Don’t Touch Me!

The Stand for Exam has been very difficult for my Border Collie, Levi.  It took me a long time to understand why such a simple, basic exercise is so hard for him.  He doesn’t like to be touched by anyone, even me, unless it is on his terms.  It isn’t that he has a bad temperament.  He isn’t shy, aggressive or insecure. To him, being touched by a judge in the obedience ring interferes with his work ethic. He has a job to do.  This is no time to be caressed like a cat. He wants to be right, to be left alone to do what he has been trained to do.  Get out of the way, people!  I wish I had figured this out a long time ago.

One day I was reviewing his “issues” over and over in my mind and suddenly I had a moment of clarity. What was Levi trying to tell me?  Communication is a two way street.  It’s not just me telling him what to do.  Levi may also be trying to tell me that he is uncomfortable, unhappy or puzzled.  In my almost frantic, nervous state at a show I had been stroking him while waiting to go into the ring.  That was the absolute wrong thing to do with him.  My lack of leadership went right through my hands to him, stroking him over and over again, telling him I was worried. “I’m scared, Levi.  We’re going into the ring now.  Oh, no.” I was letting him know this is going to be a tense situation.  Why was it, I wondered, at some matches or shows our time in the ring was good and sometimes a train wreck?  The more I reviewed in my mind what “I” was doing to him the more I realized “I” was making the ring not only a scary place but was not allowing him to do what I had trained him to do, which is, to leave him alone so he can work.  Now I play ball or Tuggie with him outside the ring, speak softly, stand straight.  Except for the Nose Touch Game, I don’t touch him at all.  (See Celeste Meade’s website for her Nose Touch training video, www.americank9country.com.) If I’m nervous I eat mints before going into the ring.  But I’ve found that my nervousness has changed to excitement the more our training has progressed, the more fun we are having, the more we are becoming a team.

When I discussed this one day with my trainer she said that Levi HAS to do the stand for exam. He can’t avoid the exercise.  You can almost see the look of annoyance Levi has during the Utility Moving Stand.  What should only take a few seconds turns into ten to fifteen seconds because Levi squirms and moves his feet or even sits, avoiding the judge’s touch.  Most judges try to help me and tell Levi to stand.  What the heck, the dog has just flunked the exercise.  Might as well get in a bit of training if the judge chooses to help me.  I’m always grateful. At home in training the answer is to communicate to Levi that he is a good boy when he does the exercise. He is learning more and more to look at me instead of worrying about someone touching his back.  His eyes get big, anticipating the command to run to heel, to make the exercise stop so he can get on to his favorite Utility exercise, running to the Go Out spot, followed by jumping.  He loves jumping.

But wait.  There’s more. Running in the back yard in “busy” mode Levi doesn’t like to be touched then either.  Think of a New Yorker saying in a heavy Brooklyn accent, “Hey, I’m walkin’ here!”  Well, Levi is saying to humans, “Hey, I’m busy!” To him, even exercising is work time. He is wonderful about coming when called, even from the back forty.  He will accept a brief pat on the head.  There might be food involved or maybe we are going to do some training or maybe I’ll throw a Frisbee or ball.  It is only in the evening when he then can be very affectionate, sticking his nose in my hands or rolling over to have his belly rubbed.

Levi has taught me so much.  I wonder what other things he is trying to communicate to me?

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