It is with a great deal of frustration that I write about my UD wanna-be Border Collie, Levi, who is teaching me every variation of how NOT to do every darn exercise required in Utility. This dog is supposedly the typical Border Collie, a mix of speed, a devil may care attitude, combined with a fear of being wrong and fortunately, a deep love for working, no matter what task is asked of him. This may sound like almost an ideal dog to work with but he is actually a challenge, the hardest dog I’ve ever trained. When heeling in competition, he feels my anxiety and wraps around my left leg, nearly tripping me while looking up into my eyes. But place a dumbbell, glove or scent article on the ground and he is on the balls of his toes; his toenails, already dug into the ground, leaning hawk-like toward the item. Lately, this over the top joy has extended to go backs, where he whines excitedly by my side. So you would think the Utility articles would be or could be easy for him to learn. Well, the retrieving part at least should be easy. Truth be known, the entire exercise has been a long training experience. At first I was convinced he had limited scenting ability, especially compared to his other two Border Collie roommates. Both River and Mickey can track easily and understand the requirements of Utility articles with no problems. Levi knows one thing; there are several dumbbells on the floor and each one needs to be pounced on and retrieved individually or even all together, stuffed into his mouth at all angles. Scent? Who cares? Articles tied to the board? Not a problem. Rip those suckers off the board and retrieve them also. Over time, which means sleepless nights for me and months of training, he seems to understand that one article has my scent and it seems that just maybe he does actually understand that I want the one with MY scent. He still doesn’t then know what to do with THAT one. Return it to me? Pick it up and sit pretty in the middle of the pile? I have discovered this is not a dog you want to encourage to come in with the right article. After a few days of saying “come”, he picks up the right one, turns and looks for confirmation and waits. No answer from me means drop that one and keep scenting frantically.
So here is what I put together while driving back from two Graduate Open flunks in Jackson, Mississippi. Sitting outside on a little red kiddy chair, I place out a board with several leather articles tied down. Levi is required to sit quietly next to me on my left. I lean over and place the scented article down by my feet on the board. All Levi has to do is reach down, pick up the one he just saw me set down and turn for a treat. No running back to me, since I’m right next to him, and he gets an instant reward. The next time I move the board back another foot and go through the same process. On the fourth attempt the board is across the room BUT I have it set down around the corner of the building so he has to scent the articles and run back to me with the correct one for a reward. He cannot look at me since I am out of sight. Ya know what? He is doing great and this is a great confidence builder for him. I do four tries with leather and four with metal, using one article board with leather tied down articles and one board just with metal. I’ll continue this each day at home, only testing him in class. My hope is that he trusts himself that he is making the correct scenting decision, which he usually is and that he will trust ME to reward him for being right when he returns all the way back to me. Ideally over time he should realize that the reward is in retrieving which, after all, is it’s own reward for him.
I had another problem crop up at a trial. The stewards did not pick up the articles after we were done, leaving them on the floor as I set Levi up for the gloves. So once again, he was facing the pile but was asked to turn and retrieve a glove behind him. He lost focus and ran out to get the articles. In my highly nervous state I didn’t realize what had happened until the second day when it happened again. The second day I cued the stewards and judge to please remove the articles before the next exercise. To say I was ticked would be an understatement. Graduate Open dogs are not usually experienced in Utility. If Levi had his OTCH (I’m rolling on the floor laughing) this would have been an excellent proofing exercise for the directed retrieve. In fact, this only confused my dog and set me back in training. But that is how things go at shows. Life and learn.
A more experienced handler advised me to be more aware of my ring at all times. Are the jumps the right height? Are the gloves set up and then removed? Are the articles removed? Every Graduate Open class I enter I learn more and more. As Levi grows more confident in his job I expect this will be a fun class. Can anyone please tell me when this day will arrive? Any psychics out there reading this??