Sunday, January 5, 2014

On Engagement

Hello there. It's been a long time since I blogged. Not much has happened in the interim. Jun is still crazy. Elo is still an asshole, but less so. We've been taking classes and he's slowly but surely getting better. We've moved beyond reactive dog class and semi-integrated into real classes! We've found flexible, accommodating instructors that largely let us do our own thing. Currently we are taking a rally class and it's going pretty well. But something tonight struck me as worth musing on.

Let me preface by saying, I am a difficult student. I don't do what I'm told. I don't see a teacher as authority. I question everything. I'm not TRYING to be difficult, but I'm a very independent thinker, I have strong ideas and opinions and if a suggestion I'm given doesn't fit within that framework, I have to think it over before I'm willing to fully commit to it, or in some cases even try it. The problem is, in class there is no time for philosophical discussion, so I come off sounding like a bitch when I try to fit my objections into a one-sentence "thanks but no thanks" soundbyte. Really what I mean is, "I'd like to think about that and I'm happy to discuss it further, but at the moment it doesn't fit into my training plan," --but that's never what comes out.

For the last three weeks of class, we are running courses; and this is perfect for Elo because all the other dogs are out of the room. However, this was the first time he'd actually been fully inside the main training room (Normally, we hang out in a supply closet adjacent to the training room and open the door as he can handle it.) Not having a lot of time to work slowly into the room and let him acclimate,  of course he was immediately over-stimulated. He knew there were usually dogs in that room, he could smell them, and he was looking all over for them. It was tough to get his attention, but he wasn't totally gone and was checking in with me periodically, which of course I rewarded.  After I somewhat had his brain, we started the course. He was only able to give me a couple seconds of attention at a time before sniffing and scanning and he was having a hard time responding to cues.

And then the instructor said something to the effect of, "You need to tell him what he should be doing. Stop letting him keep nervously scanning the room. When he stops paying attention to you, mark it with a 'no' and don't let him do it. Every time he goes out away from you and comes back and you reward him, he's learning that he can do that."

We'll let the complete absurdity of the phrase "mark it with a no" slide, and talk about the rest.

It's not harmful advice. It's not going to hurt my dog. It's not even necessarily bad advice. In fact, for a second I thought, maybe I should just be more firm with him. also didn't seem quite right to me.

First off, I didn't really understand what she meant because I can't MAKE Elo do anything. When he's in that mindset, he's not hearing a word I say. A calm "no" isn't even going to enter his consciousness if calling his name and speaking in happy voice doesn't. After clumsily noting my objections, I choked up on the leash a bit and kept him at my side. He looked more under control and the instructor seemed happy. But really, the same thing was going on. He was checking out and I was rewarding when he checked back in. Because that's what he needed.

As much as I (lovingly) call Elo an asshole, he is a good, GOOD dog! He's on a hair trigger sometimes and has developed some very frustrating habits, but damn he TRIES! One thing I've discovered about Elo over the past year is his fabulous work ethic. That little dog loves to work! He loves to train! He loves to play and interact with me! So much so that I've been able in some situations (now that he has a threshold and can sometimes think around other dogs) to leverage the opportunity to work as a reward for NOT reacting to dogs. If Elo is checked out, it's because he cannot handle the situation. Not because he's being naughty, stubborn, or purposely blowing me off.

Ultimately, the entire reason I'm in this thing is for that joyful partnership, the feeling that comes from doing things with a dog that happily and enthusiastically chooses to do them with me. I have no desire to make Elo do anything. And that's been the basis of our entire training relationship. I give Elo an easy choice and reward him for making the right one, gradually making the situation more difficult. The fact that the situation was too difficult in this case is 100% on me.

I don't fault the instructor. She was trying to be helpful, she clearly has a different training philosophy, and I doubt she expected me to put this much thought into it. She also does don't know me, doesn't know Elo, doesn't know where we started, where we've been, or really even where we are. It's a tough position to be in. I've been there myself. But ultimately, after having time to reason it through, this is a piece of advice I will reject. It doesn't make sense for my dog and it doesn't fit within my training philosophy.

Thankfully, Elo and I had a second chance to run the course. With him a bit more settled, he showed off what a happy, precise, thoughtful little worker he is!