Thursday, 10 April 2014

The long, winding road towards obedience

It's been a while since I chatted about how Polly is getting on at obedience school, so while this morning's session is still fresh in my mind, I'll share an update as I sip my coffee ...

First things first though, that long winding country road to the training field!  I am sorry to say it really doesn't get any easier with time.  Recently a huge articulated lorry forced me into an embarrassingly wobbly reverse for what felt like miles - I'm still not sure how I managed to do it without parking my car up a tree, but somehow, despite the abject humiliation, my car survived.  It's all good practice I suppose, but I have a feeling that the sense of mild doom as I turn my car from the main road towards the lane leading to the training field each week, probably won't ever leave me.  On the bright side, at least with the recent arrival of Spring, I now only have to worry about oncoming traffic, as opposed to floods, mudslides and ice!

We've learned so much during the past eight months, brought home to me each time an inexperienced pup joins our group.  Watching new owners battling with training leads and unfocused dogs reminds me of how tough and frustrating I too found things in those early weeks!

Polly's recall in the off lead group walk has now reached a point where, besides recalling promptly when I call her, she will also come back if she sees other dogs returning to their owners, or hears Kevin's preliminary instruction to the group. This is a massive stride forward from the early days of her preferring to 'do her own thing' and has given me the confidence I was lacking, to allow her to run free regularly during our daily walks.

Heel walking is fast becoming one of Polly's strengths.  She switches into 'work mode' when she is taken to the heel walking course and then usually concentrates hard to walk to heel, turn corners, sit, stand, down, recall formally and nip 'round to heel' neatly.  During the past eight months, we've progressed from her pulling in all directions and always using her lead in class, to being able to tuck the lead loosely into my belt and when she has seemed particularly well focused, we've even successfully attempted a little off lead heel walking lately.  Today we walked with lead tucked in and the distraction of dogs seated close by, but even so Polly stayed focused and performed well ... a good result.

Agility is both a pleasure and a challenge.  I love to see Polly tackling the high jumps, long jumps, tunnels, A frame, walkway and sea-saw (we're not quite so enthusiastic about weave poles!) and have been working hard to keep her focused, encouraging her to complete small circuits of about four/five pieces of equipment without a break, which she manages pretty well now ... it's hard work dashing about with her, but fun!  The challenging part is keeping her under control while her buddies work on circuits close by.  Today my little monkey raced through a tunnel on command, but rather than turn back to me as directed, kept running straight ahead to visit her pal, lab/husky cross Molly, before racing off towards the next circuit to say hi to lab Dudley too - she led me a merry dance!  Needless to say, Molly and Dudley obeyed their owners beautifully while Miss Polly danced around them!

Polly's pallet work is progressing well and she will now 'sit', 'down', 'stand' and 'back', with verbal commands alone.  I think this has been helped by the practice we do on our living room rug and kitchen mat at tea-time.  Polly earns some of her kibble every day by showing me her moves; we make it fun by incorporating a few 'roll overs', 'sleep Polly', 'beg', 'fetches' of various toys and general daftness, alongside her usual sits/downs/stands 'on the mat'.  She loves these games.  I also fill her Kong wobble toy with the remainder of her evening kibble at the end of each practice session, sit/stay her, put it on the floor between us, then call her to me, ask her to sit, round to heel etc., so she has to pass the Kong on the floor and wait for my command before she can go to it and finish her tea.  She's a really good girl with this now.

Some weeks Polly can't wait to show off her sit stays/down stays at school, but for some reason today wasn't one of those days.  Each time I asked her to 'down', I could see she begrudged it!  One thing's for sure, no matter how much training she does, Polly's typically stubborn goldie character remains intact ... on the rare occasion she decides she really doesn't want to do something, it can still be a bit of challenge to convince her otherwise!  She's becoming quite a character as she matures and although gentle and as the breed definition states, typically 'biddable', she is far from a pushover!

If you'd asked me about the 'down stay out of sight' element of class last week, I would have been able to give you a glowing progress report, delighted I'd at last managed to put good distance between us while Polly remained in her 'down stay' minus a training lead ... AND we'd completed the exercise in terms of time!  However, as I mentioned earlier, most of Polly's downing this week was performed under mild protest, so although she did eventually lay down towards the end of the session, she also popped up again, just to let me know she still could.  When I settled her down again and all seemed to be going well, Kevin, our instructor, then decided to throw in some unannounced distraction for good measure, by walking in front of the row of 'down staying' dogs - at which point Polly took her opportunity to break the 'stay', diving forward to proclaim her delight at Kevin's approach and catching me totally unaware!  It was a good exercise though, as it made me aware of where I ought to develop Polly's training further (and mine - tune in Paula!) outside school.

Taking Polly to school hasn't only been about drills, agility control and recall.  She's also been learning the fine art of how to read other dogs' signals and recently, I have noticed a shift in her behaviour towards other dogs on our walks.  If small dogs approach, she still sometimes does the daft lay down and refuse to budge thing, but I'm convinced she's not being submissive, more making herself less big and 'scary' so she doesn't overwhelm the little 'uns, thus making sure they come forward to say hello!  She also soon works out which dogs are confident enough to bounce with her - last week she met a rather fabulous Saluki hound who invited her for a run in our local field and they had an absolute blast racing around together!  Polly ran and ran and ran and ... well, let's just say, try as she might, my girl was well outclassed in the running stakes that day!!!

I think there probably comes a point in dog training when it would be possible to live quite contentedly with your dog, without need for further classes ie, when they recall reliably, are polite indoors and on walks and understand the basic commands necessary to your every day life together.  Polly is at about that stage now; she's a very good girl at home, we enjoy our walks together and I am proud to take her out and about with me without having to worry about how she will behave.  The thing is, although this may be enough for us to manage with, I don't think it's enough for Polly.   She's a clever girl and really does seem to enjoy learning new skills.  Also, I think we both enjoy trying to understand one another and obedience training really seems to help us connect ... and of course, there is always plenty of room for improvement!

If you're wondering whether to invest time and money into training your dog formally, I'd say obedience school is a great way to teach both dog and owner how best to tune in to one another.  It's been a challenging eight months for me and Polly, but we both enjoy school now and I am glad we signed up ... even if I do have to face that scary country lane every week!

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