Saturday, April 12, 2008

Another DLAATE Conference

Sunday was the 08 DLAATE conference, my second. I went last year, sans Maudie, sans certification in fact, and had a really nice time. I was impressed with the organization, the discussions, and the snacks. And, most of all, the people.

On the whole they were incredibly savvy, friendly, down to earth and possessed of what I thought was a really clean energy. In some ways, they were more dog smart than many people I observe (and am at times) in obedience and certainly agility.

I think it’s because there is more on the line when you go out as a team to do this work. You are highly visible in public; your dog is required to deal with an onslaught of emotional and sometimes physical energy from strangers and MUST have self-control. Its not like an NQ in a trial…you don’t even get to go out until quite a few people think you are ready and steady.

You are in charge of the health and well being first and foremost of your dog. This means you need to develop certain acumen for reading your dog closely. You need to know when she is ALMOST at the threshold of being tired, physically, emotionally. You need to know what to do to help keep her on an even keel; do you need to go home, or just go outside for a break? Is she stressed? excited? happy? thirsty?

It is a whole other way of working with dogs. I have done obedience for years, tracking, herding, agility, even conformation showing. This is more rigorous and yet less rigid, more complex and yet less formal. There’s no penalty for multiple commands or sloppy sits. And whereas in obedience you want your dog’s attention riveted on you, here you reel her out, let her work her own way in developing relationships. It’s probably most like tracking—you have to listen to your dog and know what she’s saying.

At both conferences I’ve attended, there was a lot of intelligent and humane discussion about training and communication.

And there are flowers on all the tables and doughnuts and barrels of bottled water. There are gifts from the community to the dogs and the dogs themselves are there, sprawled next to their handlers on blankets and mats (which gave me an opportunity to make a quilt for Maude). There is a noticeable lack of competition, and a willingness to share information.

The 07 conference was in a large hotel meeting room and I thought it was a classy affair. By that I mean: well organized, inclusive, on time, with plenty of refreshments available throughout the day.

But this one, the 08 one, was at Oaks Park in an old dance pavilion and it was just as well managed; only the venue was absolutely magical.

Oaks Park is an old time amusement park along the Willamette River. It has whirling rides and carney booths and cotton candy. It is small and colorful and quaint and trees run along the paths above the river.

The dance pavilion was large and gently lit; strings of playing cards hung from the ceiling and plastic garlands flowered along the windows. The floor was narrow worn boards stained a golden brown and marked with age, but clean and well kept.

During the day, it rained and then the sun came out and the pattern repeated itself. And at noon the rides cranked on and an old salt and peppershaker flashed in and out above the roofs outside the windows.

There were round table discussions on the different aspects of the work: READ, Crisis Response, Hospital work, Training & Behavior and others. There were 2 keynote speakers; one was from the Uof O and was studying the physical and emotional impact of therapy work on the dogs. When you consider what is asked of the dogs: a high degree of self-control and compliance, coupled with the inability to control their own choices, you realize how stressful some scenarios and can be. And yet we expect them to be perfectly well behaved, empathic and tireless. The underlying message was a reiteration of the need for handlers to be keenly aware of the needs of their dogs, and see to their fulfillment.

The other speaker was a positive reinforcement trainer. I always learn something listening to them, although in the end, I like E’s (our competition obedience teacher) way of teaching better: In +R the word “No” is verboten…you redirect behavior or wait for the correct answer to be offered. But I like being able to say “nope, that’s not it, try this…” and I think my dogs really like having that range of info. E has taught me never to underestimate a) their ability to understand what is being communicated and b) the need to communicate clearly and fairly.

I feel like I’m getting a truly rich and varied education in training and communicating…probably the most concentrated and exciting one of my life in dogs.

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