On the evening I flew in here (Phoenix) from Chicago with Presto! in a Sherpa bag, he was eight weeks old. At 9 o'clock the next morning he was in the backyard having his first competition obedience lesson. And I began chronicling his development in this blog.
Now I meet people -- competitors, judges, people I respect immensely -- who say, "I'm following your blog and I'm using the same methods you are as I train my puppy." That's quite a compliment. And it also brings a heightened sense of responsibility about what I write here.
So maybe it's time to take stock, to write a few comments about how it's going. What's going really well? What's giving me fits?
The Dog Presto!'s just a few days short of nine months old now. Beautiful. Perfectly marked. Smart, smart, smart. But strong willed. He wants what he wants and he wants it now. Happily, what he wants and wants now includes working with me. On the other hand, what he wants may be the cookie that's in my hand approaching my mouth. Presto! has no qualms whatever about leaping from a sit and snatching that cookie just as it enters my mouth.
Well, I wanted the male in that wonderful litter of Wildfire border collie puppies who was the most full of himself, didn't I? I got him. Presto! is a lotta dog.
Heeling I put a great deal of emphasis on heeling. It's the first thing the judge sees in most rings. And I believe it's the make-or-break exercise in developing good dog attention. On the morning after Presto! walked into our house on his eight-week birthday, I had a treat just above his nose and he was doing little follow patterns. And loving it.
We've passed through a series of preliminary steps in the Pinpoint Heeling method and now the treat is on the little stick on my armband. He's focusing very well on the armband -- unless there's something else of great interest close at hand. (We'll talk about that problem below.)
We started the heeling-development process off leash. First of all, I find it much easier to direct the dog's focus -- and to try to keep him from stealing the treat -- if I don't have to commit one hand to holding the leash. Second, we'll never have to go through the heartburn and anxiety that later on accompanies, "Oh my God, it's time to heel the dog off-leash!" At this point some of our heeling practice is on leash, some off.
Presto!'s heeling development is going very well . . . as long as the environment is relatively familiar and there isn't a lot of activity around us.
Distractions Presto! is a young, intact male border collie. And the world is a fascinating place. Which leads to gawking and sniffing and sometimes lunging, wanting to play. It's not rocket science. I simply have to get him in as many situations with distractions as possible and insist on his attention. I'm doing that. When there's a trial where of course we're not entered, I work him a litle bit outside the ring. If we're entered in a match, I find it helpful to warm him up far longer than I've found necessary with previous dogs. And when practicing, I'm trying to get him out of the backyard as much as possible. We're making progress. Slowly.
Baby Steps I know of people who have brought their dogs out in Novice at six months of age. Successfully. Good for them, but it doesn't happen here. I emphasize to my students the importance of developing every skill, every exercise in tiny increments. Making sure each block in the foundation is solid before trying to build on it.
Presto! is so smart, so gung-ho that it's tempting to forge ahead. I've caught myself doing that a few times, and I've reminded myself it's a marathon, not a sprint.
Sits and Downs I'm not talking about group sits and downs here. Just a simple "stay put" for whatever reason.
The down-stay has been particularly tough for Presto! Getting him down has been easy. I taught him the concertina down in a PVC box and he folds back nicely. It's convincing him not to pop back up that has been a trial. Talk about baby steps! After much futility, I began getting down on my knees in front of him, putting him down, staying on my knees and softly saying, "Good down" or Good stay." Then my getting-up process began. Getting off your knees and all the way to an erect stand in about ten painful increments spaced across several weeks is, well, painful. Next came the backing up process, a step at a time. Long story short: The last few days I've been able to get Presto! to do a three-minute down (still in the box) while I'm back about 30 feet.
The sit problem has been somewhat different. He'll sit easily and he'll stay while I'm there, no popping up. But here's where rushing the process backfired on me. He sat so nicely that I began leaving him for a recall. Which he does like a bullet . . . if I can ever get him to stay put until I get where I'm going and turn around. Not that he followed me; he'd be up and sniffing when I turned around.
So began the tedious process of going out short distances. Turning. Praising. Then returning and giving him a treat. Again, I've found that doing this in the PVC box is quite helpful.
I would say that these stay-put problems have been my biggest challenges to date.
Next time: More Taking Stock