Lucy and I have our work cut out with only seven days to learn the next command, not that we mastered recall. The sit command would be harder. But Lucy has been a quick study making the connection between the clicker sound and a treat. With a fool's optimism, I reassure myself that this command will be a walk in the park.
Lucy recovers from the mental stimulation of obedience class with a nap. I lead her to the backyard with a baggy of canned green beans, low sodium. The vet had suggested the beans as a treat in the ongoing effort to control the pug's weight. I had pulled out the big guns - lamb chews - to ensure performance at obedience class. A lot of good that did. I would start with the beans to teach sit, and if necessary move on to tastier fare.
An easy lesson. Lucy and I were a team-- that would be my mantra, I decided while preparing our homework. The clicker-- a little plastic box that, when pressed, made a solitary high-pitched click—would signal Lucy that she had done what I wanted and a treat would be forthcoming. Piece of cake, I surmised with a fools’ optimism. How hard could it be to teach basic obedience using such a simple method? I reviewed the sequence in my mind: I’ll give the command, ‘Sit!’ The minute Lucy gives me a sit I’ll click and reward her with a lamb treat while I whoop and holler and cavort with joy. She’ll be happy that she performed, I’ll be happy that I shaped her behavior. Of course, we’ll repeat the sit 20 times or so, just to be sure. With this lesson plan in mind, I summoned my cobby little protégé and headed for the backyard. Training was about to begin.
If only I had been able to catch Lucy going into a sitting position, my job would have been a snap. But the pug never sat! She stood, staring at me expectantly with those hammerhead eyes, eager to win a treat if only she could guess what to do. I tried lifting her head up, holding her collar with one hand while gently tucking her rear end under her. But she didn’t fold. Humph,…no wonder Liz chose a large dog to demonstrate. Lucy’s response to the tuck was to turn around to see what the heck I was doing back there. I followed her turning, trying to fold her as she turned and we ended up going in circles, literally. This ‘round and ‘round business went on for several moments before my back gave out. I plunked down in a patio chair to collect myself and regroup.
‘No negatives’ I muttered, kicking the garden hose in front of me. The Clicker Coaches’ admonitions ran through my mind: ‘maintain a positive attitude and your dog will be an enthusiastic worker. Above all, never be negative or use harsh corrections.’ Alright. I cupped my hand over my mouth to hide my clenched teeth, fearful that some negative karma might leak out and be transmitted to Lucy. While musing on how to remain positive, I thought back to my basic psychology classes in college. If I couldn’t catch Lucy in a sit position and reward her, I’d wait until she was about to lie down, and after turning around once in the customary dog circle, wait for her rear end to touch the ground. As soon as she made contact with concrete, I’d click and treat before she went all the way into a down position, thereby extracting only the ‘sit’ portion and rewarding it.
‘Successive approximation,’ that’s what it was called, a technique commonly used in shaping skills, one component at a time. Reward the closest thing to the exact behavior you’re looking for and iron out the wrinkles later. Ha! This is why I’m the captain of our team, I explained to Lucy in my most encouraging voice. Just follow my lead, little girl, and soon we’ll be struttin’ our stuff.
And so we resumed training. Staying in the patio chair, I ignored Lucy so she would forget what we were doing and lay down. Sure enough, she soon made a circle and prepared to spiral downward. At the exact second her hip hit the ground in an almost sitposition, I clicked before she could go into a down. Lucy, startled by my reaction, stopped and stared as I whooped and hollered and cavorted in frenetic validation.
She seemed to enjoy the spectacle. But when I went to reward her with the lamb treat, she was less than enthusiastic, sniffing it carefully on all sides while giving me a sidelong glance, as if warning she wasn’t allowed to take candy from strangers. The little dickens didn’t want the treat! Talk about persnickety! I wasn’t about to lose the momentum of rewarding her almost sit, so I shot into the house and returned in seconds with new artillery. How about Hooch’s big dog treat? No, that didn’t work, but I was prepared-- I moved on to leftover meatloaf, a Martha Stewart recipe. That didn’t excite her either. And so went the litany of treats as I struggled to find the silver bullet, the magic reinforcement that would turn the pug to putty in my hands.
About to toss in the towel for the day, I headed back into the house for a light snack (mine, not hers). Lucy at my heels, she gathered there was food lurking somewhere in this odd game we were playing. I opened a fresh pack of Healthy Choice, 97% Fat Free, Honey Roasted and Smoked Turkey Breast and was about to slide a slim slice into my mouth when I caught Lucy out of the corner of my eye. With the succulent meat dangling in suspension between us, the pug danced in circles of excitement. Now she had my attention--as I held the sliver out, she began a shindig on her hind legs, tongue out, and eyes like black orbs watering with exhilaration. I believe she could have done the Macarena at that moment, so great was her determination! Recognizing it as a moment of serendipity, I gave her a whiff, then a small taste of the meat. She gulped it down in a heartbeat. Then I gave her half a slice and watched in awe—she sucked one edge into her mouth and pulled in the rest, her little head bobbing up and down with each bite, looking like a ravenous wolf in the wild, feasting on the carcass of fresh Caribou. I stood back and took stock. So, this was to be the price of training-- I would have to share my Healthy Choice 97% Fat Free Honey Roasted and Smoked Turkey Breast. The pug drives a hard bargain.
The next week, as promised, Trainer Liz wanted to see our dogs’ respond to a sit/staycommand. When it was our turn, Lucy and I approached the low agility table under a shady oak; I directed Lucy to get up. Then, looking her right in the eye, I produced the goods for her to whiff.
“Sit,” I commanded in a clear, confidant, captain-like tone.
A split second later, the light bulb went on. With a look of knowing in her eyes, Lucy excitedly twirled around once and sat down. Click. I produced her treat and turned to face Liz with a proud look that bordered on smug.
“What’s that?” coach Liz asked with a slight laugh.
“That’s Lucy’s sit,” I explained feeling slightly deflated.
“But what’s that twirl?” she persisted, still with a grin and a chuckle.
And so I explained how I couldn’t get the sit alone, so I got something close to the target behavior using successive approximation. It was an intelligent response; surely, the instructor would validate my approach, one Trainer to another.
“Ha! She’s stylin’!” Liz concluded. “Lucy should be in my Tricks class!” she chortled, finally breaking into a hearty laugh. The rest of the class joined in, laughing and asking me to show them, again, how Lucy did a ‘twirl-sit.’
Hardy har har. So, obedience wasn’t her strong suit. But, then any dog can do a regular sit. Show me a dog who can do a twirl-sit, and I’ll show you a champion.
As I loaded Lucy into her crate after class, I whispered, “You do the best darn sit of any dog ever in agility!”
Lucy excitedly twirled around twice in response, bumping against the sides of the crate before plopping down on her sheepskin “bunny-foo foo.” As we drove, I turned up the radio and sang out loud before pulling into the grocery store parking lot. Next week we would be adding stay.
So began our career path in agility.