by Ann Holder
Many of you who have been working with your freestyle dog for years have been highly successful and made good progress in attaining your goals. Then the unexpected happens as it did to me this year. I proceeded to work my dogs on their freestyle routines in preparation for the Florida trial. I wasn’t confident about their performance because they were not really consistent about what they were doing but every now and then they seemed to be doing pretty well and I was encouraged. The trial was a different story. One dog left me in the first phrase. As we headed toward the front and the spectators, he took off and had a ball working his way all the way down the front row of spectators including the judges table, happily saying Hello to everyone. The second dog stayed in the ring but chose to do his own version of the choreography, methodically sticking to his own plan till the very last phrase which he considered fun. The second day their performance was the same—off to have fun visiting and “I’m doing my own thing”. I have given this a lot of thought and have come to the conclusion that I have become stuck in my training habits and no one is having FUN ! I am the one at fault!
I train in the same place all the time, indoors, in air conditioning, minimal distractions year round very familiar territory. I use the same treats mostly string cheese because it is easy and I can keep it in my mouth. BORING !! My dogs have not learned to ignore distractions in training. As therapy dogs they enjoy going out and getting attention from everyone. That is worth way more than a piece of cheese. I have become totally predictable and not worth paying attention to. Joan says they did not like my choice of music which could be a valid point but I feel the whole freestyle relationship was taken for granted by me and neglected. I spent more time preparing lesson plans and working with my students and their dogs while leaving my dogs to their own devices.
It is time to put FUN into the mix. I need to change up everything about my training. Yes, it is hot outside but I can still train for a few short sessions around people, traffic, noise and strange locations always striving to build that attention and tailwagging joy in being with me. I can leave the cheese home in the refrigerator and reward with something smelly (Fruitables Whole Alaskan Salmon Jerky creates instant joy); a game of tug; hands on playing and roughing up; a chase; a fetch; a high five, a stop for ice cream on the way home!
Become unpredictable! Keep them guessing when the reward will come and what it will be! Be joyful in your responses and mean it. If you have multiple dogs, don’t expect they will all react exactly alike. They are different personalities with different needs and responses. You may need to be quietly supporting with one, boisterously silly with another! Making these changes have brought a whole new look to my training. Our dogs are with us for such a short time. Taking them for granted, the “Oh, he’s trained already” attitude does not nourish the relationship. I have become a more generous giver around the house, randomly rewarding for just making eye contact when I walk into the room; giving a couple of treats at one time if something was done extremely well like giving up a toy to one of the other dogs, or waiting their turn; using a clicker to instantly mark the response I want. I think they are still in shock at the change but are happily engaging me when I ask them to do something. When you have been doing freestyle for a number of years with 7 different dogs it is so easy to get into a rut and take your partner for granted. Don’t wait for it to happen with you! Bring fun, unpredictability, excitement and play to your training and nourish that relationship!