Consistent But Not In The Same Place

It is time for my dog and I to get back in the show ring. Are we ready? I don’t know. I use to ask (or think) how can someone not know if they are ready for the show ring. Have they trained the skill or not? If it is just training the skills so the dog can perform them, then yes, we are ready. However, Psalm has taught me that it is more than just being able to perform certain skills.

I am certain that if the show was held in my living room we are blue ribbon ready. But the show is not only not in my living room, it is outdoors and in an environment visited by many other people and animals. In fact the show site will have hosted a barn full of rabbits a few weeks earlier at a county fair! And as to the ring gates, I am not sure of what year they were last washed.

Are we ready? Yes, I know he can perform the skills, BUT, is performing the skills in the show environment likely?  Psalm’s motivators are not static. They are relative to the alternatives that are available to him.

Let’s say his normal interest in receiving a treat is 6 out of 10, as long as the alternative options are lower, he will likely work well. For example, in my living room his interest level is a 2. He will work for treats. In the show barn, I am guessing his interest level will be 8 or higher, greatly impeding his ability to work for a treat after the class.

Dogs will be dogs. Moreover, Psalm will be the dog I have prepared him to be. As a handler I need to be consistent in training and in the show ring. Inconsistency leads to stress on the dog’s end.  I am not a person who stresses while showing. I have even been told by a judge that I need to “be more strict” with my dog. What I am is inconsistent.

Have you ever watched a 4-H Dog Show? At one moment the member is holding and cuddling with their dog, then all of a sudden they pop out of the chair and expect the dog to no longer be in the cuddle or play mode but in the work mode. How is the dog supposed to know the situation has changed? Then the dog enters the ring with the 4-H’er and is directed around the ring with a constant tight leash. The dog was not being a bad dog and he did not forget proper heel position. He did not know his role had changed from loving pet to show dog. And there was a huge inconsistency in the messages he was given.

Dogs must be trained in many places that include a large variety of scents, sights and sounds.  This is where the dog handler works on the cues the dog is given. Are we at the park to play or are you going to make it more fun by training me with lots of treats?

What cues are given to help the dog know which behavior is expected? When in a park setting it is important that you are focused. If you give your dog a cue and he does not follow through, do you retrieve the dog, place him back into the original position, and stick with it until he complies with the cue or do you just give up after a few times and let the dog go on its way? Unless you stick with it and follow through until the dog complies with your cue, you have just taught your dog that his compliance to your cues is optional.

If the dog moves from the SIT without you releasing him and you do not place him back into the SIT, he will learn that he gets a say in when the exercise has ended. Too many owners see the dog get up from the SIT without being released and think that if the original purpose for the SIT has been met, then they were done and it won’t matter if the dog moves from the SIT. But it DOES matter because the dog just decided when he was done with sitting. And if you teach a dog that he has the power to choose when he does or does not comply, you will have created a dog that does not listen to your cues.

These are examples of basic dog training. They happen consistently and correctly in my house. The challenge for me and for almost all 4-H members is to make sure training is consistent everywhere we train, and we need to train everywhere. That includes parks, baseball fields, play grounds, parking lots, patios of ice cream parlors and if possible on a farm.

If I (and 4-H members) can make training have an interest level of 8-10 in these settings, the ring should be no problem. Perhaps there are a few other factors, but we will discuss them in later post.

Most importantly always remember this – At the end of the day you are going home with the best dog!

Please share how you prepare your dog for experiences away from your home. We learn more through others.

“Dogs do speak, but only to those that know how to listen.”


My Scars Help My Understanding

I recently heard someone express concern about the behavior of a dog that is owned and being shown by a 4-H member. I think this person was correct in expressing some concern but wanting the dog removed from 4-H seems extreme to me.

Management is the trainer buzzword for changing a dog’s environment to make it impossible or unlikely that it will be triggered to exhibit a behavior that causes it to be reactive. Management solutions can create a safe situation right away, because they do not require actively training the dog. Rather it involves making some environmental changes to set the dog up for success. For example, closing the door to a room or fencing the yard are considered management solutions. Putting up a baby gate and giving the dog a Kong before visitors come over are also management techniques.

Grisha Steward in her book Behavior Adjustment Training stresses that creating a safe environment is critical to successful reactivity rehabilitation. Her goal is to employ management strategies right away to prevent trouble, and then change the dog’s response to triggers. Management solutions like baby gates and closed doors can feel restrictive, but they are immediate, effective and not necessarily permanent.

For any training plan based on reinforcement to work, the environmental stimulation that sets up dogs to fail, like exposure to loud noises or other dogs must be toned down if not eliminated. We need to set dogs up to succeed.  Steward gives the example, “Just as you might use fencing to keep a toddler out of the pool, physical barriers can help keep dogs away from situations that they aren’t yet trained to handle.”

What are some things 4-H families can do to set their dog up for success and prevent failure? Management steps to increase safety and reduce stress are essential. Unfortunately the steps are not as easy or as quick as fencing a dog in or shutting it into a room away from people. Working with a reactive dog takes time and A LOT of effort.

One of the first steps to think about is reducing visual stimulation; out of sight (and sound), out of mind.

When a dog is feeling stressed it may bark. While barking the other 4-H members and their dogs move away. A light goes off in the dog’s brain – It Worked! So, it happens again and again. The barking becomes a stronger habit with each encounter.

Think about visual stimulation any time you are out with a reactive dog. Be aware of what might trigger a reaction and what is available to reduce visibility.

Another step is to prevent accidental close encounters. This is so difficult when in a 4-H training meeting or show environment. The member wants to listen to the advisor and pays attention to what is being instructed, while at the same time, the dog does not have the member’s or advisor’s full attention. Dogs are not dumb; they know this is the opportunity to focus on something besides the training. I have seen so many situations at registration tables, where there is no focus on the dog. The dogs are in a tight/close space and dangerous encounters occur. Reactive dogs need 100 percent attention. If that cannot be given at any time, the dog should not be in that environment.

Reactive dogs are a challenge. They require so much more work than other dogs. However, they can learn that they are safe and set up for success. Preventing failure is even more critical for reactivity because reactivity is emotionally driven and can have dangerous consequences. Look at the scars on my face. This is a topic that needs much more attention in the 4-H program. I am very grateful for at least one advisor expressing concern that a 4-H needs to have policy or planned response. I also hope 4-H recognizes that reactive dogs can be managed.

Share your thoughts. What experiences have you had with reactive dogs?

“What day is it?”
“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
“My favorite day,” said Pooh.