Levi and I have not shown in an AKC ring since last fall. We had problems with the Utility scent articles that, at the time, seemed impossible to resolve. My high energy dog loves to retrieve. We didn’t have a retrieve problem. We had a scenting problem. How do you teach a dog to sniff out the one object that has your scent? Levi had moments of genius and I thought we had the problem licked. As I’ve mentioned in the past, Levi has a tendency to be in business for himself. I’ve tried putting food on the articles but in his case that only complicated the exercise. He wanted to retrieve ALL the articles in the pile but they all wouldn’t fit in his mouth. What is a dog to do? I encouraged him, rewarded him, played with him, and swore at him. Nothing seemed to work. Meanwhile his young roommate, Catcher, learned retrieving and scenting with no problem. Hey, I clearly wasn’t the problem. It was Levi. Even eleven year old River can do scent articles.
Life has a way of giving us answers if only we take the time to listen. My solution had to come from me, not my dog. The answer was so very simple it made me mad at myself. When our dogs don’t understand what we ask of them, who is to blame? We can say they are too stupid to learn. We can say they are the wrong breed or are too old. We can blame our trainers, our miserable lives, or the weather. But the bottom line is we are asking them to learn something completely foreign to them. We have to communicate to our dog exactly what we want. Our trainers give us guidance but sometimes we don’t accept their advice. We believe their answers are so simple it can’t possibly be true. More times than I can count I’ve heard other dog trainers say, “Oh, yeah. I’ve tried that. It doesn’t work.” You have to ask yourself, have you really tried exactly what they have suggested? Or does it sound like too much work? Or are you closed to the idea because they have an “easy” breed and yours is harder to train?
In my case the solution to my problem was to fix ME. I needed to listen to my trainers and to myself. What does a dog hear when they do something we view as wrong? They hear a negative, such as NO or EXCUSE ME! We scowl, we raise our voice, our shoulders sag, we tsk, tsk our dog. All the while the usually willing dog is wondering what the heck we want of them. It’s a game of hot and cold for them. Is this right? No? Is this right?
Over the past three years I have been assisting my parents who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia. It has been very frustrating. Talking to someone who is borderline crazy is like, oh my gosh, like trying to train a dog who just isn’t understanding what I’m asking of them. When all else fails, remain calm. Don’t lose your cool. Relax. Take a deep breath. Keep your voice low and repeat your request. Could this work on teaching scent articles? The answer is YES. It has been the answer to my training problem. Did my trainers at Leading Edge Obedience mention to me that I should remain quiet and calm when training my hyper Border Collie? Well, yes, they did mention a time or two that cheerleading and yelling in excitement when my dog retrieved the correct article probably wasn’t a good idea. But I was not open to what I thought was a stupid suggestion. I needed to let my dog know he was super, a smart and excellent scent article retrieving dog, right? No.
One day I decided to use what I labeled my Zen of Scent Articles training method. I set Levi up in front of the pile of articles. He leaned forward on the balls of his toes. “Let me retrieve, let me go. Now, now, now.” He was eager to play the game, to retrieve the sticks, all ten of them on the floor. I softly told him to wait and walked around the pile, around the room, returning to his side. He broke. “No” I softly said to him. “Get close”, (to my side, in heel position). He reluctantly scooted back in position. I softly told him to wait and again walked around the room. Sometimes I softly told him what a good dog he was for staying. Sometimes I made him down, sit, stand. Then I softly told him to “Find mine”. As he ran to the pile I told him, “Easy”, in a soft voice. He picked up the article and zipped back to me. I quietly said, “Good dog”, and gave him a small piece of a cookie. We did one more article the same way. Success. His reward was simply my smile, my proud eyes looking directly at him, a cookie and soft praise.
Would this method transfer to a class full of dogs doing Utility exercises? Would it transfer into the ring? The answer soon became obvious. Yes. Are we close to getting a perfect score for scent articles in the Utility ring? Not yet. I still have a high charging dog who loves to retrieve. So much so that he can’t wait for the judge to put out the right article. He needs to learn to remain at my side until “I” and not the “judge” release him to find the correct article.
At the Pensacola Dog Fanciers Association’s trial last weekend I entered Levi in the Versatility class. He did all the exercises but still flunked. When he ran out to the pile, in his exuberation he kicked a metal article on top of the correct leather article. In a split second decision he decided there was nothing to do but to bring back both articles in his mouth. I laughed and asked the judge if that was extra credit. Alas, the answer was no. But the fact that he did the scent articles correctly at a trial held in an outdoor horse arena meant the world to me.
There is still another element of “me” that I’m working on. How does one deal with ring nerves? I had read a book a long time ago suggesting handlers eat mints before going into the ring. It masks our fear scent to the dog. It works for me, as well as learning how to warm up my dog, where to position him before entering the ring and how to bring him into the ring. He still is a high energy dog who loves to work. He knows being in the ring is fun. He knows he is going to retrieve, jump and do his beloved go-backs. It is my job to keep myself calm and keep him under control. We are getting better as a team. We are having fun. We are going to come out of the Utility ring soon with a new title. The excitement of working toward this previously unattainable goal means the world to me. The fact that I have such a hard-working dog by my side makes it all worthwhile.