For those interested in our Obedience Training, the adventure continued on Sunday, with another session at Knox Dog Obedience Club. After a lot of excess energy last week, this week I made sure to give Czar half his usual breakfast instead of none, and a run at the off lead park before we started class. He was still food orientated, but not so eager that he was trying to snatch food from my hand. He had lost some of the initial excitement about having an outing and was settled and ready to work. It was exhilarating to see some of our efforts paying off.
Again, we started with a quick focus game, Watch, where the treat traces a line from the dog's eye to the handlers, and then moves away from the handler's face. The dog is rewarded for keeping their eyes on the handler, rather than the treat. Czar was initially excellent at this, but since the difficulty level was increased by moving the treat away, he has struggled. On Sunday, despite having other dogs in the class around, he was getting better. I think one of the factors in this is my improving in "marking" the behaviour. "Marking" or "bridging" is using a key word of praise ("yes!") as soon as the behaviour you want to reward occurs. This means that if you fumble or delay getting the treat to the dog, they still associate the reward with the behaviour you want, rather than what they're doing when the treat arrives. Initially, I found it hard to switch from "good boy" to "yes" - and "good boy" is considered a bit long for a "mark" word, and I think this confused Czar. Now that I'm getting better at saying "yes", Czar is getting much more consistent in offering the right behaviour. It really does come down to the handler, as much as the dog.
After a successful focus game, we moved on to some heelwork, including that tricky left-about turn. Czar did really well, mostly keeping in respectable heel position. I kept reminding myself to stride out and keep a husky-friendly pace. Toby's mum pointed out that my right-about turns were wandering, instead of turning on the spot, proving how important it is to have people watch and correct you before bad habits became ingrained! We finished up with some handling, getting the dogs accustomed to being handled for teeth checks, ear checks, foot checks, and building towards Stand For Exam. Czar isn't thrilled about me poking around his mouth, but he does love a good massage, so he puts up with being handled with his usual wonderful temperament.
One of the things I really like about this Obedience Training, including the formal trials, is that so much of what we're doing with the dogs is eminently sensible and practical. Even the things that feel and look a little silly or formulaic, like the heelwork patterns, have a sensible use. We practise stopping and waiting to cross a busy road, walk a twisty path as if through a busy crowd, all with the dog's attention on the handler - ready to change direction or halt at a moment's notice, despite distractions. One of the exercises that has been introduced lately is a simplified version of Stand For Exam.
In a formal obedience trial, the judge walks up to the dog, and runs their hands along them from neck to rump. The dog must stand quietly, all four feet on the floor. Training for this is aimed at the dog becoming accustomed to being handled by stangers, such as vets, without fuss, growling or other issues. In our Beginners class, this has been introduced by asking handlers to begin by touching the dogs themselves. Stroking ears, both comforting the dog and checking for infections, before inspecting the teeth, encouraging bite inhibition and checking for dental issues. Stroking along the spine, relaxing the dog and checking for sore spots or knotted muscles. Rubbing legs, checking between toe pads. Keeping the dog occupied with belly rubs, while the judge comes up behind and pats the dog - very briefly, but over time, building up the contact. Praising the dog for ignoring the distraction and keeping their focus on the handler.
All of these things give the dogs mental stimulation and a stronger connection to a handler. A handler who can keep the dog from walking into traffic, A handler who can guide the dog through the bewildering world of humans and keep the dog safe. A handler the dog trusts to check its paws for thorns, its ears for infections, its teeth for decay. The dog becomes accustomed to following instructions regardless of the situation (hopefully!), including when a vet is checking it for injuries, or a small child is putting their hands on the dog.
I started this journey looking for some guidance in managing the dogs, and giving Czar something to do now racing season is over. I am finding so much more!!