Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Retrievers

Thoughts about service dogs made me think about all of my dogs and what kind of retrievers they were and are. Often a litter of puppies is tested (especially in the other breeds, and for service/law enforcement/etc. pups) and one of these tests is to see if the baby puppy will retrieve a tossed ball of crinkled paper or a small soft ball or toy. It is usually considered a good thing if the puppy will retrieve the item and bring it back, or at least show interest in the tossed item. For working sheepdogs I don't know if this test applies, but I'd be interested to hear more about that. Anyway when I think of service dogs, in some cases I think of dogs who pick up dropped items, pull open doors, turn lights on and off, and so forth. I know there are many types of service dogs, and reading the book in the last blog post enlightened me to a type of service dog that I had never thought about. I have always considered the natural inclination to retrieve items back to me to indicate a dog's willingness to be a working partner with me, although it is certainly not a line drawn in the sand. And I've never participated in formal puppy testing. But I've been thinking back to my various dogs.

Alix was a happy retriever of balls and toys; she loved to play. When I started working her in obedience I was a green newbie to that dog sport and when we proudly "graduated" from Novice with our CD I was aghast that I was being advised to force her to retrieve with an ear pinch. Force her to do something she already loves? That made no sense to me. It was at that point (and after some other unhappy experiences with "teaching her to jump" when jumping was something else that she already loved) that I pulled her out of training class. I went to the university library and checked out every book I could find about dog behavior and training -- yes even the old, moldy ones. I finally did teach Alix a formal obedience retrieve using a method outlined by Wendy Volhard. It worked very well and was enforceable without being painful or forced. The only problem was that Alix mouthed her dumbbell. We passed all of our Open classes but we never got high scores due to her mouthing the dumbbell and other small issues. Like any sport you have to be nearly perfect to get those high scores. She had trouble learning the utility scent articles (or was it that I was a newbie to training them? We'll never know.) But Alix loved her retrieve especially with tennis balls, which were her favorite thing.

With Augie I resolved to try to solve the dumbbell problem but didn't quite get there with it. He also loved to retrieve and would bring any item to me that I could single out for him. Augie was much more "directable" with his retrieveing and would search for things by name even when he couldn't see them. He could have easily been one of those service dogs who assisted a person with dropped items and light switches and pulling a wheelchair because he was so strong. In our training together, Augie also loved tracking and the found articles were often his reward. You could tell Augie "go find the other ball" and he would go looking, no matter how many tennis balls you might have in your hand or your lap already. Augie was a great working partner and much more willing to work for me. Alix loved the independent exercises like running, chasing the ball, and directed jumping. Augie liked the exercises close to me although he did love to jump. Augie still mouthed his dumbbell though. I tried some different things but wasn't into obedience enough to try the negative methods that I was being offered to stop the mouthing.  Even in their very elderly years I would play tiny retrieve games with Augie and Alix and the tracking/utility gloves. It was a game we could play to keep their minds engaged.

By the time Bid came along I wasn't really training in obedience any more, but one winter when he was about a year old I decided to teach Bid to retrieve a dumbbell as kind of a fun winter project and to give him something to do on the long dark evenings. Bid loved tennis balls and toys but wanted nothing to do with a nasty white plastic dumbbell thing. I took this on as a challenge to make myself think through the steps to make it happen. I experimented with clicker training Bid to pick up and retrieve the dumbbell which worked like a charm. He also didn't mouth it (maybe because he didn't like it to begin with). Bid, like Augie, could be directed about the area to find things that he couldn't see. He would retrieve endlessly if the object was a toy or a ball. He was famous for spinning with a heavier toy like a ball on a heavy rope or a heavier stuffed toy. He spun both ways so that he was even, which made everyone laugh hysterically. But I have to say Bid lived up to his name of being biddable as he was always one to retrieve whenever asked to. He always gave up the ball willingly and dropped it respectfully. Bid had a soft mouth.

Chiefie, Augie's nephew, will chew on anything. He retrieves down and back if we are alone and if I insist on him bringing the ball back; but if we are around any other dogs he will chase down a ball but not bring it back. He drops it for one of the other house mates to pick up and bring back to me. If he does return with the ball or toy, his natural response is to clamp down on it and doesn't want to give it up. In tracking he liked to find the articles and wanted to tug with them but he is very strong. For about a year I took him to competition obedience class after he was retired from agility and sheepdog training due to his physical issues. I clicker trained him to retrieve the dumbbell much like I had done with Bid.  By the time we stopped going to class, he had a pretty nice retrieve over the jump and on the flat; but, I always had to reinforce the "bringing it back" which I had never had to do with the first three collies. If we could have gone right into open and utility and skip the novice class, I might have gone further with the obedience training. Chiefie, like Alix, preferred the "working away" exercises to those close to the handler. But we had some issues with the novice exercises and training the other dogs on the sheep as well as taking care of the sheep took up more and more time. Chiefie has a different outlook about retrieving which is just as unique as his personality and temperament!

Coal loves to play. He almost always has a toy in his mouth when he is not working. In fact somewhere there is a photo of Coal working geese, holding a tennis ball in his mouth. I have never taught Coal any formal retrieve. I remember when he was about five months old, he started dropping items in my lap, out of the blue, and he has never stopped since. Coal lives to work and it doesn't surprise me that he naturally wants to retrieve. I'm encouraging him to look for items that he can't see. I'm sure he can  do it if I spent the time on it. Coal is a funny one in that he will drop any of his toys into any container that I am working with. I am sure this is a sign that he wants so badly to work with me! For example he will drop a ball into the dishwasher as I am loading it; he will go and get a toy if I am doing yard work and have a muck bucket to collect clipped weeds or flowers that have turned brown, and Coal will add his toy to the clippings. Sometimes this doesn't work out so well for his toy (like when he drops it into the dog-poop bucket when I am picking up the yard)! Coal has a fairly soft mouth and I imagine that he would not chew the dumbbell if I taught him a formal retrieve. If we are alone he drops the ball with no problem, however, like some of the other dogs he doesn't like to give up the item in the company of his house mates or play mates.

Rime, the most unusual dog I have had since Alix, is the world's best retriever. He is content to get a ball and bring it back endlessly and will drop it right at your feet. The guys at the park love this as they can throw the ball a really long way and Rime will always go get it, bring it back, and drop it. Like Coal I have never taught Rime any formal retrieve. He just loves it. Like Coal, Rime can be annoying, dropping toys in your lap. But I also take this as a key to Rime's sometimes difficult personality; he is really willing to work with you if you look for the right "door to open" (thinking back to the Temple Grandin movie that I enjoyed recently) to what makes him tick. I think Rime is really lucky -- and I am really lucky -- that we can work on the sheep as often as we do. In Rime's case, the sheepdog work gave us a communication system that has carried over to help with some of his fears in the rest of his world, much as retrieving for fun has done for him in a smaller way.

This is one of my longer blog posts, but I have enjoyed writing it and I hope if you have made it this far, that you all have enjoyed it too.

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