It’s been a really long time since I’ve done any serious training, or trialling with my dogs, and I miss these activities. The combination of my job, business, and graduate school keeps me very busy, and prevents me from doing what I’m most passionate about: training dogs.
This weekend I returned to the show circuit by entering Tuvok, my 15-month-old white German Shepherd, in a fun dog show sponsored by the Portmore Dog Owners Association, which was held in the Portmore Town Centre. While the show primarily caters to owners of pitbulls and dogs trained in aggression, the advertisements announced classes for toy breeds, rottweilers, and working breeds. Rottweilers, by the way, belong to the working breeds. I entered Tuvok in the working class. There was even a fashion show where dogs vied for the title of “best dressed.”
We arrived at the show VERY early. The flyer announced show time starting at 9:00am; however, at 10:00am sponsors were still arriving to set up their booths. Turns out the show didn’t start till 3:00 that afternoon.
Tuvok and I used the opportunity to do a bit of training. This pup received consistent, focused training at 5 weeks old, along with his littermates, but once my work load got heavy, his training fell to the wayside. I was pleasantly surprised, however, that Tuvok responded to simple cues, such as sit and down very quickly and enthusiastically, even among distractions.
It was the presence of strangers that made Tuvok very uncomfortable. Fortunately Classical Conditioning can be used to desensitize a dog to fearful situations, if done correctly.
Here’s how it worked. I first clicked and treated (C&T) Tuvok each time we walked past someone and he didn’t show any signs of fear or alarm. Next I sat in a chair in a shady spot and C&T Tuvok for relaxing beside. Then came the crucial bit. I C&T the dog each time someone walked towards him and he didn’t show any fear. I kept rapid-fire C&T until the person passed us, as long as Tuvok didn’t get distracted and started growling or tried to get up. The trick here was to start C&T before the dog reached over threshold, the point where the dog finds it necessary to react.
It’s also vital when desensitizing a dog that you carefully read the dog’s body language. Fear does not always manifest itself by whinning, backing away, or trying to tie up the handler with the leash in an effort to flee the situation. There are subtle signs, such as the look of the dog’s pupils, placement of the ears, and even lifting a paw.
Anyway, Tuvok did splendidly, and in no time he could remain lying down, relaxed as the world and its children passed him by. He did not get C&T when people walked away from him, though. I wanted him to have positive associations with people approaching him, and that’s where the clicker came in most useful. Fearful dogs snap and lunge at people to get them to go away. I didn’t wan’t to inadvertently strengthen this behavior by rewarding the dog when people walked away from him.
We remained at the show until dusk. It was going on for 6:00pm, and by this time the working class hadn’t yet been called. They were still judging the toy breeds “Rising Star” style where the audience voted for the dog they felt should get first place! by this time Tuvok had become very tired; he’d lost his pep. Furthermore, I noticed that he hadn’t peed since we left the house at 9:00am that morning. We were both hungry, having not eaten anything all day.
We left the show grounds that evening without ever making it to the ring, and after paying the $500 entry fee (although the flyer stated that entries were $400 per dog). I don’t know if they ever got around to judging the working breeds, and if they did, I’m not sure how they could have judged in the dark.
A few good things came out of the day, however. I purchased a beautiful show lead from one of the booths, practiced obedience skills with my dog, desensitized him to strangers, and spent quality time with my big beautiful boy, which was priceless.