It’s hard work training three dogs every day. Working Border Collies to their full potential is not only an aerobic activity but it is mentally stimulating, helping me to learn more about the psychology of dog behavior. The canine species on the one hand is very different from us, yet they are alike in so many ways. The intelligence of all dogs, I believe, is still misunderstood and not fully appreciated. They have good days and bad days like us, suffer quietly if they are in pain or confused but give off vibes of enthusiasm when they are fulfilled and seemingly happy. Training dogs day after day is not a static event, which is what makes it so much fun to work with them.
My three-year old, Catcher, has been introduced to all the AKC obedience exercises. Now I’m proofing his understanding of the required skills while trying to keep his attitude and energy positive and engaged with me. He loves to train because he knows sometimes he gets treats and he always has a chance to play, killing the dark brown Buffalo fur tug toy or chasing a tennis ball.
Eighteen month old Tommie is a joy to train. She is a high energy dog, extremely smart and is very athletic. But she can be frustrating to work with because she hates being wrong and is very hesitant when learning something new. Yesterday, when learning a new skill, she had a puzzled look on her face. We humans call the look the WTH (what the heck) look. She’s a nice heeling dog with focused attention, stopping and sitting promptly when I stop. We were heeling and I signaled and gave a verbal command for her to stand, in preparation for the Utility signal exercise. It took a bit of time to teach Tom to listen to my words and watch my hand for the stand signal. She’s learning my vocabulary and body language. Dogs are very good at reading our body language but, like humans, they assume we won’t do something unexpected. Just when Tommie had me figured out, that we would heel, turn around, heel and stop, I asked her for something new. That’s when she gave me that WTH look.
Each dog behaves differently when I say, “Excellent” or “Good Dog”. Catcher wags his tail, even if he’s sitting. His eyes implore me to reward him even more with food or his beloved toy. Training is all about intermittent reinforcement. Stick with me, Dog, sometimes I’ll give you a big reward every time for a job well done or every other time or not until we leave the show ring. You never know.
Tom is starting to wag her tail when she is praised. But she prefers a strong game of tug, although she never, I repeat never, refuses a treat. It’s just that, like Levi, when she’s working she is very serious and attentive. Like Levi, when she is working she doesn’t like being patted as a reward. It breaks her concentration and she gets a bit frustrated. It’s the little things that I learn about her every day that will help us in the show ring.
Razz is more like Catcher. At eight months of age, she is a warm and fuzzy puppy, all wiggly butt and ready and willing to work for a toy and/or treat. But I wonder, is she not as quick to learn or am I not expecting enough from her? Her retrieving is moving along slowly. Yesterday she actually picked up the plastic dumbbell from the ground. She froze in place, standing, her head not moving, only her eyes looking from side to side. I couldn’t help but laugh. The pup that drags heavy sticks around the yard was paralyzed with a small piece of plastic in her mouth. In time she will gain confidence and learn to walk, run and even jump with the plastic stick that we call a dumbbell in her mouth.
Each day Razz and I work on different exercises from the AKC’s Novice, Open or Utility titling classes. Each day she makes a slight improvement and even she gives me the WTH look occasionally. Today she gave me a stand from only a voice command. I was ecstatic but know that tomorrow she may not do it again. At this age one thing is learned and something like a simple down behavior goes out the window. It’s like their little brains are on system overload. Eventually things start to make sense and she will be more confident, able to do two difficult behaviors at the same time.
That’s the way dog training goes, requiring repetition and muscle memory, teaching the exercise until the dog even offers it before commanded. Anticipation is a good thing, although we work through it, teaching the dog to wait for a signal or command. When a dog offers behaviors to get rewards I have to laugh. It took me a long time to enjoy those moments. How cute (sorry, I’ve got to use that word), when a young dog drops, sits, spins, twists, backs up all on their own, going through their repertoire to earn a treat. It means they are enjoying our training time together, understand us and want to please us.
January 2015 is the start of a new dog show year. Show entries and closing dates mark my calendar. The ribbons are nice, the sense of accomplishment is better. I’ve been in this sport since the late 1970’s, long enough to know that it is important to keep a sense of humor, not to let failure defeat me, and most of all to have a good time with the dogs.
Happy New Year to you and your furry companions.