So, at the beginning of this year, I went back to obedience classes with Czar. After the summer holidays, we always have a pretty strong return - Czar is excited to spend one-on-one time with me, eager to have some stimulation. He's intelligent - he doesn't forget much over the break (unlike me), and he "switches on" while other class mates are still getting back in the swing. So, when someone suggested, back in Feb, that we could try Rally Novice again, I thought, yeah, why not?
Fast forward a couple of months. Da da dum!!! By the time the competition rocked up, a wonderful event being put on by Southern Obedience Dog Club, we were probably overtraining. Czar was gradually being less focused on me and more easily distracted by all the other people and dogs around us. This meant he was more inclined to ignore an instruction, and just stand, eyes and ears focused at whatever had just claimed his attention, like he was entranced. It was becoming harder and harder to get his attention back.
On the day of the trial, we said goodbye to Wee Monster and his daddy (it's not babysitting when the father does it, folks, it's parenting) and drove down to Southern with River and Toby's mum.
River was entering both Rally Novice and CCD (I hope I've got that right). I think Toby's mum was more nervous than I was, but they went and did a near-perfect circuit through Rally. Yay!!!!
A few entrants later, it was our turn. I started to walk into the fenced ring, and Czar shot out in front of me, dragging at my arm. The judge stopped us and asked me to try again, so we could enter the ring under control.
We went back and I talked very sternly to Czar, coaxed him, threatened him, cajoled him, and finally got him to sit at heel. He wasn't watching. Oh dear.
The judge called for us to enter the ring. One step forward and Czar shot off to the limit of the lead, nearly popping my arm out of the socket. The judge stopped us again.
"Is this his first trial?"
"No, his third." I didn't bother explaining that it was two years since our two previous attempts at Rally Novice, and we'd DQ'd both attempts.
I offered that I thought he was distracted by the wind in the palm trees over the back fence of the ring. The judge agreed that they were distracting for many dogs, but we needed to enter the ring under control. Fair enough. We walked away and tried again.
The third time I approached the gate, looking at the damn palm trees, Czar was still trying to drag me forward... If he even remembered I was at the end of the lead. Again, the judge stopped us.
"Let's not set him up to fail" she said.
So that was it. Czar had moved into a classic prey-drive fixation. We weren't going to have to suffer through a circuit of poor behaviour, but instead, Czar went back to his crate. I didn't know how to describe what had happened, how to process my disappointment and feeling of failure. One friend told me later that she didn't realize til much later in the day what had happened, she thought we'd DQ'd in a more traditional manner, because I didn't talk about it. I couldn't. It's taken me months to be able to write about it and I still can't put my jumble of feelings into proper words. Relief-anger-self-disappointment-time-wasted-numbness.
Anyway, in the months since then, I had some big rants and deep conversations with two of my favourite training experts. They agreed that Czar was behaving like a classic husky, following his deeply-bred instincts for independence and prey-drive. They talked about possible strategies, one even offered me the chance to compete with his dog to build up my own ring experience (she has Obedience titles but not Rally), a truly generous offer that I may yet take advantage of.
Ultimately my obedience training friends convinced me to enter another Rally event, this time at the Berwick Obedience Club. In the meantime, Czar and I had a holiday from obedience classes. We hatched a plan to go visit the ground a couple of weeks beforehand, to look out for possible distractions that might set off another prey-drive incident. Oh boy, did we find some!!!
The Berwick club sits between a football ground on one side, and some properties with ponies and alpacas on the other. It has two fenced yards for off lead running, and one of them has a clear view into the pony paddock. Czar was obsessed. Oh dear. This was going to need some work.
A couple of days later, Wee Monster and I took Czar back out to Berwick. We went into the yard and Czar made a bee line for the pony view. Wee Monster and I wandered around the yard. For a solid 20 minutes, Czar stalked along the fence, rarely glancing in our direction. Eventually he came over to see what we were doing and got lots of praise and treats before he headed back for more pony gazing.
We repeated this approach for another 20 minutes, and Czar's visits got more frequent. I started demanding that he sit in heel, then walk briefly in heel, then do short bursts of work, gradually building up to stays.
When it comes to stays, one of our instructors says it comes down to three D's. Distance, Duration and Distractions. Initially, I kept Czar facing away from the ponies (minimizing distraction) and only walked a short distance before returning to him quite quickly. But gradually we built up to this photo:
Here, Czar is facing those tempting ponies, and we've extended the distance to something equivalent to the distance used in an obedience trial. Woo hoo!!! We had rediscovered Czar's "on switch". Fingers crossed that it'd work for the trial at Berwick!