This is more obvious to my dog than it was for me.

When I got Mellie, the plan was always for her to do flyball.  That was my main sport.  I wanted to do other stuff – agility! herding! and whatever.  I picked her out, the “highest” pup in the litter.  The most precocious, with a gorgeous build and intense toy drive.  The breeder knows I do flyball and so her guidance reflected this.  Mellie had a pretty good flyball career.  I made some mistakes.  She wasn’t perfect.  It’s amazing how well I trained her to spit the ball on the line before someone pointed out I was actually reinforcing this!  Live and learn.  Still, she loved it, she gave it 110%, and we had a lot of fun together.  She was totally unflappable, nailing pass after pass on the line, in anchor.  One time a loose dog trotted across all four lanes at a big tournament… right in front of Mellie as she approached the box.  She didn’t break her stride, completing her run perfectly.  We won the heat with a superb time and I was relieved the judge did not call interference.  (There was no interference!)

We dabbled in agility.  She Q’d a couple of times, but we never got into the ring until after The Disaster.  The Disaster was an injury playing disc when she was 7.  She loves disc.  She was practically born with a disc in her mouth.  Her breeder was the founder of the Canadian Disc Dog Association; her sire held a Canadian disc record.  On this particular day, she must have landed wrong, perhaps putting her foot into a hole.  I was throwing balls for the other dogs, and when I turned around, Mellie was lying on the ground, the disc at her side.  This was weird, but I hadn’t seen anything happen, so I called her.  She didn’t move. I started to panic.  There was nothing in heaven and earth that would stop her from bringing me her disc.  My roommate and I sprinted over to her.  We gently lifted her up, and she lay right back down.  Her right rear leg was not bearing any weight.

I took her to my vet right away, and saw someone other than our regular, beloved doctor.  This vet could not get a drawer sign.  “Partial rupture,” she said.  My regular vet called the next day.  “Get her straight to an orthopedist,” she instructed.  “Dr. ___ does not know how stoic and athletic Mellie is.”  The x-ray showed a horrifying situation.  The knee was completely luxated, the upper and lower leg bones totally disconnected.  It took a couple of weeks to get her in to surgery, where an excellent surgeon performed both a figure-8 repair and a TPLO.  Mellie cannot take NSAIDs so we relied on ice to reduce inflammation.  We did a lot of rehab, but in the end, that leg has never been really OK.  She has permanent damage and degeneration around the tendon insertion points.  And, predictably, the other knee eventually had a partial tear.  Mellie has now had three knee surgeries; the first big one, a second TPLO, and a plate removal from the first leg.
She was able to return to do some flyball and agiilty before the second rupture, but after that, we knew she had to be done.  At age eight, long before she should have had to quit, she had to retire from what she loved most.  We’ve been searching ever since.

I decided that we would work more on obedience.  She had been in many obedience classes and she was pretty good.  When she’s on, her heeling is flashy and gorgeous.  She’s inconsistent, and she is impatient.  There is not enough running, jumping or barking!  Her stand stay and down stay are great.  Her sit stay, not so much… and all the knee problems did not help.  However, I persevered and finally, last weekend, I got her in a ring.  It’s a race against time, against the day her knees just won’t put up with sit stays any more.

It was not pretty.  She barked!  (I watched the judge marking her (Friday) and his (Saturday) clipboard each time.)  She wandered out of heel position!  She bounced around too much on the fast pace!  On Friday, for the first time in over a year, she anticipated the recall.  On Saturday, we made it to the group stays, but she stood up on the sit stay (and stood nice and still for the rest of the time).  In a moment of confusion, I went to leash her to retire, but the judge reminded me to stay. At this moment, Mellie turned and snatched the leash of the other dog in Novice A — a friend’s dog — and tried to get me to tug.  (Judge marking clipboard ominously.)  She did a perfectly lovely down stay and off we went.

I felt like crap on Friday.  By Saturday, a sense of acceptance started to fill me.  By Monday, I was laughing looking back on her antics.  She is who she is.  She wants to tug, run, jump and bark.  She does not want to walk slowly, sit still, remain silent.  It’s not who she is, and she’s had nearly a decade of being allowed to bark, and run, and actually have fun — her fun — in the ring.

Despite misgivings (I’m a trainer, I should be able to fix this; she’s a Border Collie, what kind of idiot am I anyway? Why didn’t I do a better job on the frustration tolerance when she was a baby?), I get it.  She doesn’t want to do this, at least, not in the ring.  And she’s not quite old (ten in June), but not young, either.  We’re not going to waste time not having fun.

Rally didn’t make her too happy when she was younger.  But she really does like heeling, and maybe the rapid movement changes won’t whip her up as much as they used to, especially if I can talk to her more.  It’s also in and out faster, so less of a wait until she can tug, or have some cheese.  No lengthy sit-stay.  As long as she can do the repeated sits, maybe she will like it.
We will also return to nose work.  She knows all her odors and is a decent searcher.  We have more to learn, but she’s pretty good for never having taken a class.

I have to let go of proving something.  I have a somewhat naughty and disobedient Border Collie, but she is happy.  I’m not going to fight that to prove something.  It’s hard.  I’m a competitive person. I’ve been expected to excel since I was born, and I have trouble motivating myself without a competitive goal.  I need to get past that, for my dog.

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Making it easy to do the right thing, and hard to do the wrong thing

A standard piece of advice in training dogs and horses has long been to make it easy for your learner to do the right thing, and hard for your learner to the wrong thing.

This comprehensive directive embodies a great deal of the training we do. I like it a lot as a rule of thumb to help clients learn how to problem solve. On the other hand, it’s ambiguous.

Ambiguity occurs when a statement is equally susceptible to more than one meaning (usually conflicting meanings). In the practice of law, there are rules for dealing with ambiguity in the language of contracts or laws, but in real life, we have no such guidance.

“Making it easy to do the right thing” is reasonably clear. If I want my dog to sit to greet, I might exercise her first so she’s not bursting with energy; I might practice sits a lot outside of an exciting greeting context so that she is likely to choose sitting as a recently reinforced behavior; I might move slowly and quietly so that she doesn’t get excited and feel like becoming airborne. I might hold a treat in my hand at nose level to keep her focus low. Or I might stand on her leash to prevent her front feet from leaving the ground.

The problematic phrase is: “making it hard to do the wrong thing.” “Hard has a lot of meanings. Ignoring those which don’t really apply here, it can mean “arduous” or “strenuous” (the opposite of “easy”). That could come into play: for example, standing on the dog’s leash would make it arduous to get up high enough to jump on the person being greeted. It could denote difficulty (being puzzling, complex, or intricate — the opposite of “simple”).

But “hard” has quite a few other meanings which some trainers invoke. “Hard” can denote “tough,” “uncomfortable,” “distressing,” or “awful” (opposite of “comfortable”). It can also be “harsh,” “firm,” “strict,” “exacting,” “callous,” “hard-hearted,” “unkind,” “ruthless,” “merciless,” “cruel,” and “pitiless.” (Antonym here is “kind.” My goodness, my thesaurus has an awful lot of synonyms for this particular meaning of hard. Such focus on the grim!)

Another set of meanings involves “sharp,” “powerful,” “heavy” and “violent.” The antonym here is “light.”

It is easy to imagine this latter, large, set of meanings informing training choices. These meanings easily encompass acts like hanging a dog from a choke chain, kicking or kneeing it, applying an electric shock, or pinching its toes when it jumps up. I don’t use these techniques for training* and I don’t want to encourage my students or clients to use them either.

I’ve found myself wanting to say “make it easy for the dog to the right thing, and hard for the dog to do the wrong thing” to students to help remind them of a simple problem-solving algorithm. But I keep regretting it since it leaves too much room for reactive, abusive, or unnecessarily aversive training techniques.

If it were me, I’d change the phrase: “Make it easy for your dog to the right thing, and inconvenient or impossible for the dog to do the wrong thing.” The problem is, this is really a lot less catchy sounding. Anyone else out there have a better suggestion?


Footnote: *I will lift a dog from a collar or knee it IF we are in emergency management mode; the dog is overaroused and/or behaving dangerously, and I need to get control fast. This is not the same as choosing a training technique and using it systematically.

Respect. What?

Periodically, this question drives me crazy.

What is respect?  In particular, what constitutes the kind of respect dogs are supposed to have for humans?

About 95% of the time someone tells me their dog respects them, or points out a dog who respects people, the dog is visibly afraid of the person.  Is that respect? If that’s what it is, I am not interested, and it’s a very easy discussion for me.

I’ve had herding instructors tell me, “your dog does not respect you.”  Does that mean my dog does not fear me?  If I ask, the answer is something like, “respect means she does what you ask right away” or “does not pull on the  leash” (*oh shit*), or something like that.  But when I ask, “how do you teach that,” they tend to wiggle a bit and not have a concrete answer.  And I’m pretty sure that when they teach if to their dogs, it involves at least partly instilling an element of fear; of “or else.”

Can respect be earned by humans without using fear?  If so, how?  I’m pretty sure I’ve done all those things — controlling resources, being fair, teaching the skills so my dog understands, etc., with Mellie, but it’s also still pretty clear that there are times she’s just going to do what she wants and is “blowing me off.”  For example, leash walking.  Or thinks I’m a raging incompetent (“if you wanted me to go over that jump you should have told me in time”).  is that a failure of respect?

I’m truly at a loss with this.  I know people I respect, so I’ve asked myself “what is it about those people that makes me respect them?”  The answer is usually that they are fair, fairer than usual; or stronger than most people (especially myself) would be in a similar situation.  I have enormous respect for some of the young single moms I’ve met who are also going to school and working one or more jobs.  I’m pretty sure I couldn’t ever have done that; it’s enormous.  Just an example.  And this really does not translate well to “dog respecting a person,” because it requires all sorts of theory of mind and abstract thinking which dogs don’t appear to do.

I welcome comments.  I’d really like to hear what people mean by this, and how they teach it.