Friday, May 3, 2013

The Game or the Work?

Recently someone made a comment about some of Tessa's Agility videos:

"From your videos she looks to me like a dog that is happy to do stuff with you - any stuff - but because you want her to rather than because she loves the activity itself." 

This got me thinking - what is it, really, that Tessa loves about working in the ring?  The games themselves, or working with me?  And, if it is one over the other, is that a good thing or a bad thing?  What would I actually want her to love?

What does Tessa love about working in the ring?

It cannot be denied that Tessa loves working in the ring.  I often joke that I could take her into the ring and we could walk in circles around a chair and she would be having the time of her life.  That's true.  Whether we are doing Agility, Freestyle, Rally FrEe, Rally, Tricks, or training something random, Tessa loves, loves, LOVES working in the ring.

I saw this in her at our very first training class.  The first thing that our instructor had us do, as a class, was a "power walk".  We were all to walk around the room in a big circle, together, as dog and handler teams.  At first Tessa was slightly concerned about the fact that there were people in the ring, and people on the sidelines, but in short order, she was walking around the room with obvious interest and an obvious spark of confidence, which was in short supply at that time!  As we walked around, she would look up at me from time to time, and I saw that in her eyes, and it was clear to me that she really, really liked walking around that ring with me.  And I appreciated that about her in an instant!

Later in that very same class, we were working on teaching our dogs to follow a lure.  Tessa actually had to learn to follow a lure.  Her tendency was to take a treat and move away from me.  The idea of following food in my hand was a challenge for her and she had to learn that it was a safe and good thing to do.  So, toward the end of that first class, we were sitting off in a corner together, and she was starting to follow the food in my hand as I lured her into a sit - down - sit - stand.  At first she was concerned, but once the idea of what I wanted was clear to her, she began to follow the food almost eagerly.  There we sat as I was luring - sit - down - sit - stand and I felt like we had won the championship title of the world!  And it was clear that she liked learning how to accomplish this task with me.  I saw that in her and was very pleased.

There are few places where Tessa is as relaxed and eager as she is when we are in the ring together.  No, it really doesn't matter what we are doing.  She does not seem to have a clear preference of activity.  When we go in, she takes a quick look to see what is on the floor, and away we go together!

I have actually gotten a comment similar to that quoted above from my own Agility instructor in the past . . . 

". . . she just loves doing these things with you but doesn't have a favorite as she likes the variety"

Of course, this was positive feedback.  The quote above was not intended as a complement.

So, does Tessa prefer to do what I want over the games themselves?

I would absolutely say that Tessa enjoys the games.  She clearly enjoys jumping and running, and going over the dogwalk and A-Frame, etc.  She seems to find pleasure in heeling - sometimes she preens as she prances along, tail held high with a jaunty curl up over her back.  It is clear that she is having fun.  Her tail waggles as she works her way through a Rally FrEe course, and throughout her Freestyle performances.  If she didn't like what she was doing out there, she would be more subdued, almost drawn into herself.

But she also loves that she and I work together as a team.  And yes, knowing Tessa, I think she does love this best of all.  If we were running Agility and I suddenly stopped and started cuing Freestyle moves, she would stop and do them, quite happily.  If we were in the middle of a Freestyle performance and I asked her to lie down on the floor for a massage, she would happily do so, not caring in the least that the activity had stopped.

So, if Tessa had to choose between a particular game, or working with me in general, she would be right there with me.  That in spite of her enjoyment of the activity at hand.

Is this good or bad?

On reflection, I actually do consider this a good thing.  I see it an asset.  When she is learning something new, she is working actively to try to figure out what we are doing.  When we get stuck on a challenge or problem, she is putting as much effort into trying to get the idea as I am putting into trying to figure out how to communicate the idea to her.  Our training is based on a mutual partnership - she is not a passive learner in any way.  She is distinctly an active learner.

And when we are in the ring, no matter what we are doing, she is intent on my directives and body language.  If I am not clear, she will take her best guess and then guess again!  If I am clear, she is flawless.

Also, this does not make her a velcro dog.  Tessa is more than willing to work independently - if she knows what is expected and I am clear that she is supposed to.  In fact, she loves it when I send her off to do something and she has the opportunity to do her job on that exercise.  While she is a dog who loves to work with me closely as a partner, she does not tolerate being babysat once she is competent enough to perform on her own. 

She is going to be very good at distance work in Freestyle once we have trained some, and her sending out in Agility keeps getting better and better.  Someday she will have independent weaves - I am confident of that.

Does it matter?

Really, when it comes down to it, it simply is what it is.  Who am I to try to dictate what Tessa will love most about performance and sport?  Certainly there is a time and a place to condition new emotional responses to certain things.  I did that with her when it came to the crate.  It would not have been in her best interest to leave her in a place where she was terrified of crates.  With lots of food, games, and patience, she learned that the crate is a great place and now she loves to hang out in it.

But should she love these games more than she loves working with me?

Honestly, I'd say that is completely up to her.  She does enjoy the games.  She plays them more than well enough.  And she is willing to try just about anything.  She does find joy in the activities themselves.

I do have to note the irony in the fact that I am writing a blog post reflecting on the question, "does my dog like working with me too much" about a dog who ran as far away from me as she could on the day we met, and then spent the next several months tolerating my presence in my own home while she enjoyed the safety of my furniture . . .  I could really never say that Tessa enjoys working with me too much.  If she loves the working partnership more than the games themselves . . . so be it!

When I consider everything, I don't think I could reasonably ask for more in a performance partner.  She's the one I've been waiting a long time for.  She is everything I want, and that feeling is mutual between us.  Maybe, after all, that transcends the value of any game, anyway.  

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