I recently drove to Carver, Massachusetts to attend two workshops instructed by Sarah Dixon. She is a phenomenal trainer in the positive training world, yet embraces everyone willing to learn, rather than passing judgement. She has been influential in some of my approaches to problem solving and I wanted to meet her in person! I was even invited, along with my friend Kerry Pottle, to partake in her regular podcast afterwards. (Crazy fan moment!) This workshop was an opportunity for me to desensitize my young dog to a new facility and hopefully get some successful play sessions in.
The two topics were ‘Impulse Control and Relaxation’, and ‘Play and Motivation.’ These seem relatively simple but I’m finding that my whole dynamic of living with dogs, should be a delicate balance between these two key components. I mean, MOST dogs today, present to our local facilities with major factors related to impulse control. Then, MOST sport homes present to workshops like these to help motivate their dog to do an activity with them. I think these two ends of the spectrum can be achieved and maintained to create a companion you can both live with and enjoy on a higher drive level or activity. I’m still amazed that primary drive sport folks can’t seem to achieve the calm, thinking dog. I’m amazed that more family and pet dog folks can’t appreciate play styles and activities that give their dogs an enriching outlet and an improved quality of life. Tug, for example. When conversing with clients at the vet office, I still hear today, that tug will make their dog aggressive. Heck, I’ve heard it from trainers! What they haven’t discovered is that any form of play can profoundly improve the relationship with their dog and minimize stress. Personal play and wrestling, chase, retrieving, and yes, tug of war, are all ways we can interact with our dogs. (The workshop visibly showed several different play styles and the dogs are in charge of what they enjoy most!) What some sport homes haven’t realized, is that a calm frame of mind between sessions allows a dog to think, and make choices, rather than just reacting in a hectic manner. I’ve heard of dogs who become so over threshold, in the vicinity of a ball or tug toy, that they can’t use it in training. (I was there once!) Knowing how to relax at the end of the day, is what makes our dogs more enjoyable to live with, and structured play sessions make us fun to be with! Both are important!
My goal was as simple as playing with my dog, because in some stressful environments, we haven’t had success with tug. I know it is how I approach it, not her. I’ve compensated with personal play, food games and very, very, short sessions. I’m aware of some of my training flaws, and I wanted someone else’s eyes to watch us so I could get some pointers. I wanted to have another tool in my basket to help motivate my dog to WANT to work. I want to better communicate to my dog. For me, my dog Pistol is so darned grounded that most impulse control and aspects of living with her are so easy! My clients/students however, don’t have such easy dogs to live with. I wanted to bring some information home to them. I wanted to better identify stress signals, and better understand play techniques. I may teach a sport class, but after unleashing some drive and motivation, all of my clients must be able to live with a relaxed dog too. These are not kennel dogs. These are homes, who seek enrichment and challenges to keep their dogs quality of life as great as possible.
Weight pull classes may be my means, my cover. The handler and dog, as a whole picture, are my priority. I am not a full-time trainer anymore(I’m a full-time vet tech,) yet I wanted to still reach clients in an influential and productive way, in the chute and at home. This was my way to impact dog owners and still have fun doing it. I could be involved in a sport I love AND influence students’ frame of mind towards dog training. Get them in the door, then plant this seed, this concept; strive for a better human-canine bond. Students may arrive to their first class to try something new for their shy dog, give their reactive dogs a safe space to work on exercises they have acquired from other trainers, or to just plain tire their dogs out. Many of my original students were members of this secret club, and I refer to them as the ‘midnight dog walkers.’ (Only recently have I acquired more competitive oriented students.) Many of these dogs couldn’t participate in society as many would like, and they needed an outlet. My old classes were run, similar to Noseworks, and limited ONLY one dog at a time in the building, to keep everyone feeling safe, and keep the dogs successful. As a sport, weight pull is a one dog at a time event, however at a trial you have to handle your dog through a gauntlet of dogs, people and extra stressors on your way to the chute. I’d watch dogs (not clients, just competitors) bark and scream and act out so emotionally, they would be physically exhausted by the time it was their turn to pull. I didn’t want my students or my personal dogs to be this way. Over time I noticed how I could benefit both the competitive students and the behavior modification students by allowing them to work on some tasks, while other dogs were simultaneously working. It began to morph into a literal group class. One dog in the chute will be priority and work on weight pull, and any control and stress factors the owner had in mind, while other dogs practice impulse control and behavior modification techniques on the sidelines. We used blinders, exit strategies and place work all as tools to help dogs succeed. Instead of just a sport class, I began to see my class as a doorway to other opportunities for my clients. I could plant this seed in a silly weight pull class, and clients could grow from there. I could empower clients with reactive dogs, rather than isolating them. Today we still joke about a rally class for misfits. One where they score points for flare and enthusiasm rather than precision!
All from one little seed, students leave confident in calming their dogs between sessions and how to manage when necessary. So confident, their impulse control work has aided all their aspects in training for life and dog sports. Dogs can crate quietly at agility and dock dog trials. Dogs and handlers who once didn’t really know how to address the issue are equipped with better skills. One little seed has taught my students how relationship should always trump ego in competition. That seed has left clients with an impression of health and overall wellness. Clients who weren’t much concerned with a dog’s body weight or gait, may now be aware of the importance of keeping dogs fit, to lengthen their lives and prevent injury. I have clients come in now, to just discuss their dogs’ health concerns and who they should see if their dogs is having orthopedic, sport or rehab issues. Clients may take their dogs to regular chiropractic appointments, massage and FITdog classes to help prevent injury in day to day activities. I'm not the end all be all either. Some students moved on or moved up in the world to other trainers and other ideologies but they may have not even tried if I hadn't been inclusive.
Many of my clients now have a conglomerate of trainers and friends to carpool together to workshops, trials and classes. Students can share their successes, and everyone can appreciate their progress. Some may not compete, and instead meet up for play groups and pack walks. Some found weight pull wasn’t their strength, but another activity was. Be it Rally, Flyball, land mushing or Barnhunt.
This shared appreciation of making our lives better, healthier and with dogs, has blossomed. Clients can understand and appreciate the necessity of responsible ownership, leash laws, trail etiquette and how to advocate for your dog. Many of these midnight dog walkers share the same dismay and stress when someone selfish breaks the leash laws. They feel the same as a competitor whose dogs’ trust and one on one time are more important than mingling with strange, unknown dogs and people. This same little seed that I planted years ago, the ideology of relationship and your dog’s trust in you, has sprung into a huge dog community. My number one rule in weight pull class is to not set your dog up to fail. Have a self-awareness of your dog’s emotional state and know that it influences their decisions when given the liberty. When my students travel to events, I hear compliments from judges and clubs on how well they presented themselves and how well their dogs worked with them. And this group of people are only a fraction of my weight pull clients. I bet some of you couldn’t even tell which pairs are working on human trust issues and which ones are working on dog trust issues. I know you wouldn’t be able to tell which ones were scared of life once before! Despite all the misfits and issues clients are working through I’m still amazed at the minimal outbursts in classes. Many dogs begin to settle in and cope, others just become so confident in their owner’s ability to protect them, that they actually relax, and enjoy coming into the building. Some dogs just want to socialize with their humans and some humans just want to visit with their friends for an hour.
Now I’m honored with a great group of pullers and friends who all share the same goals and welcome dogs with issues to class. We became the intermediate BMOD class, while regular students could continue their weekly conditioning and training, and shy dogs could continue their confidence building skills. It is so much more than weight pull. We embraced some rules to keep everyone safe. Rules I now announce in registration emails. If your priority isn’t to empower ALL dog owners, then this may not be the place for you. ‘Plant the seed. Chew on it. Rattle it around a bit.’ I encourage all my training, sporting, rescue and pet owner friends to find a workshop near you. Find one on-line. Find a good book. Outsource to a new activity or training club. Keep learning and keep training your dogs!
In the mean-time, check out SarahFulcher.com (Sarah Dixon always has workshops going on) and the podcast, ‘Hair of the Dog,’ on itunes. Also, I’m gonna plug Kerry Pottle’s great blog, ‘The Determined BullBlog,’ because she’s pretty awesome too! Continue to surround yourself with great friends and dialogue to help you grow your relationship with your dog.