Mellie is now my oldest dog. She turned 12 in June 2017. Her mama lived to be 16, and she’s still in pretty good shape, despite three knee surgeries and some peculiar health issues. Her frustration tolerance is receding a bit – that’s always been hard for her. In theory she is still capable of actively training and competing in a sport, perhaps Rally or Nosework. But I think we are done with that.
Our last sport was NACSW nose work. Mellie never earned a title. I regret this. We had this problem with boxes. Now, a lot of dogs have problems with boxes, but Mellie’s was worse than most. It didn’t take much for her to quit searching for odor and start destroying the boxes. This wasn’t an “aggressive alert” problem or a “box stomping” problem or even your basic discrimination problem. It went farther than that. And at every single practice match, ORT and trial we attended, someone had to try to be helpful and tell me that I “really need to work on that,” or told me they knew how to fix it — without realizing that this was probably a bit different, and worse, than whatever box problems they’d dealt with before. I became exhausted with constantly fending off these sallies, whether they were well-intended or catty. Mellie was frustrated, but I was really hurting.
Being 12 now, Mellie was around before NACSW was. And, I didn’t leap into nose work right away. She was a happy flyball dog, and we dabbled in other sports (rally, obedience, herding, agility, and tricks). So Mellie had a lot of life experiences before coming to nose work. Included in these life experiences were:
- Learning to find my keys by scent when she was six months old, bring them to me, and play tug with them as a reward. She learned this in four repetitions, which knocked my socks off, and has been doing this for fun and as a parlor trick ever since.
- Learning from older sister Cedi what fun it is to shred cardboard. Mellie is a tug monster, and cardboard will do. There’s also the part about shredding. Mellie is a very “high” dog, the kind who tended to want to jump up and bite your arm when you were running agility, who needed a much better handler than me to be fast and clear enough for her.
- Learning to go find the disc she had carried down to the creek while we played. It was hard for me to get down that slope, and those discs were expensive. But if I pressured her too hard to get the disc (found by memory and scent, I assume, following the cues “find it” and “get it”), she started demonstrating displacement behavior — pulling grass vigorously, and eating some of it.
- Learning flyball, where arousal could handily be dealt with by running really fast and tugging really hard.
As a result, in her mind, “find it” was to be followed by tugging. And frustration in “finding it” could be dealt with my pulling grass. And cardboard was for shredding. So it’s not really a surprise that box searches, for this easily-frustrated dog, ended up being about displacing right over into a frenzy of shredding and throwing and very high arousal. It’s not surprising that this topped odor obedience in magnetism for her.
If I’d really thought about it, I guess, I might have anticipated some of this and changed her search cue. I think that would have helped. But I didn’t, because nothing seemed more natural than using her already nicely honed “find” command for this new situation. This was my fault — of course — but it ended up creating a very difficult situation.
So we quit. It was a hard decision, but I realized that every nose work event we attended, and some classes, were excruciating. I’d come home in tears, morose. And while I think Mellie liked a lot of it, I don’t know that she loved it enough to justify putting me through the misery it had become.
A couple of days ago, I was working with a client dog who’s scared of things moving under her feet — the car is the worst. I tried having her get a treat out from under the edge of a cardboard box lid, and she couldn’t — she was too frightened. In fact she wouldn’t touch the cardboard at all. So I got Mellie out of the car and brought her up onto the lawn and got her playing tug with the cardboard. We played tug-shred-fetch-destroy with chunks of cardboard while my client dog chased a ball around, and gradually noticed that apparently cardboard was a lot of fun, and gradually switched to shredding her own piece of cardboard quite happily.
Mellie’s a really fine assistant, and it was wonderful to be able to use her powers for good.