This may be one of the best obedience books ever written, and it tells virtually nothing about how to train. I read it for the first time when I was about ten and it made such a huge impression on me that I still have passages memorized. It’s basically the story of a guy with a dog and the dog was pretty well a genius, but the guy didn’t know how to train him. Every time he tried, the dog ignored him. And he never really did figure out how to train his dog; he just talked to him a lot. Constantly. In a quiet, conversational tone. He broke every rule of obedience that has been written before and since, and his dog went on to be an enormous figure in Cocker Spaniel history. His owner was not a hunter, but Prince Tom won the Cocker National Field Trial, which had never before been won by an American Cocker. He was titled to his U.D., which was the terminal degree at the time.
Who knows what details I’m leaving out – I haven’t read the book in probably twenty years – but what has stayed with me is the sense of joy that comes with just TALKING to your dog. Tom Clute’s success with Prince Tom would now be described using words like “continuous use of reinforcing bridging words” and “dog facial interpretation and mirroring” and “anticipatory behaviors” and a whole bunch of stuff that really all boils down to that they were best buds, and the dog liked hearing Clute talk and Clute liked talking to his dog.
DogRead, which is a Yahoo group I’ve been part of for several years, had Kayce Cover as the author a few months ago; she strongly believes that we should be using signals the whole time, continually, as long as the dog is performing the behavior. Sort of like Tom Clute did with his dog. She actually uses a series of g-g-g-g-g-g-g-g sounds, like “good good good good” compressed into one syllable, from the moment the dog begins the behavior until it’s done. That drove me crazy when I tried it, but there’s no question in my mind that the dogs understand the difference between “good, continue” and “good, done” words, and that they get a LOT out of just being talked to.
When I was walking all three dogs this morning, I got embarrassed by the fact that I never stop chattering to them, which must sound to people walking by like I am completely nutso. It goes “Clue, you’re getting too far ahead, slow down a little, oh, that’s excellent, that’s exactly where I want you. What a great job you just did. Ginny, stay with me, NICE job, perfect. Bronte, silly, you got all tangled. Can you move that leg? GREAT DOG. GOOD DOG. That’s just what I wanted. No, Clue, you can’t roll here, please catch up,” and they all really do know who I’m talking to, and whoever it is pays attention and the other two don’t follow the same command, and the whole time we’re briskly walking. So I guess I do believe in and follow constant bridging (and WOW do I break the rule of only using the command word once; I say it constantly as they’re performing the behavior), though I go about it in what I am sure is a totally bizarre way.
Digression: Also bizarre: Clue has nine nipples. Four on the right side, five on the other. Maybe her puppies will grow up to be left-brained. End digression.
Whenever I write a post that even touches on obedience, it takes me hours and hours and I get really nervous about it, because I am (seriously) such a BAD obedience trainer. I just cannot bring myself to get excited about a good heel; I actually think the current heel style with the dog’s head up looks crazy and completely dysfunctional – isn’t the dog supposed to be looking for danger ahead? Isn’t the dog supposed to be watching for, say, Sarlacc pits, and maybe he’s going to fall in and get digested over a period of a thousand years if his face is pressed into my belly and the only half an eye he’s got visible is focused on my chin? And the very fact that I just said that totally makes me an idiot, doesn’t it?
The answer doesn’t really matter, because I’m telling you right now I AM an idiot about obedience. I’ve never titled a dog in classical obedience; I seriously doubt I ever will. The only place that I feel I am allowed to make any comment is, seriously, on the level of “how to housebreak a puppy.” I am somewhat comforted by the fact that housebreaking is actually the foundation of your entire daily life with the dog (i.e., it’s dependent on YOU, not on the dog; you don’t ever let the dog fail and the dog will do nothing but succeed; you don’t correct the dog until you are sure the dog knows the appropriate behavior). I can talk a little bit about the psychology of it, the behavior aspect of it, on predictability and consistency. I will talk, sniffle, and talk some more, for a really long time, about the crazy high that comes when you can take a dog who used to fight you and was terrified of everything, and you go for a long hike and the dog has as much fun as you do.
SPEAKING OF… my dog whose nine nipples should be in some kind of museum of the strange needs to go out. I’m going to send her out to the end of the leash and chatter to her the whole time – hey, I’m trusting her to watch out for Sarlacc pits.