a handling technique that some handlers would be advised to practice without their dogs until it begins to flow.
In the come-fore, the dog and handler are walking in heel position. The handler momentarily pauses, loosens the lead, calls the dog (e.g. "Buddy, come"), and then moves backwards smartly until the dog is square in front. The handler halts and the dog is in a correct "front" position. The handler may choose to use a different command (‘Buddy, front") or a combination ("Come-front").
Using a clicker, I have found it effective to click the instant the dog turns. It can be used again as the dog moves toward the handler as a "good job, keep; coming" cue. As by this time the dog should be on a variable reinforcement schedule for fronts, a click at the front every time (i.e. constant reinforcement) is not only unnecessary but is not as effective as when used in a variable reinforcement schedule.
The stationary exercises are as important as heeling work and are in all levels of obedience trials. Many a trial has been lost when the dog "broke a stay." Correcting difficulties in the stationary exercises can be difficult and challenging. Sometimes the corrections cause more and/or irreparable damage to a dog’s confidence. This I know from experience as I, in my ignorance, was too hard on my first male Malamute. Akela was an easy
When I start a stay now, I’ll have the dog sit on the pause table, command a stay, back a step or two away, "click" for the momentary stay, return to the dog, and give the treat. The progressions that I use are still the same as I had used: in front of the dog, to the side of the dog, behind the dog, circling the dog. Again, these are progressed through very slowly. I want the dog to learn positively with as much success and little stress as possible. Slowly, I’ll change the criteria – still with the dog on the table, I’ll eventually progress to where I’ll leave the dog when we’re in (elevated) heel position, walk away, turn, wait for increasing lengths of time, return to the heel position by walking around the dog (behind the table). Clicks will be used as needed to signify "Well done – keep staying" and at the end, of course. If the dog breaks the stay, we’ll go back to where he could earn the click and treat – even if it was back to the very first step.
The same procedure is done for the down and stand – yes, still on the table. The dogs feel safe on the table and it is a place where good things happen frequently (cuddles) or evolve from (harnessing before runs).
When the dog understands the basics of stay = click and treat, then the criteria will have a major change – the dog is on the ground. Because the criteria changed, I "go back to kindergarten" and do the exact same progression of stepping directly in front of the dog, to the side, behind the dog, circling the dog. Lengths of time as well as distance between the dog and handler are also increased slowly.
Once the dog is starting to understand the basics of each section of the novice exercises, it is then time to ask and expect more of the dog and ourselves. We must remember that it is a dog and handler team with responsibilities to each other. The handler must be aware of how he cues, walks, turns, and stops in order to give the dog the best opportunity to do his best. Poor handling can contribute to low scores very easily – even to the point of creating non-qualifying scores.
At the start of polishing the novice exercises, the focus is mainly on the dog’s abilities. As the dog’s skill level rises, the handler should "tighten up" the handling. This encompasses clear signals that would be used in the obedience ring, footwork, and the elimination of double (or more) commands.
At this point, many handlers lose the joy in doing this work. The dogs are drilled and drilled and drilled until they "get it right" or totally shut down. I have maintained that the Malamute is not a breed that likes or will accept serious drilling. But it is still possible to do these precise exercises and keep it fun. How you may ask? When the Malamute is seen as who he is – intelligent and "playful upon invitation," it shouldn’t be hard to realize that if the dog does "the exercise" perfectly – stop, accept it, praise, have a party, and do not do it again at that session. If you try for another, the dog may give you another perfect performance, but keep doing that and the behavior will deteriorate rapidly. The Malamute will think that what he did wasn’t what you wanted and will start to try different behaviors. Then you’ve lost what you already had and wanted.
I believe there are a couple of times that using trick training is extremely beneficial in the dog’s education. Of course, tricks are fun at any time, but in puppyhood, trick training the youngster will help the puppy learn how to learn. The other time that trick training is extremely useful is when the dog is being readied for obedience trials. Trials and the preparation for them put a lot of pressure on the dog. Tricks help to relieve that pressure. Doing these fun activities with the handler strengthens the joy and "fun-bond" they have and are working towards. Do a trick or two after a "serious" exercise and it not only relieves stress but is also a rewarding and positive activity for the dog.
When I took classes with both Drala and Geoffrey, they would become very bored and restless during the times when we were waiting our turn or listening to the instructor. I’d have my boy away from the other dogs and we’d quietly do some tricks. Both Drala and Geoffrey were able to stay alert during the entire hour long class and maintained their alertness with huge grins. All it took were some forward/backs, waves, circles/spins, and bows (all cued with handsignals only) to keep them enjoying our special time together. Neither boy seemed like had had enough by the end of the class. In fact, the last class that Geoffrey and I attended, we stayed an extra thirty minutes and worked on different skills.
In polishing the novice exercises, the handler should be concentrating on shaping the exercises into the desired formats. Continuing to use positive operant conditioning will speed up the process. Keeping the exercises broken down into smaller formats enables the handler to use more variety and decrease the anticipatory factor that easily corrupts an exercise. For example, not putting the components of the recall exercise (wait, come when called, front and finish) together every time it is practices prevents the dog from anticipating the "come" or "finish" commands. In addition, the dog keeps thinking and doesn’t go on automatic response mode as there may be something else cued – or not cued – instead.
Now, let’s revisit some of the exercises in Novice work. I shall suggest some ideas, new skills or exercises that my dogs and I have enjoyed.
Stationary Positions and Waits
Now that the dog has an understanding of the correct positions including "around" and "wait," it is time to play some position games. These are, simply, the dog is left on a wait, the handler moves, and the dog is cued to "heel,", "front" or "around." Easy positions such as straight ahead, ahead at an angle are good to start with before the handler becomes creative and positions/cues the dog in ways that the dog must really think. For example: leave the dog on a wait, move ahead – not necessarily in a straight line, turn, face the dog, and cue "heel". The dog may be anticipating a "front" and will have to think about where to position to earn that click and treat. The next time, move the same way as before except cue a "front." Variety is stimulating. It is important to only accept straight sits/desired positions before clicking/treating/rewarding. Increase the expectations realistically of course and the dog will respond. Don’t neglect the more unusual movements such as moving to the side (either side) or to the back. Again, mix up the commands a lot. For example: when the dog is in heel position, cue for an "around" (the dog must literally circle the handler to return to the starting point) or cueing a "front" when the dog is in heel position. These keep the dog interested, listening, and if done in an upbeat manner, will become an enjoyable game.
Teaching a dog to move backwards with a two beat gait is a useful cue to have available for obedience dogs and conformation dogs. Asking a conformation dog to go forwards/back can not only "set him up" when free-stacked, but can help keep the dog alert and "showing" in a large class. I find teaching the "back" when the pup is in front of me to be the easiest as they quickly pick up the concept from my body language/movement and will-timed clicks and treats. Even very young puppies can learn the subtle "come hither/move backwards" finger wiggles that I use as my cue.
Once the dog understands "back" when in front facing the handler, I’ll introduce the "moving back" with the dog in heel position. A solid wall, a hand holding a treat in front of the dog’s face "blocking" the forward movement, possible tension on the leash, and well-timed clicks and treats are the tools that I use. Like any new movement skill, it must be shaped slowly starting with just one step backwards.
"Sit-back" is a skill in which the dog is sitting (in front or heel position) then readjusts to sit farther backwards. Some dogs "hop" backwards while others just wiggle backwards. Both work well. This is a useful skill when "setting up" prior to starting a heeling position.
"Down-back" has the same concept as "sit-back". As with the other back commands, it is probably easier to teach with the dog facing the handler before shifting to have the dog in a down in heel position. In teaching this, remember the mantra "every dog is an individual" and do what works! I prefer to use the command "down-back" as the dog knows both words and with my body language (moving to the dog) encourage a shuffle backwards. Again, the clicker is readied for that instant move!
At the start of polishing heeling work, the dog is changing pace, directions (right and left), and doing about turns and left-about turns. Now is the time to introduce heeling in a circle – not the great big ones but the little ones in which either the handler or the dog is the pivot point and the other team member moves around. This is a great exercise for attention and reinforcing correct heeling position. (Really advanced obedience dogs can do this going backwards!) When the dog is the pivot point and I’m traveling around him (counter clockwise direction), I also cue "watch." If he is attentive and watches where I’m going, his toes won’t get tromped upon. When I’m the pivot point, and the dog circles clockwise around me, I use "hurry, hurry." The dog has probably already heard this word while sledding or during a "come when called" and is able to interpret it as "move faster!" These two tight circling maneuvers are in preparation for or sharpening up the handling of the figure eight exercise. Of course, in learning stages of heeling in tight circles, I use the clicker liberally.
Heeling work can be very boring unless the handler thinks, is alert, and is unpredictable! Unpredictability of the handler means the dog had really better pay attention because anything can happen. Be creative. As an example, do some fast paced forwards, come-fores, backs, circles, changing of direction, changes of pace, waits, cues to heel, stationary work…. Whatever you can think of doing that the dog knows! Throw in a few tricks the dog knows and enjoys (a positive reinforcement factor) along with a healthy dose of upbeat encouragement and positive attitude, and heeling work becomes a fun game for both. Let’s be honest, the heeling patterns that are used in the obedience ring are just plain boring. Mix it up and have fun! Then watch the smiles and bright eyes appear. I use my clicker a lot when doing these sorts of things but as the dog is on a variable reinforcement schedule with treats by this point, they may not get any treats until the end when we stop. At this point, the dog isn’t working for food (which is an argument that individuals use against food as a reinforcement aid) but is working for the joy of working!
The foundations for the full recall exercise are already in place. It is just a matter of putting the wait, come when called, front, return to heel all together. Then it must be proofed. Doing group recalls in which two or more dogs are left on the wait and then called individually is useful. Doing recalls in different situations/places is also useful. I do caution to not routinely do the full routine when the recall is practiced. This will only increase the anticipation factors. Keep the elements of the recall separate and they will remain intact. Fail to do that and the components will erode. As an example, always cueing for a finish after a front and the lovely straight front will erode into oblivion.
At this level, the stays are continued to be shaped for length of time, distance away from the handler, and in the case of the stand-stay, for the inclusion of another person approaching, touching, and leaving the dog. I caution not to rush this stage and to proof it as much as possible. It is very disappointing when an otherwise qualifying score is lost when a dog lies down on a one minute sit-stay.
Some ideas that we did in our class were wonderful in helping both my boys, Geoffrey and Drala, with their stays. Both boys are gentle males with a not particularly high level of confidence. Even in class, when other participants were able to go farther away from their dog, I (and others) only went as far away from our dog as we could in order to ensure that they did the exercise correctly. If it means that we didn’t go farther than "toes to toes" – the first stage of the sit-stay, that’s where we went. Other than positioning the dogs in the traditional line, we also positioned ourselves wherever we were in the room at the time, in a circle with the dogs on the outside and the handlers in the inner part of the circle facing our dogs or in a circle with the handlers on the outside of the circle facing the dogs who were sitting back to back with other dogs. With the dogs in, for example, a square, we would leave our dogs on a stay, go across the square from the dog and stand behind the other dog. This exercise, I found to be very helpful for Geoffrey and I feel contributed to his comfort level when I did brief out of sight down-stays. Even just cueing Drala to do a stay, then moving to stand directly behind him helped him a lot.
Getting the stand-stay solidified so the dog doesn’t move a foot even without someone approaching the dog can be challenging. The instructor who taught the canine acting classes I attended years ago uses a 2 x 4 board to put the dog’s front feet on. He expected at least a full minute stand from his dogs. I found a similar aid in the pause
Preparing for trials
Even for dogs used to working with others in a class situation, going into a "huge" ring all alone with their handler can be intimidating. To add to that, the handler is usually not exhibiting the same behavior as they usually do. That just adds to the stress, worry, and eventual poor working of the obedience dog/handler team. Fortunately, this is something that can be worked on prior to trials thanks to dog clubs that offer "run-throughs", fun matches, and sanction matches. Certainly with the higher entry fees these days, it just makes good sense to be as prepared as possible for all contingencies before entering obedience trials.
When a handler, particularly one who hasn’t competed before, is preparing for trials, it is advisable to have a mentor available to be a guide as to ring procedure and to help/watch for any handler errors that happen while in the ring. Just like our dogs, we can also get stage fright! When that happens, the thinking abilities disappear and normally good handling dissolves. Of course, it is imperative to read the current rules of the obedience ring. The AKC and CKC publish these rules and guidelines and when an entry form is signed, it states/implies that these rules are to be followed. Only makes sense to know what they are!
Yes, obedience work – even the dry exercises at the Novice level – can be fun and challenging to do correctly. Mixing up the exercise components, throwing in fun activities such as tricks, and keeping the training sessions short and fast paced all help to keep the dog focused and thinking. Lots of upbeat praise, treats, toys or other things that the dog enjoys only intensified the fun aspect. It keeps the joy alive – for both dog and handler! If a handler can maintain a "want to play my games with me" attitude when training, the dog will see the exercises not as dull, boring or stressful but another fun activity to do with the handler. When the handler asks "Want to work?" the dog hears "Want to have some fun?" and responds with a quick positioning in heel position wearing a big grin, bright eyes, and a "Yes, let’s play some games!" attitude. At this point it is obvious, the joy factor has been found in obedience.