I tried catching up on a few of the blogs I like to read tonight, just skimming over them.  I have decided to take a couple of them off my blogroll – the two agility blogs (Susan Garrett’s and ShapeUpDogs).  I will add new blogs as I find ones I enjoy reading.  There are many great blogs out there but I just haven’t much time to explore of late.  I am deleting ShapeUpDogs because it doesn’t have many postings and quite frankly, I don’t read it.  As for Susan Garrett’s blog, I am finding that it is becoming too much of an infomercial for her products and seminars.  Plus while I do think she’s brilliant at the mechanics of dog training, I am finding her focus on perfection to be not in keeping with my own philosophy of dog training.  

I do love her advocacy of positive methods, but I question this need for making everything so mechanical.  Dogs are way more than robots, and just because they respond to classical and operant conditioning (heck, so do we!) doesn’t mean that this is the only way they learn.  A dog who has a healthy, clear mind is very capable of putting two and two together and moving forward very quickly with learning, skipping all sorts of steps in training.  Heck, some can learn just by watching other dogs.  Once they know what you want them to do, provided they want to do it – and this is where relationship is so important – many will just get down to work.  The trick, I suspect, is getting your dog healthy enough mentally for him or her to learn that quickly.  

Unfortunately this issues is never discussed in most dog training books or blogs.  Also, this mechanical training using operant and classical condition can and does override some of the mental health problems many dogs have.  I know many, many half-crazy (or fully so) border collies who are taken to agility as a way of getting their over the top behaviour under control.  I could have done this with Mira, but instead I worked at getting her mind clear through good health (diet, homeopathy & chiropractics).  Once her mind cleared and stabilized, training became much easier with her.  

My agility instructor was amazed at how much Mira changed over a 6 month period where we did absolutely zero training, and plenty of focus on health and homeopathic treatment.  Her exact reaction was “Wow!  This dog has come a million miles!”  Now, how is this possible if I hadn’t done any training?  It’s because her brain started working, and our relationship was solid.    

I really enjoyed Patricia Macconnell’s discussion around building relationships (in Bones Would Rain) on different levels, and how yes we can train dogs mechanically, but there’s a whole other level of connecting with them that goes way beyond this.  It is that next level that I am trying to work at, and I find myself almost turned off of some of the teachings I used to take as gospel.  I can’t really explain it well right now because I’m still trying to figure it out.  But when I think of the incredible relationship I had with my first dog, Jake, I am sure it is that that got us so far, and not any specific mechanics of training.  I knew virtually nothing about dog training theory, yet he and I just clicked; we read each other’s minds, and we worked in perfect tandem together.

Hannah has a very clear mind now, and I have a very good working relationship with her (most of the time).  At one point during the the Kevin Evans clinic, I told Hannah to go ‘away’ when I meant ‘come by’.  She went ‘come by.’  I was standing right near the handler’s tent with everyone watching within earshot.  I wasn’t paying attention to them, but when Hannah did the correct flank, i.e. the one I wanted her to do and not the one I asked for, I said “yeah, you know the one I was thinking of” and everyone laughed. The thing is, I am quite sure she did know what I wanted, and that’s why she took that flank.  Not because she was blowing me off.  She does the same in agility and all sorts of other situations as well. She can read me very well, even if my verbals don’t match.  Dogs read us way better than they hear us, and when the relationship is solid, they will respond to what they know we really need them to do.

I don’t want my dogs to be mechanical robots because sometimes I make mistakes.  We are team, and that means we work together.  I suspect that if we were doing daily work on a farm, I’d want my dog to listen very carefully, but also to know when to fill in the gaps and fix my mistakes.  A robotic dog may do better a trial, but only if the handler is really good.  That’s not me – I need all the help I can get from my dog!

I could change my mind on this down the road.  Perhaps I’ll become more competitive, or perhaps I’ll discover that I’m wrong about this.  But for now I am going to put my time and effort into building my relationship with each dog.  This is not to say that training together doesn’t build relationship.  It certainly does!  I’m not sure if I am able to be clear on the difference just yet.  I’ll have to put some more thought into it, and see if I can differentiate better in another post.