Friday, November 23, 2012


Presto! flew home with me from Chicago on the day he was eight weeks old.  He started training for competition obedience the next morning, at the ripe old age of eight weeks and one day.  Little fun things, but fun things with a purpose.  Now Presto! is more than six and one-half months old.  A real dog, no longer a tiny puppy.  And across those 158 days that we've been together there's never been one day, one training session, where things have just randomly happened.  There's been a plan for each session, each fun match.  In writing, on a 4x6 card.

All of it anchored by the training philosophy I have for this puppy:  Fun, fun,fun.  Attention, attention, attention.  Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals.

My pants have muddy knees, grass stains.  I get down on the ground with Presto!  On his level -- the better for him to bite me in the nose.  On the ground is where I cuddle him, pet him at the end of of an exercise, tell him how proud I am of him.  More often than not that petting session leads to roughhousing.  As I write this, I have nicks on my face and on my wrist.  To say nothing of a big swollen bruise on the bone just above my right eye where he nailed me yesterday.  I've learned to leave my glasses behind when we train.

Or maybe we tug.  With a leash or a rope toy or the Cynde toy.  What's a Cynde toy?  Well, in everyone else's world it's called an "udder toy."  It has something  to do with milking cows; I have no idea what.  Those of us in competition obedience have found its highest and best use.  I couldn't imagine that a dog would like it until Cynde Leshin gave it to me, hence the name.  Presto! loves his Cynde toy.

I haven't said anything about playing ball, have I?  That's because we don't.  Presto! doesn't retrieve.  So far.  We'll have to deal with that shortly.  But for now that's just fine with me.  I don't want our play style to feature me as a ball-throwing machine.  That's not really interactive.  I want our play to be more hands-on, me-centered, down and dirty.  And it is.    In our training group, we have a saying:  "If you bleed, it's been a good training session."

Attention?  I've learned you can never have enough attention, enough focus.  Once upon a time when I thought of attention I pictured the dog looking up at me when we heeled.  Nothing more.  But over time I've learned -- the hard way! -- there's so much more to attention.

Presto! started little follow exercises the morning after we flew in from Chicago.  I'm teaching the pinpoint heeling method.  Right now my little guy has graduated to my holding the treat in line with the seam of my pants and about four inches above his nose.

I tell my students, "Give him the treat when the dog is in perfect heel position, head is up and all four feet are on the ground."  Oh yeah!  Easy for me to say, but we're trying. 

A long time ago, when Honeybear and I were just starting out with Debby Boehm, we did a lot of stationary attention.  I haven't done that with my last three dogs, but I've added it into Presto!'s practice repertoire.  I'm using the attention stick on the belt.  Presto! sits in heel position and looks at the treat on the end of the stick for increasing amounts of time.  Then, "Get it!" and he jumps for the treat.  For the last several days I haven't had to fend him off before it's time to get it. (Folks, if I can teach this loaded gun of a dog to wait, you can teach your dog to wait.)  Woohoo!

It took much too long, but I've learned the critical importance of holding the dog's attention between exercises.  We practice, "Right here," a lot as we move from exercise to exercise.  Control!

The other day a friend who has been in border collies for 30 years said, "Presto! has natural attention."  Sure he does . . . until somehing in the environment becomes more interesting than I am.  I'm taking nothing for granted.  I'm demanding attention when we're training.

So what I want is for Presto! to remain engaged the whole time we're training.  But what I see so often being ignored by other trainers is that attention should be a two-way street. You want your dog's undivided attention; shouldn't you reciprocate?

I'll spare you the rant about training sessions deteriorating into a coffee klatch.  Just one example about what all too often goes on in the AKC ring.  It's the handler having a pleasant conversation with the judge while rubbing up the scent article.  Meanwhile the dog is gawking at God knows what outside the ring.  Totally unfocused.

Points one and two here are closely related.  If training is fun for the dog, if there's a generous amount of play incorporated into the training session, Fluffy is going to want to stay engaged.

Through these early weeks, Presto has been learning lots of fundamentals.  Which we'll talk about in the next post.


Thursday, November 15, 2012


HELP!  I'm trapped here with a six-month-old border collie, and I don't know where to hide.

Many years ago there was a sweatshirt that said, "Border Collie:  Everything you've ever heard is true."  My friends, you better believe it.  And you probably haven't heard the half of it.

Presto is six months, two weeks and one day old.  He's 17 inches at the withers and he weighs 32 pounds.  He adds breadth and depth to phrases like "hell on wheels" and  "a piece of work" and  "a handful"  and "a holy terror."

At the same time, though, he has certain sterling qualities which should be recognized and appreciated.

Presto!'s cup (?) runneth over with love.  When Presto! was still just a little guy, the owner of Barbara's company dropped by for lunch.  My little lover crawled up his chest . . . and peed on his shirt.

Presto! is a lap dog.  Sit down in a chair at your own risk.  BAM! He comes out of nowhere, takes off five feet out, and his butt hits your lap at the same instant his tongue hits your face.  God help you if you were holding a cup of coffee.

Presto! is extraordinarily focused.  On the dining room table and the kitchen counter.  His mission in his young life is that not one unattended morsel -- of anybody's anything -- escapes.  So what if now and then the peace is shattered by shards of china crashing around the room?

Presto! is playful.  Cheddar is my 10-year-old retired golden retriever competition obedience dog.  And Presto!'s canine best friend.  They would roughhouse 24 hours a day if I didn't break it up.  Trouble is, Presto! has now reached the age and the size where he can maul Cheddar.  Did you know that you can sink your teeth into the forehead skin of a golden, directly above and between the eyes?  And get a good enough hold to pull the golden through the house.  Picture one of those guys who fastens a chain to the front bumper of an 18-wheeler, holds the other end in his teeth and pulls the big truck down the street.  That's Presto! dragging Cheddar through the house.  Do you wonder why I step in and break it up?

Cheddar seems to love it.  He may run to one of us for protection from time to time, but he goes right back for more.  Which is why we've taken to calling him Saint Cheddar.

Did I mention that Presto! likes to play?  But it's a whole different game with Bravo!, my also-retired rescue border collie  (the most titled obedience dog in the history of Arizona Border Collie Rescue). Bravo! took charge of the ascendance/submission relationship early on.  From day one, Presto! knew Bravo! was putting up with no crap.  The relationship has developed slowly.  Now, at six months, Bravo! is Presto!'s mentor.  Presto! follows Bravo! around and does what he does. But it's their play where the relationship has really blossomed. (Blossomed? Well, sort of like a mushroom cloud.)

It's best described as "war games."  Bravo! usually sets it off.  And there are "really weird" (that's Barbara speaking) things that trigger Bravo!  If I go through the house changing the water bowls.  If I shake pills from a bottle.  If I carry the scent articles throught the house.  Those triggers send Bravo! into a cataclysm of spinning and roaring, always with a toy in his mouth.  At first that frightened Presto!  He hung back.  Nowadays he participates full bore, peak decibels -- lunging at the spinning, roaring Bravo! -- barking growling.

It's like World War l l l .  You'd think they're killing each other.  Or that we're training pit bulls in the living room.  So far the neighbors haven't called the cops.

Presto! is a pain in the ass.  Barbara again.  Recently, after she had shooed Presto! away from the kitchen counter for the umpteenth time in a five-minute period, she declared:  "Border collies are so cute when they're little, and they're so great after they grow up.  In the middle they're a pain in the ass."

Have I mentioned that we love Presto! like crazy?

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Next time we'll take a snapshot of where the little pain in the ass and I are in our competition obedience training here at six months and counting.