Friday, March 29, 2013

BRINGING UP PRESTO! We Graduate to PetSmart, Part 1

Dad burn it!  A line of dogs ain't no place to teach a puppy to sit and down.  But I see people trying to do that.  I'm not talking about teaching the dog to hold position during the group exercises.  I'm referring to watching little 16-week-old Fluffy get her first lesson (or even her tenth for that matter) in how to sit or down, for even a few seconds, with a golden on her left and a border collie on her right.

 Dumb!  Dumb!  Dumb!

Learning any new thing is hard enough for a puppy without having to succeed while being bombarded by the stimuli emanating from a line of dogs and their handlers.  The latter probably klatching at the other end of the ring, paying no attention whatever to their own dogs.

Once I watched a person who should know better trying to teach her puppy to down in the setting I've just described.  I'm not making this up; before she gave up about one minute into the fiasco, the puppy, yo-yoesque, had popped up 11 times.  And this was a veteran handler -- meaning she had one year of experience 20 times.

Moving right along . . . I have pretty definite ideas about how I prepare my dogs to succeed in the group exercises.

Presto! has learned basic sits and downs in the friendly confines of the backyard.  And I've gone one step beyond that.  Most of the time Presto! has practiced sits and downs in the PVC box that I also use to teach signals and go-outs.

Given those environmental constraints, the steps have been pretty routine.  Baby steps (literally) to increase the distance.  Lots of verbal encouragement and generous reinforcement with treats.  Feeding with my knuckles on the ground when reinforcing the down.

Along the way I've also practiced this in the park when distractions have been present but not overwhelming.

During this phase I've gradually worked my way out to 40 feet.  Frankly, this hasn't been a piece of cake with Presto!  As I indicated in a post I shared several weeks ago, Presto! does not seem to carry the staying-put gene.

Normally in my scheme of things the next step would be sits and downs in the center aisle at PetSmart.  But I jumped the track a couple of weeks ago.  I was curious to see how my little guy (then 10 months old) would do adjacent to the line of dogs at our Sunday morning training group. (Yep:  Dumb! Dumb! Dumb!)  Then I compounded my mistake by sitting him there --  about 10 feet from the closest dog -- with no leash, no long line, nothing but a prayer.

After I had chased Presto! around the ring (baby gates, thank God) a couple of times, I attained belated enlightenment.  And a few days ago Presto! and I practiced sits and downs in PetSmart for the first time.

Which will be the topic of my next post.


Saturday, March 23, 2013


The first time I was entered in the Gaines with Honeybear (The 1993 Gaines Cycle Central Regional Dog Obedience Championship in San Antonio) my wife Barbara looked around and said, "If all these people are having so much fun, why do they all look so stressed?"


I've often thought that what goes on outside the ring -- in private moments of agony (and there's plenty of that) or ecstasy, alone with our thoughts and our dogs -- may be more important than what goes on inside the ring.  After all, once we enter the ring what we are allowed to do is pretty well constrained by the regs and the judge.  What's more, by the time we're accomplished enough to qualify for a berth in a big national tournament what we do in the ring may well be executed largely by rote -- and thank God for that.  But what's going on in our heads and in our world outside that ring, well . . .

Which brings us to the recent AKC National Obedience Championship (NOA) and Jeremy Schuster and Mack.  Why am I sharing what follows?  Because I think it gives us rare insight into the emotional gauntlet competitors may be running privately while everyone else is focused on the splendid show that's unfolding inside the ring.

Jeremy is a lawyer in Long Beach, California.  He shows Rottweilers in competition obedience.  I've known Jeremy and Mack for a number of years, but not very well.  But well enough to know that when they show up at a trial the rest of us had better bring our A game.

Indeed, Mack recently became the first Rottweiler in the United states to attain the level of Obedience Grand Master.

At the close of the second day of the 2013 NOA Jeremy posted on his Facebook page some thoughts on his experiences at this year's tournament.  Many who read them were impressed that an NOA competitor had the self assurance, the ego strength, that Jeremy displayed when he opened up and shared the inner turmoil he had experienced outside the ring that day.  I'm reproducing those thoughts below.

First though, I'll clarify a puzzling comment he made in the first paragraph of his introspection:  "We started off the National Obedience competition poorly with me in a panic because I was told we might not be permitted to compete . . ."  I, like others who read that comment, said, "Huh?"  So I asked him to please drop the other shoe.  And he did.

Entering their very first ring on the first day of the event, Jeremy and Mack were blindsided by a boondoggle all of us have experienced.  Jeremy read the placards outside the ring and noted that he and Mack were fourth in.  Except that, contrary to custom, multiple absentees preceding them were not shown.  Soon the PA system summoned Jeremy to the ring where he was told he had missed his turn and might not be allowed to compete.

"Thinking of all that had gone into preparing for and getting to the event (Long Beach to Tulsa), my heart sank," he told me.  Just as he was blaming himself and wondering how to handle this sudden mess, he was told, "Go in now!"

"Right now?" he asked

"Yes, now!"

Jeremy continued, "So I ran into the ring with Mack, who had not been prepped and was likely startled, and we were rushed right into the first exercise -- the drop on recall which was toward the bleachers and alongside a pedestrian aisleway with everyone heading toward their rings."

The dog didn't focus, missed the drop signal and Jeremy and Mack began their fifth Invitational together with a big fat NQ.

Now let's return to Jeremy's unique stream-of-consciousness report following the second day of the tournament.

I've learned so much about training and my dog.  We started off the NOA poorly with me in a panic because I was told we might not be permitted to compete -- and likely that stress coming into the ring had a hand in the NQ we received there, who knows, but it was a bad way to start off a two-day competition.

Then we followed with modest performances.  Lackluster, really, and I was disappointed because I knew what my dog is capable of and I blamed myself for failing to get him the rest he needed prior to competition.  As Mack perked up in the afternoon, I felt a little better, but it was a challenge to be all I could for him after the NQ and a few of his opportunistic tourist finishes.  I ended the day mentally and physically exhausted, thankful for a few moments of his brilliance.

Today was better because Mack's attitude and energy seemed to be on the rise -- until after lunch when he "mailed in" two ring performances that I thought meant he was too tired.  Mack walked in on two exercises.  I was disappointed but not upset, as the dog had achieved most every goal I had set.  I figured, "Okay, it's over, he's too old and it was likely pushing it to try this competition."  Thoughts like, "I  should have known better," and the echoes of everyone saying, "He should have been retired,"  were in my mind.  I know I pushed him to finish off  the Obedience Grand Master title, but I was careful about how I did it (one day here, one day there, then a couple half days in a row) and felt as long as he was able I could be selfish and try for that title (he's the first Rottie to earn it).

After the second walk-in, and looking in the judge's eyes (who knew he was better, since he had done a 198 with her during the weekend trial she was judging just two weeks ago), I thought, "This is not my dog."  Honestly, I was a bit embarrassed at that point, mostly for myself for competing him.  Now I know why people opt to go out while on top.

I decided if we were going to "fail out," it couldn't hurt to at least give Mack a pep talk.  We went outside, tried an exercise (drop on recall) and he slogged along.  I said, "Oh, don't give me that, YOU"RE A ROTTWEILER, and I KNOW you can do more. "   I stopped Mack halfway and pushed into him.  He looked up, quizzically, as if to say, "Huh?" I said, "C'mon, Mack," and I advanced toward him again, tapping his chest with my knee.  I said, "If you're too old, fine, but if not, then show me what you've got."  He stepped forward. I pushed him back.  He growled and took a step forward, and I pushed him back a half step.  "You want to play or go home?"  A somewhat muted  "woof."

"What was that?" I said as I pushed with my hands and quickly stepped back.


"I can't hear you!" I said, and I tapped his chest and lifted him slightly.

"WOOF!" Mack said, hopping up and down like he does in his "food dance."

"That's my dog!" I said.  "So stay or go home? " 

 "WOOF!  WOOF!  And happy feet.

I didn't know if it would last once we went inside, but it was as if the switch flipped.  I could see it in his eyes and movement.  Suddenly the dog that had been mailing in everything for as long as I had been letting him (months, really) looked at me as if to say, "OK, if you really want to show them something, then let's do it."

We went into the next ring where we had to do signals (a crazy-ass heeling pattern; thank you Judge Curtis.) a glove retrieve and a drop on recall.  Total deductions: two points. Right into the next ring with another drop, a retrieve over the high jump (Mack's nemesis) and a broad jump.  Total deductions:  2.5 points, with the judge making a point of telling me he hit me for two points because of my signal.  So a near perfect performance from Mack in his eighth ring.

I shouldn't have let him "mail it in" the past few months.  I let him do his own thing and he completely coasted, falling off in performance to the point where I was ashamed I brought him out when all I had to do was remind him with some physical play to "get back in the game" and that we were really "together," as that was what he needed to see.  No pops, no jerking, no old school hang-the-dog.  This dog works with heart and soul and just needed hands-on to get him rev'd and to feel it mattered.  Now I'm embarrassed that I didn't recognize what was going on sooner, but I was caught up in everyone else's opinion of whether or not the dog should be competing.  But that's another lesson learned, and the methodology for dealing with this older dog will be one more tool in the proverbial training toolbox.

Abraham Maslow said words to this effect:  "If the only tool you have is a hammer, all your problems look like nails."  I've learned so much and recognize that I learned more today -- and hopefully will be a better trainer as a result.  I know I couldn't be more proud of my dog working with me and sometimes challenging me to find the right path, rather than going by rote or laying it all out for me.

Sorry Mack, it just took me some time to figure it out.  You're the greatest, not to mention likely the first Rottweiler or Working Group dog to compete in five consecutive events like this and earn first in the Working Group three times.  I hope you enjoy the mac n cheese and chicken n gravy tonight. :)

John Cox posted this comment:  "What a fantastic lesson for all of us to remember.  Keeping an open mind and perseverance are key elements in learning.  These dogs are our buddies and we need to believe in them and teach them to believe in themselves and us."

And Deb Girvin said:  "This story is worthy of some ink on real paper, for a re-read frequently."

Well, here it is.


Monday, March 11, 2013

BRINGING UP PRESTO! Pinpoint Heeling: What Was I Thinking?

If you are a devotee of Pinpoint Heeling or fully understand the steps, what follows may interest you, might even elicit a chuckle.  If the concept of Pinpoint Heeling is new to you, check out a series of posts -- called "Attention, Attention, Attention"  -- which I wrote in October/November 2011.  You can access those earlier posts by clicking on Blog Archive at the right of your screen.

OK, I've had it with my little monster stealing the treats off my armband.  So, several months earlier than I had planned, I've turned the stick (now hardly more than a nub) inward.  Now the treat is under my arm, and now the little thief gets it on my terms instead of his.  I mean, Presto! is a jumper to be reckoned with.  I'm 6' 5" and he can easily -- easily! -- leap from a sitting position and grab my nose.  And does.

It was with much trepidation that I turned the stick inward much sooner than I had planned.  Pinpoint Heeling, after all, is a process.  I think of it as maybe an 18-month process.  Maybe even longer to get the pinpoint in the heeling.  Shortcut it and you're risking a disappointing outcome. 

Uninitiated observers have no idea.  Late in the process, when the stick and the armband and the treat become obvious, people see my dog or my students' dogs heeling with their heads up, focused on the armband.  That's when they begin to hyperventilate.  Oh my!  All they need is to get one of those things, slap it on their left arm, take off with Fluffy and attain heeling nirvana.  Except it doesn't work that way.

They approach me:  "Can you tell me where to get one of those (magical) things?"  I've counseled with a few of them, to no avail;.  I can tell by the bulgingness of their eyeballs that they want me to shut up and give them the email address.  I have yet to see one of those mouth-breathers get a lick of good out of their quick fix.

It's a process!  And I had anxiety about short-circuiting it.  But darn it, the little hooligan was stealing me blind.

Which set me to thinking about what clutters our focus along the way.

On day one, ideally at seven weeks -- eight weeks if the puppy has arrived by commercial air carrier -- I'm holding a treat low in front of me, in both hands, and I'm backing up as the puppy follows the treat.  Soon we'll do circles and little figure eights around my legs.  At this point all the puppy has to do is follow the treat.  What am I thinking?  Cute! Cute! Cute!

By and by I swing him around to my left side.  Now the treat is in my left hand and I'm holding it about a quarter inch above his nose.  This isn't about heel position.  It's still about what Louise Meredith, the doyenne of this method, calls, "little follow exercises."  At this point the objective is for the puppy to be fixated on the treat, learning to follow it, but in the same zip code, that's all.  That doesn't require much thought on my part, except Cute! Cute! Cute!

Sometime later I begin to encourage my puppy to remain in heel position.  Suddenly I've hit a stage where it's easy, almost natural, to screw up.  I know that if I want my little guy to begin to identify heel position I must not let my left hand drift, I must not wave the food around.  That's harder than it might seem..  Particularly as I want my little guy to succeed and the natural tendency is to take the treat to his nose rather than insist he come to it .

So if I've been impressed with the importance of keeping the treat even with the seam of my pants, perhaps aided by grasping my pants with tha last two fingers of my left hand, where's my focus? On me.  On that hand and arm.  Concentrating on corraling that wandering treat.

And so it goes as I slowly -- we're talking several weeks at least -- raise the treat to belt level.  Once the treat is well established at belt level and Fluffy is focused on it, now's the time for the stealing circus to begin -- assuming the dog is prone to snatching the treat, and many are not.

Now I'm going to place the treat on the slightly beveled end of a seven-inch stick.  I hold the stick in my right hand, across my body.  My wrist rests firmly against my body, just above the belt.  As long as my wrist is securely in place, the treat is right where I want it, in heel position.  AND hanging out there unprotected, begging the dog to steal it.  In my world, the more Presto! tries to steal the treat the happier I am (to a point).  I know he's watching it and I know he has pizzazz.

What I want to happen is when the dog is heeling head up in perfect position I say, "Get it!"  Presto! jumps for the treat and I break him out.

I've worked with dogs who were hell-bent to filch that treat (and others who had to be coaxed to get it).  Remember, the stick is in the right hand.  That leaves the left hand free to fend off the little thief . . . if you're vigilant and quick enough.

Vigilant.  Ah, there's the rub.  Webster defines vigilant as "watchful and alert, especially to guard against danger, difficulties or errors."  Yep!  He knew about the treat hanging out there on the stick.

So now what am I thinking?  Is my focus on keeping Presto! in perfect heel position, reinforcing at just the right moment?  God no!  Every fiber of my being is on high alert, trying to keep that coiled-spring animal from snatching his reward on his terms.  Heel position, schmeel position, I'm focused on keeping the little stinker from stealing me blind.  And on remembering to breathe.

Several weeks pass.  Enough!  I'll show him!  I'll move the treat up to my armband, that's what I'll do.
What a joke!  This spectacular leaper could steal the treat if I placed it on top of my head.  Same drill.  I'm in protection mode.  I lurch along, appearing for all the world as if I have St. Vitus Dance as I recoil from each upward thrust of my little "Jaws."

It's true that I can hold my left hand out, palm down, just above Presto!'s head, thereby cutting down on the number of steals.  Notice that I didn't say eliminating them.  Let's see, the treat is on the stick so that my dog can focus on it.  And stay in heel position.  Right?  Now, in extreme defensive mode, my hand is fending off my plundering dog (sort of) . . . and blocking his view of the treat.  Unless he forges and looks back to see it.

 And what am I thinking now?  Well, beyond words that are bluer than the language in a hockey team's dressing room I'm focused a lot on having my hand out there, prepared to counter the next assault.  And occasionally contemplating a main course I might call Presto! stroganoff.  But darn little about putting the pinpoint in Pinpoint Heeling.

This goes on for a number of weeks.  Finally we reach the breaking point.  Process,schmocess!  I turn the stick around so the treat is securely under my arm.

Instant change!

Somewhat to my surprise, it's working. Why?  Because for the first time with this dog I'm focused on heeling, on the precision that Pinpoint Heeling implies.  I'm thinking about where Presto! is . . . in the horizontal plane, not the vertical plane.  On where exactly he is in relation to the perfect picture of the perfectly heeling dog.  I'm acutely aware of his head position, most importantly if and when he drops it, and I'm hair-trigger ready to correct when that happens.  As well as to give him the treat on my schedule.

For the first time in this process my mind isn't captive to the many physical challenges that inevitably creep into -- no, dominate -- our attention as we progress through the stages of Pinpoint Heeling.

Life is good.

I'm totally sold on Pinpoint Heeling as a way to teach heeling.  But sometimes ya hafta do what ya hafta do.  And sometimes it works.