I have heard it said that it is not the destination, but the journey that is important. I find myself in one of those moments in my life where I can appreciate that sentiment. It has been more than a decade since I turned away from what I thought I knew about dogs and dog training to begin a journey of discovery and learning that lead me to behavioural science, the ethology of the domestic dog, human psychology, and a wealth of scientific information about animals and learning. It was a journey that almost at once put me at odds with a number of “dog people” who either didn’t understand or didn’t want to understand the things I was learning about. While it felt at times like an uphill struggle against the “conventional wisdom” of the dog world, the accomplishments have been as satisfying as the results were breathtaking.
I raised a dog. From her first moments with us she was taught with behavioural science and positive reinforcement. I used treats and clickers. Play and conditioned reinforcement. Incremental learning and shaping. I managed my use of aversives, I learned how to use and fade prompts. I created training plans. I watched video of myself and my dog to see what was happening in our work together. But for all of my earnest efforts, I frequently heard comments like “well, good luck with that” and “I hope that works out for you” from friends and colleagues in the dog world. Always uttered with that polite but barely concealed undertone that said, “Oh, you poor misguided fool.” I knew it would be years before I had any real answers about what this new kind of training would or would not do for me and my dogs.
Then the walls came down
As I recounted in A Broken Dog parts one, two, and three of this series, my beautiful girl Tiramisu seemed to come crashing down at the age of 7 and a half years. She had been a wonderful performer in dog agility. Even if I wasn’t the best handler, my dog was eager, happy, and willing to run any course with anyone. She loved the game and loved working. And then it all stopped. There was fear and trembling. An inability to perform agility and even personality changes at home. There was a temptation to fall back to my old style of training and just make Tiramisu “tough it out”, work through it (a technique sometimes referred to as “flooding“) by pushing her into the work anyway. The “conventional wisdom” I had always been given was not to let the dog get away with not performing or they would learn that they could avoid it in future.
But my new understanding of dogs and behaviour had changed my perspective on that. Such a sudden and unexplained change in behaviour could not (and should not) be attributed to my dog just deciding to change her mind about things. This was not a whim or a plot to assert dominance by playing the victim. Instead I turned to veterinary medicine to see if there was some physical cause. And sure enough, there was. Medication was prescribed and we began the road to recovery.
The Power of Strong Foundations
At the time of this writing, it is 18 months after Tiramisu’s diagnosis of a hypothyroid disorder. Just over a week ago, Tiramisu earned her Agility Trial Championship and Versatility Championship in the North American Dog Agility Council. While this is an accomplishment of which I am very proud, it pales in comparison to two other accomplishments from the weekend that she earned those titles. First, she completed all 13 runs on the weekend with no fear and no hesitation, something that I could not say even just 6 months ago. And second, one of her qualifying runs was earned at the amazing speed of 6.47 yards per second. Tiramisu is a 9 year old dog.
What got us here was science and a clear focus on the facts. There was no speculation. There was no “trying things out” that dog experts suggested. I had built years of positive history with my dog and all of that experience paid me back a thousand fold. We have built a bond of trust that means that my dog will work with me and trust me to keep her safe. She can count on me to give her the things she needs even if that meant not playing agility for a while. I had taught her that perseverance pays off and this enabled Tira to come to play with me every week, even for a little while, and to try to work with me even if she wasn’t feeling her best. And there was the foundation of the literally dozens of behaviours I had taught her that she knew so very well and gave her some comfort even when she felt ill at ease.
Understanding and recipes
All those years ago I made a choice to understand the principles I was using to train my dog. It was not enough to simply follow instructions to get a result. Anyone can follow a recipe from a cookbook but it takes skill and learning to be a chef. In order to creatively bend and break the rules, one must first understand those rules thoroughly. That was my goal. Learning all I could about behaviour, learning theory, dogs, and reinforcement training allowed me to create my own recipes for teaching my dog and working with her.
The road to our three agility championships (Tiramisu also has an Agility Association of Canada championship title) took us away from many of the standard approaches to playing dog agility. I was told that I could not be successful without this or that newly developed agility technique. I was told that I was allowing Tiramisu to make too many decisions on her own on the course. I was not exerting enough control over her. I chose instead to teach her and let her work with me. I made many adjustments to my own handling style to accommodate her running style. We didn’t follow any of the popular techniques, we made it up as we went along.
In the end, it has become a kind of dance. I learned by watching my partner and she watches me. She always goes exactly where I send her. That’s not to say that I’m a perfect handler. I frequently send her to places I didn’t intend and not all of our runs are qualifying runs. Tira has fun because I am never disappointed in her, no reason to scold or reprimand. Her bright eyes and sassy barks are all I need to tell me that she’s ready to play. If I had focused on results rather than how we played the game, I might have a very different dog than the dog Tira has become.
Lessons from the journey
It has been a great ride with my dog so far. And I’ve learned more than a few lessons along the way. Perhaps most important of those lessons is that the process is more important than the results. The ribbons that cover my wall represent hundreds of hours working and playing with my dog, not just the number of qualifying runs it took to earn them. A focus on results rather than how to attain them might have cut our journey short. I am confident and excited that Tiramisu and I have many more fast and fun agility adventures ahead. Our positive and reinforcing process gave us that.
Another important lesson for me was that, when it comes to dogs and dog training, “conventional wisdom” may not always be the best way to go. Just because someone tells you that you should be doing something with your dog doesn’t make it the right thing to do. If I hadn’t learned what I learned about dogs and behaviour, I could have done things with my dog that I would still be regretting. Just because someone claims to be an “expert” or can boast about titles and awards earned does not mean that they have anything of value to offer you and your dog. Yes, you should listen and consider but in the end, it is up to you to understand what you hear and decide if it is right for you and your dog. I chose my own way and I wouldn’t change a thing.
Finally, at the end of the day, I have learned that everything we do with our dogs matters. It is the little things we do every day that add up to the kind of relationship we get to have with our dogs. Tiramisu and I spend about 8 minutes each week training in the agility barn. It has been that way for years. But we work on behaviours at home every single day. I teach her things and we practice at meal times and in between. All of that training is done with positive reinforcement. No “corrections.” And Tiramisu has learned that working with me is fun because she won’t get reprimanded. It’s no surprise that her wonderfully positive attitude comes with her when we get onto the agility course.
Last year at this time, I didn’t know if we would ever get to play agility again. Having come through her breakdown and getting her back to competition form, I know Tiramisu is truly a champion. She has the heart of a champion. And I am grateful to be able to share my life with such a special dog. It seems we have done things right after all. To those who told us “Good luck with that” and “I hope that works out for you” – Thank you and it did.
Until next time, have fun with your dog.
The first Canine Nation ebooks are now available –
“Dogs: As They Are” & “Teaching Dogs: Effective Learning”
Photo credits –
All photos – Copyright Petra Wingate 2013