Training through a problem

In November of 2007 I entered one of my Border Collies, Levi, in a Rally trial for his first Rally Advanced leg. It turned out to be one of the most embarrassing moments in my dog training life. The minute he stepped into the ring and I took off the lead he went wild, crashing into signs, leaping over the jumps, barely paying any attention to me. He flunked. Big time. He had previously earned a perfect 100 and first place for his final Rally Novice leg. What was his problem? At home I was able to narrow the problem down to one thing, one object that was not in the Rally Novice ring-the jumps. For some reason they made him nervous. He began to pant, offer behaviors (sit, down, spin) and in a panic would leap over a jump as I walked up to it, pulling me along with him. I tried to calm him down, tried food, tried simply walking up to the jump slowly and asking him to sit in front of it without panicking. He would not listen. My extremely intelligent dog who had never had agility training, was adamant-approach a jump, run over it and take off. There were no options in his mind. While brainstorming the problem, something a friend said to me stuck in my mind. We forget that when we have training problems that sometimes we need to go back to the beginning–in some cases way back. Fast forward to today. Levi and I are in a new environment with plenty of time to work through problems. I took out the high jump, set it to 8” and walked Levi on lead up to the jump. He remained calm and stepped over the jump but he refused to return to heel position afterwards, going wild. He became frustrated. I became frustrated. We both were getting upset and hot. I broke off our training for some play time. He sat 8’ from the jump, I straddled him, focusing him on his big ball on the other side of the jump and told him to get it. Wow-he loved this game. When he got the ball he was released to play-no retrieve necessary. I put him in the nearby kennel and took younger Mickey out to train. Was it my method of introducing the high jump that was wrong? Mickey calmly walked along with me, stepped over the jump and returned to my side. We played with the ball and repeated the exercise again. No problem. I rewarded him, returned him to the kennel and brought out River to try the same exercise. The difference this time was that I had food in my hand while heeling River up to and over the jump. He stepped over the jump and then bolted in front of me to get some food. This is my HIT CDX dog! What part of heel didn’t he understand? I was beginning to realise that food was a deterrant, too much of a distraction. This should be a simple exercise, walk calmly up to the jumps, responding to a heel command, say over to teach the dog to step over the jump and then heel to teach the dog to return calmly to heel position. This is an exercise I had used on my HIT Golden Retriever back in the late 1970’s to introduce jumping. Now I was using it as a way to ultimately guide the dog over the Rally Advanced jump and return immediately to heel before moving on to the next station. Levi was anxiously pacing in the kennel, jealously awaiting a chance to show how well he could do the exercise. I released River back to the kennel and brought Levi out again. I was determined to get to the bottom of this problem, stay calm, help Levi trust me. We could conquer this. I put the 6’ lead on and started over. Same problem, food-no food, leash-no leash, toys-no toys-same problem. I was getting a bit ticked off. Levi is very intelligent. I remember a Sylvia Bishop seminar where she advised to get down to the dog’s level and show him what you want. We walked up to the jump on a 6’ lead, he pulled-I said NO! Wait-this isn’t a jumping problem, this is, as Bobbie Anderson teaches, a “RESPECT” issue. Levi understands don’t pull me out the door. It was an ah-ha moment. We walked up to the jump, he pulled. I stepped sideways into him. We made it up to the jump. He gingerly put one foot over. I reached down and picked up the foot and put it back on my side. He tried three times to put his feet over the jump. Each time I gently said no I would reach down and set the foot back. We turned around and walked up to the jump, this time working on our respect issue. On the second try Levi walked calmly up to the jump, gingerly walked right up to the board and looked up to me, waiting for his next command.
At that moment there was so much love for my dog. His willingness to keep trying warmed my heart. My frustration slipped off my shoulders. I smiled and quietly praised him. He finally understood what I was asking of him. No food was needed. Many thanks to Bobbie Anderson, Sylvia Bishop, Celeste Mead and Pam Weaver.

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