Ok, so I have almost recovered from the 3.5 days of insanity awesomeness that was FDSA Sports Camp.

I couldn’t decide what to write about this… it’s impossible to thank and acknowledge everyone without forgetting someone important, and a full summary of the experience would take days… and nobody wants to read that kind of sappy, self-indulgent drivel anyway. 

So I wanted to think and write about the one thing that made the biggest impression on me at this event.

And one theme kept popping up in my head: Choice
It was everywhere I looked, all week long.

I saw this quote from a participant come across my Facebook feed:

"you need to let him make a choice" said every FDSA instructor to me during camp."

The camp environment was very intense for most dogs (and people). So many dogs and humans in the space, so much movement, so many distractions. Many dogs were overwhelmed. Many handlers were surprised by how much their dogs struggled.

Of course, this is the worst possible environment to try and teach a new skill. But folks where here to learn! So we did the best we could, but always, ALWAYS putting the dog’s emotional needs first. Most of the dogs that came out on the floor needed a moment to collect themselves before going to work.

And here’s my favorite part:

Every single handler understood.

Let him make a choice. Let him take a moment to get comfortable and choose to work with us.

And you know what? Every single dog did. Given the choice, every single dog chose to work.

I friggin love this crap. This is why I’m a clicker trainer.

Ok, so why is it a big deal?

When my dog enters the ring, and immediately “checks out”, couldn’t I just say the dog’s name and get his attention? Of course, I could. I could also put a treat in front of his nose, or pull on the leash. But I don’t want to. That voluntary action of turning attention to the handler and away from the environment is SO powerful. Much more so than the effect of me cuing or doing something to get the dog to look up. And what the dog learns when he makes that choice, is infinitely more valuable to our long term relationship. 

In a working setting, whether trial or training, we are always competing with the natural reinforcers present in the environment. The stronger the reinforcer or distraction that the environment presents, the more conflict is created inside the dog. “I want to pay attention to my person, but all those dogs over there are moving around, so I want to keep my eye on them in case they do something dangerous.” These conflicting motivations are common in training (and in life), and often result in visible displacement behavior.

Displacement behaviors are normal behaviors, that occur out of context. They are part of the animal’s natural behavior patterns, that tends to have a comforting, or tension-relieving effect: grooming, scratching, sniffing… YES SNIFFING! (Which happens to have been the topic of my presentation at camp!)

Context is everything.

If you are actively engaged in a training session, and your dog suddenly sits down to scratch instead of coming to heel position. Or suddenly starts to sniff when you set up for a stand for exam. You are almost certainly observing a displacement behavior.

Conflicting motivations = Displacement behavior

And it doesn’t feel good! It sure feels like the dog is taking personal calls on company time. You might feel frustrated by the interruption. Does he not respect you at all? You might even feel a little bit rejected. “I’m working as hard as I can to make this fun. Why does he not think I’m more fun than sniffing the floor?” Have you ever had an instructor tell you that you have to be more fun than grass? I have. And I took it personally. I AM FUN DAMMIT!

And since nobody gets into competitive obedience without being at least a little bit of a control freak, it can also be a little scary. (I’m totally with you. Loss of control is terrifying!) The temptation is then to interrupt the sniffing in some way, and get the dog’s attention back on the important training task at hand (and you). But I encourage you to resist that temptation. (Think of it as a personal growth opportunity.)

We tend to think of making choices as involving motivation. Your motivations drive your choices. And they do! But what is particularly interesting for me as a (nerdy) trainer, is that it goes the other way, too. Choice can actually drive motivation. The act of making a choice, rather than having conditions be imposed on you, is motivating. It is empowering. It starts to build a bias toward action… which translates into less stress and increased motivation to Do Stuff. YAY!

It’s probably the most counterintuitive thing in the world, but letting your dog sniff, and then *choose* to look at you, actually builds his drive to work with you.

I realize it doesn’t do anything for your own stress level (at first), but it’s worth it. The pay off is ENORMOUS.

Actually letting the dog sniff, and then choose to engage, relieves the tension of conflicting motivations between the environment and the handler. Which means the underlying emotional cause of the sniffing is no longer present. Which means the sniffing goes away.

So the next time your dog breaks off from training to sniff nothing in particular on the ground, don’t panic. As long as it’s a safe situation, wait. Let him choose. When he returns his attention to you, reinforce and then send him away again. Let him make the same choice to sniff or look at you. When he chooses you, reinforce and send him away. Pretty soon you’ll discover you CAN’T send him away, because he won’t stop looking at you! Isn’t it funny how that works!