When Training Pays Off
I frequently say that I am a lazy dog trainer and allude that I do little to no training at all.
In reality, I actually do train my dogs. I just don’t do much in the way of structured training or actual intentional training sessions.
I do agility training, but truthfully most of that is in a class setting once or twice a week. When I do agility training at home, it is five minutes maximum, then we do other things, like play Ball or go for a hike. Sometimes I go to a facility and rent time and space for a bit and do some sessions with my dogs, but it’s fairly infrequent. Much of the “agility” training I do is not done on agility equipment. Really, the only agility equipment I use are weaves, and even then, only for foundation and then in the first year or so. I just don’t care enough to drill my dogs on a regular basis.
Most of the training I do revolves around what I like to call real life skills. These real life skills include coming reliably when called, checking in with me, waiting politely while I prepare their meals then sitting patiently when I place their bowls in front of them until I tell them “okay,” realizing I will handle major issues so that they don’t have to do it themselves and posing nicely for pictures. Immediately settling down and assuming their resting positions when I tell them that we’re taking a nap is a big one too.
The truth is, my dogs are learning all the time in their lives with me, be it intentionally or unintentionally. Over the past 15 years or so, I’ve also slowly come to realize that some of my best training was done completely unintentionally, but the results were so lovely, that I started becoming intentional about it.
Because I’ve had dogs that were “reactive” to some degree over the past decade and a half, I’ve learned to see the world through their eyes to some extent and to react to and problem solve situations quickly and in a manner such that they did not have to solve it themselves or worry that they were being placed in a position where they had to figure their way out. At first, this was very much unintentional and accidental. I learned because I let one dog down for years and the second one was so reactive that I realized I needed the help of professional trainers. I learned that the dog I had let down for so long, trusted me to have her back in certain situations because of what I was specifically doing inadvertently in those situations. Once I learned more through professional trainers, extensive reading, and learning to see the world through my dog, I saw the physical transformation in my very reactive dog and gradually saw how he trusted me to have his back. It is now something I actively do with all of my dogs and I even have a cue for it – “I gotcha.” As in “I’ve got your back. Let me deal with this for you.”
I wish I did not live in a world where I was constantly vigilant about possible threats to my dogs, but I do. Unfortunately, while I expect a certain amount of cluelessness from the vast majority of the dog-owning public, I am constantly surprised as to the vast amount of cluelessness from people in the dog agility community.
I am lucky to be friends with some fantastic professional dog trainers and with many people who own and train dogs that are sensible, knowledgeable and trustworthy. I have learned so very much from them over the years and continue to do so. I also learn continuously from my own dogs, but I credit these people with helping me learn to read and speak “dog” in the first place.
But the thing I find that is missing very much in the dog agility community is the sharing of knowledge. Not knowledge about how to train a dog to do agility, or how to run a course or even what to do at a trial, but the simple knowledge of dogs – dog body language and how dogs perceive the world, including that future agility superstar on the other end of the leash. Yes, there are those people who try – be it a gentle, kind reminder or a very direct, perhaps forceful, approach – but most trainers are not preparing their students for good general canine code of conduct.
I see people with friendly retriever-type dogs all the time allowing their dogs to invade the space of more reserved dogs that want nothing more than to get away. I see people revving up their dogs only a few feet, or even inches, away from a dog that is very nearly over threshold. I see people talking to friends while their dog is at the end of its leash staring another dog down. I see people allowing their dog to walk up uninvited to other dogs all the time. I’d really like to see instructors addressing canine conduct more with students.
Perhaps what is missing is common sense and politeness.
So let me tell you about an incident today that sparked this post.
I was at an agility trial with my four dogs this weekend. This particular facility has only one good-sized off-leash area. Because it is the only one, it is pretty popular. Everyone I’ve ever encountered at this facility when I’ve been there understands that it is the polite thing to do to take turns using the off-leash paddock. If you see someone waiting, you either inform them you just arrived into the paddock and need a little more time or you finish up play time and leash your dogs and exit. Sometimes people ask if they can join you or sometimes people invite others to share. The answer usually depends on the individual and their dogs. For instance, when I arrived this morning, a woman using the paddock with her two dogs asked if I wanted to share. I politely declined, explaining my dogs didn’t always do well with others. We walked around a little bit and then entered the paddock when she decided to leave. Shortly after I entered with my dogs, another person came up and made it clear she was waiting to use the area. I explained we had just arrived and it might be a little bit longer (I was waiting for Brady and Youke to poop). She said she’d just hang out and wait. Once my boys completed their business, I leashed them up and we exited so she and her dog could be in the paddock for a while.
How very simple and clear! Nice, polite communication.
Later in the day, I saw no one was using the paddock. I took the opportunity to take all four of my dogs on leash into the paddock so they could run and stretch their legs for a bit and poop again if needed. Just as I was going to enter, I saw a man I know and his dog preparing to go in. Mike called out that he wanted to toss a frisbee for his dog for a minute and then I could have the area. I walked my four by and we gave Mike and his dog some space to play for a bit. They exited and we entered.
I was picking up Brady’s poop when I saw her. A woman headed straight for the gated entrance with her dog. I figured she wanted to make sure I saw her and let me know in a not so subtle way that she was waiting to use the paddock. I was wrong. She unlatched the gate and headed straight in. For a second I was speechless. Then I called out to her, “NO!” (I find using the direct approach gets attention faster in these situations. Usually. ). She continued to barge in.
“No! Stop! Some of my dogs are not good with other dogs!”
She looked right at me, and continued to come in.
I thought that perhaps she did not hear me as I was on the other side, now hastily tying a poop bag. I repeated, “Some of my dogs are not good with other dogs! Please don’t come in!”
She heard me, and she defiantly stepped in. By now my four were starting to swarm her and her dog.
I ran toward my four and called them, while at the same time trying to process her telling me that we were supposed to share the paddock.
My dogs all heard something in my voice and came to me immediately. Then Rhys veered off for a hot second toward them (she had a ball throwing device). I called him again and he came and sat in front of me. I quickly, with my hands shaking, leashed them up. She continued to stare at me.
I lost it.
“You fucking bitch!” Not my best moment, but I was pissed.
She said something in reply and I decided to haul ass out of there.
There are so many things wrong with this. First of all, how can you ignore someone when they tell you their dogs are not good with others? I had four dogs. She had one. How does it not occur to someone to ask if it is okay to join you and their four dogs you do not know? She was placing her dog at incredible risk! She was also placing my four in a precarious position. Had one or more of my dogs done something to her or her dog, myself and my dog or dogs would have been placed at fault. And that not only terrifies me, but pisses me off. I take full responsibility for actions on the part of my dogs, even when others do something foolish, but to deliberately place me in that kind of position incenses me. However, I’ve also worked intensely with them, and yes, trained them! – to respond to me and to not take action on their own. In the few seconds of this occurrence, it was gratifying to see Camm assess the situation, look into my eyes and realize that I had her back and she did not have to get in that dog’s face. It was gratifying to see Brady start barking frantically at the unknown dog, then look quickly at me and come immediately to me to be leashed. It was awesome to see Rhys, who has been very skittish lately (another fear period I think), come to me, turn away and then re-think and come back to me. (Youke just came immediately because he’s pretty perfect.)
I ended up informing the facility owner, the trial judge and organizers about the incident. My understanding is that the woman was addressed about the matter. I sincerely hope she learned something today.
I am a bit sorry I lost my cool and swore at her, but I also realize there are situations where further explanation is a luxury one cannot afford.
After I calmed down a bit from the incident, I realized that while her attitude needed some adjustment, in the end, she was probably just clueless about other dogs and dog behavior. But I do feel it is at least the partial responsibility of dog training instructors and agility trainers to help their students understand and negotiate good canine conduct.
In the end, nothing bad happened. Because of training.
Never underestimate the value of a good recall.