Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Basic Obedience Class I - Cinder's Been There, Done That

     Eight weeks ago, Cinder and I embarked on the journey shared by many-participating in a basic obedience class.  While many complete similar training journeys successfully, I entered the class with serious reservations about whether or not Cinder could successfully participate in a group class without issues surrounding her reactive behavior getting us into trouble or kicked out.  After all, if my Gilley (who isn't reactive) was so highly prey driven he got us thrown out of our first couple of obedience classes before I found trainers who knew how to work with high drive herding breeds, I had reason to question Cinder's ability to make it through a class with her reactivity. However, I specifically chose to put her in a class with a known instructor that specializes in herding breeds and behavioral challenges because I felt if we could have success, it would be under her guidance.
     The first night, Cinder did much better than I anticipated, but had  reactivity issues with the little pups-the kind that are small, hairy, cute and yap a lot.  Cinder reacted to all forms of barks, yaps, yips and bouncy movement.  Basically, if she couldn't see the others or as long as they were quiet and didn't move, she was fine.  That made my job stressful since it meant ALWAYS having to keep Cinder's focus on me and when I couldn't, working hard and fast to reacquire it. Sometimes the task was easy and a few times I failed. However, all things considered, Cinder was challenging but did well most of the first class. That boosted my confidence in her and when we spoke with the instructor, she was encouraging too.
     Each class yielded new information and training tasks that kept us all busy encouraging our pups to learn in class.  Most of the time Cinder did very well with only a few brief moments of reactivity from which we quickly recovered. Rarely she would react so badly that she was in any way uncontrollable, but it sometimes felt that way at the time.  By the fourth class, I got things figured out with only rare instances of negative behaviors from which she recovered faster each time.  A few times I had a hard day and my patience and responsiveness were lacking so when Cinder reacted, the instructor came to our rescue and took over for a few minutes using it as a learning and teaching opportunity for Cinder and the class; and giving me a few minutes of respite to regroup.  Overall, Cinder's reactivity became less severe and less frequent while my ability to control her improved along with my confidence in her.  When I say, "control her," I don't mean the kind of control that is heavy-handed, stifling, or restraining.  I mean that I've become more adept at keeping her focus where I want it and not on things that escalate her to react. It requires getting her focused on me and her tasks rather than other things around her.  When she is highly reactive, we have to find a way to remove her or the trigger to a proximity that allows her to feel less stress and enables her to calm down and re-focus.
     Once we got past some of the stationary lessons and moved to more mobile activity, I feared the worst.  Cinder's at her worst with other dogs in motion coming her way-especially if they're also bouncy and barky!  However, once we began our walking work, Cinder rose to the challenge and we garnered some of the highest praises in the class on several occasions.  When others would pass us as we clipped along at my pace, Cinder would barely glance, if she noticed at all - she was generally focused on me. YAY.  A few times during our walking work, we'd have someone come too close while passing, or we'd need to "about turn" and be virtually on top of another dog who had been too close behind us, but Cinder was great.  I could often see in her eyes that she knew the others were too close and it bothered her, but rarely enough to make it worth her attention.  That's when I knew we'd made real progress as a team. I didn't care that we did or didn't achieve the same success as the others in the class because I knew we were doing our "personal best" every time. We achieved more than I ever thought we would at every class.  Most of the class specifics were things Cinder and I already worked on as individuals throughout our summer together before the class.  I had ONE primary objective in taking the class: determining Cinder's ability to participate in a group with other dogs and be controllable.  In my mind, if we actually learned new material, it was a bonus. Obedience is good for all dogs, but it's a pre-requisite for pursuing most other dog sports and activities.  Ideally, I'd love Cinder to learn agility-whether we compete or not (probably not).  To get into agility classes, she has to be able to pass the obedience classes first.  Could she even get through a group obedience class?  YES!!! And, we did learn things, so we achieved more than my original goals by far! Cinder went from being reactive to anything and everything all the time, to being far less reactive far less of the time; and she was definitely controllable.  We even worked on a line-up beside dogs on both sides of us (at least 4-6 feet between us) each of the last three classes.  The first effort was challenging because she kept trying to watch and bark at our neighbors so they wouldn't come near us (even tho' we were all going the same direction); but she was still controllable. The second time she was highly successful in the line-up games when I stepped up my game and got her to focus on me better. By the third time, we'd achieved peace with dogs working beside us, tho' clearly she was aware of their presence nearby.
     Finally, we arrived at our eighth and final night of class last night.  I found myself not wanting it to end!  It seemed as if we finally found our rhythm and we were finally doing everything in class without much stress. It had actually become more fun than I ever thought I'd have despite needing to continuously monitor Cinder and her proximity to others at all times.  Cinder finally got to the point of being quite happy to go to class too.  She especially liked being able to see our instructor and loved it when Marilyn would call her name (even more when Marilyn did something with her).  The bittersweet end of class seemed to arrive faster than all our other classes.  Marilyn created graduation certificates for each pup and handler, rolled and tied with a ribbon and a big dog cookie.  Cinder had the cookie eaten quickly even tho' it was the biggest cookie she ever ate! That concluded our first obedience class.  Cinder and I made it through eight weeks of class to achieve our goal - successful completion of a group class.
     Sadly, there are no classes for obedience or agility until January 2015 - the holiday season nearly upon us, it makes no sense to offer them before next year.  However, there is one fun class we signed up for with our favorite instructor for the next four weeks - "Tricks" class. We're to learn four tricks a week for a total of 16 tricks between November 10th and December 1st.  I'm sure we may already know a few of them, but probably no more than 5-6 of them and more importantly, we are still going to a group class with other people and dogs.  That will help keep our momentum for at least a little longer.  I'm not sure what we'll do about the classes in January.  If we're going to have a real winter in Ohio again this year, signing up for classes in January - February may be pointless for us since travel at night in bad conditions in our area is not a good idea for something you don't NEED to do. 
     It feels good to be able to say that Cinder is officially a successful group obedience class graduate. I think we both learned a lot more than I thought we would.  We both have more confidence in ourselves and each other as a partnership; and that was totally worth every minute and every penny!
     Next week, a new class with different objectives.  Can Cinder learn 16 tricks in four weeks? I guess we'll soon find out!  It will be another adventure in learning for us both.
       On the other hand, at home on our own, Cinder's displayed continuing desire to be my little "helper" around the house.  She continues showing me that my alarm clock and other alarms are on.  Additionally, she's displayed a shift in her mental learning skills by exhibiting an honest ability to now transfer meaning of a learned word.  We use the word, "hand," when playing ball or Frisbee with our dogs.  "Hand" means they are to place the ball or Frisbee in our hand.  I choose my training words with full intent and this is no exception.  Other word options used by other people include: drop/drop it, give, out, release, and others.  We use those other words for other applications.  If I want something in my hand I use the word, hand, to denote that.  If I want my dog to "drop it" that's a whole other thing.  Cinder took a few months to get the "hand" concept figured out reliably.  However, the proof she truly understands what it means is in her recent ability to transfer that meaning to other concepts beyond our games.  First, I dropped a kitchen towel while Cinder was in the kitchen with me and on a whim, asked her to "hand" and pointed at the towel.  To my astonishment, she did it!  We repeated the exercise several times equally successfully.  We've also successfully transferred it to a hairbrush, a pen, a bracelet, some cleaning cloths, a dropped fork, and several bags.  Each time she has fun figuring out how to hand the new item to me.  It's both useful and indicates a developmental shift in her ability to learn new information and how to use the new information.  It's a perfect time to do a tricks class!
     That's it for this installment.  It's not edge-of-the-seat reading, but it is reality in our lives as we continue the endeavor of Raising Cinder.

Be well and be good to yourself and others!



1 comment:

  1. Wow! What progress! Congratulations to both of you! For *me* it *was* edge-of-the-seat reading - I am delighted at your success! Keep going!


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