In which I admit I am not too bright

(Note: I have added to this blog since it was originally posted, with some information that I forgot about the first time around.  The new material is mainly after the paragraphs about finding lost frisbees. It’s referred to in some of the discussion following as well.) 

I have written before about how I decided to stop doing nose work with Mellie. As I’ve moved on to working successfully with Big Barley (NW 1 under his belt, now trying to get into a NW 2 trial) and even starting Jad, I’ve had more time to process the long history of events in Mellie’s life which led to quitting. This makes a good cautionary tale, and I thought I’d share it because it might help other nose work handlers with dogs having “out of the box” difficulties (*snork*). It might help anyone having difficulties in any dog training process, because some of the take-home lessons generalize pretty big.

Mellie came out of the womb loving to tug. That’s one reason I chose her. She would, and still will, tug anything I tell her is a toy: a sock, a wristwatch strap, a wallet, a stick, a yogurt lid, a fork. And she likes to shred things that are easily shredded. To this day, she will shred open any plastic baggie that she finds, both because it might contain food (but honestly, I think she knows the empty ones are hopeless) and because they’re fun to dissect.  Early on, we liked to play “101 Things to Do With A Box.” Our version involved some shaping games, and one thing she learned was to bring me a large box, climb inside it, and close the flaps, ready to be mailed somewhere. She always loved to shred cardboard, as did Cedi, and I allowed it. It was a great outlet for Cedi (first title: Shredder Dog Excellent) and I had no problem with Mellie engaging in it too. The stuff was still recyclable, after all. Over time, she sometimes would seek out cardboard to shred – with vigor and abandon. She’d hold down the box and rip it madly with her teeth, having a grand time.

When Mellie was six months old, a friend and I joked about whose dog was smarter.  Farli was a very, very smart and well-trained adult dog with numerous performance titles and other achievements, so I was probably tempting fate with my humorous boasting.  However, in the moment, I started teaching her to find my keys.  She already had a cued retrieve of any object, so I had her retrieve my keys from a few feet away.  Then I put them further away in the same room; she brought them back and we played tug to reward her. (I have a little strap on my keys, which she could grip easily.)  Then I hid them in the same room, told her to find them and bring them; she did this; more tug. Then I had my friend restrain her while I hid them in another room, inside a dog crate.  She’d seen where I went, and when we released her to go find, she was back in about 15 seconds.  It was her first scent find, and her reward was to tug with me, using the keys.  We performed this parlor trick many times over the years, almost always ending up with a rousing game of tug-the-key-strap.

“Find it!” –> nose search –> retrieve source –> play tug!   

Mellie came out of the womb loving frisbees. Her breeder founded the Canadian Disc Dog Association and many of her relatives are disc champions of various types. She loved them from the start and was an adept catcher and fetcher within a few weeks as a roly-poly puppy. I bought a number of bite-resistant competition discs to use with her, as they lasted forever. They’re spendy, however, so I was careful not to let them get lost in the field by my house. This field was mown 2-3 times per summer, so the grass got deep between cuttings. The park dropped down a steep wooded bank to a creek, and Mellie would regularly run down there when she was thirsty for a drink. Because she has never concentrated urine well, she needed to drink often, and this meant that her Jawz discs ended up along the creek banks, functionally beyond my reach down the steep bank. So, I’d send her back.  “Go find it. Frisbee, go find it!”  And she did; we lost very few of those precious discs over the years. But at times, she didn’t want to run all the way back down into that ravine to find the disc. I don’t blame her; it wasn’t as fun as catching and fetching. She’d get frustrated, and her displacement  behavior was to start pulling grass. She’d put her head down and grab it and bite it and pull it. If I pressured her more, she’d pull more grass. I eventually worked out a way to finesse the situation, but meanwhile, I set her into a pattern, and the pattern was this:

“Find it!” —> frustration! —> displacement behavior of pulling grass frantically.  

Somewhere around this time, some brilliant trainers elsewhere were in the process of inventing Canine Nose Work. Of course, people and dogs have worked together with the power of the dog nose for probably millennia, but the nose work revolution has consisted of making it accessible for ordinary pet owners, outside of the competitive, purebred-focused rigors of obedience, tracking, or IPO. Eventually, inevitably, I got sucked in and I was sure that my brilliant, athletic, confident dog would love it.

And she did. The problem was the damned boxes. She would try to find the treats, and then the odor when we introduced it, and she would. But there were boxes.  Some boxes could be retrieved, and she automatically tried to retrieve those for a game of tug.  Also, boxes were fun to shred. I’d try to get her to refocus, not to retrieve, not to shred.  She would stop searching for odor, and she’d go into a frenzy of box destruction. It was often funny, and often frustrating for me.

OK, a lot of dogs have this issue.  A lot of dogs play with boxes, or stomp boxes, or at least just accidentally walk on the boxes which might annoy a judge or CO. And a lot of people saw my dog with boxes and decided she had one of these problems and wanted to help me fix it.

What they didn’t know, and I hadn’t fully realized, was that this wasn’t a problem of lack of odor obedience. Her odor obedience is great, always has been. I remember her searching odor at a flyball tournament and moving right past things like plastic bags containing food, the trash bag at our setup, treats loose in someone’s chair’s cupholder… only stopping when she found the birch. She could easily finish Elite level searches in mock trials. Her problem wasn’t odor obedience, or my body language, attitude, or handling skills (all can use work — none were the problem here).

It was that long ago, she’d learned that if I said “find it,” she could expect to play tug with that object.  And then she learned that when she couldn’t immediately find it, it helped her to start pulling grass frantically out of the ground. And if there wasn’t grass, but there was a box… well, she had lots of practice pulling on boxes, in exactly the same way. One paw to hold it down so she could get a really good mouthful and shred. Oh my girl. I did this to you, and I saw it so late. Even now, my eyes fill with tears when I write it down. Because of her huge heart, and her huge brain, she could stay on track if there was no obvious target for her frustration. But when there were boxes, that old pattern kicked in. And then she would be off and running with the glorious release of pulling and flinging and barking and biting! And yes, that did eclipse her odor obedience.

Understanding, finally, what happened, I’m taking her back to some occasional nose work classes, just for fun. I’ll just avoid containers. I have a dog to compete with.  Barley’s a much easier dog to handle (though a much harder dog to work in public, as he’s sensitive to strangers, dogs, and new places). It takes the pressure off Mellie, and she can enjoy just searching, doing something with me. She did two searches at the end of Jad’s class tonight and even that has helped her settle for a snooze on the sofa.

I’ve needed to apologize to every one of my dogs for something, usually more than one something, and this is near the top of the list of things I have to apologize to my beloved Mellie for.

If you’re looking for take-home lessons…


  1.  For the love of dog, don’t recycle cues you’ve used previously. I should have known better, but it just didn’t occur to me that this one had baggage. (Now that it is all written out, yes, I feel really, really stupid.) For nose work in general, if you use a day-to-day “find it” for picking up food off the kitchen floor, or even for fun find-mom games at home, I recommend that you use a brand-new cue when you start formal nose work training. It’s just safer. You can always combine them later if you’re sure it will work out. The same is probably true of recycling cues when starting any new sport. I’d err on the side of adding a new, precise, purposeful cue instead.
  2. Box problems in nose work are not always about boxes being fun. Always give some thought to whether you’re seeing a frustration/displacement behavior. Shredding stuff when frustrated is a time-honored, species-typical displacement behavior. If that’s what you’re getting, video a bunch and ask a good behavior person (not a nose work person) what they see.
  3. Even if your dog is a genius, you may still be making it too hard for them. I know I did this to Mellie at times during her life and I hope to spend the rest of her life with me making up to her for it.

She’s still a genius, though.


Mellie on the way home, 7 weeks, Vancouver airport.


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.

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.