I failed my dog this weekend.
That’s not a very cheerful way to start a blog post, and I’m afraid this post doesn’t paint me in a very positive light. However, I think the topic is important enough to write about even if I do find the situation quite embarrassing. So without further comment, here’s what happened.
This weekend, I attended a seminar by a well-known clicker trainer. I pick which seminars to go to quite carefully, and was so excited about this one. This particular author was one of the first to write clearly about such important concepts as shaping and the Premack principle, and her explanations were timely in my personal development as a professional trainer. I was so pumped that I managed to secure a working spot for Dobby on Sunday.
You can imagine my disappointment, then, when I began to realize that this trainer’s shaping style differed significantly from mine. It was interesting to watch this person work. She has impeccable mechanical skill, and is clearly incredibly talented. Many of her approaches parallel my own, and the initial working slots in the seminar were a joy to watch. She introduced the cardboard box game to teach dogs to offer behavior, and the working dogs all dived into this game with enthusiasm.
Things started to break down later in the morning, when those working dogs were put into problem solving spots. This seminar presenter uses free shaping to deal with problem behaviors, which I also sometimes do (although for the sake of transparency I’m much more likely to use a Control Unleashed game, such as Give Me a Break, at this point). My comfort level plummeted, however, when I watched the amount of pressure that was put on the dogs during these exercises. It was clear that our tipping point for when to “push the envelope” was quite different.
I watched as the working dogs were put in situations where the message was, “if you succeed, I will make you more uncomfortable.” It’s absolutely important to raise criteria as a dog is successful, but after one successful trial (with success defined, not by the dog’s expression or emotional state, but rather by their ability to offer an acceptable behavior or respond to a known cue), these dogs would be asked to go back into the same situation as one of the criterion was bumped up a notch. The author spoke at length about negative reinforcement, but despite the great opportunities available to make use of this principle by taking pressure off the working dog as a reward for an acceptable response, this technique was not utilized. Dogs responded slowly. Dogs disengaged and zoomed. Dogs stress-sniffed. I had to leave the room at one point, as a little Papillon was so uncomfortable about being asked to slam a teeter board that every line of her body communicated uncertainty and hesitation.
Understand here, this trainer does not force dogs to do anything. She free shapes, which means the dog is always allowed to say “no” with no consequence other than the lack of a click and treat. These dogs were in no way corrected for disengaging. However, the amount of pressure put on them was phenomenal. In each case, the dog clearly understood what was expected of him or her. Dogs who left the working space were recalled or put on leash (not to use the leash to coerce the dog into responding, simply to prevent the dog from leaving again). However, just because the dogs weren’t forced to respond does not make the amount of pressure placed on them okay. These dogs were not happy, and they were not having a good time. They were learning that when they felt uncomfortable they could not depend on their owners to help them feel better about the situation.
With all of this to consider, I spoke to the presenter on Saturday afternoon. I introduced myself and told her that I had a working spot the next day and that I was hesitant about the amount of pressure being placed on the working dogs, as I felt it would be harmful for my working dog to be placed in such a situation. She told me she would be happy to work with me on adjusting criteria for my individual dog, and that I could just let her know if I felt we needed to change anything for him. I was reassured and decided to keep Dobby’s working spot.
I skipped the lecture on Sunday morning, as I had found it so aversive to watch the working dogs on Saturday that I couldn’t face the idea of watching another full day of stressed dogs. Sunday afternoon was our working spot, and I approached it with mixed feelings. I was reassured that the presenter would be willing to adjust criteria for him, but worried that I would be put into the tough spot of disagreeing with a so-called expert in front of my friends and colleagues. In retrospect, I should have listened to my gut feeling and given up my working spot, as there was a waiting list of dogs whose owners would have been thrilled to be given the opportunity to work.
When asked what my goal for Dobby was, I told the presenter that I wanted him to find joy in working in this situation. I knew that this goal was attainable for him, as he’s been in higher-criteria settings (such as rally trials) where he had a wonderful time and looked confident and happy. I explained that he could be neophobic and was sometimes fearful of unfamiliar people, especially men or people in hats.
The presenter’s goal for Dobby was the same as mine: she wanted unfamiliar or scary things or people to become a cue for Dobby to pay attention to me. Our paths for reaching that goal, however, differed significantly, and this is where the first big issue appeared. Up until now, I have treated these situations as “Look at That” opportunities, using the Control Unleashed game. If Dobby was unable at any point to quickly turn back to me and instead began staring, I would use the Whiplash Turn to break his stare and would back further away from the trigger until he was comfortable enough to quickly turn back to me.
The presenter wanted me to shape his attention instead, and I expressed concerns about changing the rule structure for him at this point in his training. This is where this post becomes somewhat embarrassing to share. In spite of my attempts to be nonconfrontational and respectful, I clearly did a poor job of explaining our current training protocol. At one point, the presenter sarcastically told me, “well, since you clearly know everything…” when I asked that we tweak her training plan, and I could feel my skin flush as I thought of everyone watching this uncomfortable exchange. She asked me why I signed up if I didn’t want to follow her recommendations, and I again did a poor job of explaining that while I was very interested in her suggestions (why else would I have spent the extra money for a working spot?), I was concerned that they would put too much pressure on my dog and wanted to make sure that he felt happy and comfortable during his working sessions rather than concerned.
I wanted Dobby to know that I would keep him safe, not just physically, but emotionally as well. My dogs are my friends and companions first and foremost, and while I do compete with them I refuse to put competitive goals before our friendship. I want my dogs to know that they can trust me to not just keep them safe, but to only ask them to do things that make them happy. If they do not find joy in a chosen sport, I will not ask them to continue going into that situation. When I’m holding that same dog in my arms ten or fifteen years from now as the vet inserts the needle to end their life, I’m not going to be looking back and thinking of all the titles or awards that dog has won, but rather of the quality of the time we spent together. I don’t ever want to look back with regrets.
Anyway, back to the seminar. Dobby was asked to heel in a circle around a man, and I was to reward him for focusing on me. I clicked him for quick glances at the man, playing the Look at That game, but agreed to wait him out if he began to stare, then click when he reoriented to me on his own. In retrospect, this was a poor idea. On several different occasions, Dobby began to stare at people who concerned him, getting locked into a negative spiral. The longer he stared, the more uncomfortable he felt, and the more uncomfortable he felt, the more he needed to stare. To add fuel to the fire, I felt myself torn between trying to talk with the presenter or other auditors who had questions and trying to support my dog. I was unable to give him 100% of my attention, and I know he felt the disconnect. It was a poor setup.
The pictures from the seminar tell the true story of what happened. Dobby is nothing if not willing, and he tried his best for me. He has not always been like this, but with the deep relationship we’ve built up over the past year his desire to follow my lead has blossomed. It’s a lot of responsibility to have a dog who will try his heart out like this, and I feel like I failed him this weekend by taking advantage of his willingness. My little dog did absolutely everything I asked of him, and had I done a better job of listening I would not have asked so much. Pictures show him trotting in heel position, his face a picture of concern. There was no joy in his performance.
After our second of three working sessions, I felt like crying. Dobby’s behavior was deteriorating, and he was doing more and more staring as his discomfort increased. I also felt like I was being put on the spot and made to look stupid, and was very uncomfortable with the thought of having to go up in front of the crowd of auditors in such a socially uncomfortable setup again.
I decided to change our plan, and during our last working session I instead asked the presenter about a different issue, Dobby’s overarousal during tug sessions. To be honest, this issue is already well on its way to being resolved. Using the Premack principle, I’ve been able to shape Dobby to eat in the presence of a tug toy, and then later to “out” the toy on cue. We’ve done a large amount of zen work with the toy, and Dobby is able to heel over and around multiple toys and treats on the ground with confidence. However, I was very interested in the presenter’s approach to this issue, and also wanted to give Dobby the chance to play tug in this setting as I knew that he felt more confident and less concerned when he was playing than when he was asked to work solely for food treats.
The last session went much more smoothly, and I was happy to find that the presenter’s approach to this issue was very much in line with what I had already done. Her suggestions of when to click and when to raise criteria were very helpful. More importantly, Dobby did not feel the need to scan or stare and was engaged in the game.
This weekend was a huge learning experience for me, and I value it for the important lessons I learned. After I left the seminar, I parked my car and cried for five minutes, a result of the embarrassment and stress of the day. People have thresholds too, and I was well past mine. Several days later, I still have a negative reaction to the thought of the seminar. I learned some important lessons, most especially to listen to my instincts and to protect my dog’s trust in me at all costs, but the lesson came with its own fallout. It may be a long time before I consider working my dog with an unknown seminar presenter again.
What about Dobby? He went home and slept hard, and woke up the next day none the worse for wear. I haven’t seen any residual signs of stress with him like I would with Layla, who typically takes three days to recover from stressful situations. It amazes me how much heart and courage this little dog has, and I’ve resolved to respect and honor that in the future. It’s not easy to face one’s fears, and Dobby never stopped trying for me last weekend. He slept on my lap for awhile today, curled up with his head on my shoulder, and I couldn’t help but think of the terrified little “pancake” dog of just over a year ago, who would have hit the ground and peed all over himself had I asked him for even 1/10 of what I asked him for this weekend. He’s by no means “cured” (or even, to be honest, safe to put in many situations), and honestly never may be. But he keeps trying, and he keeps getting better, and the journey together only serves to make me love him more. We’re both okay, and I appreciate everything that makes this earnest, silly, amazing little dog so unique.
Training seminars and working with experts can be great, but they’re not everything. My best teachers have always been my dogs, and if I can only keep listening to them, they’ll continue to teach me. May I always be as devoted a student as they are.