Wednesday, August 14, 2019

This is your brain on obedience

I saw a cool post on Facebook this week about how playing piano engages different parts of your body and brain. Of course, I immediately began translating it into dog training. I’m sure it could be applied to riding a horse, shooting a bow and arrow, painting a picture or any of a hundred other skills but it was fun to think of the ways it can be applied to working a dog.

Obedience (or any other kind) of training allows us to use our bodies and experience our senses in a variety of wonderful ways. I’m sure this is just a partial list.

Eyes: widening in delight as your dog approaches at warp speed, then your pupils dilating in terror as 65 pound Fido shows no sign of slowing for a front, meaning he is either going to knock you on your ass (see, you’ve engaged another body part already) or leave bruises that will linger for weeks, necessitating a lengthy conversation when your doctor asks, “Do you feel safe in your home?” Your eyes are frantically telling your legs to get out of the way while your brain is delusionally convinced you can still do enough damage control to salvage the front.

Ears: It is a well-known fact dog trainers have hearing that rivals their dogs’, while at the time managing to be stone deaf. The same trainer who can hear a dog vomiting three rooms away at 2 a.m. can’t hear a damn thing her instructor tells her in class. No. Wait. I’ve been informed she DID hear me, she just didn’t think it applied to her. Well, at least she heard me.

Hands: Hands are the most valuable tools you use in training. As a result, they will cause 98 percent of your problems by being in the wrong place. Top tier trainers have mastered the art of hand zen. The rest of us wonder why the appendages at the ends of our arms are fluttering around like birds on crack. By extension, elbows are never quite where they belong either. 

Hands generally need to go somewhere and stay there but that’s a constant battle and generates so much brain conflict it’s a wonder any of us are still sane. Hands are also useful for writing cryptic notes upon, such as the order of the Command Discrimination.

Keeping time: A friend and obedience mentor told me a long time ago to keep a silent “one-two” count in my head while heeling to keep my pace steady. She had no idea what she was dealing with, since my brain is a poster child for “one-two-one-two-SQUIRREL!” or “one-two-one-two-three-oh-look-we’re-waltzing!”

Fingers: You should begin and end each training session with 10. If you don’t, you’re doing it wrong and need to find another hobby, although minor bleeding is allowed. In the meantime, fingers generally make dandy treat holders. When delivering treats, fingers should remain in the desired position you are trying to reward. This takes more concentration than the non-dog-training public might imagine. Fingers are in cahoots with hands and do not always stay in the correct place. During heeling, fingers and hands on one’s left side should behave themselves (i.e., if you don't stop waving them around, your instructor is going to get out the duct tape) while the same digits on the handler’s right side often engage in all kinds of reflexive twitching. 

Spatial ability: I’m pretty sure we’re talking about dumbbell throwing here and gauging the sweet spot where the dumbbell won't bounce into another zip code. Also, the ability to judge the required 15 feet for the Command Discrimination when you’re the 22nd dog in a 24 dog class and the judge’s chalk marks disappeared sometime before lunch. 

Strong spatial ability allows you to judge a go-out that 20 feet past the jumps while getting your turn and sit command uttered before the dog crashes the gate. People with good spatial ability (also called “eyeballing it”) are often driven to distraction when training with people who pull out a tape measure and insist on setting up the ring right down to the last inch. If you train long enough, your spacial ability will develop to the point where you can set up your dog's broad jump without measuring and be within one-quarter inch accuracy.

Artistic interpretation: By now most of us have seen the video of the boxer in the BN ring who flies in on the recall, then does a series of whirligigs at the handler's side instead of sitting. Yeah. That’s artistic interpretation. Many instructors have decided to write it off as artistic interpretation when their students’ dogs exhibit some bizarre behavior and they proudly tell you, “I taught it just like you said.”

Proprioception: This is a fancy word for being able to walk backward without falling down. Dog trainers usually execute this exercise when working fronts. It's relatively safe as only a few backwards steps are required. There is a method of teaching heeling where the handler walks briskly backward while the dog trots in front, then the handler pivots into position and off they go. I tend to avoid that method as I would like to live a little longer. Also, I do not wear a helmet when I train.

Two feet: One is left. One is right. You learned it in kindergarten. Seriously. Feet generally need to go in the same direction but not necessarily at the same time. Your dog has four feet and does a better job of managing them than you do with only half the number so quit complaining.

Touch: Your dog’s fur. The weave of your favorite braided leash. The cold metal of a scent article. The slimy bit of hot dog. The crusty fuzz of a favorite toy. The “OMG what is this?” treat that got left in your training vest after the last session. The minute you realize your finger is stuck in the ring gate someone is trying to fold.

This list could go on. I haven't covered the skill of having eyes in the back of your head or the mental game of getting home from a training session with the same amount of gear you set out with.

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