Embrace Your “Five”!

Embrace your five! “What is a five?” you might be asking. Well, let me explain.

I teach workshops throughout the US and Canada, and the most frequently requested topic is drive building which I incorporate into my “Drive Development” curriculum. Granted, my “Drive Development” courses involve all facets of drive work, spanning the whole spectrum from very little drive to dogs that are over the top and hard to control.

In a round about sort of way, building drive has become an area of expertise. I don’t always wear that badge overly proudly because it has come with some painful sacrifices, and limited success….at least measurable success. You see, it took twenty years of putting my dues in with dogs that were not high drive. Dogs that needed building, nurturing, threshold raising to work through poor nerve structure. Very few trainers stick with it, and those who are serious about competition opt to cut their losses and locate a more suitable dog. I went through this evolution early on as well, going through dog after to dog to find a dog to keep me in the trial field at a national level, or at minimum regional level in the sport of IPO.

Fortunately, before that phase I put my dues in. Seriously, I earned it with hard work, pulling teeth, blood, sweat and tears. I was making a living titling dogs that really ought not be bred for clients (breeders) who really did not care if their dogs were neither suitable nor enjoying the work. They were tools. A means to bolster their breeding resumes. I look back on that time and sort of cringe. I mean, I contributed to that bit of ridiculousness, getting paid lousy wages for insanely hard work and to compensate for lack of working ability, all so show breeders could sell a litter of pups….for much less than they paid me for months of training. However, being a sunny side kind of chic, I came away with something. Something invaluable that most in the sport nowadays don’t possess which is the ability to take a dog with very little potential and polish into something special to the owner. In fact, most don’t understand why I would waste my time.  At the time, it was fun.  Challenging.

To those new trainers who have yet to put their dues in (but who may be very skilled trainers none the less with sport dogs) and to owners who are struggling with your dog’s capabilities (or limiting factors as it may be), ask yourself what you want to achieve. Do you VALUE high level competition more, or do you VALUE bringing your dog to his/her potential. You can’t have both with the dogs under a “five” (explained in next paragraph). Both perspectives are correct. It is not about being divisive (elitistists vs hobbyists). Quite the contrary. Let me explain.

In my workshops I teach a scale. My brain functions that way. Everything in my little head is in the form of spectrums, scales, graphs and comparisons. It used to be all on feel.  The two together help us develop our craft as trainers.  On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being virtually no drive and 10 being bordering on dangerously volatile, a perfect dog for training for me is around an 8, maybe even a 9 because I like to live dangerously. These are the dogs that you basically don’t have to do any drive building with, and even if you do a mediocre job, they still have reserves in their gas tank. You might knock ’em down to a 7, but they are still strong, motivated dogs by working dog standards. Then you have the 10 dogs. These are the dogs often used for breeding, or who put on an awesome show but can never quite get it together. Not enjoyable by even the most skilled and tenacious handler. The higher you go on the scale, the more WITHHOLDING a stimulus (toy, food, etc.) builds. This could be good or bad in training, because there are other factors in place including nerve structure, ability to focus, and biddability. Five is a magical number. The middle of the road dogs where most of my seminar attendees’ dogs fall at or below. Those who, if the reward is withheld or the criteria increased by just a hair, flatten like pancakes or deflate like old helium balloons a few days after the big party. Those beasts who prance into the ring, and work with twinkle toes and shining eyes in practice, but settle in for long march down field when you hit the center line. Been there….many times. Many, many times.  My first Malinois, Filo, was a five.  That five took me to multiple national championships, Germany, and was the dog who started it all (thanks go out to Augusta Farley for the Malinois that taught me a lot).  He also taught me humility. I had several national level dogs afterward.  He could have been better had I heeded the advice I am giving now; advice I never received.  He could have been MUCH better.

This balance point where withholding can plummet a dog’s drive and confidence lower if not skillfully managed and CONDITIONED is where exasperation and frustration set in. When the concepts of conditioning drive states, multi faceted building through proper play, and resource management are truly understood and you put the HOURS and months in it takes, there is a gold pot at the end of the rainbow. Most give up, get a new dog, or shrug it off like, “Hey, I didn’t really want to compete anyway.” Inwardly, they might be saying, “I love the dog I have and want to go on this journey, but I don’t know how.” Been there, too. In fact, a multi world champion told me to get rid of my “five”. Notable trainers had me going through dog after dog to find that golden goose. The reality is that many coaches VALUE handlers with dogs that make them look good. Naturally!  I think coaches need to be sensitive to the goals of their students and allow them to really determine what the student values.  Also, what the student values is fluid.  It changes over time.  It is part of the training evolution.  Me, I want to train pet dogs for a living truth be known. Send me your pet dog clients so I can pay my bills and I will gladly help you polish up your 3, 5, or 9 dog to the best it can be. I digress.  Back to the story.

It is only after I felt satisfied with my achievements….after that burning desire to “do” something or “achieve” something measurable had been met did I finally put it all together. What is it at this juncture do I VALUE? Once you answer that question then you can embrace your training journey. If you want to compete on a national level, we can’t, as my boyfriend Chris says, “Polish a turd into a diamond.” A little offensive, perhaps , but it is true. I can build drive better than most because I have developed those skills over twenty years of “have to”.  However, even I will tell you that we can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip. We cannot create what is not there. That is unfair to the dog. We can, however, make them the BEST they can be whether it is a 1,5, or 10.  Also, don’t under sell your abilities or your dog’s.  Amazing things can happen.  My “five” was my first national level dog, and my first SchH /IPO III dog.  Recently, I learned that my friend/training collaborator(s) in Nashville OTCH’d his “4” dog and qualified for the National Obedience Championship (with the help of his teammate and co handler).  Another student in New Mexico achieved a motivational obedience retrieve and BH on her “1”.  To a trainer, these are valuable accomplishments.  No more, no less, than making a world team.  It is all in what the handler values and identifying their dog’s realistic potential.

So, put on your rose colored glasses, have a glass of wine, and look on the sunny side of things. What do YOU VALUE? Where does YOUR dog fall on the scale?  Whether it is a BH, OTCH, or IPO world podium placement……..Embrace your “5”!


Happy Training!

-Tami McLeod

Absolute K9 Solutions

Baja Dog Training