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.


So what is your Border Collie NOT good at ..


I work with many herding breed dogs, and, not too surprisingly, there’s a pattern to the types of issues which crop up with these dogs.  Border collies and Aussies are very popular in the Pacific Northwest and are justly appreciated for the intelligence, trainability, owner-focus, and athleticism.  That doesn’t mean they are easy!  I think this article does a wonderful job of explaining the dichotomy.
I received kind permission to reprint this article from the Border Collie Trust GB website (  Copyright Sue Kinchin.

So what is your Border Collie NOT good at ….

If you have a Border Collie you have a very special dog; a dog that is intelligent, sensitive, eager to please and very quick to learn. Sounds like the perfect pet? Yes, with our help they can make wonderful pets, but we need to remember that when we take one of these very special and complex dogs into our homes we have a responsibility to try to understand all the factors that make a Border Collie what it is. The more we can understand our Border Collies the less likely it is that we, and our collie, will encounter serious problems. Border Collies have been bred for generations in a very specific and restricted environment for a very specific task and, as a breed, are relative new-comers to life as pets. Some cope very well and others struggle. It is our duty to try to understand these beautiful, clever creatures and to help them to cope.
We can easily find books that tell us what Border Collies have been bred for. We will be warned about their sensitivity to movement and tendency to chase things and about the fact that they need to have their brains occupied, but what we are not generally asked to think about are those characteristics that are not necessary in a working sheepdog, but which make life easier for a pet dog.
Anyone who has owned Border Collies will be aware that they are generally cautious dogs. Without intensive and sensitive socialisation as puppies they are often wary of people, intolerant of unfamiliar dogs and anxious about anything new or changing. Even with intensive socialisation some retain these characteristics. Border Collies are prone to being affected by a single bad experience and have poor “bounce back” when something goes wrong for them.
They are very sensitive to reprimands, but equally crave guidance and instruction. Because they are very sensitive to movement, any fast movement that they cannot control can be very disturbing to them. No wonder so many Border Collies hate traffic. Remember though, it is this sensitivity and intelligence that we find so appealing.
So why are they like this? Why can life upset them so easily? To understand our collies fully we need not only to consider what they have been bred for,.but also what they have not been bred for.
When a shepherd is selecting dogs to breed from he is selecting for a specific task and characteristics that do not interfere with this task are likely to be ignored.
Over the generations your Collie has NOT been bred to:
Cope with noise… Collies need to have very acute hearing to hear and interpret a shepherd’s signals at a great distance, but sheep farms are generally quiet places and their sensitive hearing does not cause them problems. Urban and domestic life bombards our dogs with noise and this can cause them extreme stress. Be aware of this and if necessary protect your dog from excessive noise. Speak quietly to your Collie, he doesn’t need you to shout at him.
Cope with change… sheep farms tend to be relatively unchanging places, there are sheep, the shepherd and his family, the barn where the dog sleeps and an odd tractor or car. Sheep dogs don’t generally need to cope with change. Every time our urban collie leaves home the street outside will probably have changed (new vehicles, new people, rubbish skips etc.). Just going out for a walk, even if the dog looks forward to his walk, can generate stress and we need to be aware of this and help him cope.
Cope with the presence of strangers/visitors or groups of people… Sheep farms tend to be isolated places. It is not necessary to be at ease with people to be a good working sheep dog. In a pet home our dogs are surrounded by many strange people in the street and visitors to the home. If you get your Collie as a puppy make sure he is sensitively socialised to people at an early age. If he is older respect the fact that he may find meeting strange people stressful.
Cope with the presence of strange dogs…… apart from the familiar dogs with similar characteristics that live on the farm with them, working sheepdogs are unlikely to need to mix with other dogs. As pet owners we expect them to meet a lot of strange dogs, many with appalling “dog manners”, and often with our dog on a lead so that it does not have the option of running away. Even if your collie does not react aggressively in these situations he could well be very stressed.
Many sheepdogs will never leave their farms so traditionally they haven’t really needed to get on with other dogs or unfamiliar people. Sociability and resilience are not characteristics that have historically been important in the development of the Border Collie. Although your dog may not be directly from working stock he will still have many of the characteristics inherited from generations of working sheep dogs and equally he may not have inherited those characteristics that would make life in a pet home easier for him.
Shepherds are the experts with Border Collies and we can learn a lot from them. Yes, we’ve all heard of harsh and callous shepherds, but many value their dogs very highly, not just as working dogs, but also as members of their family. Watch a sheepdog working, it is referring back to the shepherd for guidance all the time. His impulses to chase and control movement are under very tight control. The shepherd is guiding the dog and the dog is exhibiting self-control. Ideally this is how we want our collie to be with us. If he is checking in with us to find out what do next not only is he under control and less likely to get himself into trouble, but he is also getting reassurance from us. He doesn’t have to worry; we will tell him what to do in any situation. Encourage your dog to look to you for guidance; it shouldn’t be too hard, it’s in his genesl
Watch the shepherd to, he has to keep very calm and guide his dog at all times. You just don’t see excitable shepherds, an excitable shepherd would mean an excited dog and scattered sheep! Be a calm owner. Think about this if you are considering Agility or Flyball with your Collie, a good working sheep dog is fast and has lightning reflexes, but is not in a state of over-excitement. Teach your dog calmly what you want him to do. If he understands and is enjoying what he is doing he will do his best; after all he has been bred from generations of dogs selected for their willingness to work as a team with their handler. There is no need for your dog to be roused to a hysterical state for it to perform well, and it is bad for its mental and physical health to be in such a state. If your dog shows signs of stress or gets over-excited ask yourself is this is really the best activity for him.
A final thought… when a working sheepdog is not working alongside the shepherd he is shut away in a quiet, non-stimulating place to rest and recover and to keep him out of mischief! Importantly, adrenalin levels that have probably been quite high while he is working now have a chance to return to normal. Your sensitive, alert pet Collie is being bombarded with information from his environment all the time; make sure he has plenty of opportunity to rest in a secure, non-stimulating place where he can relax.
Think Border Collies, think working sheepdogs… maximise their strengths,
understand and respect their weaknesses.

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.