Today I had a couple of free hours, so I decided to take Bella for a ride and run on over to my sister's house to pick up her pups, Mika and Gordy. Unfortunately we couldn't go right away, since the two had already been on an adventure earlier in the day and had rolled in something that would sell like gangbusters if dogs were the consumers and had their choice of perfume.
Gross. After the two got a good hose-down out in the street and they'd dried off a bit, we headed out of town and the four of us set out for a little forest adventure. At one point Bella heard a ground squirrel, and took off in a flash.
I thought, "Here's a great practice moment for us," so I yelled, "B, Sit!" ...
And she kept running.
Here's a little background on Bella and the "Stop/Sit!" command. For me, "Stop!" means stop moving, and "Sit!" means stop moving and get-yer butt on the ground. She's pretty much got it down. I'd say that 90% of the time she does come to a screeching halt, which makes me so proud. No, wait. We're both proud, since she has such an intense stare as she watches me for the "release/come" command, and then there's that look of ecstatic glee as she rushes back to me. Ooh, it gives me goosebumps just thinking about it!
We started working on this last summer. Not sure what prompted learning the command. Maybe it's because we'd moved into a new home with a big ol' yard and I wanted to be able to trust that if she was hanging out, I could stop her from chasing something before she got to the street (another dog, critter or an errant ball). Just for fun, one day I decided to see what she'd do, so we started with a basic off-leash walk, where I'd let her go out further and further each time. At 10, 20, 50, 100 feet in front of me, she understood the game pretty quickly. I think the burst of noise when I said "Stop!" or "Sit!" made her freeze, and for some reason her auto-response when waiting for me to do something is to sit, perk her ears up and look at me as if to say, "Huh? What. What's going on here?" And the best part was the recall, since she knew that tons of praise, pat-downs and an ear scritch were waiting when she got to me. She just loves being the "Good Girl!"
To up the ante, we then worked on "Stop!" while she was running to fetch a toy. "Fetch" for us is having her "sit/wait", watch me toss the toy into the sagebrush, I let the intensity build for a few seconds, and then... "Find It!" or "Okay!" Ooh, she lives for the anticipation of the recall command. To test her on "Stop!" I would try it every 3-5 times I threw the toy.
Okay, that's not true. I had to learn to test her every 3-5 times... At first, I thought it best to work on it with every toss, until I realized that she was anticipating the command, and even when I wouldn't ask for it, she'd slow down half-way to the toy, ears perked back, wait for it... wait for it...
Well that's not what I wanted! I wanted Bella to go for a full-out sprint as she chased down the toy. It was as if she thought the command was, "Go find it, but make sure you slow down in the middle of the run, then speed back up to grab the toy!" That's not what I wanted to teach.
Fast-forward to today.
After reading some Natural Dog Training (NDT) articles on squirrel-chasing, I thought that would be a fantastic way to test Bella even further. I'd never considered using her fascination with the little things as a way to get a training session in. We've been working on it, with about 80% "perfect" results (slowing down and moving another 5-10 steps before the sit doesn't count), so I thought, "Let's try it. B, Sit!"
Then I messed up, too. Rather than ignoring her "failure" and reinforcing the command with lower-level practice, which would have been helpful and happy for both of us, I let my emotions get in the way. As soon as she came out of the bushes onto the trail, I blurted out, "That was so bad, naughty Bella," with that tone that means business. And poor B. She cowered and tried to apologize, but I doubt she knew what for. After all, when I'd yelled out the command, she slowed, turned a corner, but happily kept going along her merry way.
I know better. Intellectually, I know that she wasn't rebelling against my authority or something silly like that. But that horrible inner Voice came up, saying, "How dare you? I commanded something of you and you ignore me? Who do you think you are?" Wow, that Voice is hard to control.
I realized that I was providing a negative experience for "Come." I scolded her right as she came out of the bushes next to me. There's something wrong with that picture. To apologize, I gave lots of love and "it's okay, baby"s. And I realized that I needed to make this a positive experience, so I decided to grab a stick for some easy "Fetch!" As a bonus, I even added a little underarm smell to the stick, since that adds quite a bit of value to the game for her. All was forgiven.
What am I trying to teach?
As we walked back to the car, I mulled over why this wasn't working, and a thought occurred to me: Why am I demanding a full-stop of momentum?
What a let-down when you're in such a high-intensity game such as squirrel chasing! I try to add a bit of that feeling by having her anticipate the recall (which literally gets her shaking with excitement), but surely that's not as good as the chase. Am I maybe teaching her that "Stop/Sit!" means "I have to ignore my feelings immediately in order to obey mom"? I don't want that. I want her to think, "If I obey mom, I'll get to keep this feeling or even experience a more pleasurable one."
And then it occurred to me. Why don't I change up the game and ask for an immediate recall (U-Turn), rather than a full stop? I mean, Stopping-The-Squirrel-Chase is a "trick." The practical purpose of this training is to be confident that I can get her to stop before she runs out into the street. It's to keep her safe, so it's important we get that 80% closer to 100%. So if "Sit!" is causing us a bit of trouble, why don't I try "B, Come!"?
Thank you, Bella, for teaching me that I needed to come up with a new game. Readers, I'll keep you updated.