Saturday, June 29, 2013


Across the past several years I have posted to this blog 125 times, covering a variety of competition obedience-related items.  I hope at least some of those posts have been helpful.  Now I'm seeking your help.

Here in Phoenix we have a unique leash law -- constructed, by the way, with help of and strong endorsement of the AKC.  The AKC has cited it as a model ordinance for other cities to follow. (Section 8-14 of the Phoenix City Code).  I posted a four-part series to this blog explaining the law and the process by which it came to be.  It began on September 28, 2011 and concluded October 7, 2011.  It's available here in the archives.  Basically it allows anyone who can prove they're LEGITIMATELY training for an authentic dog sport to train in a Phoenix city park without fear of being cited.

Recently the Phoenix police, responding to complaints about off-leash dogs (not with legitimate trainers) running amuck in city parks in violation of the law, did a sweep and cited nearly 100 scofflaws.  That sweep has backfired.

A group (headed by a few who were ticketed) has started a "grassroots" movement to try to get a law passed that would allow designated off-leash hours in city parks.  All dogs would be allowed to run off-leash, unfenced, during designated hours.  The group mentions other areas where such laws are in force.  One is New York City where from opening to 9a.m. and again from 9p.m. to closing, dogs may run unfenced and unfettered in city parks.  The local group has mentioned Portland, Oregon and Boise, Iowa as other areas which have such laws.  There may be others.

Now then, I can just imagine trying to train for competition in an area where such a circus is going on. (By the way, here in Phoenix where today the temperature will crest near 120 degrees, the early morning hours are THE time to train.  I was in a city park before 6 o'clock this morning.)

So I'm wondering if some who are reading this live in an area where such a dogs-off-leash law is in effect?  And if so, what are your experiences trying to train in such an environment?

We are about to try to put together effective opposition to what seems to be gaining traction here. Your detailed information about what's happening in your area in the face of such a situation would be helpful.  I know some find it very difficult to use the comments section of this blog, so I would welcome your detailed information either by email  or by phone, 602-942-6069.  If I'm not right there, please leave a message and a phone number and I'll call you back.

I know trouble when I smell it, and I smell it now.  Your help would be appreciated by the entire dog sports community here in Arizona.


Monday, June 24, 2013

BRINGING UP PRESTO! Nik Wallenda and Competition Obedience

Just before 6:30 last night, as a helicopter carried Nik Wallenda to the starting point for his epic walk across the Little Colorado River Gorge, his wife, Erendira, told a Discovery Channel interviewer, "I'm so inspired by him, and I just hope that whoever watches him will also be inspired."

Well, he got me.  His tightrope walk could not have come at a better time for me.  His feat was the consummate inspiration; it cut to the very core of what I'm trying to achieve.

No, I'm not setting out to be a highwire walker.  I'm striving to attain what I call Dead Red Focus during training and in the ring.

Right before Wallenda got his 30-foot balance pole in place and mounted the wire, he said, "When I get out there, there's only the wire and me -- nothing else exists."  Exactly.  And I'm seeking that same perfect locked-in state.  In the ring -- as well as in practice -- there's only my dog and me.  Nothing can distract me.  That's the goal.

Then, for 23 gripping minutes, I watched him walk (1,500 feet above the rocks below, no harness, no net) focused on . . . well, focused on not falling to his death.  There is no greater focus, no greater mental discipline than what the world witnessed last night.

I may never attain that degree of focus with Presto!  But it's nothing more than a challenging test of will.  And I plan to get a cerebral hernia trying.


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

BRINGING UP PRESTO! The Flip Side of the Seamless Exercise

I guess I can quote from one of my own books without seeking permission.  The closing sentences of chapter 8 in Remembering to Breathe are:

". . . I often ask those less experienced in the sport, 'What are the three most essential elements in successful obedience competition training?'

"Some may respond, 'A leash, a collar and a dog.'

"But the correct answer is attention, attention,attention."

Many in the competition obedience world get it.  Those with good dog attention get better scores.  You can tell that a lot of time and effort has gone into teaching those dogs -- and motivating them -- to focus on the handler and the task at hand.

What's missing is equal emphasis on handler focus.  If we expect unrelenting, bright-eyed attention from our dogs, shouldn't there be reciprocity?  Don't the dogs deserve it?

Yep!  But I see blatant, glaring disregard for that important element.

Here we have a group of people standing in a row, 12 yards from a line of dogs practicing Novice sits and downs. "Yaketty-yak."  It's a coffee klatch.  The dogs are right there in plain sight, but I wish I had $5 for every time I've had to call to a person in the line of handlers, "Hey So-andSo, your dog just went down."  

"Oh! So-and-So exclaims, surprised.  She goes and fixes her dog.  Then she returns and the 'Yaketty-yak" resumes.  And she expects what from her dog?

Then there's the the scent articles chit-chat.  The handler is rubbing up the article while making small talk with the judge.  Meanwhile Fluffy is gawking at, transfixed by, something outside the ring. At that point handler and dog are totally disengaged. Thirty seconds from now Fluffy is supposed to head for the pile sharply focused on getting the correct article.

Not once in more than two decades of showing have I had to politely tell a judge I didn't want to chit-chat while prepared the articles.  At that point my body language and demeanor say it loudly and clearly.  I have nothing on my mind except keeping my dog focused until I say, "Find mine!" and away he goes.

A big-time focus-buster in the competition ring is the temptation to check out those at ringside.  Who's there? Are they watching me? What do they think?  It gets infinitely worse when a neighbor or friend has come to watch Fluffy perform (screw up?).

A couple of years ago I decided to put the quietus on that and anything else that could divert my focus away from my dog when we're in the ring.  I created my own simple but hard-to-win game.  It's a companion piece, the flip side of The Seamless Exercise described in the preceding post.

It works like this:  I pledge to myself not to glance outside the ring.  Not once, not even for a second.  If I do, I flunk -- not an exercise but my own personal commitment.  One glance and for that time in the ring I'm an abject failure.  There is no justification for my existence.

Try it.  Not one glance in an entire run.  That's very hard to do.

What came out of this personal focus commitment paired with The Seamless Exercise was the realization that there's being there and then there's intense focus.

Being in the ring with your dog, setting him up for the exercises, parroting the commands -- that's not focus.  Intense focus is being locked in on your dog to the same degree you expect him to be locked in on you.  We're talking about exclusivity here, my dog and I being singularly focused on each other.

* * *

Something else, something totally unexpected, has emerged from my effort to lock in and focus on my dog to the exclusion of all else.

I suffered from ring nerves from the day I first walked into the ring with my Novice A dog -- that's more than two decades.  Dick Guetzloff recently told me, "You should only be nervous if you think your dog is going to screw up."

Well . . . yes!

Anyhow, I've read books written by Olympic gold-medalists.  Listened to tapes about athletic performance anxiety.  I've tried visualization, positive internal dialogue, deep breathing, psychocybernetics, and all the rest.


One afternoon during the time when I was showing Bravo!, I was talking to Louise Meredith and the subject of ring nerves came up.  Louise had recently attained an OTCH with a border collie named Luc, a dog she described as a real scaredy-cat.  "The whole time I'm in the ring with him," she told me, "I'm thinking, What can I do to make him feel better about himself?  Each exercise, each step.  So much focus on him that I lose my anxieties."

She added, "I think if you can concentrate on your dog so hard, on what you must give him, what you must do for him, you'll lose your ring nerves."

That advice dovetailed perfectly with what I was already committed to focus-wise that I immediately focused even more on, well, on focus.  And bingo!  That advice transcended  all the books, all the tapes, all the relaxation techniques that had netted me nothing for decades.  When I focus on my dog -- as Louise said, so hard -- the ring nerves can't penetrate.

And that, obedience fans, is the flip side of The Seamless Exercise.


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

BRINGING UP PRESTO! The Seamless EXercise

In the first installment of this "mini-trilogy," I reported that Presto! is a learning machine, gobbling up everything I'm teaching him.  I also reported that he's strong-willed and distractible, a tough-to-handle combination.  When he's with other dogs and people, his head is on a swivel and I may not even exist.

Maturation will take care of a lot of that.  But my responsibility as I train him for the competition ring, is to assure that his development is moving in exactly the right direction.  Put more clearly:  "Here's the way it has to be, Presto!  You focus on me . . . now and forevermore."  Which, of course, is easier said than done.

Know that as far as distractible border collies are concerned this ain't my first rodeo.  Well into his obedience career Bravo!, while racking up titles, was his own dog between exercises, wandering around, sniffing.  I had a pat (glib?) answer for those who prodded me about allowing that to continue:  "Oh, Bravo! is like the major league pitcher who parties all night then shows up hung over and pitches a no-hit game."

Indeed, once I got him into position he was very accurate, very solid.  But eventually I attained enlightenment and got serious about training him out of that loosey-goosey habit.  Guess what.  When I had convinced him to sustain his focus between exercises, his scores went up.

How did I do that?  Through a process I named "The Seamless Exercise."  And that's what I have just embarked upon with Presto!  Here's how it works.

The concept is based upon the assumption that the training session (as well as the ring run, eventually) is a single exercise.  That Presto! is under command and expected to be attentive to me from the moment he steps out of his crate -- or out of the van if we are working out of the van -- until the moment the practice session or ring run is over.

That means I try to sustain his attenion regardless of what else is going on around us. No running off to sniff or visit between exercises.  No wandering even a foot or two away as I "reload," replace the treat on my armband during heeling practice.

If I have to go to the van or the setup to get something I forgot, I place Presto! on a sit or a down and expect him to be there when I return.  (At which point he gets praise and a treat.)

I'm putting a lot of emphasis on keeping him with me and attentive as we move between exercises.  He's learning "right here," which means at my left side, focused on my extended left index finger.  I may or may not have a treat cupped in my left hand as we practice "right here."  At times when we're practicing in a high-distractibility environment, initially I'll slip a leash on him at the end of each exercise and we'll "right-here" our way to the next exercise.

I've learned that sustaining focus between exercises is a lot easier than re-capturing it each time.  And highly beneficial to the performance of both of us.

What about play?  It's an integral part of The Seamless Exercise.  This morning we kicked off our session with a fierce game of tugging on the leash.  Eventually I said, "Give!"  He did.  Then, "That's all, we're gonna heel."  Presto! made no further effort to grab the leash.  Then I said, "Place!"   Presto! swung into heel position and away we went.  The entire transition took no more than 10 seconds.  I find that a fast-paced training session helps a lot.

This morning's training session -- early and in a shady park on this day when the high temperature here in the desert is expected to reach 110 degrees -- lasted about 45 minutes.  It included heeling, signals, holding and carrying the dumbbell, fronts, finishes, recalls, go-outs, a not-very-broad broad jump, lots of staying put as I moved around retrieving equipment and setting it up, and finally formal long sits and downs (four and six minutes respectively).

Interspersed in all of this were several bouts of tugging on either the leash or a rope toy; lots of soft petting and praise; and several interludes when I dropped to my knees and played with him.  Presto! loves it when I make farty noises with my mouth; he puts his paws on my shoulders and licks me in the face (or bites me in the nose).

During that 45-minute session I lost him once, near the end of the time.  After a couple of dumbbell carries he found something irresistible to sniff about 10 feet away, and he wasn't about to leave it.  I had to physically bring him back.

How long will I continue to build Presto!'s training around The Seamless exercise?  How's forever?  This is about building strong positive habits.  We know that a behavior that is not reinforced will be extinguished.  Not only will our practices be seamless, soon I'll carry the process into matches, and later into trials.

This is very easy to write about, much harder to implement.  It requires exhausting concentration and self discipline.  But as Presto! reached and passed his first birthday early last month I found myself spending a lot of time correcting his distracted (and adamant) behavior, a lot of time going and getting him and hauling him back into position.  Then doing it over again.  That's not good enough.

The Seamless Exercise is about prevention, which I've found is infinitely better.


Writing this reminds me that the subject of focus is not complete if we don't address the flip side, the handler's obligation to return the focus she expects from the dog.  Somewhere in the distant past of this blog I posted a piece on that subject.  But to round out the subject of The Seamless Exercise I should address that reciprocal obligation again.  Which I will.


Friday, June 7, 2013


In which Presto! screws up.  But not half as badly as I do.

First, let's introduce the cast of this little one-act farce.

Willard Bailey   Presto!'s person.  Well, as you will see, one of his persons.

Alicia Bauman   One of my competition obedience students.  Owned by Tristan, a big, happy golden retriever who is thundering toward his Utility debut.

Angela Hauert   Another student.  Teammate of Cole, a nearly nine-year-old golden who is about to finish his Novice A Companion Dog title.

Lynn Glickauf    Yet another student who's had 30 years in border collies, including two OTCHs.  Lynn is a snowbird from Chicago.  It was she who engineered the happy string of events that culminated last June 27th when she handed me eight-week-old Presto! in O'Hare Airport.


As Alicia put it, "Presto! chooses his friends.'  What she didn't say is if Presto! "friends" you, prepare to take a beating.  Presto! doesn't greet you, it's an explosion of euphoria, a love attack in which he takes no prisoners.  And his greeting goes on until you somehow (SOMEHOW!) manage to end it.  Alicia should know.  She and Barbara are the top two loves of Presto!'s young life.  I may be a distant third.

And then there's "the game."  Lynn and I began playing the game after her lessons with her two border collies, Danny and Timmy (Presto!'s littermate).

We train on large, grassy fields in city parks.  So I'd go out about 75 yards and call the dog.  He'd come flying to me and jump for a treat.  At which point Lynn would be calling, "Timmy come!"  And so it went, back and forth for maybe 16 reps.  Great exercise for the dogs and guaranteed to produce a well-behaved border collie for at least a few hours.  Presto! quickly joined the game, and when Alicia was around we'd play a three-cornered version.


On a recent Sunday morning, a few of us were practicing in a Phoenix park that has lots of shade and is close to the parking lot.  When Presto! was younger, Alicia would make herself scarce -- like behind a tree -- while someone else ran us through.  But that kind of dodging the issue can go on only so long.  On that recent Sunday, I said, "Come on, Alicia, run us through."

She registered doubt.  "Are you sure," she asked, "that'll be a disaster."

"Come on," I replied, "I think he's ready."  And he was.  Presto! made no effort to run to Alicia, even during go-outs practice when she stood inside the ring with a can of squeeze cheese in her hand..

"Wow!" Alicia said, "I can't believe this, his girl friend standing here with a can of cheese in her hand."

I had made a list of an assortment of exercises to practice, and the last one was the Novice stand for exam.  "No way he'll hold still for this," Alicia said.  But he did.  The exercise was perfect.

"Let's do one more," I said.

I had no sooner stood him when his attention shifted, riveted on the parking lot.  Here came Angela, hands full of training equipment, headed for our setup area.  Presto! took off like a shot.  Angela put her stuff down; I'm not sure whether she was petting him or defending herself -- a little of both I think.

Meanwhile I'm still standing in the ring, calling frantically:  "Presto! come!  Presto! come!" He wheeled and came blazing back.  Before I could catch him he turned and raced back to Angela.  He must have made that loop half a dozen times before Alicia said, "He thinks it's the game"



When I arrived home that morning I told Barbara the story.  At the point where I described Presto!'s first dash to Angela, Barbara interrupted.  "Did you go get him and haul him back to where he belonged?" 

I melted into a puddle of humiliation.  "No," I said, and the word hardly made it out of my throat.

That's always been one of my shortcomings as a trainer.  My dog pulls some major transgression during training and I turn into a spectator.  Shock?  Fascination?  A debilitating case of the duhs?  That's probably it.

I can quickly tell a student how to react, or as quickly say, "You missed a golden correction opportunity right there."

But me?  All too frequently I go catatonic.  Probably later that day -- or at 3 a.m. -- I realized what an opportunity I blew.


What was really accomplished that morning?  Presto! had a self-reinforcing, wonderful time playing "the game."  Which will lead to even more of a challenge for me the next time.

Maybe just the act of this public confession will help me snap out of my stupor next time a training "felony" occurs.


Next time:   The Seamless Exercise

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


The tenor of the earlier installments in this series about raising my little monster might lead one to believe every training session is devoid of heartburn, problemless, peachy-keen.  That it'll be tra-la all the way to our OTCH.

Believe that and I'll make you an offer you can't resist on a certain bridge.

Presto!, who turned 13 months old three days ago, is wonderful.  So smart.  A learning machine.  The lovingest dog I've ever had, suffocatingly so at times.  Want-to oozing from every pore. Never before have I encountered such a bright-eyes.  Look into those eyes and there's no doubt there's somebody home -- be warned, though, that somebody is VERY STRONG-WILLED.

At just one year of age, Presto! is ultra-distractible.  When we get into an environment with other people, other dogs, his head is on a swivel.  What do you get when you cross strong will with distractible?  You get a handful, that's what you get.  Tra-la it ain't.

We're in the practice ring, a few of us gathered to train on a Sunday morning:

Distraction  "Oh, look!  There's someone I just love.  Maybe she'll pet me."

Strong will  I will go see her right now, and by God nothing's going to stop me!"

It's our own little situation of nature versus nurture around here.  And I figure it's about 50/50.  Half of it's going to work itself out as the dog matures.  My contribution to that half is patience . . . and passing the test thereof.

But the other half is up to me.  As the maturation process runs its course, I need to make the ground rules clear.  What's expected.  What's verboten.  And introduction of a constellation of experiences called consequences.

Somewhere in the lines I've just written the words "firm hand" should have appeared.

The post you are presently reading is by way of preamble to the two that will follow within the next few days.

The first will detail a recent experience where the situation got totally out of control as my ultra-friendly little guy ran amuck. And how I botched it big-time.

The second will introduce a grand plan I'm now implementing to tighten the behavioral screws.  "Strong willed?  That's two of us, little man."