By Deborah Neufeld
The training is what excites me most about Obedience. Seeing the dog figure out what we want and work to please us is a genuine rush. It’s not just the dogs that have to figure things out, though, handlers do as well. I’ve encountered my fair share of problems related to training for Obedience or Rally, and it’s not the “easy” exercises that are most memorable. It is the hard-won challenges that are most prized.
My current Cavalier, Dylan, was the victim of a thoughtless handler at ringside who ignored his 5-month-old large breed puppy. The puppy on a 6-foot leash was pouncing on my Cavalier’s soft crate repeatedly with Dylan in it. By the time I got back from a bathroom trip, my little guy was defending himself from inside the crate by charging at the puppy through the crate. Little did I know how deeply this one incident would affect him. As we continued to show he became more and more upset, often trying to leave the ring. It took me some time to figure out that he was trying to get back to his crate to defend it. He progressed to such a state that he would charge at anything walking by from inside his soft crate and I had to start covering it. When I finally figured out what was going on with my little guy, I decided to remove the source of his worry – his crate. So I bring his crate to trials and he goes into it while I set up, but then I collapse it down and he has no “cave” to resource guard. A lot of Cavaliers tend to be resource guarders so I shouldn’t have been surprised by this behavior, although it is unusual for it to surface later in life with an 8-year-old dog.
Dylan is also thunder-phobic. The technical term is astraphobia, but he is also sensitive to fireworks and other loud noises too. Fortunately, most of our Florida thunderstorms are in the afternoon. At home I have tried various supplements and herbs intended to lessen his fear. Nothing has really had much of an impact. One thing that does help him is to sit in my recliner with me. I let him nestle in next to my left side and I rest my left hand lightly on him. I guess it’s the “I’m here for you, buddy” factor that soothes him, but whatever it is this method has shown the most success. This past weekend at a local trial the thunder started before noon when we still had one Rally class to go. As soon as I took him out to potty and heard the thunder, I knew we had a problem. We came right back inside with him trembling so intensely it looked like he was in an earthquake. A big sigh, and I resigned myself that there would be a good chance he would simply try to leave the ring and get back to his (collapsed) crate. We had a few minutes to wait when I remembered something from an old Gary Wilkes seminar. Gary said, if your dog has a hard time on the stays, give them a full meal a few minutes before you go into the ring. When it’s time for stays the dog will be busy “digesting” and less likely to want to move at all, much less get up. I figured if he was digesting a big snack maybe his mind wouldn’t be on worrying about the thunder. I had about a third of a cup of roast chicken from dinner the night before, so while I was standing at ringside I just kept feeding him the chicken one piece at a time. When it was our turn we stepped into the ring and set up, and off we went. He actually stayed close to me and worked one of his best runs ever, earning the only score of 100 in the class. My brave little guy pulled it together, and I was so proud of him. I don’t know if the chicken worked or if he just couldn’t worry and focus on work at the same time, but one way or another he’s a ROCK STAR! We have our 20 Triple Q scores in Rally and 105 points (out of the 300 needed for a RACH), but with his age and aging knees our only long-term goal is the Rally Nationals next March. Hope to see you all there.
Sometimes we never figure out how or why a problem develops. Solving a problem doesn’t depend on knowing how it started, but determining the origin can help work out an issue much faster. Over the years my ability to “read” my dogs has improved. It’s an important skill to develop, and it only requires observation. Being attentive to body language and even facial expressions of my dogs has helped me figure out a number of problems. When my willing little guy resisted my command to sit, I could plainly see that it wasn’t him being stubborn as some handlers might assume. His body would crouch a little, his ears would draw back and his eyes would soften. I was reading “discomfort”. A trip to the Vet confirmed that his knees have gotten looser with age (a common problem in small dogs), and a trip to the Canine Chiropractor confirmed that he was pacing because his back needed adjusting. Although my Boxer has learned to be gentle with Dylan, even a light pat with those big paws can make a big difference, and Dylan doesn’t know he’s a small dog – he thinks he’s Boxer size. So whenever he is resistant I know to not assume he’s being disobedient or blowing me off. He’s just in need of some routine maintenance.
I have never liked the term “blowing me off” to describe a dog’s behavior. It suggests that the dog is willfully disobedient or has some devious plan to thwart our efforts. For the most part I don’t believe dogs think that way, and I believe we often misread what is going on with them. It would have been easy for me to assume it was willful disobedience when Dylan was resistant to sit on command, but since I know that is not a common behavior for him I knew I had to start searching for other reasons for his behavior.
There is a lot of joy and reinforcement for us as handlers in figuring out the little challenges as well as the big ones. May your journey be smooth, but with enough challenges to be interesting and help you grow as a trainer!
Good training, everyone!
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