Recently I have experienced a bit of a shift in my approach to training. It is not a major shift. It is subtle. In fact, on the surface it might look like nothing has changed at all.
But the result of this shift, particularly for Bandit, is tremendous!
It all started with another Fenzi Dog Sport Academy class - Foundation See Saw. I wasn't planning to take this class. I had actually kind of given up on training a teeter with Bandit. I had been doing some work, with a half hearted hope that something might change for him, but really I was prepared to go do NADAC with him and forget the teeter.
The trouble started when Bandit was taking Foundation Agility.
His introduction to the teeter seemed successful enough. He first learned to choose to bang the end of the teeter with his front paws for treats. That went well.
Then he learned to circle around behind me, push the board down to the ground with his front paws, and get on with his four paws. That went . . . . OK. He had a tendency to throw those back paws off if he had any opportunity whatsoever, but he did all right with it.
But when we got to the point where he was supposed to get all the way on, tip it, and go to the end, the whole thing fell apart.
Bandit quickly developed a very serious aversion to having anything moving underneath him.
And this had an effect on more than his teeter. He quickly became suspicious of any boards that I asked him to go across, so he lost what progress he had made on the dogwalk, as well.
I did manage to help him regain confidence on stationary boards. Doing Parkour with him definitely helped. And eventually I did convince him that going all the way over the dogwalk, instead of jumping off the top of it, was a good thing.
But any time I would ask him to do anything with a moving board - even slam it with his front feet - he immediately became wary of boards again.
So . . . I made up my mind that I could live without the teeter . . . mostly.
When enrollment started for this term at FDSA, I made up my mind that I was only going to take one Bronze level class.
And then I saw a post on the FDSA Alumni Facebook group announcing that there was exactly one Gold Level spot left in Foundation See Saw.
I signed up. Completely on impulse. I felt that Bandit and I deserved one last fair shot at this piece of Agility equipment, so we signed up - at Gold.
I really went in with few expectations. I figured I would work on the exercises with Bandit and I would see where we went.
First week went well. There were no moving boards in any of the lessons. Some nice, simple exercises that gave Bandit the opportunity to get reinforced for choosing to interact with various and sundry pieces of "stuff".
That is good for him. Bandit has always had an initial suspicion of anything he hasn't interacted with before.
But the first lesson of the second week was the one that changed everything.
In the second lesson, the instructor posed the question of what it feels like for our dogs to be trained by us.
That question made me stop short and really take a hard look at my work with Bandit.
What does it feel like for Bandit to be trained by me?
And when I really looked at my work with him objectively and was truly honest with myself, I had to admit that it probably didn't always feel all that great.
Don't get me wrong - Bandit has always enjoyed a lot about our work together. At the same time, there has always been something between Bandit and me that hasn't quite "clicked" between us as a dog and trainer/handler team.
I know that as positive as I always strive to be, there have been times when I have put undue pressure on him because I know he has the most incredible potential that I have ever witnessed in one of my dogs, and I want to see him master concepts and behaviors quickly and easily.
But Bandit is not always on the same page that I am on. I think sometimes he is trying to understand what we are doing, but I am moving too fast. I think that sometimes he is trying to get used to something that we are doing and I want to take it to another level. I think that sometimes he just plain does not see the point of something that I am asking him to do, and sometimes I think he doesn't really understand what I want and he checks out on me because of it.
I have often thought that I wished that Bandit has more resilience and that he was more willing to be a partner in the game.
But maybe, I realized when I read that line in the lesson, I was the one who was failing to do what needs to be done to make all of this training and performance stuff work for Bandit.
When I thought about it - why would Bandit want to play with me with a moving board? Obviously the allure of treats - even treats that he loves - did not outweigh his personal aversion to having his back feet move when the plank tipped. There really was absolutely no motivation for him in this.
As we have worked our way - at our own pace, which is slower than that of most of the participants in the class - through the exercises in this course, I have become more and more attuned to going out of my way to make sure that Bandit is in a state of mind where he wants to be engaged in whatever we are doing together before we start our work.
This state of engagement is more than the fact that he is paying attention. He is paying attention, his tail is up, his eyes are bright, he is eager to jump right into whatever I am going to have him do.
If he is not in that state of mind when we begin, then I spend some time with him to help him get there. With Bandit that isn't very difficult at all. By nature, he wants to be a team player. He just needs to know that what the team is doing is something that is going to be enjoyable and worthwhile for him.
I saw this attitude spilling over into my other work with him when we were at Rally FrEe class yesterday evening. I had cued Bandit to do a spin, which he did perfectly, but he didn't come back to position afterward. He "landed" at something of an angle from me. I first looked at him to see where he was mentally. He was engaged. He was looking at me, his tail was up, his eyes were shining. Then I cued him into position and reinforced.
If he had looked distressed, confused, or distracted, I would not have bothered to ask him to get into position.
The result of this shift in mindset is having an amazing result. I am seeing Bandit's confidence increase, and I am starting to see him begin to trust me much more, both in the ring and in regular life.
And - yesterday, for the first time, Bandit got on a low tippy plank and he tipped it with his front feet and stayed on when his back feet tipped up! Not only did he stay on, but he was clearly comfortable, and after I tossed a treat to send him away from the plank, he came right back to it and did it again! He was clearly not the least bit bothered by the movement of the plank!
Again, it is difficult to really describe what is different now. It's not that I was doing something "wrong" before. It's more like I wasn't seeing a part of the picture that is very obvious to me now.
Before I would have said that Bandit tipping a plank and staying on it was an amazing accomplishment. Now I would say that the fact that he wants to do it is the most important thing.
A subtle change. But an enormous one, too!