Recent events remind me of the term “free will run riot.”
A friend told me about the concept presented in Beyond the Twelve Steps: Roadmap to a New Life by Lynn Grabhorn. It’s great thought in the context of the book and a provocative theory I like to apply to all types of thought.
What does free will run riot have to do with dogs?
About five months ago, Boo and I began to experience very exciting leaps and bounds in our herding and behavior work.
After a couple months of some really high times, we lost our mojo.
Our work at the Farm was falling apart. At home, behavior I had believed to be conquered began cropping up here and there.
We hear all the dog trainers – from the most respected to the guy next door who watches dog stuff on television late at night because he doesn’t ever sleep and who is now an expert and maybe a little too eager to share his knowledge – tell us we should never stop training our dogs.
There’s a reason for that and the reason is that you should never stop training your dog.
The trainers and the guy next door are right.
I am sure the rates of attrition vary from dog to dog. With Boo the attrition was fairly immediate.
Living an hour and a half-plus distance from the Farm, I have some good windshield time once a week. On the way home Boo and me share pretzels until we get to the county road. By the time we reach 95, Boo is blissfully, wholly, soundly asleep – fulfilled by a day that, regardless of how I rate our work – she deems a job well done.
Several weeks ago, I spent a ride home contemplating Boo’s recent return to walking on the wild side.
As I clicked over our inventory it didn’t take long to get to a few root causes.
We had begun to reach a really good place and I had become complacent and allowed free will to run riot, effectively enabling Boo to peddle backward.
I had recently taken to letting Boo “free play” with her big bouncy balls in the yard. She had proved she wouldn’t pop them and would keep her Kong barbell toy in her mouth to avoid the temptation.
She wasn’t popping them – BUT – she was beginning to over-play. She was getting too hyped and instead of dialing it back, I let it go. I was not taking control of her play.
A long time ago when Sadie, our first Border Collie was a young dog, I was struggling to figure out what to do with her. Sadie was cattle-bred to generations of working dogs that never set a paw in a house. There was a wildness in her that lent itself to everything about her.
I never wanted to squash the spirit of either Sadie or Boo, but I did need them to be good dogs.
Eighteen years ago I went about seeking answers.
I read an article in which Cesar Milan noted that supervision in all things with our dogs is important, even when they were playing, and even when playing by themselves.
It isn’t just playing he said – it’s how they play. He went on to say that he never allows his dogs to play unsupervised and he controls the manner in which they play.
It was, Cesar said in the article, very important – as dogs learn through play.
This was break-through thought to me and I embraced it – the success was immediate. Anything I had taught Sadie or Boo successfully has been with a game-like tactic.
But I had missed the greater point of what Cesar meant. Now, I get it.
Boo and I play herding games with the balls – games we make up for direction, control, lie-downs, steady, stuff like that.
Recently life had gotten real busy. Instead of interacting with Boo while she played with the balls, I had been attending to chores I needed to complete while letting her expend some energy before getting to the desk to work.
That was great for her to get some exercise, but it was not constructive or conducive for Boo’s make-up. Boo had returned to making her own rules. No one was stopping her in her back yard. She decided she would bring that to the Farm.
Boo is a dog that will push the limit if you let her get a toe or two over the out-of-bounds-line. Once she’s past a certain point, Boo is difficult to stop. It’s not good.
At the Farm she began running straight at sheep again and grabbing at them. Didn’t she do whatever she wanted to in the back yard with her family of large, gleeful rubber balls – while I was standing right there and not saying a word?
She certainly did.
You might think – a ball is not a sheep, so that doesn’t make sense.
Maybe what I’m thinking doesn’t matter and the dog does discern between a gleeful, bouncy, exciting ball and a sheep.
But maybe it does matter and what is missing in the it’s-a-ball-not-a-sheep equation is – will a dog actually transition behavior from the ball to the sheep?
I agree it is subjective thought, so let’s go with maybe not all dogs, but definitely my dog, and possibly your dog as well.
Transitioning behavior is something to consider if your dog begins to go backward – or – not forward at all.
I also realized I had committed two other errors in our work at the Farm just as we were getting better. I had created a negative energy field by not communicating with Boo properly – and – I had quit moving.
I had ceased to praise Boo when she did what I wanted her to – I got comfortable with where we were in our work and had developed a false sense of completion. I was not “present in the moment” as Joe Maddon would say. Of course she became upset and confused when I reprimanded her.
I also had ceased to anticipate potential problems and failed to provide Boo an option for success when things fell apart. To compound this, I had begun to push her a little, but I hadn’t done a very good job of it and at the very time I should have been focusing more – I was focusing less.
I had also ceased to help Boo by not working with her. I wasn’t working against her – I wasn’t working at all.
Standing at the end of a field filled with stock, guiding your dog with commands or a whistle is something to aspire to at some point when working a dog, but it isn’t something Boo and I are even remotely close to.
In review, I found I had been standing in the middle of the field like a mushroom waiting for her to put it all together instead of leading, reading or drawing the sheep. I was not setting up exercises properly. Most importantly, I had not been communicating clearly with Boo.
At home, I had been presenting lazy, careless behavior. I was not insisting that Boo follow through on foundational work that is the cornerstone of the house we are building together. Simple stuff – insisting every task was performed politely – follow through on sits, lie-downs, and stops – all small but incredibly important things that cement our foundation.
We hit restart and are working with more focus and control, in our play and in our day-to-day foundational work. It will be interesting to see what happens when we return to the Farm after a two-week absence.
If you feel as if you and your dog are not in sync and your work is lacking crispness and flow, perform an honest self-inventory, make corrections, and throw a collar on that free will.
Avoiding the riot will be your just reward.