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.