Saturday, November 21, 2009

What is drive and how does it relate to ring stress?

This past week at the ASCA National Specialty I spent a lot of time thinking and talking about "drive." I'm planning to breed Sinco to a dog who has not competed in any official performance event. I was asked "does he have drive?" and "does he play with toys?" and "is he fast?" I had to think about all of this quite a bit.

How does one assess "drive" in an adult dog that hasn't been trained or reinforced for doing things fast? or for playing with toys? For that matter, how does one assess "drive" in an 8 week old puppy?

I first gave a lot of thought to the puppies I've personally had under my roof. I've had puppies I picked because they were cute and the "last one", because the breeder said it was the "pick" of the litter, because they were really outgoing and fearless, because they were the best choice out of two and because the puppy picked me. I've had experienced breeders, experienced agility competitors and experienced dog people help me pick puppies for agility and I've made inexperienced choices too. I've looked at dozens of litters of puppies over the years and I've been asked to help pick puppies for various people. I reflected a lot this past week on what are the most important qualities for both parents and puppies to have. I've been reading some articles and discussions about puppy raising and breeding since I've decided to breed Sinco last spring.

First of all what are the qualities of the temperament that we as agility competitors are really looking for in a dog?

1. Self-confidence: this can represent itself as fearlessness, outgoingness and resilience.

2. Sociability with people: desires to interact with people and seeks out people.

3. Biddability: ease with with the dog can be taught and willingness to be a teammate.
4. Quickness: quick to learn and assimilate information, quick to move and body awareness and agileness.

5.  Determination: whether it is determination to go faster, determination to be right or determination to do the job.  This requires focus.

After a lot of thought about this I really believe that "drive" boils down to these five aspects. "Drive" is not just about speed in my mind. When we think of humans who are driven they are goal oriented and determined to do something, so determination is a part of it. This requires intelligence and self-confidence. The quickness is both in mental and physical aspects. If a puppy is missing any one of these five aspects I think their success in agility with a human teammate could require more work to develop it in the puppy.

I've had or worked with puppies who were missing one or more of these qualities. A puppy who lacks self-confidence is a fairly obvious one with regard to agility because these puppies may be more fearful of agility obstacles and/or fearful of new places like trial sites.  However agility training in and of itself can increase a dog's confidence when done properly.

The puppy missing sociability with people is a very hard one to develop a good working relationship with even though it may play with toys like crazy.  I've had a puppy who was very toy motivated but really had very little interest in me and in working with me as a teammate.  This puppy was in it for himself and not really as a team.  He was extremely easy to distract.

Biddability is really important for agility.  A dog has to want to be trained, want to work with people and want to follow instructions in order to be a good teammate in agility.  There is not a lot of room for independent thinking in agility.

The puppy who is lacking quickness in learning may have trouble generalizing to new environments, may take longer to learn complex behaviors and/or may have trouble thinking independently when necessary. Lastly a puppy who is not quick will have a hard time keeping up with the fast pace of agility.

Determination is something that is seen in hunting dogs when hunting, herding dogs when working stock and any dog doing something they really love to do.  This is an important aspect of drive in agility dogs.  Agility is a man-made dog sport so there is not an instinctual desire to do it, dogs have to develop positive associations with it.  Some dogs discover early on that it is a sport they love.

These are all characteristics that can be present in an older dog and can be present without the need for specific "toy drive."  I saw all of these qualities in the dog I plan to breed to Sinco.  I also saw that he did these things in a novel environment and with people he had just met.  What is an unknown to some extent is how would this dog do in a high intensity performance environment such as a large agility trial.  He has done well at smaller 4-H trials.  I have yet to figure out what are predictors of success in a trial setting.  There are the handler considerations - their stress level, experience level and confidence level.  But if those are removed from the equation or made equal such as the case with my dogs then how do you determine which puppies will excel in the competitive arena?

Out of these characteristics I think self-confidence, biddability and determination are the most important aspects. I look at Sinco. She was a very confident puppy - she exhibited all four of these characteristics before she came to live with me. She knew she wanted my attention and she figured out how to escape out of ex-pens to come look for me, she would scream loudly when I left in order to get my attention, she would seek out interactions with people, especially me and she had a lot of confidence in doing things. As she grew her confidence changed. She wants to be right and has a strong determination to be "right." This desire to be right is about biddability.  She wants to be a team player.  When she is not sure how to be "right" she will lose some self-confidence however it is very easy to get it back. The more confident she becomes in herself the better she performs. I saw that at a young age when she would sit faster and better each time when she truly understood what I wanted her to do. That determination is a large component of drive but the underlying aspect is confidence. She was confident when she knew she was right.  From the very beginning many experienced trainers described Sinco as "high drive."  It is interesting because she is not what I would call an "operant" dog - she does not like "trial and error" learning at all.  She wants me to show her what I want and then she will do it.  Luring works well for her.  So how a dog learns is not correlated with their speed in agility.  Sinco has determination, she likes to "do stuff" and she likes to do it well whether that means doing it fast, doing it accurately or doing it well.

When I look at Tay I see something a bit different. She learns very rapidly and she loves to do things with me and she can move very quickly. She can offer behaviors in very rapid sequence and she can be very aware of what behavior is being clicked and when.  She is very quick mentally and physically.  She can come across as appearing to be high drive but she doesn't have the focus and determination that helps to maintain that.  Her energy level is very high.  Self-control is very difficult for her and even though she is very outgoing and very fearless she seems to have low self-esteem. She is anxious when left alone and she has trouble sitting still which interferes with her ability to be a good team player. The breeder selected her for me because she was one of the tougher puppies in the litter. She is very resilient and she is not a soft dog in the usual sense. She needs a firm hand in training because she can lose focus.  However she is prone to stressing in trial environments which makes competition very difficult for her.  She learned agility very quickly and she loves doing it.  However in trial settings she has trouble doing those behaviors which require self-control and she can freeze or shut down when asked to do those in competition. 

Then there is Feisty.  She is a very quick dog both mentally and physically, she is very biddable when she is in the mood, she is very self-confident and she has a lot of determination.   She is very willing to work with the few people that she trusts.  Overall she likes people as long as they have a postive attitude.  She has a lot of speed out there on agility courses which do not include the table.  She likes to make people laugh and she likes to turn negative energy into positive energy.  The way in which she does this is not always the way I would like her to do it.  Is she a team player 100% of the time, no she is not, but when she is then she is really fun.  If she has a different agenda then there is no changing her mind.  In her mind she does answer to a higher power. 

When I evaluated all three of these dogs as puppies I knew they had all of the individual characteristics of my idea of "drive."   However what I have not yet figured out how to evaluate as young puppies is how well they will handle stress like that of a trial environment which contains a lot of negative energy.  Many dogs are very sensitive to negative energy.  Now Sinco is very soft and I just look at her and she will melt and yet she is very able to tune out the negative energy of a trial and tune in to the fun.  Tay and Feisty are more resilient and it can take a stronger correction for things to get them to respond and neither of them ever melt or submit the way Sinco does.  So that response is not an indicator. 

I've seen a number of dogs do things on course that do not make sense at the time however it garners a laugh from the handler, the judge and/or the audience.  Don't underestimate the power of that transformation of energy.  There are a lot of dogs out there like Feisty who will do things because it gets a positive response from others at the trial.  That can be very reinforcing to dogs who are sensitive to energy levels and energy types.  I truly believe this is at the heart of the table problems I have with Feisty.  Judges often smile or laugh when they see her stop and dance around avoiding the table by staying 3-4 feet away from it.  She is about transforming their energy and not about mine.  I know this because I was able to turn the energy around a bit at a small trial when Feisty was doing all kinds of odd things one day.  At the end of the day I asked people around the ring to be totally quiet and not respond emotionally to anything she did except for a perfectly clean run.  After a couple of runs like that she was running clean runs by the next day.  Now if I could influence all judges and exhibitors at trials like that it would be great.  I also think this is what allows her to be a great obedience dog.  Obedience judges just light up when they see her and how cute she is.  Feisty thrives on this.  The one time where our run was just awful was the one time the judge did not smile at us and the worse the run got the more disgusted the judge got with us and Feisty just shut down totally.  So I really believe she responds more to how everyone else around us responds than to me.  I have to work hard to break into that mood of hers. 

I have yet to figure out what it is about crossing over the line between the warm-up area and the ring that causes Tay to totally check-out.  At this point if I try to ask for a stay at the start line I can't even get through to her to make her sit.  If I don't run with her from the start line she can't function.  However this stress affects her ability to do weave entries and dogwalk contacts because they involve self control which she totally loses when we enter the ring.  At the warm-up jump she can sit and stay and I can run around her and jump up and down and she doesn't leave.  So I'm in the process of trying to figure out how to bridge the gap from the warm-up jump to the start line.  I have finally been able to teach her a stay and to do proofing of it to the point where I feel confident she understands the concept.  Until recently I was not sure she really understood the concept.

So I would really like to figure out a predictor in 8 week old puppies for which ones will stress in a trial environment and which ones won't.  I'm not sure that taking them to novel environments is an indicator.  The first time I met Feisty was in a brand new place and she ran around like she owned the place.  Tay very quickly adapted to her new home and did well on the plane ride home in a sherpa bag. 

All of these dogs came to trials from about 10-12 weeks of age onward so they were all very familiar with the environment from a very early age.  All of these puppies were well socialized before 8 - 10 weeks of age.  All of these puppies were viewed as performance prospects by their respective breeders. 

If anyone out there has ideas on how to evaluate how a puppy will handle stress at trials as an adult please let me know.  I continue to ponder this question as I plan to breed Sinco and wonder how those puppies will turn out.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

What's the rush?

It has been a month since my last entry - time just flies by. A lot has happened in the last month. Now I have some down time as I transition into the winter season and wind up the outdoor training season. I've had more time to spend training Spring who is now 16 months old. It is interesting that I was just thinking that it has been good for Spring to have been laid up quite a bit during his adolesence because it actually gave me more time to work on his flatwork skills. He has probably had more training on turns, stays, following my hands and sends to targets than any of my other dogs. He just started low teeter training and low dogwalk/aframe training and he still have barriers on his weave poles. However because of all of the flatwork he has done he is now doing serpentines, 270s, wraps, 180s and straight lines with ease and speed. Adding the jumps to the flatwork was such an easy transition for him because he knew what to do between obstacles.

Stacy Peardot-Goudy talks about this in her most recent blog entry as well. It is hard to go slowly with the young dogs and spend time on these foundation skills but it so makes everything else easier. I also agree with Stacy, if you do that and you don't teach them the full obstacles then there is no danger of trialing a dog too early. I learned this with Sinco who had trouble with the teeter so she didn't do standard courses until last fall when she was about 27 months old. It also helps to wait for the obstacle training until they are older - they learn it so much better then. If we try to train 6-12 month old puppies about doing full obstacles we almost always end up having to retrain it later. Their minds and bodies are not really equipped for that kind of training and precision. Time is much better spent on training attention, stays, turns, following hands and speed cues. These are the kinds of things that puppies learn well and when taught first will stick with them for life. They are also much easier for us to train and we are less likely to "screw it up." It also gives me a lot of time to get to know the puppy and to then to make decisions about how I want to proceed with the contact and weave training. Knowing the drive, personality, physical abilities and mental stamina of your dog is important before you embark on training obstacles that require both speed and accuracy as well as balance and coordination.

It is also so important to train your dog to follow YOUR hand cues. If you don't have a training method in place when you start then your dog has to figure things out on the fly. If you are always changing your handling cues because someone told you to try something different then your dog is always a step behind trying to figure out what you are doing. Being consistent from the start with your young dog and your training will pay off in the long run.

I've started Spring on his contact training, after a lot of thought and reading and watching what others are doing, with a modified version of Sylvia Trkman's contact training method. I made a wide board about 8 feet long and 3 feet wide and laid it flat on the ground. I put a small hoop on the end of the board and then an empty target about 10-15 feet from the end. After a couple of sessions he was running down the board and driving out to the target. Then I raised the board up a few inches on to a table top. He continued to race down the board and out to the target. The target helped him to keep driving ahead regardless of where I am. We did that for awhile and then I moved him to a low dogwalk - about 18" or so off the ground. I backchained it by having him start in the middle of the down plank and go through the hoop to the target which was again about 10 - 12 feet from the end of the board. It didn't take long for him to be able to do the entire low dogwalk. We are staying at this stage for awhile. He is getting faster and faster on it all the time. Running contacts are much harder to train and take more space and more time than a two on/two off if you want it to be a consistent behavior. Feisty is almost 4 years old and I am just now starting to trust her running dogwalk contacts. It has been a lot of hard work. The aframe was much easier for her to do. However Spring is having a harder time with the aframe and I'm having to go even slower with that obstacle. But I have lots of time to work on it. Sinco and Windy were over two years old before they began serious trialing and when they did they were ready. I'd rather go slowly and make sure things are well understood by the dog rather than push him too fast.


Monday, August 10, 2009

Tay Update

Tay and I have had a second trial in a row where the dog I have fun with in training showed up at the trial!

Last weekend at the ASCA trial I was prepared to do short courses and to work on weaves and contacts. On both rounds of jumpers she was great - I didn't support one jump and she missed it but otherwise she was focused and fast. This was in Leatherdale arena where she has been the most stressed in the past - she has even started shaking in the middle of the ring.

In the first round of regular she was a bit wired and she was missing her dogwalk contact. I was trying to get her to stop 2on/2off. She finally came close on the third attempt and we left to a party. I was amazed that she kept trying in a trial - in the past she would have gone off sniffing and been too stressed to repeat it. On round two of regular she did better and we left early. We didn't get to work on the weaves until the second day. A couple of the gambles were going to be too hard for her - involving weaves or aframes and we just skipped those gambles.

On Sunday we were able to train the weave poles a bit more - repeating the sequence before the weaves. She did great the second time through them and we left to a party. She earned one gamblers leg on Sunday with a fun tunnel gamble.

This past weekend at the CPE trial she ran so well at Soccer Blast. She earned quite a few Qs and she played fast and focused with me. Sometimes she was a bit sticky on the start line on Sat but by Sunday she started with me right way. She only went off sniffing once and that was when the dogwalk seemed odd to her on Sunday and she went up and came back down. The judge was great and let us repeat the dogwalk after we fixed it. She was fine then. Tay even did 6 weave poles on the first try for the first time in a trial in several weeks.

At the ASCA trial the weather was nice enough that I was able to keep her in the van during the trial. I thought it would be less stressful for her. This past weekend it was too hot to leave her in the van so she was crated inside near the back of the building. I was amazed that she was actually napping in her crate. In the past she would pace and circle and be standing almost all the time in her crate. She seemed very relaxed. It was such a relief. She also *walked* - and I mean WALKED around the trial area - normally she is such a bundle of energy and can not calmly walk at a trial. Yet when I was ready to start the run she was right there with me running full speed! She finally beat Sinco in time and/or points in some classes!!! Now I've known all along that she can be very fast and can when she puts her mind to it run faster than Sinco - few people have seen it or believe me but I know because I run both of them! She also did a lot of collected turns which she does in training and in the past could not do in trials!

So I had a blast running my Tay Tay this past weekend!

So you may ask what do I think brought about this transformation?

I think it is a combination of things and I believe the combination is the key.

1. I am much more vocal running her and praising her a LOT for things. If I see her head start to drop to sniff I immediately say something in a loud happy voice and she would pick up her nose and keep running.
2. She started wearing her custom made collar that has a LOT of Jade stones on it last weekend at the ASCA trial. She just wears it at trials and I take it off right before she runs and put it back on after she runs - she usually wants it on and will put her head into it. Jade stones are known for providing protection from negative energy and spirits and are self clearing.
3. I sprayed "Florida water" in the van at the ASCA trial and in our crating area and on me. It is a special water created by Shamans in Peru that provides protection from negativity and it smells wonderful. I immediately feel relaxed when I smell it. Tay actually doesn't mind it and she is very sensitive to most essential oils.
4. I once again abandoned the 2o/2o dogwalk criteria for her when she started to collect and trot through the contact zone. Would I like it to be faster and to be less managed by me - yes! But that will take more time and practice with her. For her, as it was with Sonic, it is too hard for her to do a running aframe and a stopping dogwalk. I've seen dogs who can handle different criteria on the different obstacles but it is a hard concept for many dogs. Tay has to really be thinking hard to stop on the dogwalk which she was originally taught and I've asked her to do many times in practice. But trials are stressful for her and it is very hard for to concentrate to do it. It just isn't automatic for her enough to do it under stress. How many of us can think clearly under stress?
5. Lastly the other thing that has happened which can not be discounted in how it may have impacted her is that she had surgery 10 days before the ASCA trial to remove an implode sebaceous cyst from her neck. She had drains in her neck for a few days. Going to the vet is very stressful and it was an emergency situation. She may have undergone some sort of change under anesthesia.

Now she will have a break from trialing until Labor Day weekend. This will be good for her. I plan to not run her in AKC at all or USDAA standard for several months - I'm going to wait until I am sure her confidence in trials is here to stay and her weave pole performance improves in trials. In the meantime I will use ASCA and NADAC trials for training it and run her in CPE trials where there are a lot of classes where weaves can be avoided or where there are only 6 poles.

I had more fun running her at these past trials because she was RUNNING and she was trying really hard to stay focused - she was the fun dog I have in training! To see her run with joy and not stress was so rewarding and she was so proud of herself too! I could tell she was having more fun than she has had in a long time at a trial.

Progress! Woohoo!!!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Frustration Tolerance and Stress

I've had a lot of thoughts about Tay lately. Her performance at trials has been troublesome and such a contrast to the dog I have in training (at different places) and at seminars. It has been taking me back to my days with Sonic and how he stressed about weave poles in trials.

She was the kind of puppy who was "easy" to train. My first dog like this. She learned almost everything very quickly and was eager to do more. She loves clicker training and while she is moving constantly when I'm shaping behaviors with her, she still knows what she was doing when I clicked. She could be a little circus dog. She learned to skateboard, roll buckets and balls, put her feet on anything - moving or not.

At trials Tay has been running between pole one and two of the weaves and then putting her nose on the ground and running around. If I repeat the weaves with my happy voice (thinking I'm de-stressing her) she usually does them perfectly. I've been doing AKC and USDAA lately where I can not repeat obstacles before the weaves. I've been concerned that I'm teaching her that I will "fix" the weaves for her in a trial. (Been there and made that mistake with my first Border Collie many years ago.)

She will sometimes go wide around obstacles and have her nose on the ground looking like she is sniffing in a stressed manor. She has frozen on the table and won't sit or lie down quickly and sometimes not want to get on it at all.

She has also been launching her aframe contact which is not as bothersome because I know her running contacts are a "work in progress" and will always require some management. She was taught a 2on/2off on the dogwalk which morphed into a running dogwalk via a quick release. The aframe was taught as a running aframe from the start but no one method seemed to work for her. This has been her weakest area of learning and yet she still seemed to gain an understanding of what was expected fairly easily. Her weaves however have been stellar in training.

So what could be causing these problems?

1. Lack of frustration tolerance. One of the things I've come to realize is that she has a very low frustration tolerance. Since she learned so quickly she never really had any extended "frustration" or stress in learning something new. She didn't really make a lot of mistakes as a puppy so she didn't need to be corrected much at all. However she loses focus at trials which causes her to miss cues and make more mistakes than she does in training situations. So I am theorizing that one aspect of the problem is that she stresses because she is not used to making mistakes like that and doesn't know how to recover. My other dogs have had some training issue to overcome where they have had to take time to work through it and have learned how to cope with struggles in training in their own way.

Lack of focus. I've observed that Tay seems to do best with courses that have more complex sequences of obstacles. The novice courses at trials have too much open space where she can get easily distracted. I talked to someone who was judging at one of our trials who knows her littermates out in California. I asked him how they were running and if there were any similarities with Tay. There are - he told me that the handler/breeder of her sister talks a LOT when running her sister and he also gets on her case when she loses focus. This handler is an excellent distance handler and is very quiet and soft spoken. So to hear that he is louder with her sister than with his other dogs was interesting. So I have tried talking more to Tay on course at trials and really keeping a very happy voice. It seemed to help somewhat.

3. Lack of self-control. Tay has some mild separation anxiety. At trials if crated indoors I've noticed that she doesn't seem to rest very well, especially before the first few runs. She gets very anxious if I take out any of the other dogs instead of her and spins in her crate. My other dogs will merely lift their heads to see if it is their turn or not. She wants it to be her turn all the time. She doesn't have a lot of natural self control.

What things could I do to improve these "problem areas"?

1. Proofing. I did more proofing in general and with the weaves in particular so they would be harder in training than at a trial. I placed open bags of treats so that they were leaning on the weave poles and she weaved beautifully - this is from an incredibly food oriented dog. I've tossed toys and done things with my body and she will stay in the weaves. I've had toys and bags of treats laying around the agility field while training her and she ignores them. I take her to a group class and she handles distractions of people acting like judges and ring stewards well. I've been taking her to group classes for a couple of years to help her deal with these distractions.

2. Minimize the situation. I've pulled her from AKC runs until I can figure out how to get her more focused and motivated at a trial. I've lentered her in trials such as ASCA and NADAC where I can repeat sequence and train to some extent.

3. Additional work. I've been trying to come up with additional "jobs" for her. Perhaps teaching her some new things will help with her frustration tolerance. My other young dogs have at least two performance type jobs. Tay has lacked the self control to do well in obedience and she has been slow to turn on to livestock for herding. I read Silvia Trkman's website for the first time (I had been meaning to read it for ages now). I was inspired from the first page alone because of her enthusiasm for obedience and for trick training.
Tay loves to do tricks and to be able to set a goal of teaching her 100 tricks really excited me. I have wanted to teach her more tricks but I need a goal of some sort - she is not a candidate for commercials because she is too dark so I needed some other reason.

4. Reduce her exposure to stimuli. I unexpectedly was able to recreate her trial behavior in training this week. I've been trying to do more with her and really try to find other "jobs" for her to do. I took her to Prior Lake for my classes down there and let her "hang out" with me. I worked on tricks during our down time and I worked on rewarding her for hanging out quietly (very hard for her to do). I usually practice in Prior Lake with her every week and she does very well - she is fast and focused. I've done weave proofing there and she has been great. This evening, she started out very anxious and antsy and then she settled down! I was very happy with how calm she was hanging out while I taught the classes. After the last class I wanted to run her to see how she would do after hanging with me for 3 hours. I had hoped she would be very fast and focused having to wait for three hours for her "turn" to play and having worked on "hanging out." To my surprise she was distracted right off of the second obstacle and I was able to get her back and restarted. Then she did what she does at trials and went between pole one and two in the weaves and put her nose on the ground to sniff. I was very surprised - it is the first time she has ever done that in a training situation.
So I got to thinking and wondered if the hanging around all day at trials is contributing to her stress. This is not uncommon for many dogs. I am considering that she needs to be more isolated from my other dogs and agility at trials so she doesn't become overstimulated to the point of losing focus.

5. Be more interactive on course from the beginning. I took her to her group class later in the week and had her out for the whole class hoping to recreate her stress behaviors. I also worked a stay at the start line which does increase her stress. The first time through she was great through the weaves. I rewarded the weaves. Then I tried the sequence to the weaves again and she couldn't do them. After making my voice sound happier and happier and making it easier and easier she finally got the weaves so we went on and then she launched the aframe contact. I had her redo the aframe and she launched again so I put a jump after it about 5-6 feet from the bottom. She did the aframe well and I rewarded. When I went to move the jump away so we could do the rest, she got distracted and I couldn't get her re-focused no matter how happy I sounded. So I gave her a time-out. I was starting to wonder who was training whom.
She seems to like agility but I really wondered if she was using the sniffing as a way to change my behavior or was she really stressing because of not knowing how to cope with a mistake. It occurred to me that this was like the behavior of one of my student's dogs but with a twist. I have seen an Aussie belonging to one of my students do amazing off courses that were not at all handler induced or miss entire obstacles at trials and then proceed to run the rest of the course fast and focused. The handler in that case admits she gets very stressed at trials and my theory is that the dog learned that the stress was gone once he made a "mistake" on the course. The handler would then relax because the pressure was off. This was a team that would often qualify in the classes that "didn't matter" but could not qualify in the ones that "did matter." I wondered if Tay was trying to train me to lighten up and to be more verbal because that is exactly what I would do when she would seem stressed. So I need to work on being more verbal on course and working on anticipating when I might lose her so I can be proactive. My default is to be very quiet when handling my dogs so I tend to get louder when I see she has lost focus.

6. Adding meaningful consequences for missed cues. At the group class this week, I trained the other girls and then came back to Tay. I did a short sequence and she did the one weave pole and went off sniffing. I stopped and took her by the collar and wanted to determine what to do because I had decided that taking her off the course was not meaningful to her. All of us in the class were in agreement that Tay should have some different consequences for not weaving. I also think she needed to start learning how to handle her mistakes. I weaved her on-leash through the poles, a correction that I have used occasionally with other dogs. She still tried to miss the poles but was not able to do so. Then I removed the leash and repeated the tunnel before the weaves and she did the weaves perfectly and I rewarded with a big party. We started at that point and finished the rest of the course with a very fast and focused dog.

In sum, I am going to handle her differently from my other dogs in that I will be more vocal throughout the course with her. I am more vocal with Feisty than with Sinco but I need to be more vocal evenly throughout the entire course and not just when a problem occurs. I will continue to do proofing with her to make training situations harder than trials and I am going to set her up for success by picking and choosing where I trial her until we start to see improvement in her demeanor on course at trials. I am also going to try to keep her by herself at trials so she is not aware of when I'm running the other dogs to help lower her stimulation level. I am going to teach her to do more things to help with her frustration tolerance and to help increase her focus and attention. Lastly the consequences will be different in training for mistakes that she makes when I'm confident that she understands what is expected. I never introduce corrections before I truly believe a dog understands what is expected.

Once again I have a dog pushing me out of my comfort zone and in need of different training and handling techniques than my other dogs. The alternative is to not trial her at all and I'm not ready to go that route just yet. She is a very fun dog with a lot of potential to do well in agility.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Is my dog really focused?

Focus? Is my dog really focused on the task at hand? How do I know if they are?

We as humans tend to try to "multi-task" and do more than one thing at the same time. How well we can do more than one thing is debatable. Our dogs are capable of doing the same thing to some degree.

There are signs that we can easily recognized when our dog has lost focus - they go off sniffing, they run over to something interesting or they take off running 90 mph in large circles. However the times that we don't often recognize are when the dog is still doing obstacles in sequence. The dog may be sniffing as they are doing them or they may be looking over their shoulder as they do them or they even may be looking ahead but their mind is elsewhere.

Having just competed in an AKC trial where my Pyr Shep by all accounts appeared to be focused on agility however to a very keen observer she was most often not totally focused on the job of running agility. On our first standard run of the weekend she was running quite well until we got to the table. She slammed on the brakes two feet from the table. I felt the judge's presence behind me and knew instantly that she and he had made eye contact. It took me three tries to get her on the table. This is a recurring problem that became very bad last year at an AKC trial with a male judge who had a loud voice. This time, once I got her on the table - I just asked her to get on it - we left the ring and had treats to reward her herculean effort to work through a fear and get on the table.

The next day in that same ring with the same judge on a standard course she ran slower but fine until the table again. She went up and put one foot on it and then backed away from it. It only took two tries to get her on it and she went down easily. I decided to keep going on the course this time and she flew through the rest of the course and we had a party. On day three the male judge was in the JWW ring and we ran there first. She was distracted on the start - I could tell her mind was elsewhere. She came off the start line slowly and then as we turned toward the weaves she veered off them as if there was a strong magnetic field on the weaves pushing her away from them. I knew instantly that her mind was on the judge. Now Feisty is a very interesting dog, she has a lot of concerns in her life but she also likes to work through her fears. I've said all along with her that she doesn't like to be afraid - she likes to feel tough and be in control. So as we were renegotiating the weaves (I don't like her to think it is OK to avoid an obstacle - I made that mistake once and it took a while for me to train her that she must do each obstacle) she was wanting to approach him albeit reluctantly. I knew she was concerned about him. He was being quiet and still. I tried to get between him and her and help her out. She did the weaves but then as the course curved back toward him she squirted away from him again. I just kept running as if the course went that way.

My point in sharing all of this is that so often we think a dog is focused on us just because they are looking in our direction at the start line. However just like humans we can look at each other when one is talking but our minds can be elsewhere. A keen observer or one that knows their dog well can tell the difference. I know when Feisty is slow to come off the start line that it is not a hearing problem but a listening problem. Her mind is not really listening for my release but is thinking of something else. She scans the ring and scopes out what equipment is out there and who and where the judge is. In Feisty's case stress and lack of focus are often combined.

I saw the same things in Tay all weekend, she was not focused on the tasks at hand however hers was not tied to stress as much as Feisty's. Even though I run with her at the start line I can tell when she is not focused on starting with me. She is the queen of going through the motions and looking like she is doing agility when in reality she is not paying attention to my cues and she will turn wide or miss an obstacle. Hitting the weaves at speed requires a lot of concentration for green dogs and she could not handle it all weekend long. At home with minimal distractions she can do weaves with speed from anywhere. Trials are very distracting for her. She can do weaves in group classes and with set-up distractions that I create. I'm finding I have to be more vocal and I have to make my signals more exaggerated at trials than I do in training in order to keep her attention. It is not in my comfort zone.

I realized that last year when I pulled Tay off the start line for not staying and when I corrected her for not stopping on her dogwalk contact that I created stress on those two things. I did so because she had lost focus and didn't realize what she was supposed to do. I should have, in retrospect, addressed her lack of focus/attention instead of lack of performance of a behavior. I can see now when she is not focused on the task at hand and I've been able to shout at her (again not in my comfort zone) and I've seen her visibly startle and then she performs the behavior. That tells me that she really was not with me thinking about the task at hand but her mind had wandered off. It also explains why she often will take tunnels way out of the way on a course.

I used to think Tay may be suffering from ring stress but I believe it is lack of focus. There have been a few times when she has been stressed due to other factors (scary smells etc.) and I can tell she is stressed because she has "whale eye" when running and often she will visibly shake. But when she is not focused her nose will be on the ground when running or she will be looking at obstacles instead of at me for direction. She does best on complicated courses where I have to keep moving and doing a lot of crosses - it keeps her attention. The wide open flowing courses (of the lower levels in agility) give her too much time to let her mind wander. She is talented though and she can do long sequences by going through the motions but I can tell she is not giving me 100% of her attention.

Tay and I ran two days of a seminar (half days actually) and she ran great - she was fast and focused. I know she has the skills to do agility and she is well trained for the game. Something about trials causes her to be distracted. Many years ago I used to be a nervous wreck showing my dogs but since then I have learned that I can survive just about anything that happens in the ring. I think just about everything and anything that can go wrong on course has happened to me and I've survived. So I really don't worry about things at trials. I try to be the best I can for my dogs. It is a continuing challenge to read my dogs and I wish I could anticipate how they will be before we step to the line instead of having to adapt to the situation as we run. So far I have not found any precursor clues to let me know how focused my dogs will be before we step to the line. But just like us, their moods can change the minute they step into the ring. They feel the energy from everyone around them and even if I'm not stressed there are plenty of stressed people out there. The judge could be stressed, the ring crew could be stressed, the exhibitors waiting are stressed, the dog that just ran could have been stressed and left a trail of stress pheromones - many things are possible that are beyond my control.

At this point all I can do is know the signs of lack of focus versus stress in my dogs. Sometimes the two are related and sometimes they are not. We have to learn to become excellent observers of our dog's behaviors and of our own behaviors.

I recommend if you have a dog that performs inconsistently at trials that you keep a detailed journal of every run at a trial. Feisty has kept a detailed journal and my goal is to keep one that is more detailed than hers so I can learn to recognize patterns of behavior and signs that will impact her behavior on course. I'm slower to learn than she is about these things. This weekend I came one step closer to the solving the puzzle known as Feisty and the puzzle known as Tay.


Monday, June 8, 2009

Herding and Learning styles of dogs

I consider myself still having a lot to learn about herding even though technically I've been doing it for many years. When I first started with Leysha I really didn't have a clue what I was doing. I didn't have a chance to go for regular lessons and at the time I didn't have access to sheep on a regular basis. I knew I had a dog who knew a lot more about it than I did. We some how managed to earn our ASCA started sheep and ducks titles with very little training, in retrospect. We earned our last sheep leg when I opened the take pen and the sheep used me for a launching pad. I seriously hurt my back and became afraid of take pens after that.

When we moved out to Stacy I had use of my neighbor's sheep for the first year or so and then I got a few of my own for awhile. Then Nancy bought some sheep and wanted to keep them there. Having access to sheep I learned a little more - I spent more time observing sheep behavior. I also got some ducks.

Then Nancy introduced me to Marc Christopher clinics. I audited my first one and learned a ton. I finally started to figure out what we were doing. I had read some books on herding but it didn't click until Marc drew pictures and demonstrated things. While his methods are very different from what most Aussie people use I have found that the technique of using a line to help the dog be correct in learning flanks and learning walk-ups has been invaluable. Instead of using a line just to keep a dog under control, the line is used as a training tool. It helps slow things down for the people and for the dog. Being able to work with Nancy on teaching foundation herding skills using March's methods to Sinco has been great.

For my "thinking dog" Sinco, the line method of training has made a huge difference. She likes to be shown what to do and doesn't like trial and error learning. A lot of the Aussie training methods, of which I learned more about this past weekend, seem to use trial and error learning. But unlike a clicker that marks the correct behavior, in herding the wrong behavior is corrected by the handler/trainer putting pressure on the dog. I think this would have been a very hard way for Sinco to have learned her flanks. Using a line and helping her to be right and releasing pressure when she is right seems to have worked well for her. This may be in large part to her learning style. She doesn't like to be wrong and she likes to be shown how to be right.

Now that we are progressing in her our herding training I see that there is a need, maybe just for my dog but I suspect for other dogs out there too, for a combined training method. Again like in agility there are different learning styles and there are different ways to train things - the same is true in herding. We are starting to use some of the training techniques the Aussie folks use with Sinco to help her learn to cover her sheep. When she knows what she is supposed to do and a correction is given she responds readily to it. Just as in agility, when she is corrected for making a mistake in a behavior that I know she knows how to do she can handle it. However being corrected when she doesn't know how to be right is very stressful for her.

I think there is room for lots of training techniques and the one size fits all approach just doesn't always work.

The other thing that I've been learning about in stock dogs is that there is a trend favoring the "tougher" stock dogs. I think part of the idea is that these dogs will handle cattle better but I also think part of it is that they will handle correction based training better. I've learned that many of the older Aussie lines from which Sinco comes (on her dam's side) had softer temperaments. Apparently many of the ranchers didn't know how to work with a softer dog even if that dog was keen on stock. So they bred away from these lines and are breeding for harder and harder dogs. When dogs are tougher on stock it means that they will need a handler/trainer who is equally or more tough. I've seen these dogs in agility and herding with people who are not up to training a dog like this. I know I've learned that I don't do well with a very hard dog. The sensitive dogs can still move stock and run fast in agility. It may take more finesse and more thoughtful training to get to that point. As many of you have seen Sinco in agility - she started out very slow and careful in her learning and now is running quite fast. I will say that she is not an easy dog to train and she may not have done well with a novice handler/trainer. Sensitive dogs are often not easy dogs to train either, they may not be very forgiving. A harder dog may be more forgiving but they can be harder to get a point across if they find things self rewarding.

I honestly think that a softer thinking dog can be a fine stock dog and can be just as tough on stock if trained properly. So much of moving stock is about the confidence and presence the dog has. The handler also has to have confidence in their dog too so that it goes down the leash to the dog.

I've had hard-headed Aussies and BCs and give me a softer dog any day - they are much more fun to train and do not require the 2 x 4 to get a point across. I'm not into physical violence :) If every training session is going to be a knock down drag out battle then it is not at all fun for me - I've been there and done that and it is just not enjoyable for me.

So knowing the kind of dog you like to work with is very important when selecting a dog. The kind of dog that works well with one person may not be the kind that works well for you. I know many people who do not do well at all with the softer dogs. Sometimes we have to try on different types of dogs before we find the kind we like to work with.

The main thing is that just because a dog is soft/sensitive doesn't mean that dog can't be fast and successful in agility or be tough enough to work stock.


Learning styles of dogs

Well it has been quite awhile since I've blogged. May was pretty much of a blur for me with all of the family stuff to do.

I just spent three days with Gail Winnick at a herding clinic in Wisconsin. It was very fun and a nice break from agility training.

Having read Stacy's blog many months ago about "Thinking dogs" versus "Doing dogs" and "Thinking-Doers" as she calls them I have really liked that way of looking at dogs. I was talking to a friend yesterday on my way home from the herding clinic and talking about how dogs have different learning styles just like people do. So I asked why do we feel the need for a "cookie-cutter" approach to dog training? We seem to recognize that people don't learn the same way so why should dogs?

I used to think (and I still do sometimes) that I would like to try to train different breeds of dogs from "different groups" such has sporting, hunting etc. so I could experience different learning styles of dogs. However as it turns out I have two dogs who are 10 weeks apart in age and the same breed with two completely different learning styles.

I discovered they were different early on when I was trying to teach them things as young puppies. I love to use the clicker when working with young puppies and to do a lot of shaping of behaviors. Tay, my black tri girl just loved the clicker. She could offer me behaviors at a rapid-fire pace as if to test my timing and miraculously she would know exactly which of the behaviors I had clicked. She was and still is very fun to teach new behaviors to. She just loves it. As a result I do have to be careful or she will offer me some of her favorites such as jump on any nearby object and sit. Not always a good thing. The down-side is that it has been extremely difficult to teach her to stay - being still is very hard for Tay.

However Sinco my little red girl had a really hard time with the clicker. The absence of a click seemed devastating to her. Both puppies were raised the same and I have never made an issue out of making a mistake. I always teach all my puppies that it is ok to make a mistake. However internally Sinco is very much of a thinker and she thinks making a mistake is just horrible - she wants to be right with every fiber of her being. So she would rather offer no behaviors than risk being wrong. At first I worried a lot about how she was learning but then I adapted. I started using luring. She loved it - I could show her what I wanted and she could be right. She is very smart and she is easy to train as long as you show her what you want. She was also very easy to train to stay.

Her breeder took her for awhile and was going to teach her to lie on the couch on her side or her back for a photo shoot. At first she tought it would be easy because she is clicker trained. However she soon discovered that Sinco did not respond well to that. As soon as she started luring her and showing her what she wanted then Sinco got into the training session. She did it perfectly for the photo shoot as it turned out.

Different dogs do learn differently. I have seen this in my students' dogs but often it is hard to tell how much of it is the dog's learning style and how much of it has to do with timing on the part of the trainer/handler. But in my side by side real-life situation I can say with confidence that dogs do learn differently even if they are the same breed and living in the same environment. I can also say that Sinco's littermate is much more interested in clicker training than Sinco is and that is two closely related dogs.

I believe that the "Thinking-doers" do best with clicker training. The "doers" are often too busy moving and not paying enough attention to what their body is doing to catch what the click is marking. The "Thinkers" are analyzing the situation or worrying about making a mistake to want to just "do" behaviors.

Just like with people, when we impose a particular training style on to a dog and it doesn't match the dog's learning style then we create stress for that dog. The more stress the dog experiences the less likely the dog is to learn anything.

In college I studied a lot about operant and classical conditioning and I worked with rats and pigeons quite a bit. I went to a mini-Bob Bailey chicken camp. I enjoy capturing behaviors when offered and I enjoy shaping behaviors however I appreciate that it is a difficult skill to acquire and I appreciate that not all dogs enjoy learning that way. It is too easy to blame the trainer for poor timing but it may be that the dog doesn't really respond to that kind of training.

The irony is that the idea was that using clicker training created "thinking dogs" because dogs could figure out how to get reinforced - solving the puzzle. I think that is an illusion. What it does is make dogs think it is their idea to earn the food reward. I think some dogs want that sense of control of the situation and operant conditioning does put the dog in control. This is very effective for many dogs. Many times when the trainer is slow to put a cue on a shaped behavior then the dog truly does establish control by exhibiting that behavior a lot of the time when it is not desired. There is a fine line between putting the cue on a behavior too soon and waiting too long.

With a dog who is worried about making a mistake it may be too much pressure to be in control of the training session. There may be a correlation between the dog's social status and the desire to control the training session. In the case of Sinco, she tends to be very submissive to people and dogs so she may have no designs on controlling any situation that involves learning new behaviors. Once she understands what is required of her then she is very willing to go do that behavior - like in agility and herding - she is not shy about stepping up to the plate for that work. But when we first started and she was first learning she was very cautious.

This is why I continue to offer training that is individualized. Even the beginner class is set up to progress at the rate of the dog and handler team. If a method doesn't seem to be working then we can try something different. I have preferred methods but often I've had to suggest different methods in order to help a dog and handler progress. Training handlers and dogs is very challenging because there are two learning styles involved as well as many other factors that can influence training progress. I have had many "teams" train contacts and/or weaves in ways that are different from the others in the class. The main thing is to try something long enough and well enough to see if it is working.

Annelise and the Aussie girls

Monday, April 6, 2009

To Refresh or retrain

I often hear people talking about retraining their agility dog to do this or to do that (usually some contact performance behavior). With the greater emphasis being placed on training foundation skills for our dogs in agility I hope that there will be more emphasis on "refreshing" a behavior rather than retraining it.

To clarify: in my mind retraining a behavior means that a new behavior is going to be trained that will replace a behavior that is no longer serving the team. For example if a running contact were taught originally on the contacts and that behavior has eroded into a leaping over the contact zone then one might want to "retrain" the dog to do a 2 on/2 off behavior with a stop on the bottom of the contact. That would be replacing a behavior that is no longer working for the team with a new behavior.

On the other hand "refreshing a behavior" means that a behavior that had been working well in lots of situations has started to deteriorate. This is usually due to a lack of reinforcement or enforcement of the behavior. Sometimes this may happen due to some sort of confusion that has developed on the part of the dog which again would be due to lack of reinforcement or enforcement of the desired behavior. In this instance it is usually best and fastest to go back to how the behavior was originally taught and "refresh" the dog on what is desired. A complete retrain is usually unnecessary in these cases.

This is another reason why having a good foundation on which to build is so important. It makes training and "fixing" problems so much easier!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Focus on/and Foundations

So it has been an interesting couple of weeks as a number of things have come together for me and have come full circle. I've really started to solidify my foundations classes and training more than ever. It has always been a work in progress and will continue to be so. I think each session/year it becomes better and more robust as a program. Students who come back with a different dog often remark that we are doing something we didn't do before. If I kept it the same then we wouldn't improve our skills in this sport. The sport is becoming increasingly technical and speeds of the dogs are continuing to increase so to stay competitive we need to continue to improve our training skills. I know some students who have started dogs with me 2-4 years ago and are starting new dogs now with me are finding some things are different.

The things to keep in mind about foundations training is that it is not a one-time thing. I continually revisit the "basics" of foundations with my older dogs. The beauty of having a foundation is that you have a structure or a set of exercises to go back to and review with your canine companion. There are things we as humans forget how to do and if we have resources to use to review how to do it then we are ahead of the game. If we have to figure out how to learn it all over again it can be much more time consuming.

One situation in which it is really beneficial to be able to go back and do foundations exercises with your dog is when the previously unfocused dog starts to gain focus in agility. A number of students are currently experiencing the fun of having a dog who is now mature and focused after spending 1-4 years working in agility with a very distracted dog. Dogs vary greatly in the time it takes them to mentally mature. Dogs who are sensitive to their environment i.e. easily distracted by movement, other dogs or smells are not going to be able to focus on learning new behaviors. Often with these dogs the first year or so of training is spent concentrating on improving the dog's focus. It may seem like the dog is learning some things and they may be learning by rote repetition. However the concepts that involve more thinking and problem solving will not be learned by the dog until the dog can stay focused on tasks at hand. This includes learning how and when to collect for a turn, learning how to collect to stop for a 2on/2off, learning how to collect for weave poles and learning how to stay at the start line. These are difficult behaviors for dogs who lack focus to do.

In the last few weeks I've had about 4 students who have noticed that their dogs who are now ranging from 2 to 5 years old are now able to be more focused in agility. Recently the dogs are able to do the obstacles in a sequence more reliably than ever before. These are dogs who have had a history of not being able to stay at the start, not being able to sequence obstacles reliably and not being able to perform contacts to specified criteria reliably. Most of these handlers have worked very hard with their dog by taking "Focus in Motion" classes, by working with behaviorists and independent consultants, by setting realistic expectations for the team and by having a lot of patience. The handlers are now able to start really handling the dog instead of managing their dog's attention span. Many dogs will gain the ability to focus when the leave adolescence but there are many other dogs who are not able to focus for extended periods of time until they are much older.

Some of these students have on their own and others at my urging are now going back and working on foundation exercises with these dogs. I believe that the foundation exercises will now make more sense to these dogs because they are now able to think and focus more in training than they could before. It shouldn't take long to go back to these exercises and it will help the dogs to really learn about collection, about stays, about weave entrances etc. It is an exciting for these teams because I believe they will see their rate of progress in agility begin to increase exponentially.

Working with dogs who are easily distracted (and all dogs go through this - it is the state of all young puppies) is like trying to teach someone to knit while they are standing perched at the edge of a cliff with a sharp 100 foot drop off onto rocks. It is hard for that person to concentrate on something new and complex like knitting when they are also having to focus on maintaining their balance. If that person is afraid of heights it will be absolutely impossible. So when you have a dog that is fearful or easily distracted you are not going to be able to teach them very much.

Dogs do learn some by pattern training, meaning they recognize patterns of behaviors and can learn these by sheer repetition without a lot of conscious cognitive activity. This can give us the false sense that the dog has a deeper understanding of what we want them to do than they really have. When you take the dog to new places and ask for these behaviors often the behavior will fall apart indicating that the dog really doesn't truly understand the behavior. One of the reasons for the behavior (and there are others) to fall apart is that the dog never really thought about the behavior but was in a sense "going through the motions" when doing it. New places will often really magnify the degree of inattention these dogs have. Agility requires dogs to be able to think and problem solve at speed and in different and distracting environments. Every course is different and there are a lot of different obstacles out there requiring different and specific skills. It is a complex activity for our dogs. It is not an instinctual activity for the dogs. It is really important to be sure that our dogs understand what we are asking them to do in a lot of different settings in order to be successful in agility competitions.

Foundations - not just a one time only thing... foundation exercises are for life.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Entry Fees... where do they go?

So this is not my usual type of topic for this blog but having read recent posts on lists from people complaining about entry fees and having recently experienced a fiasco with parking fees... I feel I have something to say on this topic.

I look at entry fees for various trials around our area and in the midwest (when I travel to trials at other places). If I know who is putting on the trial I will ask them about their expenses because I'm always curious about that. I'm always "shopping" for places to have trials and for ways to keep the trial costs down so I don't have to pass it along to competitors. My goal for ACTS trials is to break-even. As a business and not a non-profit or not-for-profit club I have higher overhead than they do when putting on trials at some venues. While the facility rental fees we pay here in the Twin Cities are some of the highest in the country we still have some of the lowest entry fees in the country. Certainly some of the lowest entry fees for a large metropolitan area. How long that may last is hard to say because the rental fees and expenses are continuing to increase.

This past March trial we learned that the parking police at the U of M had recently stepped up their enforcement and I was really worried that they would ticket our competitors and cost everyone a $20-25 ticket. That would have been horrible. We had been avoiding paying for parking because no one had been checking. Well at the last minute I had to buy a "lot pass" for 50 cars at $6 per car per day from the U. I thought long and hard about how to handle this unexpected additional cost. I decided to pass it along to exhibitors at a discount of $5 per car. It turned out that on Saturday the parking enforcement counted cars and found 73 there and so they charged me for the additional 23 cars at $6 each - but better that than ticketing everyone. I did not quite collect enough money in parking fees to cover this cost. Smaller trials like the ASCA ones may get by with paying for fewer cars on a lot pass and they pay significantly less in rent than I do so they also may be able to "eat" the cost of the parking passes more than I can.

One thing I've learned is that the rental fees Agile Canines pays to Leatherdale and SoccerBlast are among the highest in the country. Agile Canines is a business, not a non-for-profit, so I have to pay more for weekend rental at Leatherdale than the ASCA or MAC do. This is a rule of the U of M to charge less for the clubs. Simons Arena and the Isanti barn are also higher in rent than other places around the country. These facilities do not provide equipment rental either. At Leatherdale I have to pay $500 a day compared to $300 that the clubs pay plus $6 per car for parking. For an average ACTS trial that is 75 cars (an additional $450 per day). SoccerBlast charges all groups the same - $1200 per day and parking is included. When I research other areas and the rent they pay it is often less than than $800 per day and often this fee will include equipment rental.

The other factor that goes into entry fees is the cost of ribbons. For CPE trials where we use 500 qualifying ribbons per trial that is a large additional expense.

When you look at your entry fee and where the money goes keep the following in mind:

Judges are paid $1.00 per run (some AKC judges are paid more than this) as long as the dog is listed in the catalog/running order regardless if they run or not.
Clubs pay on average $1.00 per run to the parent organization for recording fees (AKC and USDAA have higher rates and different fee scales)
Ribbons for double flats you can figure that the Q ribbon is around $.70 to $1.00 and the placements may be less. Rosettes run around $3.00 each.
Toys per dog are about $2.00 each.
For an ACTS Leatherdale trial that has 400 runs a day you can figure that $1.25 of your entry fee goes toward rent (not including parking)
Then there are the judge's expenses - airfare, hotel, meals and judging gift. This varies a great deal but very often airfare can be as high as $500 especially for judges living near smaller airports. Often judges can't fly out until Monday morning so there are three nights of a hotel stay. So you can figure that at least $1.00 per run goes toward judge's expenses.

Look at the break down of where an $11 entry goes:

$11 per run
- $1.00 judge fee
- $1.00 org recording fee
- $1.00 ribbon cost
- $.25 toy cost
- $1.25 rental fee (indoor venues or outdoor venues with porta-potty rentals)
- $1.00 judge expenses
- $1.00 for miscellaneous expenses such as sanctioning fees, trial secy' expenses for paper, ink, software updates, general office supplies for the trial, gas and truck rental.
- $.50 per run for worker lunch (when it is not a potluck - $.25 per run when it is a potluck)

Then when you consider that 25% of all entry fees for an ACTS trial come in the form of worker vouchers... that amounts to a further discount of $2.75 in cash per run.
- That leaves a $1.25 per run in cash to cover additional costs that may arise - like parking fees at Leatherdale, new title pins and other special awards, costs for equipment maintenance and purchase of new equipment. This is why I felt it was necessary to pass along the cost of parking at a discount to competitors otherwise I would have lost money on the trial.

So before you complain about entry fees increasing you need to look at how much it costs to put on a trial. There is not much money (and sometimes no money) being made at the ACTS trials so I really do it because I enjoy doing it and I feel I am supporting the various parent organizations by doing so.

For 2010 there have been rental fee increases announced by some of the places we use for trials as well as other expenses increasing. Do not be surprised if entry fees start to increase later this year and into 2010. You may also see groups cutting back on things in order to help cut costs.

Other expenses that many clubs incur - paying trial secretaries (can be thousands of dollars per trial), renting equipment and higher recording fees to their parent organization.

In addition with the changes and improvements made in equipment requirements for the different agility organizations it is expensive for agility groups to keep up with these when putting on trials. Many clubs in the area are updating their equipment and adding rubber granules to their contacts and looking at purchasing displaceable tires and other things.

Often clubs have to set their entry fees before they even know how much all of the expenses will be for a trial and they have to guestimate what to charge based on previous events.

Agile Canines

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Course analysis - Challenger and Finals Rounds

Here is the link to the Challengers course:

This was a technical course where handlers had to push to be fast and clean. Winning this class was necessary for a spot in the finals for those who did not make the original cut for finals. Up to 12 dogs in each jump height are eligible for this class, which is open to the top 4 dogs of each jump height from rounds 1 through 3, that have not already gaiined placement into the finals based on three rounds of cumulative scores, provided they scored 100 in that round. Two clean rounds are required to be in the Challenger's class.

So the pressure was on for this class. The opening with the 1-2-3 serpentine into the weaves went well for most handlers. Lead-outs proved a distinct advantage for this sequence. A few dogs knocked bars here or missed weave entries but most did fine. Then on to the panel and wrap to the aframe. Having fast aframe contacts made a huge difference in saving precious hundredths of seconds. Once again the teeter proved problematic for the smaller dogs with many of them bailing off of it. All of the teeters were provided by J&J and in my opinion these are very heavy teeters for small dogs. All weekend long the teeter was a problem for many experienced small dogs.

Most handlers of all size dogs did front crosses between 9 and 10 and 11 to 12. The well timed crosses had the tightest turns and again made a difference in this close fast competition. Some handlers were in a hurry to get the front cross in between 11 and 12 that they didn't support 10 well and got run-bys on 10. The wrap to the tire and tunnel entrance were not a problem for most dogs. There were a couple of dogs who got hung up in the tire. Then the ending produced two different handling strategies. The majority of the handlers did a front cross on the landing side of 16 and then ran with their dogs on the right to the finish. Several handlers kept their dogs on their left for 15-16-17 and rear crossed on the take-off side of 18.

The crowd started cheering while dogs were on the dogwalk which got dogs running faster and there were many missed dogwalk contacts on that finish. Most handlers are pushing and the dogs are running fast. A handful of handlers celebrated a little too early and the last bar came down.

It was really fun to watch handlers really running all out and going for broke.

The finals run was a very technical course with a few spots where handlers could push for speed. The opening sequence of 1-2-3-4 was challenging. A lead out was definitely needed but many dogs were pretty amped and pushing the start line stays a lot. I was seated with a perfect view of this part of the course and could see many dogs looking past the first jump to the tunnel under the dogwalk. But all the dogs took the correct jump but I think many worried their handlers. Handlers had to work the chute exit because it was hard for the dogs to see the jump coming out of the chute and if the dogs came out too much toward the handler they could incur a refusal on #4 jump. Then handlers sprinted from #4 to the #7 tunnel. Handlers wanted to hustle to get to the exit of the tunnel because it was very challenging section of the course.

The 8-9-10 proved to be the most difficult part of the entire course. Many, many small dogs took the off course tunnel instead of the dogwalk. The number of dogs taking the off course tunnel decreased as the jump heights increased but it was not a "gimmee" for anyone. Some handlers chose to keep their dogs on their right from the tunnel to #8 jump and rear crossed the take off side of 8 and then pulled their dogs to the dogwalk. Other handlers sprinted to the exit and did a front cross and sent the dogs over #8 off their left side. A small number of handlers did another front cross between 9 and 10 to try to push their dogs off their right sides on to the dogwalk. This worked for about half of the handlers who tried it. What I noticed was that handlers were not decelerating to get their dogs to collect and check-in for the dogwalk cue. Many handlers kept racing forward and relayed strictly on verbal cues and dogs blasted into the tunnel. Two dogs at the last second looked up and noticed their handler was almost to the end of the dogwalk and went up the walk when they looked committed to the tunnel. Handlers who did a full reverse flow pivot (RFP) often pushed their dogs into the tunnel when they came out of the rotation (main reason why I find this to be an ineffective technique for this kind of obstacle discrimination). Handlers who did a bit of a turn and hand cue had some success but they usually also stopped or hesitated long enough to get their dogs heads. Overall I was amazed at how this very common set-up caused so many problems for otherwise experienced dogs and handlers. I suspect many people will be going home and training this sequence.

The other part that caught some of the medium sized dog handlers and some 20" dog handlers was that the panel jump off the dogwalk was a bit of a push. Many run-bys occurred at this jump as handlers were racing to try to get crosses in by the aframe and to push for speed on this otherwise straightforward sequence. Some handlers did great front crosses between the tire and the aframe and others did them on the descent of the aframe. A few rear crossed the jump after the aframe. Almost every front crossed before the weave poles. A handful of dogs popped out of the last pole of the weaves as handlers started racing for the finish line.

The clean runs were very close in time for every jump height. But there were very few clean runs - it was a very challenging course when handlers are pushing for speed.

It was interesting that they had a judge assigned to just judge the down side of the dogwalk. It would have been a hard course for a judge to judge alone - not a great judging path because they would be in the handler's way and with fast dogs it would be hard to judge the downside of the dogwalk and then get over to the downside of the aframe without getting in the handler's way. I also suspect that with the increase in number of dogs doing running dogwalks it is getting harder and harder to judge the dogwalk and at a competition like this you want to be sure you are making a good call.

I also noticed, because I was seated up high, that most of the running dogwalk contacts work well for the 42" contact but would not work well in a 36" contact (USDAA). This is a problem that I've encountered and I know Stacy Peardot-Goudy and Dana Pike have experienced it as well. Having a consistent running contact under pressure is very difficult. Many handlers were releasing their 2on/2off early to save precious time and I could see many dogs were leaving the contacts higher and higher up as the weekend progressed. I believe there will be a lot of contact training going on in the next several weeks by folks who were at the nationals. This is why I really believe that nationals events are the place when releasing early can help you achieve some goals and can make a difference in time and makes the price to pay worthwhile. That price being some going back to contact foundation for several weeks/trials to pay for it. The stronger the initial foundation of 2on/2off the less the price will be. The longer you release early, the higher the price. Some dogs can evolve into modified running contacts with early releases but many others will get pushier and pushier about leaving the board earlier and earlier. Again which way a dog will go depends on the attitude of the dog, size of the dog, speed of the dog, degree of foundation training on contacts, degree of reinforcement in trial settings, amount of trialing and many other factors. The other thing is that having a running contact requires a handler to be present at the end of the contact to direct the dog which in the case of the finals most of the handlers were athletic enough to run every inch of the course with their dogs.

Watching competitions like this can be very inspiring and can be very educational in terms of watching handling styles and moves. I strongly recommend getting your hands on the videos of the finals because this was a very challenging course. Sometimes finals courses can be all about speed and not as technical. This one was technical and therefore very educational in terms of handling and training.


Jedi's big AKC adventure comes to an end

After a morning massage and morning icing Jedi is cleared to run today's hybrid course. The course is called "hybrid" because it is a combination of standard and JWW. It has an aframe, teeter, weaves and lots of jumps in it. The activities start a half an hour earlier today and Sarah Fix (who many of you know as a NADAC judge) came in at 5:30am to help course build the four courses that needed to be built. General walk throughs start at 6:30am. They groomed the dirt so it was softer again today.

We are running in the last group of 12" dogs so I'm happy to have plenty of time to walk Jedi around with breaks in between so he is going to be loosened up for the run. I use the warm-up jump fairly early with him to be sure he is jumping and turning well and he is.

We go to the start line and I set him up at an angle to the first jump so he can see jump #2. I lead out to between 1 and 2 and then move laterally away from 2 to get in front of the right side of jump 3 for a front cross. I push him into tunnel #4 that is under the aframe and sprint to the 5-6-7 serpentine. I race him to the landing side of 5 and do my front cross between 5 and 6 on the teeter side of the serpentine. Then we go off to the teeter, chute to the weaves and then tire to the aframe. I push him on the descent side of the aframe to send him out to the hard left turn to the triple. Then I front cross between the double and single jump and race to the finish. I find myself dangerously close to the wing of the last jump and realize how Terry Smorch ran into it on his run with Remy. It really came up in the handler path much more than I expected when walking the course.

As for course analysis.... knocked bars seemed to the biggest problem for 8, 12 and 16" dogs. Bars came down in the serpentine and/or in the double/triple sequence near the end of the course. The teeter was not well liked by most small dogs and there was an increase in fly-off calls in the small dog group. For the big dogs not only were knocked bars a problem but the tunnel under the aframe was a problem when handlers were trying to get the dogs from the aframe to the triple. Pushing too hard or late front crosses caused dogs to duck right into the tunnel instead of going to directly to the triple. Some dogs had a hard time with the weave entry coming out of the closed tunnel.

I am happy that Jedi and I were able to end on a very fun and clean run. There were quite a few dogs who were sore this weekend and I think the footing played a large part in it. If you want a good overview of how footing affects dogs you should read Susan Salo's article in this month's edition of Clean Run Magazine. Dogs do take time to adjust to footing for running and jumping and in the case of this footing it kept getting harder and more lumpy over time. Dogs who ran early in the morning had better footing than those who ran at the end of the day.


Saturday, March 28, 2009

Saturday AKC Nationals

On Friday Jedi slipped in a tunnel on his standard run and came out running slowly. A massage yesterday found that he was very sore on his right side. We iced him and applied heat last night. This morning he warmed up well and stretched well. He was a short striding slightly. His attitude seemed great. It was standard this morning.

If you follow along with the course diagrams on the AKC site... The start of the course is pretty straightforward with a tire, aframe and right turn to a jump. Jedi starts out fine. He is on my left as we make the turn to the teeter and I cross in front of the end of the teeter. Then he is on my right going back through the tire to the triple to the weaves. He starts to bark and to pick up speed. I do a lateral send on 10, the panel jump, and a front cross on the landing side of 11. Jedi comes in nice and tight over 11.

This sequence proved to be interesting for many handlers. I believe all of the 26" handlers did the front cross on the take-off side of 11. The 12" and 16" handlers I watched were split about 50/50 on where they did the front cross. Almost all of the 20" handlers I saw did the front cross on the landing side of 11. Keep in mind that while all courses were technically the same it is impossible to set a course identically. In my opinion if you could not leave your dog in the weaves and get far enough ahead for doing the cross on the take-off side then you didn't get a tight turn. Linda M. did it beautifully but she could leave her dog in the weaves. Unfortunately I knew I couldn't leave Jedi in the weaves that much nor would it serve him well to do so and therefore I opted to do it on the landing side.

Jedi is on my left over 12-13 and 14 tunnel. I pull him into the correct tunnel opening and take off to the dogwalk. I'm thrilled that he ran into the same red tunnel that he had slipped in yesterday and so I take off. I find myself cheering him on a lot on this course.

The next part proved to be the first difficult part of the course for many handlers. The 13 jump to the close side of the tunnel for #14 and then up the dogwalk. There were two main ways to handle it - one was to front cross between 13 and 14 and push to the tunnel or hang back and pull the dog into the tunnel. Jedi pulls better than he pushes so I opted to pull him. There were quite a few off courses at this point of the course as well as some very close calls.

The last difficult part of the course was still ahead. I use lateral distance on the dogwalk and found myself almost forgetting to get moving and I start running toward the take off side of the #16 jump so I can front cross. I get the cross in and successfully pull Jedi into the chute and then I do an impromptu rear cross between the chute and final jump in order to pull him over the last jump. It was a clean run and his time is 38 seconds - in the middle of the pack of 12" dogs. Jedi is not fast enough to be in the top dogs at this calibre of competition.

After the dogwalk, was a right turn to a wingless jump with a wing jump nearby making it a tight handler path. Then it was # 17, an offset wingless jump, and a discrimination between the #18 chute and the weaves. The chute angled out and it was a right turn to the final jump. This sequence was especially difficult for the big dogs and there were lots of refusals and off courses in this section. Many handlers were caught behind at the chute and there were lots of spins before the last jump - some close enough to be called refusals and all costing valuable seconds of time.
Many of the big dog handlers did rear crosses at the jump before the chute and again at the chute to zig-zag through the finish. If you couldn't leave your dog on the dogwalk it was hard to get in a front cross on the jump after it. Others were caught behind their dogs on the dogwalk and then it was hard to squeeze between the wing jump and the wingless jump after the dogwalk. Some of the handlers caused the dogs to pull in because they were trying to get around the jump and this brought the weaves into play more.

For some reason in the 12" class there were a handful of dogs who hit the aframe hard or at an angle and lost time and probably incurred some sort of minor injury as a result. I'm not exactly sure how that happened or what caused it.

Jedi seemed to be fine after his run. It is now raining hard and steady outside but fortunately no thunder. Jedi has had a chance to rest for quite awhile before JWW. The JWW course definitely has a lot of turns in it and requires handling. I walk it with 6 front crosses planned. The footing which is moist clay is getting really packed down and very uneven in many spots. Handlers are tripping and some are falling. Many of us are really worried about staying on our feet for all of the crosses needed. I warm Jedi up well, gently massage him and stretch him. He is not showing any signs of soreness. We set-up for the JWW course and I plan a short lead out so he'll be fast off the start. I do a front cross between 2 and 3 and send him out on the pinwheel of 3-4-5. He runs around #5 barking at me. I already know we are not in the running for anything so I opt to not fix it and I'm puzzled as to why this happened. If he runs around any jump it would be 4 because I didn't support it. It was a hard push and I wanted to front cross on the landing side of 5. Many small dog handlers opted to front cross on the take off side of 5. I go on to 6-7-8 pinwheel and he runs around 6 and 7 and is barking at me. I'm really puzzled and we are told we should try to finish as much as possible so I keep running as if he is jumping. He does the weaves fine and then one jump and I continue crossing and trying to find my way off the course as he takes some of the jumps but not others and is barking at me like crazy. It was very out of character for him. I immediately suspected he was too sore to jump. Fortunately he was scheduled for a massage in about a half an hour.

Jedi was massaged and was in fact very sore again. We suspect he landed and turned over one of the jumps and it hurt and he was taking care of himself and not wanting to do any more turning and jumping. We are now doing more ice and heat tonight and he is scheduled for a massage and check first thing tomorrow morning. It is very possible he is done for the weekend.

As for the course analysis of the JWW class... Anne Braue handled it with all 5 front crosses that I had planned and in the location I had planned but unfortunately Scream took the last bar. The front crosses were between 2 and 3 (or the lead-out that Anne took care of that one), landing side of 5, landing side of 8, end of the weaves, landing side of 15 and between 17 and 18. Today's JWW course required the ability of the dog to weave into the pressure of the wall and the ability of the handler to front cross at the end of the poles which almost every handler I saw did.

It was really a course made for front crosses. Those that handled it with rear crosses often had wider turns or lost time. There was a very fast dog in the 8" class who had a very fast time but it would have been even faster if she had front crossed, I believe. Her dog slowed down every time she slowed down to do a rear cross. I saw this very often with any cross, either a poorly timed front cross or rear cross will slow a dog down too much. Again timing is everything and it is so important to practice, practice, practice these so you can learn to do them both smoothly. If you always do one and not the other then you won't improve your skills. At this level of competition the time is measured in thousandths of seconds. Poorly timed crosses can cost time.

The majority of participants here are happy to be able to play on challenging courses and to be a part of the experience of being able to watch some top handlers and friends run their dogs. What was also fun for me to watch was the number of handlers who were able to use distance skills on these courses. That is a real challenge because the courses are tight and obstacles are often in the handler path. There were some handlers who are physically not able to run every step of the course with their dogs so they have done a lot of distance training with their dogs. It was also interesting to have courses that encouraged independent obstacle performance - like being able to run ahead to the next obstacle while your dog is doing the weaves or the dogwalk. It really expanded your handling choices.

Now back to more ice and heat for Jedi, eating pizza in the hotel room and hoping the winter weather will hold off so we can fly home Monday night!