Yesterday I went out to Knox Obedience Dog Club to watch my friend H and her GSP Milo complete an obedience trial. Back in March, H invited me to come see her debut trial with Milo, which was, well, pretty much a disaster. Since then, she's been working really hard, training both herself and Milo in the intricacies of heelwork, stands, stays, drops, sits and recall. And the results were amazing!
In trial one, Milo knew all the commands, but was really really distracted. He had his head to the ground, sniffing constantly. His heeling was fine, but more because he was just trotting along on the end of the leash than anything else. Each time H stopped and asked him to sit or drop, he'd just ignore her. He was hot, tired and fed up. The only part of the whole trial that was a success was the "stand for exam". H kept her head up and accepted a huge amount of feedback, hints, tips and impromptu lessons from the obedience buffs. Afterwards, she had to sort through all the information and figure out what worked for her and her dogs.
I was left with a huge sense of admiration for H and her efforts. Not only was she making training for her dogs a big priority, but she was testing herself and her dogs in a public, formal environment. I would have been in tears by the end of that first trial, but H showed no embarrassment, just a determination to keep working and get it right. She listened to everyone who had something to share with her. She went home and read and watched YouTube videos. She practised, practised, practised. She talked to trainers and obedience schools. Whenever she was down in Melbourne, she trained with clubs and friends. When we were camping at a sled dog race, she would practice with people who do obedience with their dogs too. (This led to lots of jokes about "obedient" Sibes, surely one of the most challenging breeds to compete in obedience with!)
When we went out to Knox yesterday, I was stunned at the difference in Milo. He was glued to H's side, staring up at her. We were surrounded by other dogs, people, different smells, activities and distractions everywhere, but his focus was amazing! When H went in for the heelwork pattern, Milo didn't miss a trick. At every stop, when he was asked to drop or sit, his response was perfect. They marched back and forth across the grass in a perfect pattern. Then they got to the "stand for an exam" section. One of the things I noticed about all the people trialling, was that they moved slowly and gently. I was especially interested that when the judge said "halt", everyone took at least one more step before completely stopping. H says that with larger dogs, it is hard for them to stop or turn suddenly, and you need to give the dog a moment to get their balance. When she stopped him for the exam, he shifted around and moved forward, instead of waiting for the judge to come and run hands over him. Whoops!! Unfortunately, this was grounds for disqualification.
Once again, H persisted. The club was running a second trial in the afternoon. She regrouped, and went back out there. This time, the heelwork was perfect. The "stand for exam" was much better, because she remembered to allow him to balance himself while halting. He did shift one foot, just as the judge called "end of exercise". All the other components were excellent. She finished with 99 points out of 100, gaining herself first place in the competition. Such an amazing effort to come so far in six months!
I asked H how she managed to achieve such improvement. She said there were three things that really contributed.
One was the help she got from friends, drilling her on individual parts of the trial. Friends who gave her tips about the errors (most obedience errors come from the human, rather than the dog, the collective wisdom says) most likely to occur. Friends who watched her work and gave her critiques. Friends who helped fill the gap of the lack of Obedience Clubs in her local area.
The second was help from a professional trainer, Steve Courtney, from k9 pro. Steve offers over the phone help, as well as face to face training, which is invaluable for people from country areas. Steve was able to link the different bits and pieces together, and help her see all the connections between the different exercises and ideas. k9 pro aims to provide overall concepts, and this was highly helpful for H's understanding of what she needed to do.
The third factor was a change in her relationship with Milo. Previously, Milo, like most dogs, got his food every day at a fixed time, in a bowl, plus treats when he was training. But, with some encouragement from friends and guidelines from k9 pro, H chose to stop giving Milo his daily meal. Instead, he was given the same amount of food each day, but all of it was from H's hands, during training and practice. Literally every piece was a reward for a particular behaviour. This resulted in Milo being utterly focussed on H whenever he was on a lead or working through a training exercise. Even at a dog park full of sights and smells, when Milo was beside H, there was nothing that distracted him. H calls it "turning Milo from a salaried worker to a contracter".
I think that's a really interesting idea, that I will be pondering over the next few weeks. Might even see if I can try some of this obedience stuff myself!