Dog Obedience to Dog-Human Cooperation

Rio and I, we are more alike than I knew. Similarities appear across our species’ barrier. “You get the dog you need.” It’s a statement I have heard before, but it takes on new facets of meaning as our time together lengthens.

We have joined an obedience club, and boy do I feel out of place. This is no TAGteach environment. They say they use something called positive reinforcement, but it’s a harsher brand than the one to which I subscribe. I joined because I wanted to learn about it. I wanted to learn obedience exercises and become familiar with the way people move in the show ring – obedience, agility, rally, rally-o; it’s all new to me. It sounded like a fascinating way to further explore the depths of our relationship with our dogs. New learning motivates me strongly. I had been feeling restless, in need of a way in which to grow.

Sometimes you learn best by jumping in. Sometimes you fail and have to pick yourself back up out of the mess.

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Obedience? Really? Couldn’t you pick something more fun?

I’m sure there is a way to keep obedience lighthearted and fun, to make it a positive experience, a safe place to learn from each other and from our dogs. I’m sure there is a way to ensure that Rio enjoys the experience, that he gets lots of goodies and doesn’t get scolded or jerked around. There has to be a way because that is a part of who I am and it comes with me everywhere, inside every experience into which I venture with my pup. There is space within this structure that feels so rigid now, space for pup and I to move and learn with ease and joy.

I joined the Beginner Obedience class. I am well aware of Rio’s struggles with highly stimulating environments, in part, because they are my own struggles as well. Kavir points it out sometimes when we enter a busy restaurant. There is panic for a moment in my eyes. I try to hold it in, to pretend that it doesn’t phase me when I don’t know where to order, where to stand, but there are so many people, so much bustle. On top of all that, there are decisions to make about what I will eat and drink! Take a deep breath. Come back to your body and out of your mind. As I am able to relax and feel at ease, Rio will join me, lying down by my side to nap in trust and peace.

Yes, Rio will bark at the dogs appearing suddenly and moving quickly on the other side of the ring. If I don’t give him instructions, if I pause a moment too long and leave him uncertain, he will start to bark at me in frustrated excitement, “Just tell me what I’m supposed to do!” He will lose his mind from time to time. In a beginner class, I figured this would be better met with understanding, but since Rio already knows all the exercises we were going to go over in the beginner course, and the next level up was full, the instructors sent us to the novice class.

In this class, the dogs are getting ready for the show ring – like cleaning up all the obedience exercises they have already learned. The handlers know what they are doing in the show ring. They know where they are allowed to hold their hands (certainly not behind their back!). Their dogs are relaxed and attentive and they definitely do not bark. Rio and I are a mess.

I should point out I am not upset we found ourselves in this messy situation. I appreciate the fact that the instructor for the beginner course said we were far too advanced to be in the first class. I appreciate that she said we would learn way more in the novice class. She was absolutely correct. I really think she has our best interest in mind and cares about our learning. Thus we are thrown in the deep end, sink or swim. Luckily Rio is a strong swimmer; I only hope I can keep up with him.

In the spirit of staying lighthearted and keeping this endeavor fun, I have renamed the Obedience trials. I will think of the exercises we practice as cooperation trials.

Here are the cooperation exercises we will be practicing this week:

Stand for Exam

Figure 8

Right turn/ Left turn – with cones to guide

Finish Right

Swing Finish

Stand in Heel position

Recall to Front

30s Sit Stay

30s Down Stay

For me: keeping my hand at my side or on the leash, playing with the rate of reinforcement to keep Rio engaged and not worried about his environment, not taking criticism personally, meeting Rio where he is right now and working from there, focusing on the positive and rephrasing criticism using positive language when necessary.

Holy Chowdah!

The instructor of the novice course is fond of saying, “I’m only pointing out what you are doing wrong so that you can get better!” She says, “I have an instructor I work with too and she does the same for me.”

I wonder if she has stopped to consider that there may be another friendlier way of getting behavior. Oh well, we can reframe using positive language and get there in our own good time (hopefully while having a good time!)

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