Once in a while someone asks, "What's your most difficult problem training Presto! ?
The answer is one word: maturity. But that word represents an obstacle course of hurdles to cross, mines waiting to go off, alligator-filled water hazards, and an abundance of training Catch 22s.
Presto!'s head is on a swivel -- sometimes I attribute that to fear of the unfamiliar, other times I know it's insatiable curiosity. And, of course, Presto! is a 20-month-old intact male. Lots of instinctive imperatives are going on here -- pushing back against my imperative . . . focus.
All this, of course, delivers its best punch in the match/show environment.
Some have said, "Give him time, he'll mature." No doubt. But I don't believe the process of maturity functions in internal isolation. I don't believe it's strictly a function of brain cells and tissues and juices and systemic getting the act together.
We're talking nature versus nurture here, and I'm certain that learning and experiencing give a leg up to the maturation process. So I'm giving him every boost I can. And I'm willing to get bitten in the butt by those alligators once in a while if necessary.
Which is why Presto! and I debuted in Graduate Novice this past weekend. That's right, the the first AKC ring my little guy ever stepped into was Grad Novice. Which triggered a few double takes.
Here's my reasoning.
I think the journey begins with Novice and becomes a ladder with the Obedience Trial Championship being the top rung. Pre- this and optional-titling that are nice and they can serve a purpose but our dedication, our obsession, will be the Novice-to-OTCH continuum. And I don't want to come stumbling out of the gate in Novice.
Presto!'s training is coming along well . . . given his level of maturity. He can come out in Novice today and do well. How well? That depends upon the degree of swivelness of his head and the gawkyness index on a given day. That's one constraint.
A second constraint is his heeling. He heels well, but I know he has really, really good heeling in him; we're not quite there yet. Bravo! had many days when his heeling was nothing short of spectacular. Twice in his illness-shortened career judges stood in the center of the ring following the exercise and exclaimed, "Boy, can this dog heel!" That felt good. I want more.
I can practice heeling anywhere, any time. But Presto! needs real-time, real-thing ring exposure. Right now it's, "Oh wow! Look at that over there!" Or, "There's a threatening-looking boxer behind me." Or, "I'll be with you in a minute, somebody's grilling by that picnic table."
Presto! needs enough exposure to matches and shows that it becomes, "Ho hum, here we are again." Easy to say, tough to pull off. If I win the lottery, I'll purchase a dozen show sites, hire a hundred extras (at union scale) stock up on tents, squeaky-wheeled carts and the like, and hold mock trials several times a week. Trouble is, I have yet to procure the winning ticket.
Enter Grad Novice. Presto! can do all that stuff -- really well if I can keep him focused. Grad Novice is just the exposure we need. It allows us to hit the sure-to-come bumps in the road, but not on the mainline.
So I entered us in Grad Novice at the Phoenix Field & Obedience trials on January 18 & 19.
Moments of Truth
If you want to know what the chinks in your armor are, if you want the holes in your dog's training displayed stark naked on the big screen in your mind, do what I did.: enter your not-quite-ready dog in something, then sit back and enjoy the anxiety.
Here's what haunted me in the 48 hours preceding Presto!'s first-ever ring appearance.
First, I'm seeking sustained focus from the time we enter the ring until the moment we exit. Right now I have anything but. So I knew I would have my hands full keeping Presto! focused between exercises. I knew he'd want to gawk, possibly run to the judge or a steward to be petted, likely drift a few feet away to sniff. Those were almost givens. In fact, they were the precipitating reasons why I wanted to immerse Presto! in that environment.
Second, there's an exercise in Grad Novice that kind of irks me because I have to waste time on it. It's the dumbbell recall. With the dog in heel position, you offer the dumbbell and the dog must "readily" take it and hold it. Then you proceed to the opposite end of the ring and call him to carry the dumbbell to you.
Nowhere else in obedience do you hand the dumbbell to your dog. I know the folks who developed the Grad Novice exercises didn't have Presto! and me in mind. In context, Grad Novice is a class that exists to help those with a CD ease the transition to Open. And the dumbbell recall is meant to help the dog get comfortable with the dumbbell in his mouth. I guess the assumption is that folks complete their CD, then train for the next level -- versus the dog who's being trained all the way through before he gets his CD.
Presto! has yet to set foot in a Novice ring, but he's busy mastering the drop on recall, scent articles, gloves, go-outs. He loves to retrieve a thrown dumbbell, on the flat or over a high jump. But sitting in heel position and taking it from my hand? He thinks that's a bunch of crap.
As we drew close to our date with destiny, my anxiety level about that exercise rose. Oh, he'd take it after a few avoidance moves with his head. But "readily?" Not so much.
Finally, a little more than a week before the shows (Doesn't it always happen?) Presto! dropped a new one on me. His out-of-sight long sits and downs training had gone reasonably well. Oh, we had had our ups and downs, so to speak. But recently he had been pretty solid.
It may be that he had seen me write my entry check. One morning when I was practicing in the backyard -- normally we go to a park -- I put him on a six-minute down and went inside where I can watch him but he can't see me. I looked out the window. No Presto! Going back out there, I met him outside the back door. Which was the kickoff of the special transgression he had saved just for show week. Not only was he sitting up on the down, he was following me . . . the lion's share of the time.
And those were the demons that were dancing in my head as we counted down toward my little guy's debut.
Next time: No place to hide