Thanks to CD for the photos of us and our friends from the SHCV 2016 Christmas Party, and SODC 2016.
Back in December, we went to the annual SHCV Christmas party - always heaps of fun. The club puts on a BBQ and organises silly games - egg and spoon race with a husky on lead was a big hit this year - and competitions - waggiest tail, best Christmas costume, noisiest husky. For the last couple of years, we've had a Rally O course laid out, which is heaps of fun for me! Often, at the Christmas party, we have a heap of our sledding friends, and our obedience friends, as well as other club members - and this year there were plenty of questions about obedience from some of the folks who hadn't thought about doing something like that with their husky.
Now, I'm definitely NOT a professional dog trainer, but over the last few years I've learnt a few tips and tricks that helped us get where we are today. This is NOT an exhaustive list of training techniques, and these tips and tricks WON'T work for every dog and every owner. But, in case this is a bit helpful for anyone who is thinking about it, here's what worked for US.
Collars and Leads.
We use a lot of different collars, to help cue the dogs about what our expectations are. Normally, the dogs wear a semi slip collar. We add a racing X-back harness to go sledding, or a body harness for running alongside the bike. Our dogs have learnt that the X-back harness means "pull! line out! mush! let's go!" and the body harness means "keep pace".
For Obedience, Czar wears a Martingale collar. Its mostly mesh, the same as a semi slip collar, but it has a loop of chain in it that jingles when the lead pulls on the collar. Czar has learnt that he can't drag on the lead with the martingale; he lunges forward once, hears the clink of the chain running through the loops, and walks with the lead firm, but not tight. He comes easily into heel when we start working.
I also use a mesh lead for Obedience. It has a handle near the collar for easier control of the dog in heel position, and a padded handle at the end. When Czar does get excited, I have excellent control with these two handles, and my hands don't end up raw.
Some dogs have been bred to retrieve game and their instinct to catch ball or a toy has been intensified genetically. Others come from a long line of people-orientated dogs that has made them keen to follow instructions and offer behaviours to please their owners. These dogs can be trained with a toy or a "Good dog!" as the reward that keeps them going. Huskies can fit into both of those groups, depending on their upbringing. However, sled dogs are generally bred to be independent - the lead dog in a 12 or 14 dog team can see things in dark, snowy conditions long before the musher at the back of the sled can, so that dog needs to have the smarts to disobey an order that might plumet the team into a crevasse or onto a weak piece of sea ice. Their motivation is to run and explore, which is completely unhelpful in Obedience!
Many huskies will enjoy the challenge and stimulation of Obedience work, either because they find it fun, a great game to play, or because they enjoy the opportunities to earn food rewards. Many huskies are absolutely obsessed with food. Early on, an instructor suggested that a dog should not have breakfast before an obedience class or trial, so that their appetite is sharpened and they are more compliant. I found that this was a bad idea for Czar, as he was more likely to attempt to swallow my fingers rather than take a treat politely when he was hungry.
Having established that Czar worked best for teats, I next had to learn how to explain to him what I wanted. I was taught a technique called Luring, which involved holding the treat in front of his nose and then moving my hand so that his head followed my hand. If I wanted a Sit, I said the command word and moved my hand up over his head, so his head followed the treat up, and his backside came down. It was really important that the correct position was immediately "marked" with a "yes", closely followed by a treat. This built the connection in Czar's mind - when I said this command word, he needed to perform the appropriate maneuver to receive his reward.
Once he learnt to associate the word with the position, I could refine it by "marking" incorrect position by saying "no" and lifting the treat out of his reach. I could also build in body language that could replace the command word when necessary - a hand signal or stepping on a particular foot. Combining verbal and non verbal communication was extremely powerful.
I still find that the most important part of Obedience is holding Czar's attention. If he is busy watching something in the distance, it doesn't matter what I do with my command or my body language. So I regularly play a game called "Watch" where he gets a reward just for looking at me or my hand signal. One of the reasons I like Rally O is that I can tell Czar to "watch" during a trial or pat my leg or do anything else to recapture Czar's attention.
Practice and Consistency.
For some dogs, constant practice is really important. For Czar, I found that two obedience classes a week was a really good amount - he didn't get bored, the activity remained fresh and exciting. A third class was ok, but daily practice didn't really work for us. A complete holiday from Obedience work during the height of summer and the racing season also helped. I have found that in the first week or so after an extended break, Czar's performance in Obedience has an extra snap to it. Unfortunately, I'm often quite rusty and make silly mistakes after a break!
Consistency was far more important for me and Czar. I needed to be consistent in how I performed - keeping my hand gestures the same, stepping on either my left or right foot, using the same command and marker words - which took me a LOT of practice. In some places, there are dog training spaces that are set up like ballet schools or dance studios - with a big mirrored wall that allows you to see what you're doing. We don't have that luxury here, so I have to rely on feedback from my instructors and friends. I also needed to be inconsistent - once Czar had learnt a particular command, he didn't always get a treat for performing that action. Randomising the rewards keeps him trying and interested in this game we're playing.
Obedience really has become a wonderful game, a very enjoyable thing to do with Czar. He loves getting time out with me, one on one, for a class. I find Obedience relaxing - it operates like a form of Mindfulness, because it requires so much concentration. And recently, we've enjoyed success in the Ring too. This year, Czar has officially gone from being just "Czar" to having the title "RN" at the end of his name. We got three passes, after a series of failed trials, with every pass being a score of 95/100 or higher. Its always lovely to succeed, especially when you have friends encouraging you along the way. But its taken four years, lots of work and probably several tonnes of Devon sandwich meat and sausages!!!