Cisu - The Normal One

It's Cisu's turn in the limelight. She's will remind some people of their own dogs because she's rather typical of "dog".

Cisu has many interests, of which I am only one.  She enjoys food and toys and exploring.  She likes humans too; both those she is familiar with and those she has just met.   While trained motivationally, my guess is that she could have been trained with a variety of methods.  She's calm, adaptable, thinking, capable and clear-headed.  Cisu can be emotionally sensitive but she's not a worrier.

My competition dog before Cisu was Soja, an energizer bunny of effort and concentration, and I assumed Cisu would be this way as well.  Not so;  I had to put out a little effort this time.  Cisu wasn't going to ask to be trained 20 times a day - I needed to build her love of work. While not highly distractable, she was also not particularly attentive.

In other words, Cisu was normal.

It was a full six years before I realized I wasn't meeting her needs; that my style of training and trialing was taking advantage of her stability and capacity for work.  For six years, Cisu titled and excelled.  She earned very high scores in schutzhund and AKC competition.  She worked with joy, animation and presence.  I used her as a demo dog in seminars, and she made me look like an excellent trainer.

Cisu never failed a trial until she had her Schutzhund 3 with all excellent ratings, 9 UDX legs, and  a small pile of OTCH points.  She never let me down.  Not one class; not one exercise.

And then she'd had enough.  Overnight (it seemed at the time but not so much with hindsight), Cisu went in the ring and refused to work. She failed class after class, exercise after exercise.

At first I made excuses.  The show grounds were "sniffy"  The jumps were facing the sun.  She was tired from the prior shows.  But when the string of failures grew longer, it became hard to keep up the pretense that everything is fine.

As I look back, I see the stress.  I had never experieneced "stressing up", and I did not recognize what was happening.  Cisu started to refuse to release the ring objects.  She vocalized in competition and instead of the extraordinary heeling I knew she was capable of, she started to forge and wrap around me. I ignored the signs.  If you want to see the beginning of the end, check out this video.  This is her 8th UDX leg, still looking good but the start of the end:

Notice my calm (disengaged?) handling. To be honest, it makes me want to cry when I watch this video.  Cisu was begging for my presence and I didn't give it to her.  I look like a handler on valium.

Note the refusal to release the dumbbell after the high jump.

Cisu gave everything she had for years; jumping, retrieving, and all the speed I've ever requested or trained for.  And what did I give her?  A pat on her head. Shame on me.  I don't have on tape what happened nexxt, and I doubt I would have kept it if I did.

She stopped working.  Cisu would enter the ring looking ok, and then the exercises became a free for all.  Retrieve the dumbbell? Stop and sniff instead.  Send out? Wander about aimlessly.  Articles?  Take it to the judge.  Signals?  Perfect attention with no response.  That became our hallmark of stress; Cisu would stare right at me and fail to respond.

l won't take you through all of the paths I explored trying to understand Cisu's decline.  Let me just say it was a year, a full year, before I started to feel I had discovered the root of the problem, and another year to devise and implement a plan to pull her out of the hole I had dug for us.

Where did I go wrong?   Cisu was heavily rewarded in practice; every perfect exercise merited a toy reward.  It was rare to non existent that I would engage myself as a reward for good work.  I would estimate that she almost never worked longer than one minute without a toy reward in training.

With time, Cisu associated recieving a toy with being right. For some dogs, the lack of reward in the ring isn't an issue, or the handler has adequately trained the dog to expect long stretches of work without reward, but I had not done that.  Cisu believed good work earned a toy, and in the ring, she could stand on her head with energy and brilliance, and still the toy would not appear.  So she stoped trying.

Cisu's retraining was two fold; first, I stopped rewarding each exercise with a toy - instead she might have to work several exercises or even several sessions before recieving a toy.  Second, I learned to interject myself  instead of an object as the reward for good work. Good work earned ME; my enthusiastic, over the top excitement for her efforts. Indeed, that is the primary form of reward that she reieves today both in practice and in the ring.

We have since returned to the ring with some success, both in scores and in what is important to me; engagememt and attitude.  I don't think we'll ever have what I had before, and I see that as a lesson learned.  I hope to do better next time.  I will not take advantage of a dog's good nature again; I will train properly and condition rewards and a reward schedule that I can maintain, even in competition.

Here's Cisu's debut after two years of retraining - she also earned her UDX this day.  Note how I am completely engaged and aware of her at all times, even before entering the ring:

I owe Cisu a lot.  The new puppy will be her great granddaughter, and I hope they have a lot in common.

Thanks for your patience, Cisu.


Kasia Mikurda

I just can’t believe it. This sounds so much like Spyker. The perfect attention on signals and lack of response story has made me cry. I feel that I’ve done the same mistake over and over and over. It’s also probably why my dog works so great as a Service Dog (I don’t have food or toys on me, but I’m very enthusiastic when he performs well, like a great medical alert etc… even after all this years of him working as my service dog). And he stresses and disconnects when we enter the ring. People are joking that he should compete with his Service Dog vest on – but now I see that it’s simply me, and the way I choose to reward service dog work vs performance work. He’s my Novice A dog and I have so much too learn, but this post just made so much sense to me.


Thank you for this article Denise. I am in the same place with my dog Rosco right now. Your article gives me hope. Thank you.


Okay, thanks — that’s what I have been doing. (Did Recallers 2.0 and am a member of Puppy Peaks now.) I know that some schutzhund trainers use balls for heeling and recalls, like tucked under their chins or presented between their legs as the dog comes running towards them, and I wasn’t sure if you did any of that sort of thing. Right now I’m doing LOTS of IYC with Finch and the balls. The first time I tried it, it took him 12 minutes to stop looking at the ball and to look at me instead (which earned him the ball) and now he does it within 5-20 seconds, so we’re definitely making progress.

Raegan Walter

A blogger friend of mine went to a positive Schutzhund seminar this summer and talked a little about some of the cool gadgets/toys they used.

OTCH « Denise Fenzi

[…] You can read Cisu’s early story for yourself here: […]

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