Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Control Unleashed - The Dog's Idea

Well, well!

I'll skip any forced introduction along the lines of "wow, I haven't written on here in nearly two years." Instead, I'll jump right in to it and say that I attended a Control Unleashed seminar at my dog club this past weekend.

Those of you who may still be reading this blog and were around in the beginning know that Control Unleashed exercises played some role in Marge's behavior modification training back in the day.  Most notably, I remember playing the "Look at That!" game when Marge would go absolutely nuts watching dogs, particularly bigger dogs, zip around at the agility field.

I got to recount this with Leslie McDevitt herself, which was super cool - especially since I had Marge on-leash next to me, who had little interest in or concern for the environment around her, thanks in part to some of these games.

Anyway, it's been a long time since I picked up the book, and I mentioned that to Leslie.  I really thought that the seminar would be more of a refresher for me, a way for me to silently nod my head and recall my vague memories of reading and using sections of the book.  How silly of me. Leslie said that since the book came out, she's had a lot of time to think about things, and I guess amend the way that she teaches them.  She wasn't kidding, because the seminar was absolutely mind-blowingly good.

The premise of the entire seminar was teaching the dog to have a conversation with you about the environment, rather than focusing on the environment alone.

It started with the concept of teaching the dog to breathe. I was confused at first by the idea of literally watching a dogs' nose to see if they are taking breaths, but it actually makes a lot of sense.  To just breathe, a dog can't be jumping up all over, stress panting, barking, whining, or otherwise being raucous.  To be able to sit quietly and calmly, to be able to truly connect with the handler in a myriad of environments, is the foundation for everything else.  Drive, interest, excitement.. perhaps that should come later.

There was a recent blog post that circulated about the idea of dogs being stressed in competition settings. Marge herself likes agility and seems comfortable at trials, but can be barky right beefore entering the agility ring.   The gist was that although dogs may appear driven and may appear to love what they are doing (and maybe they do), is it possible that the screaming outside the ring, dilated pupils, nervous pawing, is actually not a good thing?

Based on this seminar, I'd think that the answer to that question is yes.  Seems obvious, but a dog that can't settle ("breathe") may become unglued more easily in a pressure-filled setting.

After that, the rest of the seminar basically consisted of versions of Leslie's games used to build patterns that reassure the dog and rewards that stimulate interest in the handler rather than the environment.  I won't get in to all of them here, but the one I found most amazing was a rendition of CU's "Give Me a Break" game.

One working participant was called in to the ring with her dog to act as a demo.  The participant happened to have her dog off-leash, figuring he'd follow her in to the ring. He didn't.  In fact, he went left, he went right, he sniffed.. he went everywhere OTHER than through the ring with his handler, even after being called.  Pure avoidance behavior.

This is something I've struggled with to an extent when I do things like Obedience and Rally with Marge.. although she gives me a good performance in everything she does, it sometimes feels like I'm dragging her around in those two activities, as opposed to agility, where she appears a lot more animated.

After seeing what I saw, I realized that we stand a good chance of raising the dogs' level of interest and comfort by using predictable patterns and making participation in the behavior "the dog's idea."

What Leslie did was bring this dog into the ring, fed him a bunch of treats, rewarded him for breathing, for calm eye contact.. and then slowly exited the ring.  Once she sat down for a break, the dog eventually looked back up at her.  At that exact moment, she took the dog back in to the ring, repeated the same process, and then left the ring again. The eye contact outside of the ring became the dog's cue for "MORE! MORE!"

The dog who was, at first, completely avoiding the ring was now voluntarily asking to be brought back in.  In the span of 5 minutes or so.  Entering the ring became his idea, on his terms, and his entire demeanor changed.

After a while, Leslie not only had the dog sit and breathe in the ring, but also added heeling and other obedience exercises slowly in to the mix before exiting.  The dog remained engaged.  The pattern was predictable, plenty of treats were had, and the dog was happy.

It's not a perfect system, since dogs can differentiate between practice settings and trials, but it is a start, and can be easily implemented at match shows.  Besides, forming the pattern itself (dog asks to be worked, we go in the ring, do stuff, and then go back to our chair) may be enough to make a dog more comfortable in a trial setting.

An upcoming goal that I have for Marge is to obtain her Companion Dog (CD) title.  She earned her UKC CD several years ago, but in a quest for Marge to be my Novice A Obedience dog, as she has been my Novice A Rally and Agility dog, I'd love to earn her AKC CD, too. If I put her in the ring tomorrow, she'd stand a decent chance of qualifying.  However, I've been hesitant to bring her out because of how different it is than agility.  Things like the presence of the judge and the lack of feedback from the handler may make it tougher for her.  Since a Q with an uncomfortable Marge would not make me happy, I've been very picky about deciding when to enter.

We have been practicing weekly or bi-weekly with decent success. However, after dabbling with the "Give Me a Break" game as explained above, I'm really excited to continue training and see where it leads us.

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