Monday, April 18, 2011

Scent Articles + Focus = GANGBUSTERS!!

A long time ago I started keeping score when my dogs do scent articles -- when we practice, at matches, in trials.  At any given moment I can tell you, "Fido has x-number of correct scent articles in a row."  I keep a running tally in a notebook.

According to my wife, "That's sick."

Many years ago I mentioned my type-A score keeping to a friend who at the time was one of America's premier obedience competitors.  She, too, thought it was silly, and said so.  Several years later, though, she had something else to say:  "I'm getting so bored with obedience."  Eventually she drifted away and now competes almost exclusively in agility.

Let's see, I have this sickness; the defining symptom is making a game out of everything my dogs and I do.  I'm not bored.  Neither is my dog.  We're still in the sport . . . joyously.

I must be doing something right.  Every one of my dogs has been good at scent articles.  Honeybear (golden retriever), my Novice A dog, my OTCH dog, brought back the right article 209 times in a row.  I thought she was hot stuff . . . until my first border collie, Bebop, came along.  For a while he held the household record, 340.

Cheddar, another golden, shattered that with 509.  No telling what kinds of numbers he might have put up had I not retired him before he was five with an inoperable vertebrae problem.

Now I have Bravo!, my rescue border collie, the most talented competition dog I've ever had.  And I can't say Bravo! isn't a good scent articles dog; he's missed  only once in competition, and that was nearly three years ago.

But I have to evaluate Bravo! as less good at articles than any of my previous dogs.  Oh, he hit 361 late in 2008, but by 2010, far two often I was looking at runs like 7, 33, 71, 49, 23, 16 -- not the sort of consistent sharpness I had grown used to with earlier dogs.  And I knew that sooner or later that type of performance would spread to the competition ring.

Bravo! has always had a distractibility problem.  I ask people, "What's the most interesting thing in the world?"  They give me this blank look.  So I tell them, "Whatever's outside the ring when Bravo! is inside the ring."

He went through a phase where he'd go out to the pile, then stand and gawk for a few seconds before he went to work.  Mind you, he'd then bring back the right article.  But after his gawking cost us a boatload of points off under Judge Alvin Eng in Tucson, I was motivated to fix the problem.  It took only two mild corrections at the pile.  I said mild.  I decidedly do not want corrections to be part of my scent discrimination  training. I strongly, strongly believe scent articles excellence is all about the dog's confidence level.  But there is a time . . .  I did my corrections early in 2009 and I haven't had to repeat them.

The attention/distraction bugaboo has manifested itself in other ways, too.  For a long time I allowed Bravo! to wander around between exercises, gawking and sniffing.  When people called me out about that, I'd reply,  "Bravo! is like the major league pitcher who parties all night, then shows up hung-over and proceeds to pitch a no-hitter.  Once he gets into heel position to start the exercise, he's all business."

But more recently I began demanding control between exercises -- and surprise, surprise, our scores went up. 

Buoyed by that development and disgusted by recent scent articles runs of 9 and 12, I decided to extend that regimen of absolute attention to the period while I rubbed up the article and the judge carried it to the pile.

It wasn't that Bravo! was gawking around during that period -- as I see so many dogs doing, particularly while the handler, rubbing up the article, chit-chats with the judge.  Bravo! was there, just not committed.

So I began insisting on no-excuses, watch-me attention during that period which I felt was critical to sustaining focus on the job he was required to do next.  And no glazed-over eyes, either.  If his attention flickered away for even an instant, I'd give a mild correction, usually just a little collar jerk with my left hand, accompanied by, "Watch me!" 

Bravo! immediately began getting the correct article every time.  And like the Energizer Bunny or Charlie Sheen's mouth, he has kept going and going and going.

I hadn't dreamed I'd ever have another dog who'd approach Cheddar's record (509).  Certainly not Bravo! who had been my most erratic scent articles dog.  As he approached 500, then passed it, the suspense mounted.  Note that I just referred to suspense not boredom.

He passed 509, set a new household record and has kept right on going.  As I post this, we're sitting on 614. We'll see whether this post is the ultimate jinx.

So what happened here?

Eight years ago, writing in REMEMBERING TO BREATHE, I said, "The three most important words in competition obedience are attention, attention and attention."  The longer I'm around competition obedience the more certain I am that focused attention is the foundation for every scintilla of every exercise.  That and want-to.

Bravo! is well trained in the scent discrimination exercise.  He knows exactly what to do when he gets to the pile.  The problem, for far too long, had been lack of committment.  And the best way to have him locked in when he arrives at the pile turned out to be keeping him in absolute-focus mode from the minute I get him in heel position and pick up my first article.

Who knew something so simple would produce instant, dramatic results.


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