Last year I went on the ultimate Malinois vacation and returned home with Mulder. This year, it’s all about continuing education for us, so with the encouragement of my club members, I wrangled an extra day off of work and went to the PSA (Protection Sports Association) Nationals. Two days of high level competition in obedience and protection taught me more than any conference I had previously attended, and what I learned can be applied to all aspects of dog training, from competitive activities to behavior modification.
I’ve always relied on out-thinking dogs – I’ve worked with some fairly aggressive dogs with very poor bite inhibition. The scenarios I saw in competition made me scratch my head – first off, who comes up with this stuff, and how the heck is my dog going to ever do that? More importantly, how am I going to train my dog in a way that works for him and I? How am I going to proof it?
While I still mull this stuff over in my head a month later, some of my ideas have come from other areas of training – detection, behavior modification, etc. There is no reason why I cannot communicate with my dog during bite work with a clicker, and there is no reason why I cannot use some of my detection training equipment to help proof our food refusal. Alternatively, if your reactive dog is only slightly motivated by food but more motivated by sniffing, why not use sniffing as your reward when working around other dogs?
Think of this way – my wise friend, Michelle, said: “If you’re in a maze and you’re at a dead end, do you beat on the wall and hope it eventually breaks down or do you turn around and try to find another way out?” Some people will bang harder and harder on that wall – I opt to turn and try other stuff. That stuff may lead to dead ends or it may lead to the way out. I’d rather keep trying and thinking instead of stopping and beating my head against the wall.
Work On Your Weaknesses
In high level competition, it becomes very apparent what the strengths and weaknesses are in every dog-handler team. No one enters a competition without some practice, and we practice in order to improve our weaknesses. Or do we?
Little known fact: I have an honour degree in kinesiology. At my first year anatomy mid-
term, I was failing, and I had to go and have a meeting with Dr Andrews, my professor. He taught me a very wise lesson, that I still use to this day: we rehearse what we’re good at, because it is reinforcing to us and makes us feel good. The key is to identify what you don’t know, and work on that. In anatomy, it was a lot of memorization, and it was scary trusting that I was familiar with the skeletal system but completely clueless when it came to muscle insertions – I had work on the unfamiliar – eek!. Whether chipping away at behavior modification or stepping onto the field for your PDC obedience routine, you need to keep working at what you and your dog suck at (sorry to be blunt but it’s the truth) and stop practicing what you know you’ve got dialed.
I have 10 years of conferences/ seminars/ workshops behind me, and I have learned something from every single one I have attended. What was I doing at a working dog symposium in 2012 when a Malinois was the furthest thing from my mind? Because there was something there that I could learn and apply to my work as a behavior consultant. Get out of your comfort zone (again!) and go learn something new. Train with other people, join clubs, message someone you admire and see if you can get together for training – keep your mind open while keeping your dog’s best interests in mind. There are very few decoys that I will allow to catch Mulder, but I’ll watch anyone catching other people’s dogs because I can learn something every time. This is why I’m usually quiet at events – I’m a little sponge soaking up information.
Most of all, have fun. Love the dog you’re with – I’m me and my dog’s biggest critic, but I also want to be the very best handler so that he can be the very best PSA/ detection/ tracking dog that he can be. That takes a lot of hard work, creativity, persistence, humility, blood, sweat, and tears while having some laughs along the way.