The trouble with goals: From dissertations to dogs

Big goals freak me out. They give me stress. They seem impossible. They are paralyzing.

However, I want to make progress with Milo in the sport of Schutzhund and to do this I need some big goals. Eek.

I’ve encountered this dilemma before.

I spent six years in graduate school. Much of year five involved staring at my computer screen and freaking out because I was sure that I didn’t know enough and wasn’t good enough to jump over the last hurdle between me and my doctorate: writing my dissertation. A dissertation is a 200 or 300-page original research paper. Staring at the first paragraph I typed on what would be page one, made the last paragraph on page 200 seem impossibly far away.

I was a scholarship student, and I was broke. When my funding ran out, I would not be able to pay rent, I would lose my student visa, and I’d have to leave the country. So, you know, no pressure.

My dissertation supervisor gave me a gift. He said that the last word on page 200 was the last word he would read and so ‘it would behoove me to finish before then.’ This gave my task a concrete endpoint.

With nothing to do but think and write, and facing the looming specter of homelessness, I did some math. I knew I could write three pages in a day and I knew I was ‘only allowed’ to write 200 pages.

200 pages divided by 3 pages/ day meant that I could write my dissertation in 67 days. If I worked five days/ week, I could finish my dissertation in 14 weeks. My deadline was 16 weeks away. That was tight but doable. My plan included weekends off, which meant that if I got sick or hit a dead end, I had a bit of leeway.

Once I had a plan that I was confident was doable, my writing problems melted away. I just followed my plan.

On every weekday I drank coffee, went to the office, edited yesterday’s three pages and wrote that day’s three pages. Some days I was done by noon and some days it took me until midnight, but when my three pages were written, I could go home and relax, knowing that I was on target with my plan. Writing became fun because it no longer seemed like I was working on an impossible task.

From dissertations to dogs

Spring is here, and it is time to set summer training goals. This year I would like to earn tracking and obedience titles in Schutzhund. Here’s the trouble, those titles feel like my dissertation—so freakishly big and intimidating as to be paralyzing.

I need the equivalent of my three pages a day but for dog training. In short, I need a plan.

Here’s how the plan-making will work:

  1. Make a list what Milo and I need to do to have a good shot at these titles.
  2. See if that list is manageable as part of a happy life for both of us. My work is more demanding now than it has ever been before, and if all goes well, a puppy will be joining our pack in the late summer so I might need to back off a bit.
  3. If the list is not manageable then I’ll revise our desired outcomes.
  4. If the list is manageable, turn it into a plan.
  5. Execute the plan.

In addition to relieving performance pressure, there is another benefit arising from having a plan: Success means carrying out the plan, not getting the title. What if the day of the trial Milo gets up and eats a bee, or I get sick? Or we have a bad day? If the goal is following the plan rather than achieving the outcome, then success is something that I have more control over.

I always roll my eyes when I hear someone say, ‘it’s all about the journey.’ But, with Milo it is. He’s not interested in getting titles; he’s interested in what we do together every day. Focusing on the plan lets me concentrate on his happiness and well-being, and it makes the journey less stressful and more fun for us both.

Stay tuned for a draft plan.

Obedience titles, trust, and the good life for dogs and their people

One of the fabulous side effects of passing an obedience test that includes stringent temperament and traffic elements is that I feel much calmer and more confident taking Milo out and about in the world. st jacobs

Milo and my market booth would sell advice on how to be Very Good.

The mantra among many of my dog friends (that is the people who train and handle dogs) is “trust your dog.” This rule applies most concretely during tracking and scent work because we are counting on our dogs to smell things that we can’t smell. There is little choice but to trust your dog. However, the rule also applies more generally to how we interact with our working canine companions.

At first, the “trust your dog” rule seemed to conflict with my own rule of thumb for dogs and humans, and even tools and institutions: “Trust is earned.”

But, these two rules go hand in hand. The rule is not “trust someone else’s dog.” It’s “trust your dog.”  A dog who is your partner. A corollary of  “trust your dog” is “trust the training you and your dog did together.” When you’re prepared for a dog trial, you focus on doing your part of the exercises and count on your dog to do what he’s practiced in training.

When Milo earned his BH this month, I learned about another aspect of this rule. The judge put Milo through a traffic test that I thought was pretty strenuous.  At one point we had to walk through a crowd that was denser than Times Square on New Year’s Eve. In the midst of this crowd the judge reached over Milo and gave me a push, and then, in that situation, I put Milo through a set of obedience exercises. That is some serious pressure. Milo did great. I was elated and, tellingly, surprised.

Milo exceeded my expectations, and this test taught me that I can trust him, and expect him, to keep an even keel in a wide range of situations. This has improved the quality of life that we share.

This weekend we went with friends to the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market. It’s a huge market—lots of people, vendors yelling above the crowd, food stalls and the attendant smells all over the place. Not only did Milo handle it like a pro—happily curious and pleased with all the people telling him that he was handsome—I had a good time too. Life is better when you know you can trust your dog.

Milo earned his BH :)

His email signature line now looks like this:

Milo Fehr BH, RN, CGN, SPOT

43342624_10157666286267656_3779660392590999552_o

I’m grinning here because the judge just encouraged Milo and me to continue in the sport.

He has titles from the German Shepherd Schutzhund Club of Canada, the Canadian Kennel Club, and the United Kennel Club.

I’m grateful to all the people and dogs who helped Milo and me along the way. Milo and I extend huge thanks to Cheryl Bishop, Heidi Grasswick, Jess Parent, and Liz Parent all of whom generously shared their skill, time, support, and expertise with Milo and me.

Thanks also to the London Schutzhund Club for running a well-organized trial, and for providing a kind, supportive, and sportsman-like environment.

Finally, it was an honor for Milo to earn this title under Judge Raino Fluegge, who was compassionate enough to remind me to breathe.

I was most proud of Milo’s performance in the Down out of Motion with Recall and the Test in Traffic.

In the Down out of Motion with Recall, he and I both performed at a level that reflected our best practice sessions. By this time in the routine I had worked through some of my nerves, and so Milo settled into his normal self. His heeling was attentive, and his recall was fast and sure.

It might seem weird to be proud of the Test in Traffic. But, three years ago I would never have dreamt of even trying such a thing, and yesterday Milo pulled it off with style. He kept his cool and attended to me while walking past a car, bike, jogger, other dogs, and a crowd of whistling, waving, clapping people. He performed basic obedience in a dense, jostling crowd, even after someone pushed me. Finally, he maintained a sharp, alert sit when I tied him out and left him alone while other people walked their dogs past him.

Milo and I have lots of work on but for now, I’m focusing on what went well. That, and the fact that he earned the title.

43262174_10157666286587656_6553150994455199744_o

This trial left me enthused about the sport and fiercely proud of Milo.

Finally, Milo and I are taking a shot at our BH obedience title

quizzicalgsdOne of my goals for this summer was to join the German Shepherd Schutzhund Club of Canada and enter an obedience trial with Milo. The plan was to take a shot at our BH (Begleithunde)–the first obedience title a dog can earn in the sport of Schutzhund.

The weather is mild here in Southern Ontario, which means, in my mind at least, that October still counts as summer. So, if the good Lord’s willing and the snow don’t fly, Milo and I will meet our goal this weekend.

Saturday, at the London Schutzhund Club, we’ll be strutting our stuff at our first Schutzhund trial. Eek.

 

German shepherd dog, lying on its tummy on the grass in front of a woman wearing blue jeans and a coop full of chickens

I might be a chicken, but I’m not afraid to train Milo beside the chicken yard.

 

Milo and I’ve been working toward this for what seems like ever. But, I’m incredibly nervous about trials, and so I only entered this one at the very last minute. Milo has lots of courage, but me? I’m a bit of a chicken.

I keep saying to my self, “Self, don’t panic.” After all, if it goes poorly, Milo and I will still have met our goal, and we’ll both have gained trial experience. There’s no punishment, we’ll try just try again later. And if it goes well, we might just end up with a title.

I’m trying to focus on letting Milo shine. He’s my good boy.

Wish us luck!

2

 

Training Tuesday: Keeping a digital tracking log

German Shepherd puppy wearing a graduation cap and looking at cameraI love tracking with Milo. Why? Because he loves tracking. When he’s on a trail his nose, brain, and temperament (as well as his gluttony—there are lots of treats during tracking) unite, giving him laser focus.

Folks tend to call tracking work, but it’s not like an unpleasant day job. It’s more like a vocation. He’s built for it. Called to it. Giving Milo a track is sort of like giving a budding artist a box of crayons. Tracking offers Milo an opportunity to develop and engage a talent that he loves to practice. How marvelous is it that I can do that with him?

I haven’t really been keeping records of our tracking sessions. I know I should, and so I started. Here are my notes on what we did today:

tracking notes
It was hot and breezing today, and I laid a track through dry grass and clumps of alfalfa. These are not great tracking conditions. Milo did well. He was methodical–pretty much keeping his nose in each footstep. The first corner was a bit tricky for him. He blew past it, but quickly realized his mistake, figured things out, and got back to it without prompting. He took the second corner like a pro. Good boy!

In case you’re wondering, the image above is a screenshot from a program called OneNote that I run on my laptop and iPad. This program collects files like they are pages in a notebook. I can keep notes of all our tracking sessions together and flip through them to keep track of how we’re doing, develop goals, and make training plans. This might be the beginning of a slick system.

Question: What kinds of things should I be recording in our tracking notes?

Training Tuesday: Stoopid hoomins tracking with smart dogs

Milo used to be great on corners. In competitive tracking, the dog has to follow a trail around several sharp turns. This can be tricky, especially with a fast dog, because they can shoot past a corner and lose the scent. Usually, Milo takes corners like his nose is glued to the track.

That is until the last time we went tracking when every single corner flummoxed him. He never stopped working. However, instead of smoothly walking around a corner he started zigzagging all over the place searching for the trail. Not like him at all.

My friend Liz was observing us work, and at the end of that track, she kindly asked me what on earth I was doing. Wait a minute. What was I doing? I wasn’t zigzagging. Milo was zigzagging.

Let me back up a bit. Tracking is difficult for me, even though I’m not the one doing the sniffing. It is difficult because I have to lay down the track and then remember, exactly, where it goes. This maps on to zero of my strengths. My capacity to get lost is only beat by my ability to forget landmarks.

So, I thought to myself, “Self, you need to figure a way out of this.” Hmmm.

“I know,” I thought, “I can throw a small flag a meter or so off the track at the corners. Milo keeps his head down so he won’t see it, but it is easy to see from my height.”

I marked the corners for myself. Problem solved.

Or not.

When I explained this reasoning to Liz, she looked at me out of the corner of her eye: “Your scent is all over those flags.“

D'oh

Picture this. Milo is tracking along like a pro, and he encounters a T-intersection in the scent trail: the track turns right, but I threw a flag a meter to the left.

While I’m wondering why on earth he isn’t turning right, he’s wondering what the hell is going on with the track. From his perspective the person he’s tracking suddenly split in two like some gigantic amoeba.

Instead of berating me for being confusing, Milo kept his nose to the ground, sniffing here and sniffing there, trying to figure out the conundrum I created. Have I mentioned lately that he is a good boy?

I forgot that, even though Milo and I live in the same house and spend most of our time together, we live in different worlds—scientists call these worlds umwelten, which is German for “life-world.” My umwelt is primarily full of things I can see. Milo’s is primarily full of things he can smell. This is one of the things I love about tracking: Milo’s doing something that I can hardly even imagine. He has a sniffing superpower. When we’re tracking together, we are a team, and we expand each other’s senses. Cool!

However, even though I think about the differences between human and canine senses more than a person might strictly consider reasonable, I still fell back into my human bias in favor of sight.

Note to self: When Milo is tracking think of everything with the target scent on it like it’s a flashing neon light.

Also, how lucky am I to have a friend who points out my silly mistakes and a dog who works hard even when I’m goofy? ❤ (Hint: very lucky.)

German Shepherd smelling grass

You’re never (really) finished training your dog

German Shepherd puppy wearing a graduation cap and looking at camera

My neighbours, bless their hearts, take a keen interest in Milo and my wellbeing. They see me load him into my vehicle every Sunday afternoon on our way to some sort of dog class and often ask when we’ll be finished with the training.

What they don’t know is that asking me when I’ll be finished training Milo is sort of like asking an athlete when they’ll stop needing a coach.

Milo and I will always to go school because:

  1. He and I can always improve our performance. We can get faster and more precise.
  2. I can use all the coaching I can get. In class, the instructor sees things I don’t see. Sometimes I get in a rut with my instructions and Milo starts to anticipate our next move. Sometimes I reward him a bit late or a bit early. Sometimes I don’t keep my shoulders square and that pushes him out of heel position. A good instructor catches things I miss.
  3. Obedience classes give Milo practice being around new people and new dogs in a safe, structured environment. Some people have this weird idea that a well-socialized dog runs off to play with every creature they encounter. This is wrong and dangerous. Not all people and not all dogs want strange dogs to charge forward for a meet and greet. A well-socialized dog can stay calm, happy, and attentive in a wide range of situations. This is particularly important for dogs like German Shepherds who tend to be territorial and to bond with only one or a few people. For dogs like these, socialization is not like riding a bike, it is more like playing the piano–they have to practice.

Milo and I both enjoy learning new things. I’d rather take Milo to a training class than go to a movie and Milo loves using that big brain of his.

black and tan smiling german shepherd in front of a grey sky and a grey lake.

Curious puppies want to learn all the things.