Grace and I are just back from a training session up on the Long Mynd. I know I’m exhausted, and by the look of Grace who’s tucked up in her bed, so is she. But it is the best kind of exhaustion – a result of having so much fun together and working so hard that we didn’t even realize nearly two hours had passed.
I was hoping for some peace and quiet to work on the routine and to perform it as a complete piece a couple of times so I could film it and then spend time analyzing it to see where I can make it better.
It was not our destiny to have peace and quiet. As soon as we had arrived and set up the props and the camera, another car decided to park close to ours, despite having acres of other places to park. I do realize it is a public space and anyone can park exactly where they want, but personally, if I’d have seen someone with ‘stuff’ set up ready to film, I would have parked further away and given them some space.Oh well!
I decided that I was just going to carry on as I’d intended and after warming up with Grace, we set the camera to record and started the music n the portable CD player with the volume as high as it would go so we could hear it over the noise of the breeze. I wondered if loud pop music would make the other people leave, but no luck. In fact, they just turned to watch us perform our routine. Grace and I just carried on…..regardless.
After a rest for Grace while I watched the video back,we set everything up to record another attempt. I’d just pressed record on the camera and started the music when I could hear the roar of engines and turning to look in the direction they were coming from, Grace and I were stunned to see about 50 different vintage tractors coming over the brow of the hill. One of the tractors was pulling a large trailer which had people sitting on it. For some reason they all lined up along the road next to where Grace and I were trying to enjoy our peaceful and private Sunday morning training ….
What did we do? We performed the entire routine to the assembled audience. In fact it was good to know that we were being watched and to deal with the flurry of nerves that inevitably well up in me. It was also good for Grace to have a sudden and noisy distraction to work through, and she focused on her performance incredibly well, missing only one move, which could well have been my fault as I may have given her an incorrect command.
To produce a routine that lasts a ‘mere’ ninety seconds takes an inordinate amount of work. Grace works entirely from voice commands – no hand signals to hep her whatsoever and in fact, in this current routine, she is playing her part so well that I’m not even giving her commands, she is simply watching me and remembering what she is supposed to do.
When I started working with Chandi, sixteen years ago, it was my aim to not use any hand signals to interrupt the look and feel of the routine. I also worked on commands for various moves that didn’t need me to move my mouth too much – then the routine really looks as though the dog is just remembering the entire routine and not being cued and prompted…..
I achieved my goal with Chandi and have gone on to work in the same way with Grace. This means that both Grace and Chandi’s comprehension of words is vast – in fact I just stopped and counted up how many words cuing moves in this new routine Grace hears. The answer? Forty five! Forty five words which she has to respond to instantly for the routine to flow and look effortless.
Along with learning the names of all the various moves Grace has to perform, she also has to perform each one perfectly. Take for example the ‘marching on the spot’ move of which Chandi was a master. Sitting by my side, Chandi would raise and lower each of her front feet in turn as I matched my leg movements to hers. Sounds easy right? Well, yes and no…..
In order for the move to look perfect, each leg lift from Chandi had to be exactly the same height. Along with each leg lift being the same height, she also had to understand that she had to hold each foot in the air for the same length of time.
In order to get this complete move perfect, I would spend ages working with Chandi showing her that she had to listen carefully to my cues and she also had to understand the concept of holding her leg up for varying lengths of time. I would give her the information she needed by lengthening or shortening my cue word. The longer I stretched out the word, the longer she needed to hold her foot up and vice versa.
But, here’s the rub… when working with a dog, if all you ever do is repeat the same move in the same way, it becomes messy. But here’s where the attention to detail that I taught Chandi came into play – because she understood to listen and respond accordingly to the length of the cue, she would always perform marching on the spot perfectly. Because she never knew during our training sessions whether we were going to do say six fast foot lifts in quick succession, or four slow lifts, or a combination of fast and slow for example, when it came to the actual performance of the routine she was ready to do any combination I asked for.
If you’re watching a routine and have never tried to train a dog, it might look so very easy – raising and lowering front feet – it’s not until you get a peek behind the curtain that it becomes clear just how much work – and constant work -goes into every single movement that makes up a routine. So those forty five words that Grace understands and acts on the second she hears them, suddenly seem even more than they did before!
Fortunately, all this work is lots of fun. If it wasn’t it would be terrible. If Grace gets something wrong, she isn’t punished or told off, in fact, I usually tell her she’s good but could she do “….” instead? And then we’ll have another go with me giving her more assistance until she remembers and her confidence grows. It is very easy to spot a dog who has been yelled at or punished for getting things wrong – it’s very obvious in the dog’s body language and general demeanour. I don’t want my dogs to look sad and miserable while they perform, but to sparkle with energy and life. A dog never lies; to look happy, it has to be happy. It’s that simple.
Working with Grace feels exactly the same as working with Chandi did – pure joy. For both of us. Like so many other people, I have experienced some tremendous lows in my life, but to counter that, I get to feel so happy I could burst.
Yesterday I talked about the amount of work Tobias had put in to achieve his dream – it is exactly the same for me and Grace. We may be a human and dog partnership, but the volume of work is exactly the same, if different, as Grace has had to learn a vast quantity of English words…
Sometimes, it all looks too easy…..but when it reaches that stage it means we’ve succeeded!