I’ve been spending some good quality time with the dogs this last couple of days and am feeling better about myself. I can get nothing else accomplished all day, but if the dogs have been exercised and trained, I feel good. I am once again finding having four dogs quite tough in my current set-up. I tried it about a year ago and it didn’t work; not sure how things will go again this time. So far it is easier, in part I think because Mira is over two and has a good foundation now, so I am only trying to get one dog up and started instead of two. Four dogs in four different stages of training seems to be more manageable.
As I write, all three girls, plus my female cat, are curled up on the bed with me (Ross and Liam-cat are in their own beds, which they prefer). They will have to move when it’s time to turn the lights off, but that they can all curl up and fall asleep like this tells me they’ve had a good day. Even Kess is snoring away within 2 feet of the cat, which is pretty impressive. I am quite convinced that her cat obsession will subside the more I get her turned on to other things, and I continue to ignore it. It has diminished considerably already. Just wait until I get her working stock! Neither of the other girls even look at the cats anymore, and both were keen on following them around before they started working.
I’ve mentioned a few times now that I don’t try to push my dogs forward too quickly. Interestingly, Susan Garrett just wrote this post to that effect. She discusses the importance of foundation, and how she doesn’t push her young dogs very quickly. I really couldn’t agree more. I noticed a tremendous difference with both Hannah and Mira between even the ages of 12 and 18 months in what they were capable of handling in terms of pressure, and will never again do serious training with a dog before 18 months of age (it helps when you have more than one dog so you can focus on the older ones while the pups grow up). At 12 months, neither was up to handling much pressure, especially around stock work. Mira didn’t even want to start working until she was nearly a year and a half. Hannah did, but she would shut down with pressure, and there’s a lot of pressure around stock work.
I am taking the same approach with Kestrel. She has years to perfect her skills, so right now I am letting her be a puppy while I focus on foundation building with her (and revisiting it with the others because it never hurts!). For me, foundation training involves focus work (shadow handling, crate games), some very basic obedience (recalls, stays, leash manners) and, most importantly, confidence building.
I did not do nearly enough confidence building with Hannah as a puppy and definitely pushed her too quickly. This was mostly around stock work, as my instructor (also her breeder) wanted us to get onto the trial field very quickly. She pushed us hard, and that meant I pushed Hannah hard. We started her at around 8-9 months of age, and by 12 months, she started to fall apart. So did I, for that matter. I then realized my mistake and put herding on ice for 6 months and focused on foundation agility training instead.
In agility, I train with someone who has trained extensively with Susan Garrett (which explains my constant reference to her training techniques – that and because I believe in them, having tried other methods in the past). She, like Susan discusses in the post I linked to above, is very big on building a foundation, and also in making everything fun and positive for your dog. Hannah and I have enjoyed every minute of our agility training and it did wonders for her confidence levels, as well as for our team work. Today Hannah is a very confident dog and I am extremely grateful that I was able to reverse and repair the damage I did when she was younger.
I never put the same kind of pressure on Mira to work, but I put other pressures on her as a puppy. She made it clear early on that she needed time to figure out who she was, and I have given it to her. But I did stress about it for a long time. Much of that pressure came from outside. I must learn to ignore what other people say! I do listen to my gut, but the pressure others put on me does stress me out. I can’t tell you how many people told me to get rid of Mira – pretty much everyone I know, in fact. She was a mental and physical mess, and people ranging from rescuers to friends to dog trainers, and even her breeder, told me to give up, send her back and try again. Thank goodness I didn’t, but I know all that indecision damaged her self-confidence. How could she not tell that I wasn’t committed to her? I am now 100% committed, and have been since she came up lame at age 11 months and I was told she’d never be able to do anything ever again. It took that crisis for me to realize how much she needed me and that I had to put my selfish aspirations aside and be the support she needed. Today I am grateful for every accomplishment we have made, and don’t pressure her to do anything. Amazingly, as a result she is working stock and doing agility, and we have a great time in both even if we aren’t advancing quickly.
Kess clearly had a lot of pressure put on her before I found her, and this is what I am trying to fix now. Every day she shows a little more confidence, and I make a point of letting her know she’s absolutely terrific in everything she does. Even when she pooped in her crate today. I caught her mid-act, and simply apologized for not having taken her out in time. I whisked her out of the crate and out of the house for a walk and to play a little soccer. I am amazed by how much confidence this dog has in ME. She clearly trusts me completely already, and I hope that will help me build her trust in herself. It was heart breaking to see a dog so crushed at such a young age but she is bouncing back very well. Nevertheless, fun basics for her and nothing more for a long time.
I believe shaping games are absolutely the best exercises for building confidence in a dog. I have written here about the basics of shaping, and here’s a link to a great list of shaping exercises you can try. What a great compilation to work on over the winter. I just thawed a big batch of organic liver to dry for training treats and dug out my clickers, so we’re all set!