A couple of weeks ago, I realized that Laev had a gunfire problem. A real gunfire problem, not just the minor twitch I thought we had. It's tough with Laev; she doesn't show stress very obviously, and it's not until extremes that she starts to look as bad as she is. Where other dogs will be whining, panting, showing the whites of the eyes, or raising a paw, Laev flattens her ears and pulls back the corner of her mouth only. It's easy to miss. Then something goes wrong, and I wonder, "Where did that come from?"
There's also a consistent delay, because Laev really does have a nice work ethic, and she will try to continue for a while before things collapse. This is why Laev twitched at the gunfire in December but didn't break the heel until about 20 seconds later. This, I have gradually realized, is a regular pattern. Okay, I'm slow.
So I felt really stupid when I finally realized that her two major stressors in a trial were the reporting in (her first experience involved a dogfight) and the gunfire. Those can come in quick succession in a trial. She never used to have a gunfire issue, which is probably why I wasn't paying close attention, but we have a neighbor at home who likes target practice and I think he's done some sessions while Laev was trapped in her kennel, unable to escape the hours of ceaseless, intermittent shots, and she's now sensitized.
No problem, I thought naively. I borrowed a starter pistol and enlisted an assistant. I'd just have him fire a number of shots as we heeled and I'd reinforce heeling with me, and then we'd be fine!
I tried to split, I really did. But Laev does not react to recorded gunfire, only the real thing -- and it looks like distance is not necessarily a factor once she is sensitized. All I did was poison my cue, confirming for her that heeling with me predicted gunfire; she very quickly became so reactive that she'd jump just at the sound of a box clicker.
I left town for four days, which gave her time to flush the stress chemical cocktail from her system (takes about three days to purge so that the dog is starting with a clean slate). When I came back, I was able to heel her at club training with two gunshots, and she didn't have a panic reaction. She did, however, show me subtle signs of stress. "I didn't see anything, she looked fine," said most of the club, but I knew that if I'd pushed, I would have lost her again.
So today I went out for one final practice, after working a while without gunfire. Our trial judge, already in town, came to watch and offered his opinion: I was not firm enough with the dog. She broke not because she was afraid of the gunfire -- "look, her tail is wagging, she's fine" -- but because I had not taught her to "down or die."
I broke down, to my complete horror, and there is NOTHING more shameful than crying in front of a training director and a German judge. It's like crying in boot camp. Seriously, I should turn in my gear now. (The only thing worse is crying with sinus issues, which I had, making it all even more sniffly and gruesome.) I explained that though I wasn't going to sound rational now, I had rationally thought about this, and a week before the dog was shaking and crying during gunfire, so I knew it was a gunfire stress issue, I suspected where it had come from (the judge agreed with me there) and that I knew my dog well enough to know that she was stressed, though she didn't look typical. (Really, a wagging tail can certainly be a stress indicator as much as a happiness indicator! Look how many people get bitten and protest, "but his tail was wagging"!) He conceded that perhaps I did know my dog to know that she was upset, but that the issue was not the reactivity, but her lack of respect for me as a handler. It's good to love my dog, he said, but I had to force control.
My club friend had more immediate advice. "Don't take it so personally! It's a frickin' dog." He grinned.
"It's my frickin' dog!" I answered, but I took his point -- I shouldn't take it personally that Laev is sensitive. I blame myself for utterly destroying her training and I do get upset that she can't just trust me for five minutes, but I shouldn't think of it that way; I should think of it as a chance to improve her. Right after I get done destroying her training.
I know these people are experienced and are offering advice that has worked for them and others, but Laev and I don't work like that. He said that if Laev breaks the down to come to me during gunfire, I should require her to heel to punish her for the error. Heeling should be something she doesn't like to do. But I think heeling should be something Laev wants to do! and it should be a reward, not a punishment. And it used to be something she liked, before I destroyed years of training in just a few sessions by linking heeling and her trigger. /facepalm/
"There is no other way," he told me. And he believes it. So do my club friends, who all mean the best.
I believe there is another way. I have been told so many times, by so many people, that I will never get X without force. I've heard that it is impossible to train something the way I say I did. Yes, it may take me longer sometimes, because I don't really know what I'm doing 'til I've done it, but not having a map doesn't mean it's impossible to get there.
I hate being in disagreement with people who are trying to help me. I'm not trying to be unreasonable, and I'm not trying to be rude; I'm trying to do something I want to do. I know it's different than what they want, and sometimes I think that others think I'm judging them because I'm doing something different. But the truth is, I'm trying something here. I've never said I'm an expert -- heck, I just said I don't have the map! But that doesn't mean I can't try, right?
More, I have an ideal. I refuse to be the lesser of two evils -- if I have to force my dog to work with me, then it's no longer a game I'm interested in. Laev used to prance along with me to the field, even volunteering heeling en route -- today she was reluctant to work with me at all. That's not right; I miss being her first choice. If Laev heels or downs because it's that "or die," then I've lost sight of the reason I got a dog in the first place. We're a team; we'll get through this together.
Somehow. Honest. I'm pretty sure. I'd like to think so.
Anyway, I've changed her entry. We're going to just do a track only tomorrow morning. And it probably won't go well -- stressed dog, mega-stressed handler, thunderstorms all night and through the morning, and I don't know if the tornado watch will still be in effect during tracking -- but who cares? Those on the ground are not afraid of falling, and we can't get much lower. I'm going to support my club trial and support my trialing friends, and then I'm going to step back and do some serious evaluation.
I just wish I didn't feel like I had let down my friends, my dog, my training colleagues, and everyone who had wished us luck for this weekend. I'm supposed to know better, I'm supposed to get results. I hate having expectations.