Post-2016 presidential election doldrums set in on Buckeye’s Valley Farm in December. The weather turned miserable (freezing rain, ice and bone chilling cold). My foundation St. Croix ram, Mr. Buckeye, came down with pneumonia. Despite my round-the-clock efforts, Mr. Buckeye couldn’t recover from his pneumonia induced lung damage. I called in the farm vet and had him euthanized. I missed three obedience trials because I couldn’t get off the farm. Nevertheless, I continued to train Beardies Smokes (UDX work) and Vim (for her CD). I also continued to ruminate over my objectives for their training.
As a Koehler trainer, my focus on dog training has been to develop an obedient dog, not a dog that earns 200’s in the competition obedience ring. But as a nascent obedience junkie, I have been reading and listening to those-who-know about what it takes to get a 200 score: Style Points.
What are Style Points? I am not sure, but I know that I have been told repeatedly that Smokes, Mr. Mellow, does not have “style.” And “style,” from what I understand, means doing each exercise appropriately and with panache. If your dog can do that, he will accumulate the Style Points necessary for a really high score.
In my quest to turn Mr. Mellow in to Mr. Panache, I sought guidance from those-who-know. One in-the- know told me that I am to be the “most important thing” to my dog when we enter the ring. So I taught my dog to play tug with a toy. I used the toy to amp Smokes up for training. I used the toy to amp Smokes up for his competition performances. I worked on details in a consistent and evolutionary manner (straight sits, straight fronts, quicker responses to commands). I raised the bar on performance one step per item, often several items at a time. Unfortunately, while being trained for Style Points, Smokes experienced collateral damage. He lost his “go outs.”
I had taught the “go out” as a blind retrieve (by hiding a small towel roll at the end of the “line”). Smokes could not go out straight. He always arched clockwise (except for very short go outs). Sometimes he arched so much that he ended up in the glove #1 corner. To get him to go straight, I sent Smokes on 70 foot blind retrieves along a fence line, strategically placing his left side next to the fence. I then put an elevated 70 foot line (rope) at a 12 degree angle from the fence and sent him on blind retrieves along the 12 degree line I moved this line out radially at 12 degree increments. (We have yet to make it to 90 degrees.)
For more “go out” practice, I set up two partial rings; one a standard size, the other 60 feet long with extra distance past the jumps. Smokes and I worked “go outs” as a blind retrieve ad nauseum. He looked pretty good at the farm. When the weather and sheep situation cleared, we finally went to dog school to proof our new and improved “go outs.” Smokes bombed. He pulled an el foldo about 10 feet away from me, dropping like a rock. I ear pinched him to the towel roll near the center stanchion and praised him immediately for picking it up.
Continually proofing and training, bi-weekly I took Smokes to WOOF, a training facility about 45 minutes from home. At the facility, Smokes would do an el foldo on his first “go out“ and then successfully perform the rest of his “go outs” after the first correction. In a few weeks, Smokes began to do the first “go out” on his own. Then the “unthinkable” happened. I sent Smokes on his first “go out.” One of the dogs crated near the center stanchion snarled and barked as Smokes approached the ring gating. That was it! Smokes’ “go out” rehabbing returned to ground zero. This occurred five days before our first trial of the year. Team Smokes soldiered on.
Our first trial weekend was in a horse barn. The atmosphere was laid back and comfortable. During his “go outs,” Smokes got about halfway to the ring gates before he either got lost or laid down. But on one “go out,” he made it almost all the way to the gates. We trained for two more weeks. Then we went to a very “busy” show at WOOF: a Collie specialty with conformation, obedience and rally.
On Saturday, Smokes did well in Open. We were ready for Utility…and then I saw the exercise order. Directed jumping was the first exercise. Ugh! I sent Smokes on his “go out” and he dropped at my feet as if I had shot him: BANG! He wouldn’t get up. He wouldn’t come when called. I asked the judge if we could be excused. I got my leash and fastened it to Smokes collar. Smokes summoned enough courage to get on his feet and follow me out of the ring.
I drove home, drank a Modelo Negro (which will probably double in price after the tariffs) and went to bed. After an hour’s sleep, Smokes and I did some flyball style “go out” drills (with towel rolls near the center stanchion) and then called it quits.
On Sunday, Smokes and I went back to the trial. As I was walking through the crowd, a fellow competitor asked me if I had “fixed” Smokes’ “go outs.” I looked at her and remarked “You know that I don’t train that way. I don’t ‘fix’ things overnight.” And then a few mean thoughts bubbled up from the recesses of my mind. Smokes and I went outside and did a few blind retrieves with his towel roll partially hidden in the grass.
Team Smokes’ first class was Open. The judge asked me if my dog was feeling any better (she had been the Utility judge the day before). I told her that he was feeling much better. And he was! Smokes sailed through Open with a very nice mid-190’s score. We went onto Utility.
Being an obsessive compulsive person, I had been dissecting our previous Utility performances, trying to figure out what was going wrong with the “go outs.” Although I hadn’t arrived at any conclusions, I decided that I would go into the Utility ring without any expectations. Forget about Style Points. Forget about the judge. Forget about the spectators. Just get the job done.
The pattern of the day was Utility I. I felt hopeful. At least we’d be able warm up for the “go outs.” Team Smokes walked into the Utility ring. Immediately I felt my blood pressure rise. Smokes must have sensed it, because after we completed the signal exercise, he collapsed to the floor. I calmly and quietly told Smokes “we can do this.” He got up and we went to the articles workstation. Smokes did a yeoman’s job with scent discrimination. Then he started to lose his nerve on the directed retrieve. He under rotated (to hide behind me) and took glove #1 instead of glove #2. I didn’t care. On command, he had left my side and retrieved a glove.
We finally got to the last exercise: directed jumping. I calmly set Smokes up. I calmly sent him out….and he did it! He did his first “go out!” Then he did the second “go out!” The judge looked at me, shook her head and said “I’m sorry” (since we had failed the directed retrieve).
“Oh, no! Don’t be sorry!” I responded. He did his ”go outs.” He conquered his demons.”
Smokes and I walked out of the ring transformed. I hugged Smokes and lifted him off the ground. My local trainer and several friends came over to congratulate us and give Smokes many well-deserved pats. Smokes soaked up the attention before we left the building on our usual post-performance walk.
Basking in the warm winter sun as we walked down the road, I realized that I had been putting too much pressure on Smokes. The pressure had worried him so much that he suffered a complete meltdown on his most problematic portion of the directed jumping exercise: the “go out.” Then it hit me: Leave the Style Points alone! They might be good for some competition dogs, but they are not good for Smokes. I cannot make him into something that he is not. Mr. Mellow is never going to be Mr. Panache.
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