“I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am”
― John Newton
I am not a breeder, I am not a competitor, I am neither a handler or a groomer. I am not even a trainer in the strictest sense of the word. I am simply an observer.
My devotion to relationship, nutrition and conditioning for our canines is my passion and it has grown out of a desire to see what makes them respond (grow and perform?) with optimal efficiency. A desire to pull out all that God has put in regardless of where they fall on the ability scale.
What makes a dog with mediocre genetics work at their optimal level?
Can a dog that is middle of the pack get bumped up a few levels with better training/understanding, conditioning, and nutrition??
Can a superior animal go beyond your expectations?
A story or “rabbit trail” (if you’re Baptist) to see if I can make the point. I will even attempt to discover what “the point” is somewhere along the way.
I’ve been working on my skills as a decoy for thirty years now. Oddly enough, now that I have a decent foundation, the local clubs and LEO’s think I am too old and honestly, that’s fine with me. This was never about self-promotion, it was always about education. A decoy works an animal through a range of emotions from a perspective rarely afforded the average handler. It’s akin to training up a young boxer, ball player, MMA fighter, just about anyone engaged in a contact sport. You never throw a young prospect into the ring with a National title holder. Ya Never throw a local Golden Gloves competitor In the ring with a Mike Tyson in his prime.
A good trainer can do well with a good prospect. But great trainers can do well with a marginal prospect and absolute wonders with a great prospect. I’ve watched decoys from long-established clubs with dogs that cover the spectrum of good young prospects to grizzled veterans, all handled by experienced competitors, work the same agitation program day after day and, mistakenly, think to themselves that they have arrived with regard to their decoy skills. Now, if you throw an average prospect in front of them with an uneducated handler, very often they fail. Not falter, but fail. I say this because the default position here is to blame the team (dog and handler) and wash out the pup. Sadly, very often the next step is to counsel the handler, with an attitude that borders on smug, to find a candidate with better qualities. While there is the potential for this to benefit the handler, I really don’t feel it is the best way to go. Better you devote some time to seeing what you, the decoy, can do to motivate the pup. After all, isn’t all training about finding out how you can best motivate your dog? This is just as fundamental in bite work as it is in obedience.
I’ve started young dogs, dogs that have been washed by other decoys, on their journey to decent bite work with a ball (crank the prey drive) a Flying Floppy Frisbee Frog (again, the prey drive) and, a stinky article of clothing, a sock, from the handler (pretty gross). This last little knucklehead (a term of endearment) was constantly raiding the dirty clothes hamper and would bite her feet and pull off her socks when the handler got home from work. Some developed rapidly and eventually achieved titles at the upper end of their sport, some maxed out where their genetics determined they would, but still achieved some entry-level titles. One, a nervous little Doberman female, the only dog I ever considered giving up on but kept going because the owner started crying and that about killed me, was not ever going to compete in a bite sport, she was the owner’s new Obedience candidate. After weeks of letting this dog chase me, catch me, pummel me and steal her tug from me I finally came to the conclusion that it just wasn’t in the cards. The only real success that I could see was the dog finally began to accept me, actually appeared to look forward to our sessions and, all hints of nervous and shy behavior were going if not altogether gone. I just assumed that this new found bit of confidence was specific to the environment and to me. That it wouldn’t necessarily transfer to other venues, other people. When I confronted the owner about stopping bite work, she said that the dog had been far too timid to enjoy their evenings working with her local Obedience club. A club where she had enjoyed excellent success while working her older male Dobe. Even her friends here advised her to get another dog. But then she said that after working with me and, what I like to call “Heartbreak Ridge” decoy work, ““dying in a loud, grotesque, military manner” the young girl was showing more confidence at the OB club and the training director asked if the pup had received “a heart transplant”.
All this to say, some went on to do really well, some are candidates for a breeding program, most aren’t, but all of the ones I continued to work with enjoyed a better quality of training and by extension, a better quality of life. The experience made the trainers better, provided a valuable education, made their foundation deep, and not just wide, and made them better mentors for others. All of them taught me valuable lessons and for that I am indebted.
How I developed this attitude toward training was, that in a bygone era in an alternate universe, we use to say “the better decoys can work the sh**ers” This was insensitive, to say the very least, and hopefully was said out of hearing of the handler to whose dog it might apply to and, more often than not, came on the heels of a few beers. But there is some truth here. When I started decoying, I would throw my equipment in the car and play “Have Sleeve and Suit will travel” I worked with any club and Police Dept that would have me. I worked with a variety of temperaments and it was my goal to encourage each to reach their potential. I took it personally and spent as many hours in front of the TV watching the tapes of sessions and burning up a WATS line (a blast from the past) calling the better-known decoys and running my challenges by them while asking for advice. So, if you made it this far, you might have deduced a “point” on your own, even if I’m not quite sure what it is.
This is the foundation for my interest in everything canine, equine and avian. What makes them click, what provides the best foundation, how can I help them reach their full potential regardless of where they fall on that scale that starts at Gifted and ends with Challenged. And, when you are successful with the sh**ers, everyone reaps the benefit. The moving parts include environment, nutrition, and training. Genetics really are not negotiable and fixed.
I guess the culmination of the journey was, I developed a little-known reputation for working the weaker dogs, helping them with their confidence.
I want to pause here a second and say that this little exercise is simply meant to be introspective, an attempt to flesh out my own place in this culture and not to show any disregard for other like-minded addicts who have chosen a different path. And if you, the reader, decide to continue to bless me with your attendance here, then it is only fair that I am clear about the lens through which I view and study my little corner of the canine world. There are many breeders, trainers, competitive handlers and yes, even groomers I admire because of their ability, dedication, and commitment to their charges. And, compared to when I started participating in decoy work, USCA and DVG (the two governing bodies for the sport of Schutzhund in this country) have established very successful training programs for young decoys through seminars and certifications. Where there were once huge swaths of “decoy deserts” in this country, we now enjoy established clubs with skilled decoys who have “the eye”, understanding, and ability to work a wide variety of breeds and temperaments.
So, again, I am not a breeder. The good ones are the men and women that have worked out a vision of their ideal through experience and with patient endurance and, they evaluate each successive generation and cull in pursuit of this ideal. I am not a competitor or handler; diligent students of the game that strive for the pinnacle in a world that is driven by methods and standards that continue to evolve. Equally dedicated to strategy and canine. Like the breeder, they share a dedication to their art that I understand, but have no real passion for and, to advance in their endeavors the animals they deal with should be the very best that is available to them. And, I am not a groomer…because. But I am an observer and the admirer of the weak and/or motivationally challenged because, if I can encourage them to exceed their limits, to maximize, as I have already said, what God endowed them with, then the rest can be a cake-walk. It is my opinion that you learn to work the so-called sh**ers and you will have earned the right to work the best of the best. It’s not the easy road, but for me, it is the correct one.
Citius, Altius, Fortius (Swifter, Higher, Stronger).
(Doubtful that anyone will actually read this post but, just in case, let me say that it is TBD (to be developed). I’ve thrown caution to the wind, I am coloring outside the lines, I have written and posted without the benefit of my Editor, LB (the lovely bride) Right now it is in a WORD document and if history has taught me anything, I know that if I leave it there long, I will do something to “disappear it”. Best I move it someplace “Gregg proof”)