Monday, May 27, 2019

Utility signals (or why trainers drink)

Banner and I have been fighting a signal problem. I’m not sure exactly when the wheels fell off since he sailed to his first 5 UDX legs with, if not exactly precision, at least a fair amount of confidence. Somewhere along the line, he decided the down signal no longer had meaning in his universe and the sit signal was an equally foreign concept.

Signals? I don't see no stinkin' signals.

 For my non-dog-training readers (all four of you), the Signal Exercise at an obedience trial consists of a heeling pattern ending with the dog responding to a series of hand signals to lie down, sit up and come to front, all given while the handler is at a distance. No verbal commands are used. While fellow exhibitors are generally respectful of the dog working in the ring, the general chaos of a show site (people moving around, doors opening and closing, loud speakers, barking dogs, etc.) makes the exercise even more difficult if the dog is not totally committed to what he’s doing.

As trainers, most of us have experienced the deer-in-the-headlights stare. Dog stares straight at you. Dog sees signal. Dog now resembles cement statuary from a garden center while you die a thousand deaths 40 feet away and kiss another entry fee good-bye.

While you stand at the other end of the ring, not breathing, every muscle in your body clenched and sweat trickling into your nether regions, watching an otherwise lovely run go right down the toilet, the thought that flashes through your mind is, “What the hell! Why won’t you do this?”

Dog, standing on the other end of the ring, is undoubtedly thinking any of the following:

• Huh? Do what? Sorry. There’s a kid eating a hotdog outside the ring. I have a higher calling.

• Why are you waving your arms around like that? Are you under attack by bees? Are you having some kind of seizure?

• I see your signal and I’ll raise you this lovely breed-ring stack. See how pretty my ears are? Everyone’s looking at me. I’m gorgeous. Photographer? Make sure you get my best side.

• Omigod. Everyone’s looking at me. Please stop. I can’t stand it. I’ll just freeze here and maybe the floor will open up and swallow me.

• There’s a shifty looking dude with a clipboard standing behind me and ain’t no way in hell I’m laying down.

I'm too sexy for my signals.
How about I just stand here and let
my fluff sparkle in the sunshine?

What’s worse is when your dog starts to respond to a signal, then freezes as if trying to decide if it means the same thing today as it did the last 10,000 times he’s seen it. If your signal arm is still moving when the Ice Age strikes, no doubt you’ve tried to salvage the exercise and thrown in some kind of frantic additional motion to indicate to the dog he is on the right track, while trying to stay within the “one continuous motion” as allowed in the rules. 

We’ve all seen handlers give signals that look like a major league baseball pitcher on the mound. By the time their  multi-spinning signal arm winds up and releases a low and inside breaking curveball, the judge is yawning and the dog has decided he's having no part of any of it.

 Dog trainers are nothing if not helpful and when Bann’s signals derailed, I got all the usual advice. Your signal is too big, make it smaller. Your signal is too small, make it bigger. Your signal is too slow, give it faster. Your signal is too fast, give it slower. (Seriously – is it any wonder obedience newbie trainers wander about in a land of confusion until they realize the answer to success with their dog doesn’t lie in the accumulation of knowledge – it lies in figuring out what knowledge best applies to them?)


What I thought I’d taught and what I’d actually taught turned out to be two different things.

Banner and I have spent the last few weeks doing what can only be described as spontaneous signals around the house. My goal was to catch him at moments that were not preceded by carefully orchestrated set ups that had “WE ARE GOING TO DO SIGNALS NOW” written all over them (i.e., heeling into the stand, walking away, turning to face, blah-blah-blah).

I needed my dog to understand that “drop means drop” regardless of the context.

It didn’t take long to establish Banner had absolutely no freaking clue how to do signals, regardless of context. Apparently, our earlier success had been linked to some bizarre alignment of the planets.

I was appalled to realize he couldn’t do signals at random when I gave them in his own house! I got the same glazed I-have-no-clue look I’d seen so often in the ring.

WTF?! And I call myself a dog trainer? I’d done all the toy-tossing, dancing wind-up chicken, cookies-on-the-floor proofing one would expect before bringing him out in Utility. Apparently that had only taught him to do signals when a possessed mechanical chicken is hopping around a foot away or there is an open bag of treats on a chair next to him. 

The make-it-harder-in-training-so-it's-easier-in-the-ring approach had utterly failed. It had not addressed the issue at the heart of the matter - that he was expected to do his signals anywhere under any context.

Well, I’d rather have a training problem I can re-create at home than one I can’t. 

I started giving signals any time we made eye contact when he walked into a room at home, when I walked into a room, when I was sitting in my recliner, sitting at my desk, watering flowers, brushing my teeth or any time I caught his eye from a distance. At first, I got the woman-you-crazy look. We worked through it. Initially I threw a treat if he was successful. The treats are now given for what I consider exceptional effort.

I'd guess I'm asking him for random signals about 20 times a day in and around the house. It's getting harder and harder to catch him out. He's engaged and thinking when he sees me facing him, no more vacant stare.

I've put pieces of furniture between us and even put him out on the patio and ask him to do drops and sits with me inside the house, looking through the window. I've popped out from behind a tree and signaled. He's done them on the bed, on the landing of the basement stairs and with a cat being a complete nuisance.

Then I decided to step it up. I asked him to do signals when I wasn't directly in front of him. This, too, started at random but before long I had to do at least a semi-formal set up because Banner had started keeping a close eye on me any time we were out in the yard or moving around the house. If I stopped behind him, he’d spin to face me. By now he was convinced I’d lost my mind and needed careful monitoring. 

Holy Mother of God, woman! You been drinking'? I know you
can't walk a straight line but you belong in FRONT of me
for signals, not over there! Do I need to write it down?

Do these signals make my butt look big?

At first, it blew his little mind and took lots of close-up work but I’m happy to say he’ll drop almost 100% of the time now, regardless of where either of us are positioned. I'm under no illusion the problem is fixed but we're in a better place than we've been all spring.

Can't wait to see what breaks next.

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