Cisu - The Normal One

It's Cisu's turn in the limelight. She's will remind some people of their own dogs because she's rather typical of "dog".

Cisu has many interests, of which I am only one.  She enjoys food and toys and exploring.  She likes humans too; both those she is familiar with and those she has just met.   While trained motivationally, my guess is that she could have been trained with a variety of methods.  She's calm, adaptable, thinking, capable and clear-headed.  Cisu can be emotionally sensitive but she's not a worrier.

My competition dog before Cisu was Soja, an energizer bunny of effort and concentration, and I assumed Cisu would be this way as well.  Not so;  I had to put out a little effort this time.  Cisu wasn't going to ask to be trained 20 times a day - I needed to build her love of work. While not highly distractable, she was also not particularly attentive.

In other words, Cisu was normal.

It was a full six years before I realized I wasn't meeting her needs; that my style of training and trialing was taking advantage of her stability and capacity for work.  For six years, Cisu titled and excelled.  She earned very high scores in schutzhund and AKC competition.  She worked with joy, animation and presence.  I used her as a demo dog in seminars, and she made me look like an excellent trainer.

Cisu never failed a trial until she had her Schutzhund 3 with all excellent ratings, 9 UDX legs, and  a small pile of OTCH points.  She never let me down.  Not one class; not one exercise.

And then she'd had enough.  Overnight (it seemed at the time but not so much with hindsight), Cisu went in the ring and refused to work. She failed class after class, exercise after exercise.

At first I made excuses.  The show grounds were "sniffy"  The jumps were facing the sun.  She was tired from the prior shows.  But when the string of failures grew longer, it became hard to keep up the pretense that everything is fine.

As I look back, I see the stress.  I had never experieneced "stressing up", and I did not recognize what was happening.  Cisu started to refuse to release the ring objects.  She vocalized in competition and instead of the extraordinary heeling I knew she was capable of, she started to forge and wrap around me. I ignored the signs.  If you want to see the beginning of the end, check out this video.  This is her 8th UDX leg, still looking good but the start of the end:

Notice my calm (disengaged?) handling. To be honest, it makes me want to cry when I watch this video.  Cisu was begging for my presence and I didn't give it to her.  I look like a handler on valium.

Note the refusal to release the dumbbell after the high jump.

Cisu gave everything she had for years; jumping, retrieving, and all the speed I've ever requested or trained for.  And what did I give her?  A pat on her head. Shame on me.  I don't have on tape what happened nexxt, and I doubt I would have kept it if I did.

She stopped working.  Cisu would enter the ring looking ok, and then the exercises became a free for all.  Retrieve the dumbbell? Stop and sniff instead.  Send out? Wander about aimlessly.  Articles?  Take it to the judge.  Signals?  Perfect attention with no response.  That became our hallmark of stress; Cisu would stare right at me and fail to respond.

l won't take you through all of the paths I explored trying to understand Cisu's decline.  Let me just say it was a year, a full year, before I started to feel I had discovered the root of the problem, and another year to devise and implement a plan to pull her out of the hole I had dug for us.

Where did I go wrong?   Cisu was heavily rewarded in practice; every perfect exercise merited a toy reward.  It was rare to non existent that I would engage myself as a reward for good work.  I would estimate that she almost never worked longer than one minute without a toy reward in training.

With time, Cisu associated recieving a toy with being right. For some dogs, the lack of reward in the ring isn't an issue, or the handler has adequately trained the dog to expect long stretches of work without reward, but I had not done that.  Cisu believed good work earned a toy, and in the ring, she could stand on her head with energy and brilliance, and still the toy would not appear.  So she stoped trying.

Cisu's retraining was two fold; first, I stopped rewarding each exercise with a toy - instead she might have to work several exercises or even several sessions before recieving a toy.  Second, I learned to interject myself  instead of an object as the reward for good work. Good work earned ME; my enthusiastic, over the top excitement for her efforts. Indeed, that is the primary form of reward that she reieves today both in practice and in the ring.

We have since returned to the ring with some success, both in scores and in what is important to me; engagememt and attitude.  I don't think we'll ever have what I had before, and I see that as a lesson learned.  I hope to do better next time.  I will not take advantage of a dog's good nature again; I will train properly and condition rewards and a reward schedule that I can maintain, even in competition.

Here's Cisu's debut after two years of retraining - she also earned her UDX this day.  Note how I am completely engaged and aware of her at all times, even before entering the ring:

I owe Cisu a lot.  The new puppy will be her great granddaughter, and I hope they have a lot in common.

Thanks for your patience, Cisu.


Stephanie Colman

Cisu and Quiz are quite similar. I’ve struggled with “Valium Face” in the ring before too. When you’re on the other end of the leash from a rabid, heavy-breathing fire-cracker of a dog, you start to worry that you’re barely keeping things together and one little hint of animation on your part will launch the dog into a whirlwind of activity incapable of accuracy and precision. At least I do … or used to.

I try to be mindful of rates of reinforcement and using what I bring to the picture vs. what toys do, and I’m hoping I’ve struck a decent balance. We’ve shown in utility twice now … and failed twice. Too early to draw conclusions. Perhaps failing the first exercise each time has been a blessing, b/c it’s been the push I needed to relax just a bit and make the rest of my ring as “training-like” as I can get away with in terms of dodging the traditionally “stodgy” and “stone-faced” nature of the sport. I know I still make it more “serious” at a show than in training … my poor dog! This post is a good reminder to try and lose that. I know he’s trained. I know what he’s capable of. I need to just let him “be” the dog I’ve trained and give him a chance to shine. And hell, a huge part of why we’ve failed 2 for 2 is probably b/c I hardly get to work him anymore now that I’ve gone back to school. Grrrrr. Not liking this part of my new life as a grad student.

Tomorrow is another day, another dog show, and Q or no Q, he’s still MY Q! :-)

Kathy McClain

Hummm, small gulp. What do you/will you do in Schutzhund OB when only a brief pat between exercises is acceptable? In practice I try to go longer and longer between exercises for reward, and placing it further and further away from the practice session-many times in the car- and then having to go get it and bring it back to him for reward, so he knows he is going to get paid, but also knows he has to wait and work before he does. As usual, you’ve given me more to think about. :)

Susan McDonald

Cisu’s daughter “the Perfect Storm” thanks you for sharing this story about her Mama. Cisu’s F litter ( with Rudy) continues to be one of the biggest most storied of any of your litters. Cisu looks and acts like the family dog—all in all a very good thing!

Raegan Walter

“I will not take advantage of a dog’s good nature again; I will train properly and condition rewards and a reward schedule that I can maintain, even in competition.”

I love this.

Difficult dogs demand our best training, because they are less tolerant of poor timing, criteria jumps, erratic rates of reinforcement. But easy dogs deserve it too.

Carla Baker

Thank you for sharing this story… it means a lot that you are so willing to share the pain, as well as the pleasure. I think most of us have dogs we have failed in the past. You are fortunate that you were able to rectify your mistakes while you still have Cisu, to give her a tangible reward for the effort and lessons learned. Some of us are only able to correct our mistakes with the dogs that follow; instead of with the dogs who gave their all to train us. Thanks again.

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