Thursday, March 12, 2009

Different Dogs, Different Ways to Train

Once again I am learning from my dogs and from my students. It was a fun day yesterday being able to train my own dogs AND to have some students watch and observe. That other set of eyes can be so valuable and we as instructors often miss out on that.

Spring is a 10 month old Sheltie who is very outgoing and confident. He loves kids and people and he struts around like he owns the world. However from early on he has been afraid of going up and down steps. I don't have a lot of steps in my house so it is not easy to work on this. I discovered how severe the problem was when I stayed in a hotel on the second floor. All of my other dogs have learned pretty quickly how to go up and down stairs - a little luring and off they go. However after about 12 times (I was there for three days) he was just as afraid to go down the stairs the 12th time as the first time. Once he would start he was fine. He did a little better going up than down. I also started to realize that he was not jumping on furniture the way the other dogs do. He took a very long time to learn how to do the three steps out of the front door of my house. He took a few headers off of the steps which then meant a trip to the chiropractor for him. This is a puppy who is named "Spring" because he can jump/bounce in the air almost two feet off the ground.

He was also having trouble sending through hoops or jumps with poles on the ground and sending out to targets. At first I thought it was just a silly Sheltie puppy thing. I started to wonder about his vision. His left eye had always seemed smaller than the right and sometimes it was a bit runny. He had a clear CERF exam but was there something with his depth perception. I talked to Dana several times about this because she has a young dog who is experiencing similar problems but to a worse degree unfortunately.

Meanwhile Spring needed braces to correct a faulty bite - he had a lower canine going into the roof of his mouth. So he couldn't do much for 6 weeks while he had the braces in - he was limited as to what he could eat and he couldn't play with toys. I was starting to have real doubts about his future in agility.

Then the braces were removed and I noticed a remarkable change in his left eye within a few days. It was open more so it seemed closer to the size of the right eye and it was no longer runny. I also noticed that he seemed more confident on the steps than he had been. He also jumped on the couch and the bed for the first time. So it is possible that the problems with his bite was somehow affecting his eye and/or sinuses or something.

So I resumed his agility training. It was a major improvement. He no longer had a problem with shadow handling, He could send out to targets 20 feet away and he go around cones and could find the jumps with poles on the ground or hoops. In fact he started seeking them out for the first time. It was like he was happy he could see what I was indicating for the first time. He could do puppy jump chutes with no problems.

Then I started to raise the jumps up a little bit. He loved it and showed no signs of having trouble adjusting to the jumps. But then again he has always loved to jump in the air. In fact broad jumping is his specialty. In the house he will run and leap from rug to rug so he is sailing over the hard wood floor between rugs.

So a couple of weeks ago I wanted to introduce the low aframe to him. He balked at getting on it and I did some luring and treating for getting on it. He didn't seem to be getting it as quickly as other dogs do or as quickly as a confident dog like him would. Then when I was about done he leaped unexpectedly off the top of the aframe. He was willing to get back on it again but still lacked confidence. I decided not to do it again until my lessons with Dana.

I drove 7 hours to Chicago on Friday to spend a couple of hours taking lessons from Dana Pike. She is a great resource for me because she has trained a variety of dogs in agility and she too has experience with small dogs and with dogs who have unusual issues. So I spent some time with her working with Spring and the aframe. He was balking at the aframe more when he was on my right side than on my left. We wondered if that had to do with his left eye being closer to me or not. We did a lot of getting up part way and getting off. We wanted him to be able to get on confidently. He did much better on my left than on my right. When we had him doing the whole thing he was launching off the downside very high up (on a very low aframe) so we wanted to stop that rehearsal! So Dana put up low 6" jumps just a couple of feet from both sides of the aframe to help him not stutter step when getting on and to help him go to the bottom on the down side. It went alright but it definitely was going to take work. I left hoping we can train his mind and eyes to "read" the aframe and do it.

So Spring is my new challenge in agility training. I've attached a video of yesterday's training session which started out not going well. He was balking on the right side of me again and tilting his head as if to look at the aframe in a way to process what it was. But by the time we decided to video it so I could see what he was doing better then he started doing it very well. So maybe some practice and then a break of several minutes for latent learning to have an effect was what he needed. However I still plan to go very slowly with his contact training and weave training and I'm prepared to modify the program according to how he is responding to it. He may need different approaches than the average dog. Of course I haven't had an "average" dog yet so I'm not sure I know what that is!


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