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What we need is fun

Last week I wrote about which method of training was the best. Whichever method is available for you or that you prefer, they all only fall into either of two categories. There is the enforcement training using pain or the other is reward training using praise, food, and toys.

A large following still use the enforcement methods because it is easy. We know that pain works, it has been in use for a long time, very little training is required, and we can see it used by many professionals.

The opposite is that the test as to which is the best is not just seen in competitions but also used by other professionals that those supporting the enforcement methods choose to ignore.

You may have read a recent article about mountain rescue dogs where it described the basis by which they trained their dogs by means of reward training using simply a rubber toy. The dogs will work happily for hours just so they can play with their favourite toy. The trainer does not need to make the dog work because it enjoys what it is doing. We use the same method to train drug, ammunition search and rescue dogs as well as dogs to help those people with many types of disabilities like blindness or deafness.

There is an old Chinese proverb "Do what you love and love what you're doing, and you'll never work another day in your life." Dogs possibly feel the same way so that if they enjoy what they do they will keep doing it because it is fun. Forced to work they lack the same sort of enthusiasm. As a Working Trials Judge, it was easy for me to recognise the dogs trained with enforcement methods to those trained by reward.

If you have ever watched a wolf pack during the day at some point, if food is reasonably plentiful, they will take time to rest and play fun games with one another. Family and working dogs are fortunate as food is plentiful and so they want to play. They want some fun. If they do not have fun, they will become mischievous by our standards and play games like destroying the house or garden. They need something to do to have fun. Some dogs may need more fun than others do but fun is still a necessity

One dog that sticks in my mind is the 6-year-old dog in Romania I wrote about some time ago. The owner had permanently chained it up as a guard dog from the age of 6 months. It never came off the chain. Following a request, I had to show the dog owner and some locals how I could approach his guard dog in a way it would not bite me. I did have some concerns about the safety for their children and had shown my approach technique five times. On the last approach, the dog went into a play bow stance showing it wanted to play with me. For all those years chained up, it still remembered and still wanted to play with a human.

A few moments later as I walked away a local tried to copy my approach and the dog showed its level of ferocity. Why they did not just buy a burglar alarm with movement sensors instead of using a dog I cannot understand but that is their tradition.

I had another older dog where the owner said it would not play and yet when I went into the play bow posture in front of it the dog started jumping around like a puppy again. It may have thought no one wanted to play but with the right language, it was saying yes please.

The key word here is fun and if you needed any further proof that dogs love fun it cannot be better demonstrated than in their love of Agility competitions. Some weeks ago, we went along to watch the Fun Agility Day held in Benitachell and here it was not only fun for the dogs but also the handlers, organisers as well as the spectators. If ever anyone designed a fun sport specifically for dogs, it must be this one. No matter what level of expertise the dogs have they still rush round the course even if they go the wrong way or fail any of the jumps.

I know there are some that do appear not to like it. You can see them shy away or try to go round some of the obstacles but I will come to that a in the next article.

This is one sport you cannot force a dog to perform and for it to be happy. If it has the right training, it will do its utmost to run the course as fast as possibly and probably be happily barking all the way round.

I read in Roger Mugford´s book ´Dog Training the Mugford Way´" that he was not very much in favour of dogs competing against each other. In a way he is right yet without competition we would not have improved the standard and ability of our dogs.

What I think Rogers point was owners become competitors and therefore they become tense. That tension shows in our body language that dogs can read. If the owner is tense, the dog becomes wary that it is doing something wrong and will possibly remember some other time in training when the owner was tense trying to teach it an obstacle and where it failed.

All the dogs can do these obstacles easily whether it is the hole in the wall to the high walk or the seesaw. Watching the dogs that refused jumps it was possible to see apprehension in the handler before they even started the course. I know this happens because I have done exactly the same thing in my early days.

I have had my dog achieve beautiful long distance sendaways in any field anywhere except when I was in competition because my apprehension transmitted to my dog and he would only go fifty yards away from me instead of the necessary two or three hundred yards. I had to learn it was me that was the problem not my dog. As a member of a team, I was letting my dog down in competitions yet whilst in training and without the pressure, we worked well together.

When I have judged at Working Trials and in particular the agility with the six-foot scale jump when a team has failed, I have given them a chance at the end to have a practice without pressure and amazingly the dog works perfectly. The dog does not know it is still not competing it just sees the difference in their owners body language.

It is important we recognise this because when it goes wrong we often blame the dog for failing. The more this happens then the more the dog becomes to hate competitions and then they refuse the jumps not because they cannot do them but they think it is wrong to even attempt them. For this problem, you can understand it is not conducive to a happy working relationship and possibly, why Roger Mugford is apprehensive about competitions.

When we and if we want to give our dogs fun and train for Agility competitions we must accept we are our own worst enemy. We too must treat it all like a game and accept mistakes or refusals as all part of the fun. If we can look happy and treat it all as fun no matter what happens we find our dogs respond by giving it their best shot. That is all we can ask of them. If we win, it is just extra icing on the cake.

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