This past weekend, I had the immense pleasure of attending a 2-day seminar with amazing freestyler and clicker trainer Michele Pouliot. I was fortunate enough to have been present for her learning lecture at Clicker Expo in 2009 (I was signed up for the learning lab too but couldn’t make it in time) and I learned so much in that short hour or so. I knew I was in for some mind-blowing epiphanies this weekend.
She did not disappoint. I think one my favorite things about going to dog training seminars is finding out a dozen things I’m still doing wrong. 😉 I probably have 10-15 different statements and ideas starred in my notebook for me to keep in mind. Either because I’d never even remotely considered them or because it’s something I’ve been doing wrong and I want to make sure I don’t keep doing it. I’ve already begun implementing as much as I can from this weekend. I cannot believe how much I learned and how much fun I had.
The weekend was tough for Risa, though. Despite her familiarity with the lecture site (she’s trained and competed there), she was still pretty overwhelmed when we arrived Saturday morning. I set her up in the crating area in her usual spot since I figured that would help her feel more comfortable. She was also the only dog in that room. Whenever I came back to her crate to get her out to work, she seems to have been sleeping (or, at the very least, relaxing calmly). I was happy to see that she wasn’t anxious and felt content in her crate.
Working on the floor with the other dogs around, however, seemed to be too much for her on Saturday. She was extremely hypervigilant and I had great difficulty getting her attention for even a short while. She was constantly scanning and getting pretty upset. While her reactions were pretty minor (no noise, mostly just a lunge and spinning rapidly in place), it was still clearly hard for her. At one point, Michele suggested to me that we move out of the ring and to one of the more open areas near the entrance. This is something I should have considered myself so I am glad she had us move. Unfortunately, I didn’t see a heck of a lot more success over there. While there were less dogs nearby, it was right near the main pathway from the outside to the crating area. Risa had to watch a lot of dogs ‘appear’ and ‘disappear’ and walk right past her from that location. Not to mention she likes to go outside; being near the door made that an extra temptation. That being said, she was better and I was able to work with her a bit more being in that spot rather than inside the ring where there was no escape! Our location also made it difficult to get any tips and input from Michele, though. I was hopeful that we’d get more input the next day.
Once we got back to the hotel room after a long and enlightening Saturday, I tried to figure out what I could do to help Risa be more comfortable training on Sunday. I realized I’d made several mistakes. First of all, I wasn’t able to walk Risa around and get her acclimated when we arrived Saturday morning. We’d gotten a later start than I had planned and I didn’t have much extra time to work with Risa before the seminar began. In fact, I hadn’t even thought to do so. Secondly, and this is a problem I’ve had before at seminars, I got thrown off my game. When I work with Risa, I have a set group of things I do and behaviors I reward when she offers them. It seems I have difficulty keeping those things in mind and doing what the seminar presenter suggests at the same time. For example, Risa was giving nice eye contact during our first exercise which was name recognition. Since the idea was to have our dogs look away so we could get their attention with their names, I let Risa look away too long and didn’t reward auto-check ins. She ended up getting overloaded and it was hard to get her back. Mea culpa. It also didn’t help that it’s been several months since Risa has been to a training class where she’s had to work in such close proximity to other dogs.
I decided that I needed to get her there early on Sunday to give her a chance to settle in. I also reminded myself that I need to click and reward Risa for attention on me along with rewarding whatever it is we’re working on. I had a plan and I was hoping she’d have an easier time the next day.
Sunday morning I got us up there early and I took Risa into the ring to work with her. She was flat and inattentive and I was a bit frustrated with her lack of enthusiasm. I ended up racing around the ring like a crazy person and letting her chase me, something she loves to do. I then cued some other behaviors afterward and she was still not really into it. But I ended on a decent note and kenneled her up as the seminar got ready to start.
The first exercise we did on Sunday was eye-opening and amazing. Even better, we got to work our dogs one at a time. This exercise involved us rewarding our dogs for entering the ring by doing something they loved without using food or treats. The handler had to be rewarding alone! It was also a great exercise in working with our dogs with real ring nerves. I think I was more nervous on Sunday than I had been the last time we stepped into the ring to compete!
I went through our usual ring entering procedure and Ris was disconnected. She followed me in and didn’t wander too far away but she wasn’t with me. I set her up in our opening pose and cued the music. We started the beginning of the routine and when Michele said “Jackpot!” (after 3 moves) I bent over and praised Risa. I rubbed her back and gave her ‘butt scritches’ (when you scratch a dog’s hips near the base of a her tail). I thought I was doing just enough to make her happy but not so much that she went over the top and crazy. Unfortunately, I did too much and she shot off to do zoomies around the ring. I don’t know why I didn’t connect butt scritches to zoomies; that’s what it usually progresses to in the house. And she is not the type of dog who gets zoomies in the ring. In my nervous, somewhat sleep-deprived stupor, I sent her into craziness. Sometimes someone needs to provide the example of what not to do. On Sunday, that was me. 😉
After several laps around the ring, I was able to get Risa back and under control. She walked to the exit calmly and got leashed up to leave the ring and try again. On our second attempt, she was much more focused on me when we entered. After completing the first three movements again, she was jackpotted and I was very cautious to not get her so aroused this time! I succeeded and we exited again for our final attempt. Her focus on the third entrance was much improved and I was able to set her up in a stand easily. While I walked away to set myself up, she apparently had to scratch. After she finished, she set herself up in a bow with her head on the ground. I turned around, saw that, and said “Show off” quietly to her. Everyone laughed at her and I walked back over to set her up properly. That exercise was one of my favorites from the entire weekend. It was so eye-opening so see something so simple create much more attentive and enthusiastic dogs!
We continued to work near the doorway for the early part of the day when we had other exercises to do. As the day progressed, however, I got Risa closer to the ring. She was actually okay. The dogs in the ring were still distracting but she wasn’t losing her mind. Other dogs working nearby also caused her a bit of alarm but I was quick to let her know it was alright and that she had nothing to be concerned with. And she agreed. We were even able to get some input on how we were working together from Michele which made me very pleased. On Sunday, Risa had only two small reactions. A huge improvement from Saturday. (This isn’t counting walking through the crating area. She had a hard time doing that with dogs barking at her and not a lot of room to maneuver away. When I could, I took her out the side door in the crating room we were in so she didn’t have to ‘walk the gauntlet.’)
Overall, this weekend was a huge success. I learned so much and I’ve already begun to implement a lot of it. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to learn from such a talented performer and trainer.