“You want to grab your dog?” she said, gesturing towards my truck, letting me know it was my turn to work obedience.
I was excited to be back. It had been over 3 years since I’d trained with some of my favorite decoys and handlers. After moving out of state and then coming back, I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed them.
I pushed through the dense heat, heading for my truck, a plan in my head for the goals I wanted to accomplish. As I approached, my pup spun in his crate. He knew I was coming for him and he couldn’t contain his enthusiasm.
I opened the crate door, the 9 month old pup inside exploding out and into my arms. Catching him mid-air, I promptly lowered him from the tailgate of my truck, attaching a leash to his leather collar and grabbing one of his favorite toys which I intended to use for strategic games and play during our training session.
We made our way to the makeshift training field. A handful of Guinea Fowl darted in front of us, appearing out of nowhere and giving me quite a startle. The puppy at the end of my leash didn’t respond with the same lack of nerve. Instead, his prey drive instantly kicked in as he attempted to drag me to the ground so that he could get a good sniff of the birds that were just barely out of his reach.
“Do you want us to move them?,” the decoy called from the training field, referring to the flock of birds that, at this point, seemed to be taunting us. Years ago I may have been afraid of a challenge, but these days, I embrace distractions for exactly what they are…..training opportunities.
“No!” was my response. “This will be good for him!”
I was optimistic.
As my left foot hit the field, my dog promptly spit out the toy he was so proudly carrying in his mouth in exchange for barking at the dog behind the fence ahead of us. He then darted to his left, pulling hard to mark the young tree shading the grassy lawn. Within a split second, he had changed his mind, focusing his attention back on the Guinea Fowl, and moments later he was peering up at me, looking for his toy.
I increased my enthusiasm, took a few steps out of the yard, and re-engaged my completely distracted pup.
We tried again.
A second time, he lost focus instantly, chasing the birds, inspecting every last blade of grass, and occasionally barking at one of the onlookers standing 50 yards away on the field.
Again I walked away, re-engaging my pup, and repeatedly as I turned back towards the field, he disengaged.
By the time I reached the training group standing on the field, I was drenched in sweat and sufficiently exasperated. I had reeled his focus back in, but it was work….work I hadn’t expected….work I wasn’t prepared for.
My pup had always shown full attention and focus. I could quite easily work him outside of a busy dog park, and he would remain engaged with me at all times. If I took him to the beach on a holiday weekend, he’d completely tune out every distraction simply for his toy. But now, the toy wasn’t enough. I wasn’t enough.
How I Broke the “Rules of Engagement”
There were a number of things I did wrong in both building a foundation and in the handling of my dog’s disengagement that day at the field.
- I didn’t account for the drive – I drove 1.5 hours to get to training that day. Typically, I only make a 10 minute trek to a local field. My friends and mentors reminded me that travel time definitely matters. When I leave my house, my dog is amped. He’s ready to GO. He’s not sure where he is going, but it doesn’t matter….he’s excited nonetheless. By the time I get to the park where we train, his excitement is at its peak. His energy fuels our training, giving me superior drive, focus, and engagement. Unfortunately, that day at training, I didn’t take travel time into consideration when creating my plan. Mistake #1. That day, I drove an hour and a half, and by the time I reached the field, my dog was passed out and asleep, sufficiently bored from his time in the truck.
- We skipped our warm up – I didn’t let him out before working him… didn’t let him sniff… didn’t let him stretch his legs. Instead, I woke him from a dead sleep after a long drive, put his paws on the dirt, added distractions he doesn’t see regularly, and expected the same level of enthusiasm I had always been so used to seeing. Mistake #2.
- I didn’t have a Plan B – I expected my dog to perform as he always had under familiar circumstances. For that reason, I developed my training plan taking his usual best behavior for granted. Before getting him out of his transport kennel, I didn’t take the time to develop my plan of attack if he were to lose focus. He hadn’t done it in the past, so why plan for it now? Mistake #3. Because I didn’t plan, I was caught off guard, like a deer in headlights when my normally hyper focused pup disengaged to chase a bird.
- When he stopped, so did I – As brought to my attention once again by the folks I was working with, when my dog disengaged, so did I. Instead of stepping up my enthusiasm to reel my unfocused dog back in, when he lost focus, I threw in the towel. Mistake #4. I know better. I coach better. But sometimes it takes having good coaches who aren’t afraid to speak up to point out areas where you might KNOW the right thing to do, but out of habit or reflex, fail to perform. Sometimes your brain is on autopilot, and you need someone to give you a good shake, grab the reigns, and remind you to pay attention.
- I got lazy – I could give you a thousand excuses for why I got lazy. Work was crazy, I came down with the flu, my other dog fell ill. But none of that matters when I’m on the field with my dog. The fact of the matter is, I haven’t been working my dog as often as we are both used to. I hadn’t evolved his skill set and knowledge, and I hadn’t worked to build his drive. Instead of spending the proper time playing, engaging, and training him, I let him play with my other dogs, getting his social needs met by someone who wasn’t me, teaching him I wasn’t the best thing in his world. Now I had competition. And that competition bled onto the training field. Mistake #5.
- I forgot about Pack Drive – I’ve spent months building prey drive so I could use games and prey items as rewards in my training. I spend every day building food drive to ensure that food retains its value. But over the past several months, I can honestly say that, for selfish reasons, I forgot about pack drive. I have NOT been a resource to my dog. Why? Because I snuggle his face every day of his life. He spends every day with me, my veritable shadow, and the adoration he feels for me pales in comparison to that which I feel for him. Mistake #6. The problem with this way of living is this: plainly stated, a dog will work for that which he finds valuable. The things he has available readily, 24/7, at his beck and call, aren’t all that valuable. He can easily turn his nose up to them if something new and exciting comes into the picture. After all, he gets them all the time…..and he’s quite certain he’ll get them later, even if he blows them off now.
The brilliant thing about training with people that you trust is that they can help you see those holes you might not see as your focus gets stuck on working with your dog. Despite the fact that my engagement levels weren’t where I wanted them, that day on the training field, I couldn’t have asked for a better session. In a very short time, I was able to identify holes, see where my training program has been lacking, and identify new areas where I needed to focus my attention.
The Plan of Attack
- Take Away the Toys – Since I’ve become lazy, there are a handful of toys available 24/7 scattered throughout my house. They keep my dog pacified when I can’t engage. Starting now, those toys are history as I revisit Engagement 101. No toys unless we are working. No pacifiers. I need to step up and do my job.
- Stop Spoiling the Puppy – As much as I love snuggling his face (he’s REALLY cute), I need to stop spoiling my dog. He needs to value the time we spend together as opposed to taking it for granted as a common commodity.
- Up my Energy – I need to remain cognizant that despite how often I coach otherwise, at times even I stop when my dog stops engaging. Instead, when his energy drops, mine needs to AMP to get him back. I need to remain aware of this and ensure I’m balancing his energy in every training session we have.
- Get Back to Work – It’s time to hit the training field consistently like we were doing before. Even if it’s just for 15 minutes each day, it’s time for me to stop making excuses and get back to work.
- Make a Plan for Travel – If I travel long distances to new fields, I’ll always get my dog out, let him go to the bathroom, explore a little, and stretch his legs well before training. This will help him familiarize himself with his environment, and, plainly stated, its the right thing to do!
That day on the training field, my puppy quite literally blew me off. I didn’t get angry. I didn’t get frustrated. Instead, I was happy. I had identified areas where I was making mistakes and was able to devise a plan to fill the holes. I needed it, and so did my pup.
Sometimes you need to surround yourself with people you can trust to help point out areas for improvement in your training. Sometimes your dog checks out, and sometimes you make mistakes. We all do it. I don’t care how great a trainer you are, we all have something to learn and something to improve.
Next time we hit the field, my pup will engage. I will work hard over the next week to make sure of it. While I don’t have Guinea Fowl I can scatter through my training field to proof for distractions such as those, the fact that my dog lost focus on the birds simply tells me I have an engagement issue to fix. By fixing that issue, filling in the holes, and increasing both mine and my dog’s enthusiasm, my dog will go back to tuning out the world around him in exchange for strategic play with me; Guinea Fowl, barking dogs, and fascinating blades of grass be damned.
Special thanks to Ron and Debbie Skinner of Paws ‘n Claws and Les Ombres Valeureux Working Malinois for always motivating me to train harder and to train better, for speaking up when I make mistakes, for always making my dog and his well being a priority, and for kicking my ass in gear when I slack off. I value your mentoring and friendship more than you could possibly know.