I’ve been working from home for the last couple of days and have been taking the dogs for great hikes in the conservation area.  I have some fun photos from yesterday’s hike and will try and get them posted asap.  For some reason, there have been people at the conservation area every time I’ve gone this week.  I went for a couple of months without running into anyone before Christmas; all of a sudden now the place is busy.  I can’t imagine why, given the cold weather and snow.  You’d think this would mean even fewer people going, unless perhaps I’m running into farmers during their brief down-time.  Who knows?  The bottom line is that I’ve had to keep the dogs on leash for some of our visits, which has been a real pain.

However, getting the four of them to walk nicely on a leash during an hour-long hike has actually worked out well.  It’s good for the dogs to use their brains instead of just running helter skelter.  I’ve noticed a difference now when getting them out of the car.  I used to just open the door and let them dive out and down the path.  They would come out high as kites as a result, anticipating a good run and chase.  The first time I had to take them out and put them straight on leashes was disastrous!  I am hardly strong enough to hold them all when they decide to take off, and I nearly wrung their necks as they tried to drag me off before I could even get the car door shut.

Now that we’ve changed our routine (which I will maintain, even if the place gets quiet again), they come out of their crates, wait to be leashed, and walk fairly nicely.  Kestrel is the only one who still pulls on a leash, and so I put the leash under her armpit.  She doesn’t like the feeling of a leash in that spot very much and avoids pulling as a result.  A very effective quick fix for pulling.

Two days ago, once the coast was clear, I let the dogs off leash and we went for a nice hike.  As we returned to the car, I noticed someone walking towards us.  I called the dogs over and leashed them up.  All except for Kestrel, who had lost her collar.  I was not impressed as I just put on our new tags and wasn’t happy about the thought of having to order a new one for her.  As to her being off-leash, she usually is quite well behaved.  So I didn’t bother holding her and just told her to lie down and stay, while holding onto the leashes of the other three.

Well, Kess was having none of that.  The approaching person had a dog – a border collie for that matter – and she was off like a rocket to say hello.  I called her back and she stopped a couple of times, but kept going forward after each hesitation.  She jumped all over the other person and dog, despite my pleas, and then finally came back to me.  I was not impressed.  Fortunately the other person didn’t mind, and very luckily, he had also found her collar on the path and had it in his pocket.  At least one problem easily solved.

But the matter of Kess not listening bugged me.  I was irritated with her, but then I realized that I had no right to be. After all, what have I done with her lately?  She hasn’t been worked in two weeks.  I let her run with the pack, and do as she pleases around the house.  How can I expect her to suddenly do as I ask when I put so little effort into building my relationship with her, or teaching her that it is important to have some self-control and to listen to me?  She’s generally a good and easy dog, so I forget that I’ve done very little real training with her.  And while she’s generally quite obedient, because I haven’t really built a strong foundation with her, apparently she thinks she can pick and choose when she listens.

Today, being a weekend and thus likely having even more traffic at the conservation area than weekdays, I decided to do some training at home with the dogs, and then just play with them on the property.  I locked them all in my bedroom, and then brought one at a time down to the kitchen.  There I had some treats, a clicker, a target and a travel board (a four foot long, 18 inch wide board raised up on two-by-fours).  I did the same routine with each dog: basic sits and down stays, hand touch, eye contact, and then we worked on a nose touch to the plastic target (without  sitting and without touching my hand), and then some shaping on the travel board to get the two-on-two-off position.

I have done a fair bit of foundation training with each of the other three dogs, and they all did very well with the above exercises.  Even Ross, who has never done agility, is a shaping genius and did very well with the travel board and target.  I also did some basic Rally-O work with him (heeling while walking forward and backwards, turns, switching sides etc.).  Kess, on the other hand, was fairly hesitant in comparison.  She clearly isn’t all that sure about shaping and about trying new things.  I really need to do a lot more work with her.  She’s very, very bright, but a lot more hesitant than I ever realized.  I have attributed her reluctance to listen to an aversion of Ross, who is almost always by my feet, but there’s clearly more going on here.  She definitely lacks confidence and I need to work on that.

For example, at agility I notice that she sniffs the ground a lot while training.  At first I thought it was because I kept dropping treats, but today I noticed her doing the same as soon as she wasn’t clear on what was expected of her.  At agility, we train in an arena with a dirt floor so I can’t see if there are bits of treats.  It was clear in the kitchen that there was nothing on the floor.  This is very much avoidance behaviour.

Another things she did was start staring at the cat.  Again, more avoidance behaviour.  I had long suspected that her cat obsession was linked to a desire to pretend other things weren’t going on.  This was confirmed today while we were working on shaping.  The cat had been in the room the whole time, but it was only when we started working on something new that Kestrel suddenly started staring at the cat.

Herding behaviour seems to be what Kess does to avoid stress.  I’m not surprised by this as it is what she does naturally and dogs default to their natural behaviour when stressed.  Herding also can be an obsessive compulsive disorder, something many dogs (particularly border collies) suffer from.  While I think Kess is a terrific dog, still one of the most lovely examples of the breed I’ve come across in ages, I am seeing more clearly the work that needs to be done to really bring out her true potential.  It’s time that I get on that. I started over Christmas and saw great improvement quickly, but as soon as I stopped (getting back to busy life) she regressed.  Now she is worse than she was a month ago.  I won’t claim to understand why, but today I started trying to move things forward again. As I type, she is tethered to my chair.  No more hiding in corners and avoiding the world for this pup.

Regarding our training session in general today, I was surprised by just how enthusiastic the dogs were.  Even Kess, with her worry and hesitation, was still keen to do the exercises and play the games I set out.  They each were over the moon with working one-on-one with me, and doing these basic obedience and foundation agility exercises.  Herding is amazing and the dogs love it probably more than anything else, but it is serious business and often stressful.  Agility offers a great counter balance to this.  I had been waivering a bit as to whether I should continue with agility, but seeing how much fun my dogs have doing it, how much their faces light up and their energy levels go through the roof when I pull out a clicker and a tug toy, it’s clear to me that this is a great way to strengthen our relationships and just plain have fun.