The Saga Continues…Cuba’s 2nd Conformation Class

I know we've been talking about play this week, but I'd like to interrupt your regularly scheduled program for this bulletin on Cuba's second night...

Casey Lomonaco  |  Feb 24th 2011


I know we’ve been talking about play this week, but I’d like to interrupt your regularly scheduled program for this bulletin on Cuba’s second night of conformation class. In case you missed it, I debriefed the readers last week with Notes from Cuba’s First Conformation Class.

We went again tonight, similarly well-armed with a variety of really delicious treats. Because I learned a bit from last week’s class, I knew the entryway would be crowded. Since my goal is to set Cuba up for success, I was planning on playing it by ear – we’d either get inside the classroom, or we wouldn’t. Cuba’s ability to be successful, not my desire to work him in the group, would determine the rate at which we decreased distance.

Because I planned on spending much (all?) of the class working outside and playing Look at That, it didn’t really matter what time we showed up. I thought it would be best to show up about ten minutes late, which would ensure that the other dogs were in the classroom and working as opposed to milling around outside, waiting to get into class, and likely getting corrected for normal dog social behavior. The facility is in a very dark, industrial area – lots of shadows, difficult to see people or dogs coming at a distance, partial visual access to a hotel parking lot (so he can kind of see what’s going on over there, but not really), echoing sounds of dogs barking and sirens. Cuba was a little aroused and hypervigilant when we got out of the van (parked about a block away from the class), so I just clicked for focus and extended Look at That to mean “What’s that?”, clicking and treating whenever there was a weird sound. He calmed pretty quickly so we made our way toward the classroom.

Again, we just checked the situation out through the glass door at the entrance. There were about six more dogs in the classroom this week than last, and unlike last week, one of the dogs was almost his size, a Landseer Newf who looked to be about 6 or 7 months old. More LAT outside the classroom, very little barking this time. Two students came out with their puppies at the same time (one of them is also one of my students with a lovely Aussie Shepherd pup), which set Cuba to barking. Again, quick refocusing and easy transition into enthusiastic LAT work.

The puppies went in and another lady asked if she could bring her dog out of the car to work on the same type of exposure exercises. She was great and offered to work at whatever distance was comfortable for Cuba, which was a great (and surprising) relief because I know I’m currently training at a club that uses a different training approach than I personally use with my dogs and with my clients.

This week, we only made it inside the classroom for about a minute (we spent much more time in the classroom last week), but nonetheless I think it was a rousing success and I was beaming with pride by the time we finished. Yes, he barked, but he barked less than last week, spent a lot more time focusing, and was obviously a lot more comfortable than he’d been last week. Again, he attended tonight on his Easy Walk. I know that eventually he’ll need to attend and work in his show collar, but since we just got a new show collar (a Resco noose lead) and he’s still acclimating to that, I figured I’d work him on the equipment he was most comfortable in.

I know it’s all about setting him up for success, so I’d like to work him into the group environment on his Easy Walk until he’s comfortable with that, work at home on acclimation to the show collar/lead, and then when he’s comfortable in the group, begin transitioning to the show lead (perhaps double leashing at first). When we first introduce the show lead in the group environment, we may need to start back outside again for a class, even though by that point I hope to work up to having him in the ring. When you change one thing (equipment), it’s always a nice idea to temporarily reduce other criteria (distance from group/other dogs) and then slowly raise your criteria back up. Ironically, taking these extra steps will only speed the rate at which we succeed.

Since for now we’re just using the group class as a distraction/exposure environment for focus work, I contacted another local trainer to set up some private handling sessions with Cuba. I spent a lot of time chatting with her earlier this week and feel like we’re on the same page as far as Cuba’s development and training. This way, I’ll be able to focus on my skills in the private sessions and concentrate on them separately from the exposure exercises until both are fluent individually.

This whole experience is teaching me a lot. Because I have a tendency toward anxiety, I realize that setting myself up for success is as important as setting Cuba up for success. Last week I was all stressed out about our first class because I felt pressured, like we NEEDED to get in the classroom. This week, I had a lot more fun because I adjusted my criteria so we could both be successful – by keeping him under threshold, I was under threshold and did not have to worry. It reminded me of an RBDT blog from last year, Thresholds: His, Mine, and Ours, basically my thoughts on rehabilitating a reactive dog despite my own reactive tendencies.

Last week, we probably spent at least half of the hour-long class in the classroom. This week, we spent about one minute out of a sixty minute class inside. This might seem like a huge backslide, but both Nicole and I felt like it was a great victory – the goal is not to get in the group (yet), the goal is to help Cuba be comfortable – toward that particular goal, we made amazing strides tonight.

I admit, I almost fell victim to the “just one more exposure” disease. Nicole and I had planned on leaving ten minutes before class ended, and I thought, “he’s doing so well, maybe we should work across the parking lot and play LAT while the other dogs exit.” I then reminded myself of the advice I give my clients – end on a success, leave them wanting more. I decided to be happy with all the great work he’d given me and get him out of there, giving him some turkey for dinner in the back of the van as a reward for a job well done.

The combination of tryptophan and doing what was mentally very challenging work for him has left him exhausted. I think it’s time to reward myself with a class of Pinot Noir for a job well done, and go scratch Cuba’s belly. Good boy!

I’ll keep you guys posted on how Monday’s private lesson and next Wednesday’s group class goes – cross your fingers that we continue to build on our success!