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!)

Training:

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

Workout:

  • 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.

 

Beginning Dog Training: Merlin Chronicles

I’m calling this Beginning Dog Training, because every time we start to train our dogs, we’re beginning dog training. I don’t care how advanced my training skills may or may not be, or how advanced my dog’s skill set may or may not be, every single training session is a new beginning. So get into your beginner’s mind, and start training!

Since the loss of Nitro, almost two weeks ago, now, I have decided that I owe it to Merlin to give him any opportunities for interaction and training with me that I can give him. We have trained for foundation agility, barnhunt, tracking, and nosework, in the past. I’ve also taught him very rudimentary obedience behaviors, and lots of tricks.

Merlin is a special dog. All dogs are special, in their own ways, but in some ways Merlin is, what I might call “Extra Special”. He is easily aroused, easily distracted, intolerant of touch (doesn’t enjoy being petted much, and only for very short intervals), cannot tolerate grooming without being heavily medicated, and even then is nearly impossible to pedicure. He is friendly, but after an initial greeting, he becomes so over-stimulated that he will hump the new friend, and likely grab their clothing with his incisors. He doesn’t bite, but he does grip. With smaller children he is likely to squash them against the wall and hold them there, while barking at me to acknowledge that he has “captured it”. He exhibits some herding-type behaviors in situations where those behaviors are completely unacceptable. He exhibits some generally obnoxious overstimulation behaviors.  Training alternate behaviors has not been effective, for many reasons, including a multi dog and multi human household in which consistency is often nonexistent, nor has using “corrections”, which I won’t go into here, and which I know don’t work, and  I do not recommend for any clients, ever. Management is the only really effective strategy with him thus far, though now that Nitro is gone, more effective training may be possible.

Overall, I have found Merlin to be a difficult dog to work, or to find any type of partnership with in a working context. he frustrates me with his hyperarousal, and his inability to retain information he has seemed to master to the point of fluency in the past. His very different work ethic from Nitro has also been a contributing factor to my frustration. Nitro was a “what are we going to do next!” dog. Merlin is a, “I’m frustrated, I don’t want to play anymore, this is too hard, I’m going to stand at bark at you, or grab you” kind of dog.

Given this information, I have again begun to attempt to work with Merlin, because I know, as a trainer, the faults lie with me, not him. I need to work hard enough to find the best way to communicate information to him, without becoming frustrated myself. I know that the more exposure he has, with appropriate management and training at the same time, the better his behavior will become. I have been like Merlin, “this is too hard, takes too much effort, too frustrating”, and the time has come to move forward past that.

Monday we went to obedience class. I was overall pleased with his work there. He was able to focus on me, do some heeling, and generally do the work. However, he barked almost non-stop, which is his default behavior when stressed. He barks in a high pitched, same key, monotone, and doesn’t appear to realize that  he’s vocalizing, which is how I know he is feeling very anxious. Fortunately, I chose a class with an instructor whom I know very well, who understands anxious dogs, and classmates who are also very understanding. I know that next week he will be less barky and yappy, the overarousal and anxiety will slow down with each consecutive visit to the new place and new people and dogs. Not to say that it doesn’t cause me great anxiety and stress, it definitely does. But I will work through that. It’s only behavior.

Tuesday we had a great session of working on tuck sits, play, heeling, and a few other things. I was jazzed, and he was also relaxed and happy.

Wednesday I came into our training session “pre-angry”, because I can’t find my platforms, the house is too messy to have enough space to set up cones for figure 8’s, and life in general was difficult. I was also fatigued. Needless to say, our session did not go well.

After the session, Jacob stopped me to remind me that it’s not that I haven’t worked with Merlin, and tried to train him, it’s just that he’s extremely difficult and frustrating, and that I’ve quit multiple times because he’s so frustrating. I thought about this quite a bit. This is a serious thing, not in the way that Jacob meant it, but because as a trainer, I KNOW that it’s NOT the dog’s fault. It’s may fault, even if my sweet husband wants to give me an out by reminding me of what a pain in the ass the dog is, in general.

So, this morning, I baked bread and thought about training generally, and Merlin specifically. What he knows, what he doesn’t know. He knows so many things, I can’t even remember them all to list them (which I was doing Monday evening as I was formulating a training plan). What he doesn’t know, is what I haven’t taught him. One of those things is to find heel position after I turn left and only take one step. This came as a surprise to me, since he can find heel position from anywhere if I am moving, in a circle, serpentine, or straight line. He can find heel in one step/pivot to the right. But I apparently have neglected to teach him to find heel moving/pivoting left. Well. This is a thing we need to work on.

After the bread was in the oven, we went outside to play in the 23 degree weather. We played fetch with his holy roller ball, (I think it’s his favorite, and I’ll be taking it to class with me on Monday) then went to the pause table. He loves the table, so we worked on teaching the tuck sit, by having him reach forward to touch, without falling off the table. This worked very well, we’ll be working on changing the cue from “touch” to “Tuck” and rename his sit from there. No more rocking back 10 feet!

We played more fetch/tug, then did some heeling. Every left doodle step, he stayed sitting and barked at me. But if I move at least 5 steps to the left, he can find heel easily. Tomorrow, platform/bowl with left pivots.

What is the take-away here? For me, the lessons I am re-introducing to myself are:

  • Start where you/your dog are. You cannot build a wall (or a behavior) without a solid foundation.
  • Don’t go to a training session angry. Better to skip it altogether and just play with the dog.
  • The trainer has to work as hard, or harder, than the dog.
  • Don’t just have a training plan, use it! Use it to do the teaching piece, and to analyze your success/failure rates, and to plan the next steps.
  • Choose what you want to work on. Don’t try to fix everything in one training session. Pick a behavior or two to build on in each session.
  • Keep a journal. Not only will it enhance your training plan, give you data points to analyze, but it will also help on days when you feel all is lost, all is failure, to look back and see progress.
  • Remember that you love your dog, and why you love your dog. Remind yourself.
  • It’s just behavior. It’s not personal.

These are all things I tell my beginning students and private clients. All my trainer friends know these things. This is basic information for training any animal. Some animals just require better application, more effort, more time, and more finesse. If I want to be successful with Merlin’s training, I need to apply all these basic principles, and consistently. As a trainer, and a pet owner, I owe it to the dog and to myself to do the work.  Back to the basics we go!  Happy Training, all!