I believe that in dog training there are two types of projects. There are “marble” projects that involve systematic training of new skills and there are “ice” projects that involve slowly manipulating environmental factors to inspire change.
Putting Marbles in a Bottle
Marble projects are the truer version of dog training. You’ve got an end goal behavior and you’ve got a plan for getting there. Idgie’s current marble project is scent articles for Utility and Felix’s involve agility foundation work, soon to be weave poles. These projects are really rewarding, though they take time. You’ve got to put one marble into the bottle at a time; that’s all that fits through the neck of the bottle. But each time you add a marble to the bottle you can see that the bottle has more marbles in it than it did before. My dog goes from not being able to weave to being able to weave 4, then 6, then 12 poles. I can literally see the progress happening, marble by marble. It’s great fun and it keeps me working every day. If I hit a kink, I just need to dump out a few marbles and them back in either in a different manner or a different order. Not really a huge deal as long as I am willing to remove marbles from time to time. Most projects in performance dog training are marble projects and most dog handlers get them done for better or worse. Marble projects are what people think of when they think of dog training.
But there’s another kind of project, and it’s usually the kind I help people with in my work.
Watching Ice Melt
What about aggression? Anxiety? Reactivity? Fearfulness? What about the dog that performs at home with accuracy and skill but leaves brain matter on the course any time she competes? What bottle do we put what marbles in to solve these problems?
These projects are unlike the marble projects, though some marble projects will often help these dogs get better. These projects are like watching ice melt. You take the ice out of the freezer. You put it on the counter. You close that window that’s letting cool air in. You crank the heat a little. You turn the oven on, and move the ice closer to it. And you watch. The melting is almost imperceivable. The ice cube looks the same from minute to minute. But you keep manipulating that kitchen temperature and before long there is more puddle than there is ice, and you know you are getting somewhere.
You see, when a dog acts out aggressively it is because she doesn’t feel safe. Safety is not comprised of marbles. You’ve got to manipulate your dog’s environment in ways that help her feel safer. So you let her observe her triggers from a distance that feels comfortable to her. You show her over time that none of her triggers will be allowed any closer than she invites them to get, and you prove to her that you’ll protect her if things start to go wrong. Slowly, there will be more puddle than ice; more safety than fear.
Similarly if a dog performs differently in a trial than he does at home it may be due to sensory overload. Helping a dog cope with sensory input is a process that may involve some marble projects (shaping complex tasks, for instance), but that largely involves melting ice; showing the dog that he will not be overloaded and that he can handle more than he believed he could.
Why Dog Handlers Should Care
If you only focus on marble projects you’ll find your ice projects piling up. We all must be sure that our dogs’ emotional needs are being addressed while we set out to teach them the skills they need for our chosen sports. No matter how skilled you are at tackling those marble projects, your ice projects will hold you back if they are not addressed.