On Practice, and Keeping Track

20151010-botc-ob-0100-lrA couple of months ago, we were enjoying a little streak of moderate success. Under conditions I had previously not thought tolerable to Thomas — live gophers popping up about the ring, for instance — we at long last broke into the 90s in Utility. Thomas had begun hitting every sit, every front and finish like he hasn’t since he was a good little Novice dog. He was holding his mouth still on his retrieves, and resisting the urge to bat his articles around as if they were sleeping prey he hoped to wake up and chase.

Most important, we earned another UDX leg, the first one since May of 2014, to bring us to a total of four.

Nobody actually asked me what I’d been doing differently, which did not stop me from offering my secret, loudly, to anyone within earshot: We’d been practicing more. Yes, yes, I know — I was meaning to be funny. News flash! Practice makes perfect. (Except in our case, not perfect. But at least better than before.)

The streak was not to last, which doesn’t mean it wasn’t real, but does mean that maybe there have been holes in my plan that took a bit of time to manifest. I had noticed with both of my dogs that directed jumping was our weakest exercise, and not surprisingly, because I don’t have room to practice it at home; I wasn’t getting out in the park often enough to teach them confidence about the go-out and to reinforce the notion that, yes, my small friends, you must observe my hand signal before you take a jump. I had taken stand-for-exam for granted, a fact of which I was rudely reminded when Thomas stretched up into the lap of a judge he particularly likes.

This past weekend Thomas and I set up in the ring for the directed retrieve, which was the first exercise in Utility B that day, when it struck me that we really hadn’t practiced gloves much in the past week. Still, I sent Thomas with the most positive expectations, and I was shocked when he refused to move off his spot, as if he had forgotten how to follow my signal to retrieve his glove.

He hadn’t forgotten, I’m sure. He could have done it just fine outside the pressure of the ring. But the judge and my nerves and the people and the foul smell of the pee-soaked grass and the noise of banging crates somewhere over in Building 4 overwhelmed what he knew; it all got in the way of his ongoing calculus about what might be safe or successful or even worth doing. I hadn’t charged up his glove retrieve with toys and food and triumphs, and so when he heard the word “fetch!” he simply couldn’t muster the nerve to comply.

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The Clarity of Crisis

Last Sunday, Thomas did as well as he has ever done in Utility. In the order of exercises that begins with scent articles, always a tough one, he worked the pile efficiently without visiting the judge. He returned his glove straight and fast and obeyed his signals in spite of much hubbub in his line of sight, where Novice competitors were getting their ribbons. There were fronts and finishes in all the right places, and sits to go with them. It was a sign to me that the adjustments we’ve made lately in training —  reeling in his retrieves with a retractable leash, heeling with a light lead held low in my right hand — are working. It was also a sign that we’re both less nervous in the ring.

Good scoreWe still didn’t qualify, only because we failed the second half of the last exercise, which was directed jumping. Thomas did his first go-out and took the bar jump without any fuss, but on the second one he stopped halfway out, suddenly, as if something had bitten him. Then he turned to go the rest of the way, and stopped again. I told him to sit, but he was flummoxed, and took the bar jump a second time.

It seemed odd — if you can do one go-out, why not the second? But it wasn’t alarming. So many of Thomas’s bobbles in the ring over the years have been inexplicable. I tamped down my disappointment as quickly as I could, rewarded him and carried on.

A little while later, though, it struck me that something was off. Thomas kept lifting his leg — on trees, on blades of grass, on nothing — straining to pee. I’m used to Thomas marking; walks with Thomas are long, slow affairs, during which he analyzes many objects from different olfactory perspectives before selecting an angle at which to deliver a few carefully metered drops. But this was different; it was like he couldn’t get those drops out. Nothing had changed in his mood, and he didn’t seem to be in pain, so I took him into the Open ring. He popped over the broad jump effortlessly. Then he squatted and tried to pee. I scooped him up, left the ring with apologies and drove him home, where he deposited a large, warm pool of urine on the living room rug and stood next to it, stricken. I rushed him to the emergency vet.

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Among the 86 percent

One evening a couple of weeks ago, I shouted to a psychotherapist friend of mine across the field at obedience practice, “Hey, what is that thing that happens to you when you fail over and over and over again? When you don’t get rewarded for behavior you think is right and you stop trying?”

“Learned helplessness,” she shouted back. “All-too common in obedience dogs.”

Working the pileRight. Learned helplessness. It refers to a discovery psycho-behaviorist Martin Seligman made in the late 1960s while messing with the minds of dogs; dogs exposed to electric shocks and offered no way out stoppedtrying to escape even when a solution became clear. A less dismal version of a similar phenomenon is what Ur-clicker-trainer Karen Pryor calls “extinction”: You,
the rat, hit the lever over and over and no little piece of food comes out. You, the dog, scratch on the box where the scent is and yet never hear the click and get the Charlie Bear. You, the human, venture into the competition ring over and over again and yet never get to stand with the judge and other qualifying teams and receive that little green ribbon that says success. You get anxious. Depressed. Eventually you stop trying.

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Maieutics

Tabitha2-CP_AKC-8064Dogs follow their handlers’ shoulders. This is something so simple, so obvious to every dog handler in every sport that we ought to wear it on t-shirts. We see it on the agility course (“her shoulders were facing the wrong end of the tunnel,” the ladies mutter as a dog goes off-course); it happens in obedience, too — a dog that lags in heeling — especially in the figure 8 — very often does so because the handler (me) is neurotically straining to see whether little doggie is in position and in the process self-defeatingly pushes a shoulder back. (I saw myself doing this on video once and hated myself for three months.)

But why? Why is this? When, exactly, did my dogs start following me at all, and how did they figure out they could judge where I was going by watching my shoulders? It freaks me out a little. This weekend I was pulling my cairn terrier Thomas around a 180 degree turn from one jump to another and instead pulled him through the two jumps into a threadle. The good news is that I figured he had his reasons so I went with it — we executed a flawless threadle! Good doggie! The other good news is that I saw the video, and it only took a little flick my my shoulder to pull him in.

There is no bad news. I won’t let it happen again.

I am the owner/handler/guardian/whatever of two spectacularly well-trained dogs, Thomas, a seven-year-old Cairn Terrier, and Tabitha, a four-year-old American Staffordshire terrier (you can call her a pit bull; she’s a rescue and probably is one). I compete with them in one sport or another nearly every weekend. I’m obsessed with them, with the game and sport of agility and the Supreme and Limitless Challenge of competition obedience, and with their furious ability to learn and play and surprise me and think and generally just be awesome. ThomasJumping1-processed

They are, however, not everyone’s idea of good dogs. Being well-trained, in this twisted world I live in, does not mean easy to walk on the street, resistant to the rattling speed of a skateboard, or complacent when they see someone they know and want to greet. I have come to understand after so many years of trying that I value drive more than control, motivation more than discipline. And so by some standards, my dogs are kind of bad. I don’t care. They are the dogs they are and not some other dogs. They do not blow me off on course or sniff or visit other people or any of that bad stuff, at least not in agility (obedience is another story; I’ll get to that). And they don’t bite. Anyone, ever. Dayenu.

Truth, thought Socrates via Plato, lies latent in every mind, but without training and debate, it won’t emerge. Only through inquiry and investigation do we bring forth all we know. That’s maieutics. (It comes from the Greek word for “midwife.”) And I think perhaps it explains the shoulder mystery. Dogs, all dogs, have within them the potential of all-dogness — boxers can herd, Jack Russells can take down criminals, cairn terriers can do a directed retrieve (and a whole bunch of other exercises basically designed to test the skills of hunting dogs). All of them come from the s ame set of wolves way back when, the wolves that came into the caves and became the dogs that could digest our food and the companions that could enjoy our fires; the ones that looked up at our towering bodies, watched our shoulders, and followed.

They have it all stored in them somewhere. We just bring it out.

(Banner photo by Kitty Jones; Tabitha heading to the tunnel by Karen Moureaux/Contact Point; photo of Thomas jumping my Mary Fish Arango.)