Tag Archives: obedience

In Praise of Difficult Dogs: Luce’s Story

lucesurveyWhen they say that pit bulls aren’t necessarily a great choice for first-time dog owners, they really do mean it. They’re very high energy, they’re smart, they’re demanding, and they’re frequently not good with other dogs. Oh, and they’re really really strong. But I fell in love with the breed anyway, and so when I was in a position to bring home my first dog, I went to the shelter and picked out a cute little young adult pit bull with silly bat ears and a charming snort.

Oh, I had no idea what I was getting into. Not a clue.

I took her home, I named her Luce, (Short for Eleusis, pronounced like “Lucy” without the y). I fell in love.

But oh, was I in trouble.

“Naughty” doesn’t even begin to cover what she was. The first thing she did when set loose in the fenced yard was check each individual board in the privacy fence to make sure it was secure. Not all of them were. She escaped. We fixed that board, she found a new loose one. She managed to crawl underneath the neighbor’s shed. I have no idea what she hoped to find there– adventure, perhaps. Or something to eat.

Her favorite game was to run like a maniac all over the yard and bite my legs on the way past. She was not being aggressive in any way– she was simply playing in a manner that works for playing with other dogs, just not for us tender-skinned humans. It hurt. She thought it was hilarious.

But the hardest thing to deal with was her extreme reactivity to other dogs while on leash. She would pull, she would scream (and I mean scream, not bark), she would lunge. It was scary and embarrassing.

I was completely out of my league, and I knew it.

I was left with the decision of whether to give up and return her to the shelter and an uncertain fate, or to enroll her in obedience class and try my best.

We started Beginner Obedience a few weeks later, and I had no idea that I was embarking on such an incredible and life-changing journey.

We started out our classes completely segregated from the rest of the group. Here is the first thing I learned: a dog who is freaking out (known in trainer-speak as “Over threshold”) cannot learn. Their brains are so busy freaking out that nothing else gets through. So when I was yelling and jerking her leash to try to make her stop carrying on, I was wasting my energy– she could not hear me anyway.

Food is good. Yelling is dumb.

Food is good. Yelling is dumb.

We were set up behind a barrier. Luce knew the other dogs were there, but she couldn’t see them. So while she was distracted, she was able, with the use of high value treats (hot dogs, cheese, meatballs) frequently delivered for the smallest bit of attention on me, so start to calm down and actually learn some stuff. Sit, down, stay, leave it– all those important Dog Skills.

(A note about rewards: They have to be highly rewarding TO THE DOG. While we like to think our dogs work for our love and affection, really they prefer food or toys. Each dog is different– a dog who goes nuts for cheese may not care about hot dogs. A dog who is not accepting a reward that he typically does is probably over-stressed and you need to take a step back in your training and find the place where he’s not stressing.)

The second important thing that I learned was that heavily rewarding the behaviors that I wanted was a whole lot easier and more effective than trying to punish out the behaviors that I didn’t want. It is much easier for a dog to learn a specific behavior to do than to try to figure out from many options what not to do. In this case, I was looking for attention on me.

For her to learn this, she needed to learn self-control.

Self-control is a really hard thing for a lot of dogs, but it is at the heart of so many behaviors that we want, from walking politely on a leash without pulling to responding to a “leave it” command instead of snatching a dropped pill off the floor. We did a lot of work with Luce lying on a mat on the floor (bathmats work great for this) while I rewarded her heavily with wonderful tasty food for being calm and staying on her mat as I gradually increased the amount of distraction..

So proud!

So proud!

The absolute best resource for this is Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol. There is also a handy audio version.

It is boring and it is repetetive but it works. Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed program builds extensively on Karen Overall’s work. Although it was initially intended as a program for dogs who play sports, it has many “real life” applications, and many people with reactive dogs have had great success with it. The puppy book is a bit easier to follow and works great for adult dogs as well as pups.

It didn’t get better overnight. It took time, patience, perseverance. It took a lot of not giving up even when I wanted to. I took class after class and worked with Luce outside of class, and eventually there were very obvious results. My instructor started encouraging me to do rally obedience trials with her. I laughed and said they can have my leash when they pry it from my cold, dead hands. She said that conveniently, the first level is all on leash.

And so began my journey into the world of dog sports. At Luce’s very first trial, we finished in second place. Together we would go on to earn six rally obedience titles, 4 rally obedience championship-level titles, two traditional obedience titles, and two national rally rankings. She retired– she’s 11 years old now– with the alphabet soup of ARCHX Luce CD CD-H RA RLV RL3 RL2X RL1X CGC TT.

Wall of glory.

Wall of glory.

Not bad for a crazy little red pit bull that somebody threw away. I hope the journey was worth as much to her as it was to me.

Further resources for dealing with reactive/difficult dogs:
When Pigs Fly Dog Training
DINOS: Dogs in Need of Space
Dr. Sophia Yin
Local behavior consultant Barb Demerest


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Let the games begin!

With the Olympics in progress, I thought it would be fun to go over the huge variety of different dog sports out there for people to participate in with their dogs. There are so many games out there to play with your dog, whether you’re competitive-minded or not. Anything that gets you out doing something fun with your dog is a huge benefit to you both, so check out this list of dog sports and see if there is one that fits you and your dog’s personalities.

Zipper working a serpentine on a rally course. Photo by Kevin Devine Photography.

Zipper the MinPin heeling a serpentine on a rally course. Photo by Kevin Devine Photography.

No matter what sport you choose, the first place to start is almost always going to be a basic obedience class. Obedience classes aren’t just for teaching your dog to sit and down and stay. They are where you learn how to effectively teach your dog. How to communicate with him. How to get the behaviors you want, and get rid of the behaviors that you don’t. Once you learn this skill, you can apply it to anything, from sitting for petting from strangers to running an agility course at a high speed.

The easiest sport to transition into from beginner obedience is typically Rally Obedience. Rally Obedience is such a fun sport. It combines elements of obedience with a course set-up similar to agility. You never know what you’re going to get, and you have to put thought into what the best way is to navigate through the course. In the Beginning Level, the dog is on leash. You can talk to him the entire time you’re out there with him. You follow the signs that tell you what to do at each station (all kinds of turns (90, 180, 270, 360); all combinations of sits, downs, and stands; heeling through cones, and in the upper levels things as complicated as sending the dog over a jump or having him change positions from a stand to a sit with you at a distance). This sport is offered by a number of different organizations including the AKC, the UKC, and Cynosport. In Cynosport, you are allowed to feed your dog treats in the ring to reward him. All three organizations allow mixed breed dogs, but they do need to be registered with the organization in order to compete.

Cherrybomb the Doberman performs the recall to front. Photo by  DPCTZ.

Cherrybomb the Doberman performs the recall to front. Photo by DPCTZ.

For those people who are very detail-oriented and enjoy precision, traditional obedience may be a good choice. In traditional obedience, the game is much more rigidly structured. You may only speak to your dog at certain times. Straight sits, perfect heel position, and all the picky little details are judged much more stringently in traditional obedience. But it can still be a fun game. In the Novice level, dogs perform a heeling pattern called out by a judge both on the lead an off, a figure 8 around two people, a stand while the judge does a very minimal “exam” while the owner stands six feet away, a recall across the ring, and group sit stays and down stays. In the upper levels, things get far more interesting. There are jumps. There is retrieving. There is picking out a specific item from a group of similar items based solely on scent. It’s a lot to learn, but all that work with your dog is priceless, as long as you are both enjoying it. Again, there are a variety of organizations that offer Obedience trials. The most popular and competitive is AKC, but the UKC also offers it, as well as an organization called CDSP which offers a more laid-back environment, allows you to talk to your dog in the ring, and will allow certain judge-approved exercise modifications for dogs with physical concerns.

Steve, a Border Collie, at full speed. Photo by Jim Geiser Photography.

Steve, a Border Collie, at full speed. Photo by Jim Geiser Photography.

For dogs and owners who enjoy a faster-paced game, the sport of flyball may be just what you’re looking for. In flyball, teams of four dogs race one another over a course of four jumps to the flyball “box” which pops out a tennis ball for the dog to catch before racing back. It is fast and LOUD and chaotic and a ton of fun. Flyball is a sport that dogs of all sizes, breeds, and mixes can play, but is best suited to small and medium dogs. Dogs need to be interested in tennis balls and able to focus on a job in the midst of barking and running dogs. But you start off slowly in training and gradually build up to the point of chaos.

Flyball seems to be becoming more popular in our area, with classes being offered at many different training centers. Check out the North American Flyball Association website for more information on the sport and to locate a team or a tournament to watch near you. (Many are held at the York Expo Center or In the Net in Palmyra. They are free to the public, and well-behaved dogs are welcome.)

Deemer, a Border Collie/ Jack Russell mix playing agility. Photo by K. Bell

Deemer, a Border Collie/ Jack Russell mix playing agility. Photo by K. Bell

Agility combines both technical skill and speed. In agility, dogs navigate courses consisting of jumps, tunnels, and sometimes equipment called a dogwalk and an a-frame that they have to climb, and a teeter-totter that tips under their feet. There are a wide variety of different “games” varying from one organization to another. In some games, the handler gets to make up their own course with certain point or equipment requirements. In other games dogs have to take the jumps and obstacles in a certain order. Open to dogs of all sizes and shapes, there’s a venue suitable for everyone.

Agility takes a lot of time and work to do well and to do safely. Dogs need to understand how to handle the equipment in a safe manner, and handlers need to learn how to direct their dogs to turn and discriminate between obstacles. And to stay at the start line (that’s a hard one!). It can be overwhelming and awkward at first, but once you get the hang of it, it is a ton of fun, and there is always a new challenge to face.

Truly I think there are few things as beautiful in the world as watching a sighthound lure course.

Vesper the Whippet at high speed. Photo by K. Bell

Vesper the Whippet at high speed. Photo by K. Bell

In this game, dogs chase a moving lure around a pre-set course. Mostly trials are for Sighthounds (Greyhounds, Whippets, etc) but it is a game that appeals to many different breeds (herding dogs! terriers!). The AKC has even made lure-coursing available to all breeds through their Coursing Aptitude Test, and several training clubs in the area hold classes or fun events where your dog can try the sport on for size.

Last but not least in this overview of a number of the games out there to play with your dogs (part two coming soon– there are SO MANY OPTIONS!), is the brand new sport of Barnhunt. In Barnhunt, dogs of all sizes and breeds and mixes are released to locate and signal where on a course of hay bales and loose straw rats are hidden in secure tubes.

Is there a rat in there? Photo by Melissa Sheehan

Is there a rat in there? Photo by Melissa Sheehan

Many dogs are natural hunters, and this game encourages to use their noses to sniff out vermin. There have long been terrier-only games that included searching out rats, but for the first time, it has been designed in a way that allows dogs large and small to participate. Dogs love being given an outlet for their natural instincts, and Barnhunt plays perfectly into the very essence of being a dog.

I hope you enjoyed this summary of just a few of the dog sports out there to play with your dog. I have a list of half-a-dozen more for another time, but if something on this list inspired you or sparked an interest, I hope that you pursue it. Maybe a child in your household would find one of these sports fun– there are junior handler programs for many of them. Whatever you think when reading this, I hope it encourages you to get out there and do something with your dog that will enrich both of your lives.

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Posted by on February 20, 2014 in Dogs, Just for Fun, Training


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