Getting ready to rally
In a slow and steadily running monologue, Karen Ogden calmly delivers her mantra: repetition, consistency, and reward. "Behavior is driven by a consequence," she says. "You have to reinforce the behavior you want, reward better behavior.... Basically what you've got are blank slates. We're working to influence future choices."
And the owners and their three puppies pay respectful attention: Norman and Kathy Lobb and Becki, their 13-week-old German shepherd; Marc Brasefield and his daughter Ashley with Boomer, a 15-week-old black lab, and Lee and Jim Aven and Ruby, a 15-week old labradoodle.
Saturday morning at Ms. Ogden's Positive Rewards Dog Training begins with puppies - proud owners, frisky pups, baby talk, and treats. "I don't like making an animal uncomfortable in order to do something," she says. Then she shifts to her Rally Obedience group, the only one on the Island - proud owners, trial drills, and serious business.
But for the first hour in the large open studio behind Woodland Center in Vineyard Haven with its blue mat flooring, the puppy owners, separated by low curtained partitions, will put their dogs through the signal, action, reward exercises as explained and demonstrated by Ms. Ogden.
"Be an anchor rather than a bungee cord," Ms. Ogden tells the pet owners, explaining that their pups should not be allowed to pull when walking on a leash.
A certified dog trainer, as well as a rescue and recovery handler, she stops often to interpret what the pups are thinking: "Hey, what are you doing?" when distracted by being touched to get a desired action; and "Ah, a light bulb moment," when Ruby wags her tail.
For Ms. Ogden, it's not about goals, it's about process: "I tell people that this is going to be a commitment on your part. It's not: you're going to do this for six weeks and your dog is going to be fine. You're going to be getting some core skills down and then you will be working on pressing these skills with your dog for the remainder of your dog's life."
The morning's puppy training concluded, the partitions are removed, and members of the Rally Obedience group straggle in - Katie Upson and Dundee, her Scotty, Julia Humphries and Xochi, her golden retriever, Susanna Sturgis and Traveler, her malamute, Eric Bates and Willow, his Australian shepherd, and Ms. Ogden, with Nolan, her Australian shepherd. (Regular member Valerie Becker and Toby, her Cairn terrier, were away.)
The long-time group quietly waits for Ms. Ogden to create the course to be followed by setting out numbered signs, each identifying a different action for the dogs to execute. The dogs seem to know it's time to get down to business; no jumping, yipping, sniffing around. "When [the dogs] come in here, they know they're here to work," Ms. Upson says.
They are preparing to participate at a Rally trial being held in Franklin, an event that requires the dog and its owner (or family member) to walk as a team through a course set with 10 to 15 posted signs for the dogs to execute: left and right turns, half circles, spirals, and various heeling maneuvers.
Rally Obedience, a sport developed by Charles "Bud" Kramer in 2000, is now recognized by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers and the American Kennel Club.
At the Novice level (the first in three earned titles) owners walk along with their dogs on leashes. Moving at a brisk pace, they are permitted to verbally praise and encourage, but not touch their dogs or reward them with treats. It's a teamwork exercise and anything harsh or intimidating is penalized. Those who score enough points gain Novice standing and go on from there.
Once the numbered signs are arranged on the mat, one-by-one the owners take the first turns, walking the course by themselves as if with imaginary dogs. This is not playtime, although it is designed to be fun; nor is it cuddle and coo, although it is a demonstration of bonding.
"They simply enjoy training their dogs," Ms. Ogden explains. "They're not out to get ribbons on the wall - that's tangible and nice - but they simply like the experience of working with their dogs."
A lifelong summer resident (her father is a native) who worked with Gus Ben David at Felix Neck since the '70s, Ms. Ogden moved to the Vineyard 1981. In addition to her work with dogs and her participation in Dukes County Search and Rescue, she did the illustrated Martha's Vineyard bird map in the 2008 book "Vineyard Birds II" by Susan Whiting and Barbara Pesch.
Ms. Ogden credits her work at Positive Reward with influencing her dealings with people in general. "You sort of look at situations and decide why people are reacting the way they are," she says, and the subject seems to slide back to dog training: "What I find most rewarding is when I have someone suddenly recognize that their dog is making conscious choices ... the dog is figuring out what works."