Thursday, June 23, 2011

No Food Is Work!

This afternoon I headed down to Canby for an obedience match that our obedience club was hosting. It was a limited entry, the weather was excellent, and I got to learn the real reason that Bess falls apart in the obedience ring. I've been following the Exercise Finished blog and have been particularly interested in the difficulties she's had with Phoenix in the ring. He loses attention when he realizes there are no cookies in the competition ring. That's pretty much Bess in both the rally and obedience ring with a bit of stress thrown in to really give it that tortured dog flair! And of course the book that I mentioned yesterday talks about needing to have more reinforcers than just food. I don't know if I'm just more receptive now to the need to train without food rewards all the time or what, but it seems like this topic is coming up a lot in a variety of places more recently.

So like I said, I headed down to Canby for an obedience match with Bess. The location of the match is in the exact rings where the obedience and rally trials are being held starting tomorrow (I have Bess entered in rally on Saturday). Pretty good deal! The only catch is that you can't use food in the rings, period. Which is actually potentially a good thing because you get to play around with your dog and let them know how much fun obedience is in the exact rings that they'll be competing in. I had a feeling that I was going to go into the ring with a rather flat dog judging by how our warm up was going. When I had treats, she was animated and happy. When I tried a variety of toys that I brought, I got a flat dog who preferred to ignore me. Crap!

It's not like I wasn't aware of this problem. Our runs in rally have slowly been unravelling and while we've continued to qualify, it hasn't been pretty. Occasionally I manage to get enough excitement out of her in chunks that are promising, but on the whole, our obedience runs overall are unravelling similarly to how our agility runs were unravelling, just in a different direction. With my focus so much on fixing the agility break down that we had, I kind of chose not to focus on fixing the obedience problem that has been slowly building. And that has to stop if I actually want Bess to be competitive. I need her to WANT to work with me. I need her to feel that being in the ring with me is part of the fun and the reward.

I had the opportunity to watch many other very good handlers working their dogs in the ring without treats and saw some very happy dogs out there. That is what I would like from Bess and it's not going to be easy. She's not super into toys. She's really only into tugging when she feels like it. And she's not as into playing with just me as Heffner is. So I've gotta fix that.

I was able to mess around with her a fair amount in the ring and when she started to drift or not do what was expected, I redid it with more "flair." It was a lot of work and I still didn't have the dog that I get when she knows I've got yummy delicious treats waiting for her.

My goal for the summer is to cut back on the training treats by about 90% and really ramp up the play with both dogs. I need the exercises and our time together to be super rewarding so that both dogs are happy workers! I started by buying a little variety of toys tonight to try with them and we'll see how this goes. I'm going to start tomorrow morning. So if you see a woman acting utterly ridiculous with a great dane at 6:00am in front of some grade school? Yeah, that's probably me.....


K-Koira said...

I think this is something almost every trainer can work on more. Some of us get blessed by dogs that love to play, which gets us out of the habit of teaching our dogs to have fun.

Ximena said...

Oh man, can I ever relate!!

Elli's suuuuper food motivated, so much that agility with her is nearly impossible because I can't reward her with food without lowering the energy I want from the sport in the process of rewarding... if that makes sense. It has to be *play* ya know. I've had to teach her how to play as a reward but it's taking so long, she still hasn't made the connection.

So, what we've been doing instead is fading out the treats, such that she gets one for every six Spins or Overs or whathaveyou, instead of every one. That way, she's still working for food and she still gets her beloved food, she's simply not emptying my pockets each training session -- she has to do more (work more/harder) for each treat. That's my advice, ha.