With the date of our next rally trial fast approaching, I’ve been spending a lot of time working with Risa on her focus exercises. We’ve spent almost 2 months now working on focus at heel, fronts, and other rally behaviors. For two days straight, I struggled to get Risa’s attention at the start line of a rally course that I set up in my front yard. As I occasionally do, I started to get frustrated and couldn’t figure out why she was so inattentive when she’d been doing so well previously. I thought about what we were doing and how I could change things up a bit to get her more focused. But a different opportunity presented itself instead. I took Risa to the training site of the organization where I am a volunteer dog trainer. I doubled checked to make sure it was okay for us to drop by and decided that Risa needed some time to be a dog!
I started off by letting Risa run loose in the fenced in area. I made a promise that I would let her do whatever she wanted without me nagging her to stop sniffing or stop eating grass or telling her not to roll on that thing, whatever it is. There was only one exception: she wasn’t allowed to bark at any people walking by (it’s not a habit I want her to practice). So Risa explored every corner, nook, and cranny of the area. She sniffed at smells, she raced around, she marked her turf. She ate a stick (which, I will admit, I tried to get her to stop doing but she raced away if I got too close to her prize). One of the founders of the program spotted us out there having fun and came over to chat. On his initial approach, Risa barked 2 or 3 times. I called out to her in a silly voice “Don’t bark at the people! Go say ‘Hi!’” After hearing her cue to go check someone out, she trotted over to the fence and got some petting through the fencing.
After letting her have some dog time, I did some agility stuff with her. She took the bar jump a few times with ease. It’s been a while since we’ve done any jumping and I wanted to make sure she’d be ready come rally time. I also had her work on the makeshift dogwalk. She’s never done a dogwalk before but had little trouble going down. It was a bit harder for her to make it up the plank but she still was successful. There was little hesitation to try anything I asked of her, which was nice to see. Especially since the last two dogs I tried to get up and down that thing were extremely hesitant and I had to practically lure them the entire way. I didn’t even have food in my hand when I cued Risa.
I also worked on her recall while we were there. She was off sniffing in a pile of leaves when I cued “Ris! Here!” She whipped around and booked it right to me without hesitation. We haven’t worked on her recalls in a while and I can’t remember the last brand-new location where I cued her to race back to me. But she responded as if she didn’t struggle with recalls at all! I also tested her to see how much she is paying attention to me. When she got engrossed in a scent, I went and hid behind a picnic bench. I watched her head perk up and scan the area looking for me. When she was unsuccessful finding me that way, she took off in a fast trot looking for me. As soon as she saw me in the corner of her eye, she started running right at me. I rewarded her profusely and was happy to see she was paying attention to where I was even if it didn’t look like she was.
Then we trotted back to the car so that Risa could get some water. It was a beautiful day for November with temperatures in the mid 60s. Unseasonably warm and just a superb day for our outing. Once Risa had her fill, I clipped on her long line and we went for a walk in the huge open field. She was able to roam freely but I still had a back up in case she wanted to take off.
I was surprised to see Risa looking back at me to double check that I hadn’t vanished into the woods while we walked. Because she was being so good, I decided to drop the leash and let her walk free dragging her 20-foot line. She never wandered far from me and, if I needed her to wait for me or come back over towards me, the directional cues I use when she is off leash in our yard at home were just as effective there. That really surprised me. I even did two recalls in the field with her while she trotted around off leash. She didn’t race back to me quite as quickly as she had in the fenced in yard but I suspect that had more to do with her getting tired than anything else.
All in all, it was a great day for both of us. And it was something we both needed. Risa needed a chance to be a dog and experience the world in her own way. I allowed her to satisfy her curiosity about things without me right there to back her up. I think she also needed a break from me harping on her about her focus and attention on me.
I did this for her but was surprised at how much I got out of it. This was a brand-new location for Risa and she walked around like she just needed to check everything out. Not like she was expecting the boogie man to jump out from behind the next corner. On top of that, she was extremely attentive to me with her fast recalls, auto check ins, and her quick realization that I had disappeared. It was nice to realize how much she does pay attention to me, that she trusts and relies on me, and that I can trust her too. Plus, I think we both needed a break from rally so that we could focus on what really matters: each other.