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When it’s good … it’s good

Last Sunday, Lilly had her best training day in months. She was spot on PERFECT. She worked hard at her advanced obedience class (not agility). She interacted nicely with a couple of strange dogs (through the fence at the dog park, but still!). She did not snark at one single dog.

The problem?

I wish I knew why.

Maybe it’s because there were only 3 other dogs at class. One she knows well and trusts (Lucca, 3YO, GSD). He’s been gone for a while, but when he’s around, he rules the pack. Maybe having him there made her feel safe.

One of the other dogs totally scares her (Jed, 1YO, GSD). He’s going through a pushy stage. He barks a lot. He moves fast. But, even when he made mistakes, Lilly did not react. She justed looked at him, then looked at me.

The third dog is one we had not met before (Dixie, 9-month-old lab, with a shakey recall). But even when she got the sniffies and the zoomies, rather than go to her mom, Lilly did not care. I blocked and was ready to intervene, if the pup headed our way, but there was no need.

Beyond managing her anxiety well, Lilly worked hard on staying, even when I throw food or toys. She gave killer recalls, even once when I kept my back to her when I called. (I wish her recall at home was as good. Isn’t that backwards?) She also heeled nicely, ignoring 3-4 wild dogs running off leash nearby.

It’s *so* rare that we have a perfect day. I ran her to the car as soon as class was over so that we could avoid anything that might break the streak.

I’ve also stopped letting Lilly be in the training area, when the other dogs get breaks to play. She doesn’t like pack-style play. It often makes her snark, so why do it? Maybe she’s finally realized that I’m really not going to make her play if she doesn’t want to?

But, sometimes, when we first arrive, if there is no one in the training side of the park, I let her poke around alone. The other dogs play in the big park instead.

Last weekend, two good-sized Husky type dogs came to the fence, and Lilly greeted them like a pro. She kept her head and ears down. She wagged her tail low and fast, butt wiggling as she approached.

(Often … big, fluffy, artic-type dogs trigger reactive dogs. I don’t know why.) But, not this time!

I let it stretch to just a few seconds, praising like crazy, then called her back for treats. She immediately went back to the dogs and did it again. I called her back, fed her again, and celebrated.

I know it doesn’t sound like much, but for Lilly that’s a HUGE victory.

Lilly sings (audio)

One night while watching “Mrs. Doubtfire” on TV, Tom and I started doing that classic “Hello” she does with whipped cream on her face … just to crack each other up. Well, it really got Lilly going, and she started to howl. We’d never heard her do that before, but the more we laughed and the more we “hello’d,” the more she sang. Now, we do it nearly every night as a pack. Tom and I do the “hellos.” Lilly provides the melody, and Ginko does the background yip-yip-yips. Check out this recent recording (about 15 seconds).

Lilly sing attempt 2

Since then, she expanded her howling triggers to other exciting things, like going to Gigi’s classes or pulling into the farmer’s market lot. If the windows of the car are down, people stop on the street and stare.

Once upon a teeter

The one and only time Lilly did the competition-sized teeter I nearly cried with joy. It was a fluke that’s yet to be repeated. So, months of endless frustration followed those brief moments of happiness. Here’s how it happened …

We popped by Biscuit Eaters, the training field we use in Boulder, for a quick drop-in practice. Alone on the course, Lilly played with abandon. (Remember, she’s fine alone but slow or totally shut down if other people and dogs are around. It’s like training Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.)

So, we ran a few short sequences, then played. Work, play. Work, play.

We rounded a turn, and I called “weave.” My body must have told her something different because she blew off the weave poles and ran half-way up the big teeter, which she typically gives wide berth – ever since another dog banged it in January 2005. (I’ve been screwed ever since. We hadn’t introduced it yet, and it scared her to death.)

She realized her mistake and ran back down toward me. She seemed really jazzed, though, so I thought what the heck. We circled back to pick up the weaves. She carried such speed out of the final pole that I called “Lilly, Teeter.”

And, she flew. No hesitation. No worry. No pause at the middle. Just sprint, tip, bang. Lilly even held her two-on, two-off contact.

I started praising like mad, dropped to my knees, and opened her jackpot bowl. I let her eat everything in it.

She seemed thrilled with herself for about three heartbeats. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. Then, she freaked, realizing what she’d done (I guess).

She tucked tail and slunk off to hide near her toy bag along the fence. Moment over.

I cajoled her into playing some more and tried again later, but no luck. Refusal.

So, I jacked the adjustable teeter up to near-full height and tried that instead. Run, tip, bang. Perfect. Over and over. So, the day wasn’t a total loss. Then again, she’s been doing the adjustable one for more than a year.

I know a lot of other handlers wish their dogs thought more, made better decisions on course. I have the opposite problem. My sweetie girl thinks too much, worries too much.

But, for that one moment, she forgot everything and ran.

From scared to scholar

Once I got Lilly out of the car at her first official obedience class, I had a hard time convincing her to get up off the ground. Once I got her off the ground, she didn’t want to go into the building. Once I got her in the building, she hid under my chair and bared her teeth (in fear) at anything that moved. She was about 9 months old, and things looked dismal. Any kind of dog training win seemed impossible. 

Teaching myself as much or more than Lilly

Contrary to popular thought, obedience classes teach people as much or more than the dogs. I wasn’t there to teach Lilly how to be a good girl. I was there to learn how to communicate with my new pal, who was nervous but anxious to please.

Accustomed to my requests being ignored, after 14+ years with a beautiful-but-ornery dalmatian named Penelope Grace, Lilly came as a revelation. She really listens to me. She has potential for maybe a dog training win or two.

I quickly learned to give her space from the other pups so that she wouldn’t fixate on them with the classic border collie “eye” used to control sheep. With some personal space and rewards for focusing on me, Lilly shined in class.

She loved training at home each day. And, week after week in class, she worked her heart out. We’d found the key to teamwork.

Oh, yeah!

My favorite moment came in about week six. With all the dogs in down-stays and us across the room, the trainer taunted them with noisy toys as he paced the line. It’s called “proofing.” In other words, will the dogs stay steady amid distraction?

Lilly didn’t budge. Even when the trainer came by with a rubber chicken that made an ungodly noise, my sound-reactive girl held strong.

dog training win graphic - chicken icon

Then, a large, young yellow lab next to her lost it. He simply couldn’t stay one … more … second. He leapt to his feet and displayed a textbook case of “the zoomies.” That’s when a young, playful dog ricochets around the room. It set off a chain reaction of broken stays, as dogs couldn’t resist the invitation to play.

Lilly calmly took in the scene, never breaking her stay, despite the other pups doing their best impression of popcorn. Pop … golden retriever. Pop … black lab. Pop … sheltie.

Gibraltar in a sea of motion, Lilly stayed – even when the pup that started it all soaked her with sloppy kisses from tip to tail.

I watched my Einstein in a room full of class clowns, and I was proud.

We took a final exam in week 8. Set up like a rally obedience ring, like a car rally, we took turns heeling our dogs through a course. Various stops required different maneuvers – sit, down, standing stay and such. We heeled quickly and slowly. We made right turns and left turns. We stopped and started in unison.

The exam also required long, group sit-stays and down-stays as well as at least one individual trick. The trainer had and ribbons for all that passed, but I knew we had a shot at the top spot.

First, big dog training win

There was one dog in the room that could have beaten us, a German shepherd, but he fell apart in the ring and blew off several commands from his handler. At that point, I leaned over to my pal Crystal, who came to support me since my hubby was in training all weekend, and said, “We’re going to win.”

I was right (first overall, second in tricks). Lilly was nearly flawless. She scored 196 out of 200, only docked points for lagging a bit, heeling a little wide in a turn, and sniffing the ground.

Her stand for exam nearly made me cry. It’s a big deal for a shy dog to stand still while a stranger touched her. I think someone actually gasped in awe when I said “Freeze,” used our hand signal for it, and walked away without doubt or hesitation. She didn’t move a muscle.

Remember the yellow lab? Well, he went into the ring next, and I’ll never forget his mother’s voice as she headed to the start line, “Oh, great! We get to follow Lilly.”

(To his credit, that pup earned a trophy for most improved, and he did graduate.)

An expanded version of this dog training win post appears in a book called My Dog is My Hero.

dog is my hero book cover

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