Friday, May 14, 2010

"think harmony with dogs"

As folks who read this blog know, while I have been blessed with the external success that comes with good dogs earning titles and ribbons, I am still struggling to get The Mominator's feet absolutely still while he is in a 'stay' (or when I walk up to flush a bird when he is on point).

I have been doing a little yardwork every day -- and sometimes he is a dream. Other times he will step as I walk up to him to pet him; other times, he will step because he thinks he's going to get a treat. Part of my general approach has been trying to minimize the negative pressure and, instead, upping the positive reward -- whether in the form of a biscuit treat or stroking his back. And I am embarrassed to say that this very-quickly learned behavior (of expecting a treat) drives me bats*&^t -- because he clearly understands what he was supposed to do, and is therefore trying to preempt his reward. This is a similar behavior to his creepy feet on point -- he wants to try and preempt the reward that comes from retrieving a bird. In the case of his recent yardwork, I am embarrassed to say that I have lost my temper -- it's not like I'm beating him, but I hate to raise my voice and I hate to see his anxiety come when I can't control my own frustration. And I know it is primarily a frustration with myself, for the inability to communicate that (ironically) all I want is for him to do nothing when he's stopped.

However, I have been trying to internalize some of the advice of legendary horseman, Ray Hunt, who sadly recently passed away. And so, following my line of trying to be honest about my mistakes in the hope that others might not make them, I share some of Ray's wisdom from his book Think Harmony With Horses (1978):

"When you ask your horse to do something it should be his idea... As you work with your horse, see how much of this is the horse's idea, or how much of it is your idea and if he is forced into it. If he's not forced into it, you'll see a great attitude. Your idea should become his idea, and when it does, then there will be no drag." (pp. 1-2)

"The way to do it is to work on yourself, to recognize and understand the situation... You make the wrong things difficult and the right things easy as you adjust to fit the situation. If the rider is alert and aware and in a learning frame of mind, the horse can be the same." (p. 2)

Ray outlines some great examples for how to put a horse in training 'in a bind' -- to make doing the wrong thing more difficult -- and then giving it an opening -- to make the right thing easy, as if it were the horse's own idea. The challenge, of course, is that standing still is not something that comes entirely naturally to either a domesticated prey (horse) or predator (dog) species. But reading Ray later in the book talking about anticipating a horse's move gives me some new ways to think about how to undo what is a minimally two-year learned behavior for The Mominator. For example, though, I realize that Momo loves to retrieve almost as much as he loves food -- and he knows that he can't break when a bird is thrown (or shot) out in front of him. So I have been making him stop and stand still for his dinner -- and, in an effort to reward his keeping his head faced forward even when I'm close to him, tossing a frozen quail from 2' behind him and making him stand to go get it.

And it reminds me that I need to be willing to learn -- arguably more so than to teach.


Rod Michaelson said...

I now have to enter your world of steadiness in Bailey.

His days of childhood fun are now behind us and the learning on both our parts now really begin.

How do I think like a hunting dog?

How great it will be if I can get Bailey to "want" to be still so I may perform the hunting act and then he retreive to hand?

The more I am around my dogs and away from human contact in the open fields the more connected I am becoming to "the wild" of preditor and prey.

I find this challenge very enjoyable. When I can get Bailey to think it is his idea to be still, I will have moved up the understanding ladder of being a "dogman."

Thanks for the insights.

Dennis the Vizsla said...

If it makes you feel any better, I think this is how my dance instructor feels when trying to get us not to move our feet while "holding the slow" in rumba. :-)

Luisa said...

I attended several Ray Hunt clinics in California, back in the day. I think Ray was a genius -- a splendid human being and an honest-to-God genius. If there's a heaven, he deserves to be there as much as just about anyone.

At a clinic once someone asked him about switching to a more severe bit, on the grounds that the person's horse wasn't responding well to its first bit, and Ray said, "We Americans are funny -- if one approach doesn't work, we always want to try a harsher approach. Maybe what we should do is try a gentler approach."

[Cool bonus: Ray's techniques work as well with middle school students as they do with horses ;~) ]

Andrew Campbell said...

Thanks to everyone for the comments -- especially to some old friends I haven't visited in a while.

Re: Dennis + dancing: I need to look out a couple more 'ballet' quotes to describe dogwork -- I'm not sure Ray ever had any to describe horsemanship, but it would be neat to read them.

Luisa: I was honestly thinking of 'Lassie Get Help' maybe two days ago and thinking how much I've been locked down in my one world -- and how I needed to get out and read more. And here you are.

I would have liked to have seen Ray in action. I think perhaps the reason I was making a mental analogy to him before I wrote this entry was because I knew that crude, simple force wouldn't work with Momo. Most people think my little (42lb), neutered boy-genius is female, love all his wiggly-butt 'love me' antics -- and don't understand that he didn't flinch when stung by bees in the face or fought off a coyote in the woods. He is a tough dog. Which was why I had started decreasing the negative and upping the positive before I'd even received Ray's book.

I have my own top-secret plan for part of the summer to work on myself, so I can work dogs a little better.

all best

Chazz said...

Great words! Take a breather, try to relax and it will all come together. Keep it up, blog looks great!