The Merlin Chronicles: Clicker Expo 2018 Edition

When I first got Merlin, as a young pup, I took him with me to Clicker Expo 2011, in Chicago.  He was a difficult dog even then.  I tried to take him to a lab, and he barked so much that we were asked to leave. He barked so much, that I ended up crating him in the hotel room with my friend Kama’s dog for most of the conference. Despite being reinforced heavily with attention, food, and being taken out, for all the barking, I think Merlin enjoyed his conference experience at Chicago Expo. He met lots of people and did lots of things.

Fast forward to Clicker Expo 2018, which I have been eagerly anticipating, as it is being held in my hometown, St. Louis.  I thought I might bring my old man dog, Nitro, for his last hurrah.  Then as his health faded, I decided I should try to work with Merlin enough that he’d be able to go with me.  Not long before Expo, I had to let Nitro go. I stepped up my work with Merlin, taking him to classes with my dear, patient, kind, friend, Tina, and working with him at home quite a lot. I kept good records, I felt we were making progress.

Then the French Bulldog puppy, Niko, happened. He was acquired in a rather convoluted way, for my adult son, Orion, who had always wanted a Frenchie.  But getting him to Arizona from St. Louis was a challenge, especially since I was leaving town to go to work for 10 days.  I decided a road trip was in order. So, on February 22nd, I left for work, returning on March 2nd, turning around and leaving again on March 3rd to drive to Arizona with two kids and a French Bulldog. We got to Arizona, did some vacation time and family time with my son/kids’ brother, then spent some time in New Mexico and Oklahoma, arriving home on the evening of the 15th.

Clicker Expo began on the evening of the 15th!  The morning of the 16th, I went to several sessions, then went home at lunch to get Merlin.  After lunch we had one teaching session, Sarah Owings’ On Source, Nosework class,  then the working lab.  Merlin was barking and problematic throughout the session, and toward the end we had to stand in the back, with him outside the door, and me inside, trying to learn the skills!  I was extremely frustrated, and really disliking him. I really do feel like we have tried so many approaches to deal with the barking, but it’s just who he is, and it does slow down considerably once he acclimates to a space, it just takes a visit or two. He was very overstimulated, and trying to hump and nip everyone who tried to pet him or talk to me.  When the lab began he was better.  He worked well, and was very focused, particularly considering the fact that I hadn’t even seen him, let alone worked with him, for 22 days.  Almost a month! He got tired and toward the end of the lab was a little crazy, obviously tired and overstimulated, so we left a few minutes early, to better manage him.  But I really appreciated Sarah Owings, and her patience with his barking, and I really feel like we did learn a lot and get a lot out of the lab.

Today was the second day of sessions and labs.  Jacob was kind enough to bring Merlin to the hotel just for the lab time, so Merlin arrived at 1:45 and stayed until 3:45.  The lab was Hannah Branigan’s Orient Express, which was excellent.  Merlin was more acclimated to the space, and he worked very well, with minimal barking.  He did get tired toward the end and lose focus on what we were doing, but overall, he did really well. I was proud of him today.  He may not be my dream dog, he may not be easy, but he’s the dog I have, and he’s trying hard, so I’m going to continue to try hard, and to not overface him with challenges he isn’t ready for, but to keep high expectations and train to whatever level we are able to achieve together.

Tomorrow morning, we have another learning lab at 9 in the morning, the topic is Animals in Control. We’ll be working on communication and giving the animals choices. I am hoping that Merlin chooses to say yes.



Merlin Chronicles Part 2

Merlin and I went to our second Obedience class on Feb 5th.  He and I both performed much better. I went in with a plan, there were only two of us in class, and Merlin was more comfortable in the space, since he’d been there before.  Our training together has been much better.  Again, this is because I start with a plan, I am keeping a journal, and I’m working hard not to do the thing that humans always do, push past the learner past the point of learning and into tedium and frustration.  This is the most difficult piece, of course, because having successes in training is reinforcing to the trainer.  Like all living creatures, I want more reinforcement!  I have managed to video my last two sessions, but I can’t post the first one, because the Witness Protection Pup makes a guest appearance as the second trainee.

I have learned a number of things about Merlin, now that I’ve taken the time to actually work with him.  He has little rear end awareness, but more importantly, and possibly having more impact on his ability to perform, he has very little core strength. So, even if he wants to perform precision pivots and tight tuck sits, he may well be physically impeded from doing so at this time. To remedy this issue, I’ve implemented an exercise plan from Dr. Chris Zink’s Conditioning for the Canine Athlete. I should have done this much sooner. He can easily walk three miles or more, but walking and playing at the dog park are not working his core. As an athlete myself, I am well aware of the pitfalls of having no core strength, the biggest of which is back injuries. We are going to avoid injury and create strength for performance. (in both of us!)

Today was a day when I was yet again reminded that a good trainer, or at least an adequate one, needs to be able to modify a training plan on the fly, as needed, to suit the abilities of the learner. My basic outline for today was this:  (which is WAY too much, BTW!)


  • Find target with Rear feet
  • left pivots
  • figure 8 with stops
  • tuck/kickback on pause table


  • High 5/wave both sides
  • Rocker board-hind legs
  • Snoopys
  • ladder
  • beg

Transitions/Play Breaks:

  • tug and fetch

I started with Find Small Target with Rear Feet (small phone book platform).  Merlin had some frustration with this, as he knows it pays to find it with your front feet, and luring him to try to get the back feet on was frustrating (for him and me), every time he felt the platform with the back foot, he tried to avoid it, not step on it.  I was able to get a few well-timed clicks in as his foot ran over the target, and he is savvy enough to understand, then started putting his foot on the target. Getting both feet on at once was a challenge, so we did one foot at a time, then a few clicks for both feet.

Then a tug/fetch play break

I’d planned to switch to working pivots on the bowl perch.  He has done well with this in the past. Today, he could pivot to the right, but fell off the bowl every time I tried to get him to offer, or tried to lure him left. Clearly the bowl was NOT the way to go today, if we wanted success.

Put away the bowl, tried pivots on the ground, with just doodle steps.  He does beautiful doodles to the right, and decent pivots. He does not do either  very well to the left.

We did a short block of heeling to see if he could do clean left turns while moving. This has been something he could do in the past, but not today. I’m not sure why, but video should help with diagnosis. I have a feeling it’s something in my body language that’s causing the issue.

Tug/Play break.

This is where the plan change came in!  I decided that working exclusively on rear end awareness and strength was more important than trying to work on left turns, and would benefit our left turns in the end. So, we skipped from pivots, dropped figure 8s, and brought out the full sized platform.

Full sized platform (10 x 34 inches).  The first thing Merlin did was offer front feet perching. Then barked in frustration when I didn’t pay for that. I lured one foot onto the platform, and clicked that. He was still frustrated. Then I used my brain for a moment and remembered that he already knows 2on2off with his hind feet from agility. So I stepped back and to the side and turned the front of my body away,  for a 2o2o, and he complied.

I paid for some straight alignment in 2o2o, then walked forward toward him and clicked for backing up and moving his front feet onto the platform as well. Multiple clicks for all four feet on the platform. Tossed treats away and waited for him to find a standing front position on the platform several times.

Moved to some Tuck sits in front position on the platform, then Tuck sit to kickback stand on the platform.

Then held a treat magnet on his nose, moved myself into heel position while he was on the platform, several clicks and treats for that.

Last we practiced a tuck sit on the platform in heel position.

More tug and fetch, to end our session.

You may note that we did not do our core exercises, which I’ll do later this evening, too much at once is too much, even if we were both having fun. Always end on a high note!

Next session, we’ll work on finding heel position on the platform from different positions, as well as sits, and possibly downs on the platform.

What was my big takeaway from today and our recent training sessions?

I haven’t been fair in working with Merlin. I”ve gotten frustrated too quickly with him.  I haven’t given him the chance he deserves. He was always second fiddle to Nitro, and later in Nitro’s life I still felt guilty about giving time to Merlin and not Nitro. I still find it difficult to work with him in situations where he barks a lot and is generally embarrassing, because not only is it embarrassing, I feel like it makes me look like a bad trainer, which just adds to my anxiety, which adds to his anxiety. Finding a safe space to train, where I know people care for me and my dog, and aren’t judging him, me,  or either of our abilities, makes a world of difference. I feel this way about my Tracking group, and my Obedience class, and the classes I took with my friend Kama earlier this year. It’s a component that shouldn’t be overlooked when choosing where and with whom to train. My heart is healing from the loss of Nitro, as much as it ever will, and for the first time in a very long time, I’m really excited to be training my dogs.