Monday, December 27, 2010

How to make the best use of agility class time or why having an agility coach is helpful

Too often we want to run the entire agility course set up in class or at run-thrus because it is there and we want to see if we can "do it"! 

However we know what our own weaknesses are as a team and that there are specific things we really should focus on when in class.  This is especially important during Minnesota winters when we can't be outside to do our own training.  We have to make the best of the class or run-thru situation. 

I have attended group classes at a number of agility schools and I have always been allowed to do part of a course and reward my dog where I wanted to reward my dog.  I've also been allowed to continue on at that point or to repeat part of it and then continue on.  This is how our dogs will learn that we like what they are doing - when we spontaneously reinforce them for what we like.  This is also a time to use a positive reward marker/word.  It is also important for us to have positive reward markers like the word "yes!" that we can take into trial competition and use with our dogs. It means that the word/marker needs to have been paired with a primary reinforcer like food or toys many many times in training before using it in a trial. I use this with my dogs and invariably they will get faster and happier when they hear that word in a trial setting. I use it a lot with contact/tunnel discriminations to let my dogs know they got it right. 

Sadly we usually are more willing to correct our dogs for missed contacts, weave pole or jump in group classes and are less willing to reward our dogs when they do a contact perfectly the first time, or do a difficult weave entry the first time, or do a hard tight turn between obstacles, or send out away from us to do an obstacle on the first cue, or they stay at the start line the first time.  We tend to wait for the mistake to happen, correct it and then sometimes we reward it when they do it right after the correction and sometimes we don't.  It would be so much more effective to reward the dog when the dog does it right the FIRST time!  We all know when we walk a course what the hard parts are for us and for our dogs and so we really do know what we should reward when our dog does it brilliantly the first time! 

Coming back to using class time wisely... it is so important to positively mark the behaviors you like whenever you are training your dog. I very rarely do an entire course or even as many as 10 obstacles without stopping to reward my dog. When things are going well on a course or sequence that is the exact time to stop and reward. Far too often I see beautiful sequences go unrewarded (in spite of my loud pleadings to a student to stop and reward!) and then a bar goes down, a contact or weave is missed and negative reinforcement follows. Meanwhile the beautiful part goes unrecognized and that is the part we want the dog to remember to do again next time!

I feel it is my job as the agility instructor and coach to help students learn the proper time to reinforce their dogs as well as to correct their dogs.   Unfortunately people seem to be more quick to correct their dog than to reward them. This is as much a part of the class as helping them with handling strategies.  I feel strongly that learning proper timing of reinforcement is a huge key to successful agility training.  I try to verbally mark positively when students do things correctly (they don't always hear me but usually others in the class do and add to the cheers). 

Unfortunately I think it is human nature that we are much more comfortable with negative reinforcement than with positive reinforcement.  We are like this with each other, with our children and with our pets.  Even as humans we seem to want more negative reinforcement and are uncomfortable with the positive reinforcement.  This is a sad commentary on our own socialization. 

Think about the "terms of endearment" you have for your dogs when you are training them.  Do you refer to them as dumb, dufus, brainless, goofy, slow or other terms with negative connotations that refer to personality rather than behavior?  I try to use as many positive terms with my dogs when I'm training them and let them know that I think they are smart, brilliant, fast, cute and other descriptors that have a positive meaning.  This may seem like being picky but lots of studies have been done on how our bodies and minds respond to positive terms versus negative terms no matter how sarcastic or funny we think we mean them to be.  It becomes an overall reflection on how your feel about your dog and can affect your overall relationship with your dog.  Too often I hear people refer to their dogs in subtle negative ways which I feel can undermine the self-esteem of the relationship in the long run. 

It is clear that I am able to run entire courses will all of my dogs at trials even though I very rarely practice entire courses.  If the handler needs to practice doing all of the obstacles on a course they should do a lot of it without their dog and use the walk through time in class for that.  In some cases I have had students run their imaginary dog through a difficult sequence so they learn the sequence and handling without bothering the dog.  This is useful for students who get lost on courses.   The dogs when trained well will not have trouble putting an entire course together - it is the human who has trouble putting it all together.  Too often dogs lose motivation and drive while the human is struggling to do too many things on a course. 

I've watched many of the top agility trainers in the country train their own dogs and the most successful ones are the ones who reward what they like when they are training and don't try to get through an entire course without rewarding their dogs.  When rewarding only at the end of the course time after time it is saying that the last obstacle on the course is the one that matters most.  This is why I will often "make lemonade" out of a non-qualifying run by finding something good to mark and leave the ring immediately to reward.  For example with Feisty, if we ever NQ before the table and then she gets on the table and stays we leave the ring then to a jackpot right away to make the table associated with rewards in a trial setting.  If we have NQ'd due to my miscues or due to the dog being stressed I will often find a good note to leave on so I can find something positive for rewarding the dog. 

That isn't to say that I have times when my dogs are really wound up and they get so excited they are not paying close attention to me and do things I don't expect out there at trials on course.  So sometimes we leave early because my dog is too wired to be able to be a teammate and I'll leave early so we don't practice more of the lack of teamwork.  Sensitive dogs do not need much of this and I am usually just smiling and saying "you are naughty!" as we leave.  With a tougher dog who has more of  a tendency to be independent on a course then I will be firmer about taking them off the course to remind them that it is a team sport.  Every dog is different and I respond differently to each dog - treating them as individuals.  However even the toughest dog needs positive rewards on course and I don't let obstacles serve as rewards.  The best reward needs to come from me at all times.  I want to build value in agility obstacles but I will still have a higher value than the obstacles by using high value toys or treats as rewards.  This is really important for the teamwork.  If the obstacles have higher value than the teammate then why should the dog work with the teammate and the dog can just go and do whatever obstacles they want and will be self-rewarded.

Doing these things at a trial means we did a short course at a trial! So my dogs really never figure out that 20 obstacles is an entire course.  Whether we left for good reasons or not so good reasons my dogs only did part of the entire course. My dogs will have done a lot of short courses for one reason or another at trials as well as playing games like snooker which can force us to have short courses!  So I avoid the pitfalls of having a dog start out slow at the start line and finishing fast on obstacles 18-19-20.  I also keep the performance fresh on the various obstacles with the random reinforcement in both training and trialing.  This philosophy has been a huge part of Feisty's training and why now she is doing the table more reliably at trials when she used to avoid doing it at all in trials. 

Going to agility classes, remember it is your money for the class and it is up to you to get your money's worth from class and make your training as effective as possible for your canine teammate.  No one else knows your dog as well as you do.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Tay - the light at the end of the tunnel - literally!

Tay's surgery went well.  The biceps tendon was 80% torn so it was severed in surgery today.  What is amazing to me is that he said it was very badly damaged and he had to do a lot of cleaning in there and yet she only seemed lame to a well trained eye who was really looking for it.  When her activity was restricted it was very hard to tell she was sore.  When her front leg was stretched back there was no apparent pain response.  The only pain response was when the tendon was directly palpated.  When she tried to do agility she would show lameness.  I tried to rest and rehab her twice with no success because the tendon was torn and not just strained as originally thought/hoped.

So often our dogs will be limping briefly and then the limp "goes away" and we assume that the pain is gone and therefore the injury is gone.  This is often not the case.  When our dogs are repeatedly sore after activity is a very likely there is a serious underlying injury causing it.  Soft tissue injuries can be so hard to diagnose.  Dogs are very stoic - part of their survival instinct. 

I took her to the University of Missouri Vet School for the consult and surgery - I explored other options but needed something that would have a doable rehab (no hobbles) and not cost a small fortune.  As some of you know, Tay is a special dog.  She use spinning and pacing as part of her self-calming rituals.  She is prone to worry and anxiety about things that are hard to control like strong odors.  Hobbling her would most likely cause her psychological damage.  Some of my other dogs would handle it fine but not her. The vet there was able to use ultrasound for the diagnostics (not an MRI) and digital x-rays which is much more cost effective.  He had excellent client service and genuine understanding of dogs and totally understood Tay's fears of going to the vet and was very respectful of that.

For the initial consult I had a thundershirt on Tay, had given her valium, had her stone collars on her and left her in the car until they were really ready for her to come in.  I had very high value treats with me too.  When I brought her in the volunteer came over and was really nice to her and talking to her.  Tay actually walked through the double glass doors and walked into the exam room which she rarely does at any vet's office.  In fact she has generalized double glass doors as scary. 

Tay liked the third year vet student (even in her white coat) and without any treats.  The student said "She knows I don't have my degree yet."  Tay licked her face which she does not do at the vet's office. When the surgeon came in Tay was afraid of him and he was great - no white coat, very soft in his approach and met her on her terms.  He got on the floor with her and was very gentle. She still was afraid.  I said "she knows he has his degree" and he said "I have no doubt she knows :)"  Even the second day Tay still really liked the student so that made me feel good because Tay was not too happy about being there.

The next day when I had to drop her off for surgery I thought she'd be in the waiting room for just a few minutes and they'd come and get her.  I couldn't give her any food and I didn't have any thing on her since I thought she wouldn't have to wait long.  As it turned out we had to wait 40 minutes because everyone was busy in surgery.  Fortunately the waiting room was really quiet and I did lots and lots of T-Touch on her.  It was all I had.  After about 15 minutes her breathing slowed and she laid on the bench next to me.  That is huge for her at the vet hospital. It is good to have a variety of stress relieving tools available.

Over the years with all of the different stress issues I've had with dogs I carry lots of "tools" in my toolbox because I never know what I will need.  I highly recommend learning T-Touch - it came in handy for me when I could not use anything else to help calm her down.   It took about 15 minutes before she calmed down.  Thundershirts are based on concepts from T-Touch body wraps.

Anyway all of this has given me a lot to think about.  The surgeon thinks it was a "jump down" injury and not a repetitive or turn injury and probably happened when the tendon was luxated.  Very plausible given that Tay is obsessed about jumping into chairs (thanks to Leslie Renaud's idea to give stressed dogs a place to go at trials!) and she has a "running" aframe which when she is excited can be more of a leaping aframe - usually not over the yellow but more of a leap off than a striding off.  "Running" contacts can be injurious too.  Tay's tendon was luxated in the surgery and the surgeon can't be sure whether it was luxated before it was injured or not.  However she has sporadic lameness on the other shoulder which is not typical with biceps tendons.  Usually only the dominant leg is affected with a biceps injury UNLESS they are genetically predisposed to luxating tendons.  That means the tendon rolls out of place and makes it more prone to injury.  I am contemplating having him scope the right shoulder to see if that tendon is luxated and if it is then he can "tack" it down to hold it in place.  He scoped both elbows and ultrasounded both shoulders and the right shoulder tendon looks to be in good shape and no sign of problems in the right elbow.  She is painful in both elbows so the concern is where is that pain coming from in the right leg.  I have a follow-up appointment in Missouri in January and I'm leaning towards having him check out her right leg at that time just to be sure.

In the meantime we have lots of leash walks ahead of us.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Day 2 - Lemonade has been served!

Today was a much better day on the Feisty roller coaster ride! She demonstrated that she does in fact love agility and she is starting to love it more and more in public.  She ran two perfect runs today and ran them well enough to earn 2nd place in both runs!

Her first run was JWW and it was jump weaves for the start - not a very fast start for us and she was a bit cautious the first third of the course.  But then she turned on the afterburners and she was back!  It was a blast!  We ran in the morning today and there were a lot more people around the rings so much more background noise to drown out the clicking of cameras.

For Standard - always our hardest class - the table was in the exact same place it was yesterday.  It was a tough course for her with an off course tunnel at the end of the dogwalk and needing to turn a sharp right turn to a jump instead.  All of our hard obstacles were done by the time we got to the table.  After the table it was a fast sequence of jumps, tunnels and aframe - all of which are fun and easy for us.  Feisty was ready to run when I got her out for standard.  I had lots of time to let her hang out with me and I massaged her a bit while we waited.  She was up and happy and we did our usual obedience warm-up routine.  Then about two seconds before we entered the ring she put her tail down and tried to pull me away from the ring.  I immediately scooped her up and did something I rarely do with her - I blew in her face.  She hates it but it served to distract her.  Then I goosed her in my arms and kept talking to her about how great she is and how it is just the two of us out there.  This course also required walking into the middle - yes the middle - of the ring to start and we started from the middle going out toward the crowd but it was a tunnel there.  So by the time we walked out there she was squirming (good sign!) and I took her leash off and then put her down and didn't ask for a stay.  We just took off running and she flew!!!  I had to call her name a lot after the dogwalk but she came with me.  She did a great table down and then part way through the count stood up and shook (I am VERY glad for the new rules where no position is required on the table!) but she stayed on it until the "go".  Then we flew!  It was a blast of a run!

So I actually feel this double Q today is a personal Q because it shows we (Feisty especially) have come a long way where we can recover from a horrible experience one day to run spectacularly the next day.  That is huge progress since three years ago that would not have happened.  It also shows that I have done my homework with her and banked enough positive experiences in agility that today she was able to draw upon them and trust me.  She started to shut down right before the run and I was able to think on my feet and jazz her up and go with it. I was worried that yesterday she felt a violation of trust but fortunately for me I think she thought "God" or the "sky" was falling and it had nothing to do with me or agility (PHEW!!!!!!!).  It is also a really good thing and example that dogs do NOT generalize well. 

One day I'm crying with frustration and literally the next day crying with joy - all with the same little grey dog!  For me the more they challenge me the more they reward me!  She keeps me on my toes and keeps me thinking all the time!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Trying hard to make lemonade today

I had one of the hardest agility trialing days I've had since I retired Tobie.  That may sound surprising given the ups and downs Feisty and have over the last 4 years.  However today I had a melt down.

What brought me to that point?  Well I'm in St. Louis trialing in a place that none of my dogs have been to before.  We have done a lot of road trips recently and they are getting into the routine of these pretty well.  Today we started with Ex JWW and I ran Sinco first.  She had a nice run but missed her weave entry in spite of my collecting to help her.  No biggie.  Then Spring ran and he popped out of pole 10 and so I had him redo them and did them all and we left the ring to a party right away.  No biggie.  Then Feisty had her turn.  I wanted to warm her up a the warm up jump located between the two rings so she could feel the energy in the arena.  While waiting for the jump she went from tail up and happy to tail tucked and shivering and not wanting to move.  She did this once before a couple of weeks ago and I got her over it but never figured out what caused it.  This time I left the area immediately and went to my crating space and got the high value treats out.  We worked on tricks and waited by the start gate and her tail came up and she looked ok again.  I figured it would be like last time - she'd work through it.

Well we went to the start line and as soon as I took off the leash she wanted to leave the ring.  I tried a couple of times to get her to come with me and finally said "thank you" and we left the ring.  I had no idea what caused it.  I called Pam and asked her to do some healing touch long distance for her.  I kept her out and let her walk around outside to shake it off.  I assumed it was bad vibes.  So I had downtime before our next run.  There were only a few dogs left in the JWW ring and most of the people were over by the other ring.  I walked Feisty around the outside of the JWW ring.  The only place she freaked was where the only person was - the photographer.  I tried to give her treats close to him.  Then I had a flashback to the summer.

This summer I was taking lots of photos of puppies and she was around one time when the flash was going off.  She obviously thought it was lightning and she looked like she did during a thunderstorm.  The thunder never came.  I didn't worry much about it and I thought it was just the flash and eventually she'd realize that no thunder followed. 

Well I decided to test my theory and we got a bunch of high value treats and went out to the van where I had my camera.  She likes to get in the van so that is a happy place. I got the camera out and clicked and she immediately froze up and wouldn't eat treats.  BINGO!  The interesting thing is that she is so convinced it is coming from sky that she is not afraid of the camera when it is quiet.  She has made NO association between the camera and the noise. 

So I started to formulate a plan for the standard run.  I talked to the photographer and asked him if he would please not take any pictures of any of my dogs because I had one who is very afraid of the camera click.  I was wearing a blue tie-dyed shirt so I thought he could remember me.  He said he would and he understood.  I kept a careful eye on him and he left the standard ring and went over the far side of the JWW ring.  I thought - great!  I ran Sinco and she missed the weaves again - hmmm...  Then it was Feisty's turn.  Still no photographer at the ring and we had a good spot on the far side.  We hung out and she was relaxed and happy.  About 5 dogs before us the photographer came back to the standard ring.  Well I still was not concerned because I had asked him not to shoot us and I kept Feisty out of range of the sound as long as possible.  I took my time setting up so the photographer would be ready. 

My plan was that if Feisty was squirrely I'd do one obstacle and leave.  If she was a bit squirrely but running I'd skip the table and keep going.  She started out on fire - she was fast, nailed the weaves, and so I went for the table.  The photographer was about 20 feet from the table.  As I released her from the table he clicked the camera and Feisty scooted around the chute - the next obstacle and I looked over at him and he was shooting her.  I said "Please stop taking pictures of her!" - by that point Feisty was half way to the exit which was directly opposite of the camera.  I was furious.  All of the work I've done with the table and to have this happen.  The melt down began.  I thought I was managing the situation as best I can given that have NO time to work on it.  Yes I realize it is a training issue but taking photos is optional.

So I recovered from my melt down and walked her around the rings - by this time most of the people were gone.  She seemed fine and happy.  She really treats the click sound like thunder and once it is gone she does fine.  Hopefully I can get the photographer to remember tomorrow to not photograph her.  

So I thought I could work on a bit in the hotel room.  I have her stone collar, a thundershirt, and beef liver (stopped at a pet store for some even better treats).  I have a business suite room since I have to be here for four days.  Even across the room 20-25 feet distance and she can't tolerate the click.  Even not having had dinner she was not hungry enough to work through it.  Again she likes the quiet camera just fine. 

There will be no portrait shoots for Feisty anytime soon.  If I could just show her that it is coming from the camera and not the sky she would be fine with it.  She is fine with clickers - for awhile I thought maybe the Iclick bothered her but it doesn't.  She is not bothered by any other types of clicks.

It is so disappointing to me because she had been running better than she ever has at trials and now to have a setback like this and something new to have to train/proof her for.  I am at a bit of a loss of how to begin with it but I think I will have to have someone else help and hold the camera 50 plus feet away - find a point where it clicks but she doesn't immediately go over threshold. 

Keep your fingers crossed that this has not added a new problem for the table!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Rambling thoughts on training

Poisoned cues and Names...

I've mentioned in previous posts how I had created the word "teeter" as a poisoned cue for Sinco's teeter performance 2-3 years ago.  I had to retrain her teeter for the third or fourth time and finally realized that if I changed the name to "bang it" she was much happier about doing the teeter.  I think she is finally over it now but it took awhile and she would avoid it or do it slowly if I forgot and said "teeter" - the cue I use for all the other dogs.  I do try to remember to say "bang it." 

Anyway the poisoned cue concept has reared its ugly head again.  I am having another mysterious training issue (I seem to get these with each and every dog I train!) and I am having trouble getting Spring to come when called in many different situations including at home as well as in training or trialing.  This is a life issue.  Jane Fallander watched me with Spring a couple of weeks ago to help me figure out what was wrong.  If I said "go leash" he would come happily to me and put his head in the loop of the leash.  If I said "Springy" or "Springaling" he would scoot AWAY from me.  If I show him the money by letting him know I have treat in my hand he would come back but he would not come without me showing him the money.  However he would do agility obstacles or go to his leash without showing him the money.  So the "aha" happened that his name has become a "poisoned cue" and no longer means what I want it to mean. 

He is a puzzle because he does like to be petted, to be held, he loves his neck and head scratched and his butt scratched and he likes to play hand games. He is not like some Shelties who don't like to be touched. He really likes the touch.  I've seen many Shelties (and many other breeds and mixed breeds) cower when the owner reaches toward them.  While we may like to hug and pet our dogs there are many dogs out there who really detest the hugging and petting.  Spring is not one of those dogs.  He relaxes and sits on my lap very often.  I never force dogs to snuggle with me.  If they choose to do so then great but if they want to be off by themselves that is fine too  and I don't take it personally (I've had Border Collies...).

So I've started to teach him "Bungee" means come to me and is his "training/trialing name".  It is not yet ready for prime-time but it is in the works.  He seems to really like the name and is coming to it without first seeing a treat is present. 

How the cue got poisoned is pretty clear.  While I love this dog he pushes my buttons more than any other dog I've ever owned.  He barks and spins right in front me in the hallway or at meal time or trying to get him to go somewhere.  I've almost fallen over him many times.  I spent awhile making him walk on leash down the hallway to go outside to help him stop the behavior.  I can try to reward an alternate behavior but it very much has to be lured since it is hardwired for him to do the bark and spin routine.  I don't think he is truly aware of what he is doing.  So as a result I've said his name "Spring" in vain many times and have probably used a harsher tone with his name which caused it to become a poisoned cue.  Usually I'm very careful how I use my dog's name especially as puppies to avoid that.  But like I said he pushes my buttons which causes me to forget my training rules!

Now I'm in the process of analyzing his perplexing table issues.  I seem to be plagued with table issues in agility these days.  I think in large part it is the one obstacle that is not offered at the trials where training in the ring is allowed (ASCA and NADAC) so I can't fix it there like I can most other obstacle/trial training issues.  I have also done CPE with him where I can't spend extra time having him stay on the table.  Spring has developed a tendency to bounce on and off and on and off and on and off the table at AKC trials.  I've been working on proofing it with people around it and people running dogs around it.  He doesn't appear to be stressed or worried about the judge.  I wondered if it was the judge but lately that doesn't seem to be it.  I have a hard time collecting him again - his name is a poisoned cue.  Again he is pushing my buttons on the table so I have to work hard to have my happy face on while I try to collect him to leave the ring.  I've planned table parties for him many times but he has yet to get on the table and stay there for more than a nanosecond since he entered Excellent A.  So the problem was not always there - it is new and getting worse.  Now the word "Table" may be a poisoned cue except that in training he gets on it just fine whereas his name as a cue didn't work in ANY location. 

I have tried to vary my position relative to the table to try to get success.  He has had lots of table rewards in training.  He is not a sensitive dog, he is very stoic and he is very tough.  He thinks very highly of himself and is more cocky than confident right now.  He has learned that I can't do much about what he does on the table at trials. He is ring-wise about the table at trials.  I've trained in the ring at ASCA trials with him with the other obstacles but they don't have the table on their courses.  There are not enough run thrus at convenient times/days to be able to work through it there.  At this point I don't really have a game plan for how to address the problem.  It is one I have not ever seen other dogs do at trials to the degree that he does it nor have I seen student's dogs do it.  It is a new behavioral problem for me.  Lucky me :)

Traveling and perspectives on training...

It has been a few years since I've had dogs ready to take "on the road" to trials outside of Minnesota.  This Fall I've been trialing in Iowa and Wisconsin and soon to Missouri in the hunt to qualify for AKC Nationals.  We are really fortunate here in Minnesota to have a canine massage therapist at almost every one of our trials.  In other parts of the country it is rare or even unheard of to have a massage therapist at a trial.  As a result participants are still not as aware of how much physical well-being is affecting their dog's agility performance.  Here in Minnesota we are getting trained to "rule out the physical" when a performance problem develops especially with weaves and jumping. 

We are also spoiled by the high quality of agility equipment we have at most of the area trials.  In Minnesota we are cutting edge with more of our clubs/groups getting rubber on the contacts, smaller slats on contacts, safer jumps, tunnel bag tunnel holders and 24" weave poles.  I lived in Wisconsin until 1993 and started my agility training there and for most of the 1990s went back to Wisconsin for trials.  I was surprised to see one of the clubs still has equipment that is from the 1990s and has not updated their jumps or contacts.  I'm very grateful to live in an agility community where we strive to keep the equipment safe and updated for the sake of the dogs safety and well-being.

Agility Foundations thoughts...

I'm so excited that we have so many puppies up and coming here at Agile Canines.  It seems to be a cycle every three years or so when many of us have puppies at the same time.  I am always striving to improve the foundation training for the puppies and those older dogs new to agility.  Jane Fallander has been incredibly patient as I've tried to train her in for how to work with agility students and how to best prepare their pups for performance sports.  She is an excellent clicker trainer and has taught students how to shape behaviors and use the clicker effectively which is something that I value in my training program.  I've been teaching her how to teach my favorite agility training games like "Ready-steady" and "Ready 1-2-3" which can be challenging to teach.  However because she has more time available we are able to get more puppies started and that has been very good.  This is the first year of trying our program this way and there will be "growing pains" and revisions made.  But the first group of "novice a" students - those who have never done agility before that graduated from Jane's classes are excelling and progressing so rapidly through agility foundations that I'm really encouraged by our program.

I'm discovering too that while agility foundations is something that has become a jargon term in the agility arena and it talked about a lot on various agility training lists and in various magazines it seems that it is still not actually taught at many schools.  I've recently had students come to me for training who started in agility in other parts of the country such as Chicago, Colorado, Arizona as well as other parts of Minnesota.  I always want to know how they started their dogs in agility.

The skills I want dogs and handlers to have before starting agility foundations are the following:

Dog management skills - able to get the dog in and out of doors without the dog lunging at the end of the leash and able to protect dog from dog running loose off leash.
Loose leash walking
Send to a target (plastic lid)
Send and stay on a mat
Able to be in a crate quietly during class
Able to play with toys and take treats with distractions
Able to stay and do a recall with distractions
"Ready" games
Able to shape new behaviors with a clicker easily

You will see NO tunnels are listed.

The skills I teach in agility foundations:

Front and rear crosses
"Out" and "Go"
Start of contact training with a board
Teeter games
Serpentines, pinwheels, boxes, 270s, threadles and straight lines with hoops
Lead outs
Running with the handler with acceleration and deceleration cues
Puppy jump chutes

You will see no tunnels are listed.

Note: I teach tunnels near the end of the beginning agility obstacles so dogs learn to love other obstacles first and also because I feel that curved tunnels are slippery and can cause injury to young developing dogs as well as adult dogs!

Most of the foundations exercises are for the handlers as much as for the dogs.

Running Contacts or Two on - Two off?

I teach all of my students how to train a two on two off with a board they can use at home.  I feel that regardless of how their contact behavior ends up the process of teaching this the unique way that I do it really develops rear-end awareness in the dogs.  This awareness I feel is invaluable for agility dogs. 

Then as the puppies become fully developed and the handlers assess their physical condition I discuss with each one about the pros and cons of running contacts versus two on two off contacts.   Choices are based on size, structure, ability of the dog and the physical ability of the handler.  Keeping up with a running dogwalk can be very difficult.  It is possible to have one criteria for the dogwalk and a different one for the aframe which many of my students have done successfully.  Some of my students have tried the running contacts and found it to really have pit falls and have opted to return to a two on two off which is easy to do since the dogs were taught that on a board initially.  Others have opted for what I call a "modified running contact" after a couple of years of doing a two on two off they introduce a "quick release" on the contact.  This can be very effective for a running contact and still have the independent performance desired.

Training a "true" running contact that has no sign of deceleration in it on the part of the dog, that hits the yellow zone consistently every time requires hundreds of repetitions.  The aframe is usually a bit easier than the dogwalk.  While it may on the surface seem easier than a two on two off it is really based on muscle memory and getting the dog to have the same speed and striding each and every time over the contact is much more difficult than it appears. 

Dogs taught a two on two off actually need FEWER repetitions on the contacts to train and maintain the behavior than those doing a running contact.  When a trainer is consistent the dog will actually do fewer contact performances for a two on two off.  I do get concerned about the impact of a two on two off on the aframe for many breeds of dogs and yet a running contact may be very difficult to achieve.  I encourage my students to do as few aframes as possible when they have the desired behavior and have a two on two off.  I have one dog now who does a two on and two off and she has done far fewer aframes in her lifetime compared to my Sheltie and Pyr Shep who have running aframes and have needed lots of reps.  I also will try to avoid the aframe in gamblers if I can and places where I can avoid it I will to minimize the frequency of impact.  I also am careful about the surface I run my dogs on. 

As an aside, more dogs are being injured in curved tunnels and poorly timed/cued turns on jumps but the injury often shows itself on the aframe or weave poles but may have occurred elsewhere.  I have a dog with a running aframe - never been asked to stop and she has a shoulder injury that most likely happened on a slippery turn between jumps or in a curved tunnel.  Tunnels are much more slippery than many realize.  But the aframe is often the one blamed for shoulder injuries when the turns are more hazardous.

Enough of my rambling thoughts from the last few weeks!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Mental Game

Competing in agility is like other competitive activities - it has a large mental game component to it.  Whether you are competing in Novice A or the World Championships it is very important to be aware of the human mental aspect of competing.

While I coach my students frequently about the mental game and about how their stress and nervousness is conveyed to their dogs and may adversely affect performance, I was recently reminded of how it impacts me.  Years ago I had horrible "last leg syndrome" and I would consistently choke when I was needing that "last leg" for a big championship title.  It took me almost as long to get the last leg for Bradish's ADCH title as it did to earn all of his USDAA legs - a slight exaggeration but not by much!  Then I decided I had to make a change in how I was thinking about these things in order to be able to continue to have fun and success in this game.  I started reading about the mental game and I attended a Lanny Bassham seminar and read his books.  I also had dogs who really needed me to be calm and to be having fun in order for them to perform well.  All of these things combined to help me lower my stress at agility trials no matter what title or leg was on the line.  Then last weekend at the Rochester Kennel Club AKC trial I back-slided. 

I have set a goal of qualifying for AKC Nationals with Sinco.  She just moved into Ex B at the May TCOTC trial and that same day earned her first double Q.  Then she was pregnant and had puppies and was out all summer until St. Croix Valley.  I have from then until the end of November to earn 6 double Qs and 400 points to qualify.  It is a doable goal but it is a bit of a stretch goal.  At St. Croix Valley it was fun just to be back running her and we got better as a team as the weekend went on.  We had some Qs and some PQs that weekend.  Then the next weekend was Rochester and it was the third day of the trial and I had finally Q'd in the first standard run so I had a double Q on the line.  I found myself more nervous and stressed walking to the line for that JWW run than I had been in a long time.  It was not fun at all.  I did not run as smoothly as I wanted.  We did earn a double Q on that run but it didn't feel as fun.  It felt stressful and on the edge the entire time.  It was a wake-up call.  I need to relax and focus on what is important - having smooth and fun runs with my canine teammate and doing my part to make the run go well.

We had a weekend off which helped me to train my dog and get myself back on track mentally.  This past weekend was the Bloomington trial.  I was back to feeling calm and confident running Sinco again.  We earned two double Qs - going 4 for 4 that weekend.  I did not feel like I was going to be sick at the start line.  I felt calm and confident and our runs were smooth and fun.  I did my part and she was able to do her part just like we train.  It was a huge reminder about the mental game in this sport.  If my mental game is on then my dog is more likely to have her mental game on as well. 

So things I do before I run my dogs - I visualize our runs being smooth and accurate.  I visualize running the course with my eyes close - seeing all my crosses, turns, accelerations and decelerations.  I start the runs the same as I do in training.  I rarely "fix" things when I run a course so I just keep the flow going for my dogs so they learn running at trials is fast and fun and not stressful.  I don't want my dogs to think trialing is a place to worry. 

I focus on handling the course and my plan and not on the Q.  The Q is the icing on the cake.

Feisty started out on Saturday this past weekend the fastest I've ever seen her at a trial.  It totally surprised me and it caused us to have some bobbles but I kept going and I just let her run and we didn't do the course exactly as numbered but Feisty didn't know that.  I was just as happy that she wanted to run fast and run with me as if we had Q'd.  If I had fixed things or fussed over her I would have deflated her and lost all the speed.  She is a very speedy dog but rarely does she show that speed in public.  I need to nurture that when she chooses to show it.  I know in time she may give me that speed more often and I will learn to be more ready for her to show it and ready to properly handle that fast dog.  She is very fast in training so I do know how to handle her. 

When we focus too much on the Q we very often create stress not only for ourselves but for our dogs.  Our dogs didn't fill out the entry form to be at this trial.  They are there because we made them come.  Many times they may not really be in the mood to run at an agility trial and yet we make them do it anyway.  If we are stressed then our dogs often pick up on our stress and they respond in various ways to our stress.  They will often act very differently than they do in training.  The more we put them into that situation and it is not enjoyable for the dog the less they will want to play agility at a trial.  This is why changing our mindset to doing what is best for our dogs will ultimately improve the performance of our dogs at a trial.

Very often I will do short courses - either as the plan from the start line or as a change of plan based on how the dog is running on the course.  With Feisty if she NQs early on a course and it is before the weaves or table I will often abort the run.   I know that the table is stressful for her so why do it more than we have to do it?  I also know that weaves can be stressful both mentally and physically and I feel dogs only have so many weaves in them for their life time so why waste them when it won't further our agility career.  Some dogs of mine may need to practice the weaves in public so I will continue on and have them weave after an NQ.  Each of my dogs is different and how I handle things on a course will be different with each of them and it will also vary from run to run and weekend to weekend.  I am very sensitive as to whether one of my dogs is sore as well.  The last thing I want is to associate agility with pain by running my dog when they are sore. 

When my dog appears to be "naughty" I first look at my handling and whether I caused the problem, if not then I look at my stress and the external factors that may be stressing my dog and then I look at  my dog's overall demeanor.  Was my dog having so much fun and running so fast that they just disconnected from me out of joy for running the obstacles?  If that is the case then I'm happy my dog was having fun.  Was my dog so high on adrenaline that he was running like a drug addict?  If this seems to be the case then I as the trainer need to try to simulate that mental condition in training more to help my dog learn to focus through it.  I also need to work harder at trials to prevent that condition from happening prior to our run.  Very rarely do dogs do things to intentionally upset us.  Most often things happen because of our poor timing/position, of stress (ours or external factors impinging on the dog) or the dog's excitement/adrenaline.

Lastly we never know when the last agility run will be with our canine teammates.  I don't want that to be on a run where I have regrets about how I felt about my dog then.  I always want to leave feeling happy.  Even when one of my dogs is naughty I try to joke about it and focus on the positive in the run.  Then I come up with a training plan to work on whatever the problem was, especially if it is becoming a trend.  A one-time thing doesn't worry me but a repetive problem becomes a training issue.

This is a game we play with our dogs and the dogs don't get to decide which trials they attend.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Back Trialing!

It is fun to be back trialing after being off about three months because of raising puppies.  Sinco is back - better than ever!  Feisty has even earned two double Qs!  Spring has moved out of AKC Novice.  I am focusing on AKC trials this Fall because I am trying to make a last minute effort to qualify Sinco for AKC Nationals.  She just moved into Excellent B in May before she had to take time off to have puppies.  We will see how it goes!

It has been fun to see my students trialing and to be able to help them out.  I have enjoyed doing two outdoor agility trials.  It is sad that outdoor agility trials are so few and far between anymore. 

It has been an interesting couple of weekends for a lot of reasons. It has been fun to see people I haven't seen in many months.  It is fun to watch dog and handler teams running agility.  It is interesting to watch novice classes and wonder why so many people trial there dogs before they are ready and they openly admit the dogs are not ready!

I have also been presented with some ethical dilemmas during these two weekends.  The first was a standard run under a judge who was under supervision.  My dog knocked a bar and the crowd groaned so I knew it happened while I was running.  Awhile later, after the class was almost done, I went over to see what my time was on that run.  It turned out that I was awarded a clean run and second place (which meant "multiplier points").  I asked to see my scribe sheet and there were no faults recorded.  I decided to go ask the judge about it and she could not recall whether she called it or not.  She said "agility gods give and take."  This is true however I did not feel right when it was a clear fault seen by many AND it was a placement that awarded extra points.  I asked her to take away the Q and she did.  What would you do?  Would it matter if it were for a MACH title? 

Then another incident happened where a dog missed the weave entry and had a beautiful rest of the run.  The handler didn't fix the weaves.  The judge didn't call anything - no one saw him call anything and exhibitors ran over to the handler to tell her that she had been given a "gift."  The judge proceeded to call faults on the next several dogs who made the same mistake.  The exhibitor talked to the judge about it and the judge said if people saw that he didn't call it then he would not change the clean scribe sheet.  What would you do?  What if it were for a MACH title?  What if it were for a placement that awarded extra points?

Many people said that one should just accept these gifts.  In my mind where the faults are visible to all and not just a judgment call such as a contact and the faults are not recorded then the judge should be made aware and the judge should decide how to handle it.  As a judge myself I want to know these things. I've judged places where I've had to constantly remind the scribe to watch me and not the dogs and I have sensed that they were missing calls on the sheets.  I would have to periodically go and look at the sheets during the class.  It is difficult being a judge and watching lots of runs all day long.  Things get missed, I know that.  It is hard on the other competitors when titles and placements are awarded on runs that should have been faulted. 

I have had things go in my favor - I knew that I didn't have a clean run with one dog and I never checked my scribe sheet or score.  I assumed it would have been recorded as an NQ.  Then weeks later a title arrived in the mail because of a Q that was awarded on that run.  I still felt badly about it.  I want my titles to be earned fair and square every time but I know that is not possible.

In the end we all have to live with ourselves and the decisions and choices we make in this world.  For me it is most important to be ethical and to be thoughtful of others, even if it means "nice guys finish last." 

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Puppies, puppies, puppies

If you want to know what I've been up to the last 5 weeks go to my other blog on Sinco's puppies! It is at

I am having a blast playing, observing, feeding, teaching and yes cleaning nine beautiful puppies!  It is a great learning experience for me.  I have had some great help from some very experienced mentors as well as being able to apply things I've read and researched.  These puppies are so athletic and have been so from the very start.  They are strong, agile, quick and bold!

Right now they are enjoying wobbling on an upside metal garbage can lid.  There is a webcam too that is on most days when they are home.  Now they travel to the school 2-3 days a week where they have yet another enriched environment with lots of visitors.  I can't believe how many people have played with them already and from many different ethnic backgrounds and ages.  I just hope to keep it up for the next four to five weeks!

I have been influenced by Myra Fourwinds, Suzanne Clothier, Ian Dunbar and many others in this whole adventure.  I also know that this is something that is very fun and rewarding but something I can do once every four years or so.  However at the same time now that I'm doing this I don't know that I would want to get a puppy anywhere else but raising it myself.  There is something very special about knowing everything about what these puppies have done and experienced and knowing how much is hard wired from day one and what can be changed and molded.  It is also hard work keeping the potential puppy owners up to date with things and letting them see what is happening to them.  I want them to know as much as possible about the puppies before they get them because that is what I would like to know before getting a puppy.  I try to put myself in their shoes. 

Now I am off to try to make some more puppy obstacles for the outdoor play pen.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Choosing a puppy

This has been a hot topic around the school lately because a number of students are getting puppies and Sinco is having puppies.

We all get puppies for different reasons. Sometimes the puppy we pick is for reasons other than agility, then later on we decide to try to make it into an agility dog.

All kinds of puppies can make good agility dogs.  My biggest thing is trying to get the best fit between person and puppy.  Sometimes we pick puppies because they are cute, we feel a hole in our lives and feel we need one, any one or we pick because we like the pedigree or like the parents.  These are all considerations when selecting a puppy but if you want a puppy that will be a good performance dog then you need to look at many other characteristics.

If the puppy I'm considering is from a planned breeding then I want to know as much about the parents as possible.  I ask lots of questions.

1.  Health screenings - I want proof (no matter how well known a breeder is, I want to see copies of all health checks) of OFA certification, CERF tests, any genetic test results (check out your purebred dog - almost every one of them has a list of recommended genetic screenings) and DNA recordings with AKC and any other parent organization.

2.  Health information on the dogs related to the ones being bred - littermates, offspring, parents, grandparents and others.  Every line of dogs and every breed of dogs has problems and it is what the breeder you are working with has done with that information in their breeding program that is important.  There should be known health screening records on all dogs going back 8 generations. 

3.  Temperament information about the dogs related to the ones being bred.  It is important to meet as many dogs as you can that are related to the one you are getting.  Ask owners of dogs related to your future puppy about their dogs.  Ask what they are like around other dogs, children, strangers and what they are like at home versus around busy activities.

4.   Then when your puppy is born if possible watch videos of your puppy, ask lots of questions about which puppy got out of the box first, which puppy is the pushiest, which is the most laid back, which is the loudest etc.  When the puppies are old enough to move around more watch videos or ask questions about how the puppies do in new places, around new things, around loud sounds, around people and around other dogs.  A good breeder should be exposing the puppies to lots of different things before they go home.  Ideally they should have experienced riding in a car, been started on potty training, been introduced to a crate, been to a number of different new places and/or new surfaces.  In most litters there will be wide variation in temperament and structure among the puppies.  Just because two "high drive" dogs were bred together doesn't mean that all the puppies will be "high drive."  Just because a specific breeding produced "all great dogs" doesn't mean that the repeat of that breeding will also produce "all great dogs."  Look at each dog as an individual.  I have seen in any given litter some pups who are more sensitive and reserved, and some who are bolder and more active and everything in between. 

5.  The breeder should know lots about you and what you want in a puppy so they can help you match up with a puppy.  They are the experts on their litter. Try to visit the litter often if at all possible.  More than once is recommended.  You also want to see if there is a connection between you and a particular puppy.  Often a puppy will pick its owner.

6.  Things to look for in the temperament of a puppy for performance:  boldness, self-confidence in new places, lack of sound sensitivity, follows people readily, persistence, energy level, forgiveness and biddability.  Now some people like a dog that is tougher or harder meaning that the dog is more independent, more self-serving and more easily aroused into prey drive.  Other people like their performance dogs to be less independent, have a natural off switch and to be very biddable.  Both kinds of dogs can be highly successful performance dogs with the right owner.  However if there is a dog/owner mismatch it can be a tough road for both.  In agility you can have a biddable dog with a natural off switch who is also plenty fast enough to win.  (I have one of those, so I know...)  But not everyone wants or needs a dog who will win at a national level.  Most of us want a dog who will run and do well at local trials and will earn the championship titles in the sport of our choosing.  Again it is important to be realistic about your goals and about your time and resources for training and trialing.

7.  Structure.  This is very important.  It will vary somewhat depending on the breed but having balance of angulation in front and rear and a front that is not too easty-westy is important for most sports.  8 weeks is generally considered a good time to evaluate a puppy's structure.

8.  Lastly there are times when puppies come to us for reasons unrelated to performance sports.  It may be good to be open to these experiences because they may come to us to teach us valuable lessons about other aspects of life.  So when a puppy chooses us be aware they may not be choosing us because they want to do performance sports with us but they may be choosing us because they want to teach us something else about ourselves.  This happens to me all the time so I know it does happen.  I also know it doesn't work to ignore those opportunities either.  They may even be disguised as performance prospects if they think we won't pick them otherwise.

A note about selecting a mixed breed.  I think there are a lot of great mixed breed dogs out there who make great performance dogs.  Again you want to select one with good overall structure and temperament.  The more you can find out about their history the better.  The notion of "hybrid vigor" is a myth.  Mixed breed dogs are just as susceptible to the genetic diseases of their purebred counterparts.  It is made more complicated because they can inherit them from different breeds.  Many of the genetic disorders only need one copy of the gene in order to produce problems.  Genetic based aspects of a dog that affect temperament or structure will not change with training or conditioning.  You can improve upon it but you will be limited by the genetic make-up.  With a dog of unknown parentage it is hard to know what that genetic make-up really is.    If you are getting a dog from a rescue or other group where you can foster the dog for awhile to see how the dog fits in with you and your family that is an ideal situation.  Then you will have some idea of who the dog is before you adopt them.

The bottom line is that if you are trying to choose a puppy/dog for a performance sport then you want to do your homework and find out as much as you can about the dogs who interest you.  Also think about the details of the kind of dog you would like and think about who you are as a trainer and competitor.  The more you know yourself, the easier it will be to find a dog who is a good match for you.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Spring is Sprung!

Spring made is AKC Novice Standard debut this weekend.  He earned two Novice Standard legs and two Novice JWW legs.  He earned his NAJ this weekend.  His confidence was definitely increasing and therefore his speed in JWW was increasing.  He nailed all of his weave poles.  On Saturday and Sunday he did his contacts well.  On Monday he bailed on the teeter which was the fourth obstacle.  I had him do the weaves right after it so we could end on a good note and left the ring.  He needs more work on contacts in different places and on different types so we will do that before we trial again.  I will only trial him in ASCA and NADAC where we can repeat the contacts.  It is too hard when he can bail and I can't put him back on so he doesn't get a chance to work through it.  The teeter at BOTC caught a lot of dogs by surprise so I am not surprised that he started to lose confidence on it.  I have been working him on my teeter at home and he is gaining his confidence back. 

Spring is interesting because he doesn't show signs of fear with the teeter.  He can jump on low ones anywhere and ride them down in all kinds of crazy positions.  I do think his vision issues cause him to become unsure - the base seems to be the latest to throw him off.  He doesn't know how or can't see the base well enough and maybe he doesn't know where the tip point is relative to the base.  You can see him stutter step before contacts sometimes and we believe he has a vision issue which causes this.  So I suspec he doesn't know how to interpret what he sees and how it relates to the location of the board and tip point.  More miles will help him sort it all out, I'm sure of it.

It is always something new with my dogs!  I know I learn more from having different dogs and I don't have "cookie cutter" dogs which is why I so firmly believe there is no one way to train a dog.  No matter what anyone says - there is really no one training method that will work for all dogs and all people.  This is why I like learning different methods and I'm willing to try different things.  The methods I use the most are the ones I've had the most success with and are the easiest for people to be able to use at home on their own.  I also like to use training methods with my own dogs first before training others.  It is best to experience how a method works before teaching others.  It helps to be able to work with a lot of different dogs to be able to try out different methods. 

Now to go out and learn more about dog training, conditioning and trialing...

Tay Update

Tay was cleared earlier in May  to trial at BOTC AKC trial.  I picked that one because it would be just 2-3 runs a day.  Tay struggled with the weaves all weekend and I realized I had rehabbed her on 24" spaced weave poles and they had narrower ones at the trial.  Once I realized that I stopped worrying about her weaves.  I made sure to have someone watch her run or video it so I could be sure that she didn't hurt herself or appear sore in any run.  She ran fast and she ran well.  There were glitches but we are rusty as a team.  Most of our rehab at the end was done working on individual obstacle performance and short sequences. 

Well I was at a seminar with Stacy this morning and our first run involved a lot of tight turns.  I asked folks to watch her to be sure she ran well.  She ran great!  I was pleased with how well she did.  I did our usual warm-up and lengthy cool down.  I put her away and then about 40 minutes later brought her out again and she was limping.  It was noticeable to everyone there.  I walked her around and around and she got better.  I ran her on a shorter version of the sequence and cooled her down for awhile.  I put her away.  Lin Gelbmann came by and I asked her about it.  Tay was again limping when I got her out and Lin palpated her bicep tendon and she was sore again.  Lin thinks she is almost as sore as she was last January. 

I'm so disappointed.  I was hoping to be able to run her this summer and to focus on her more.  So now I need to start over with the rehab.  I now have a large wading pool which I will be able to incorporate into her rehab which may help.  It is not clear whether I will be able to get her strong enough to do agility again for an extended period.  Lin thinks she is stronger than she was last January.  Lin thinks she is injuring it by planting that foot and turning. 

Stay tuned to see how things go from here.  It looks like I won't be trialing much at all this summer. 

Feisty Files Update

It is time for another chapter in the "Feisty Files"!

As a refresher, in March of 2008 Feisty entered Excellent Standard and JWW.  Since then she has earned 26 Excellent JWW legs (23 MXJ legs) and over 275 MACH points (all from JWW).  She has also earned only 5 Excellent Standard legs.  She earned her AXJ in March of 2008 and her AX in June of 2009. 

In standard the table has been the biggest training issue.  I have spent a lot of time working on proofing her table performance and making it fun.  In February of this year at a USDAA trial she did the table which was situated right next to the ring stewards, timer and scribe as well as a row of people leaning over the railing AND the place where the noisy speaker had been.  Feisty got on the table and went down without any hesitation at all.  I knew we had made a huge breakthrough.  After spending many runs in Standard getting an "E" for training the table (either leaving the ring to a party when she would finally get on it or leaving the ring because she refused to get on it at all, this was a huge victory.

May's TCOTC trial was our first time in Excellent standard in over 6 months.  I was feeling good about her table performance and Jacque Hoye was the judge.  We spent a lot of time working in Jacque's classes to proof her table performance so I thought this would be a good place to begin again.  Feisty did a great table and a great everything else on Saturday to earn her FIRST Excellent B Standard leg in two years!!!!  I was ecstatic!  On Sunday she missed the weave entry which was right before the table.  I made her redo the weaves so we could go to the table.  She got on immediately and went down and we left right away to a huge party.  Perfect way to reward the table!

This past weekend we ran in the BOTC AKC trial.  On Saturday we ran JWW first.  Feisty knocked a bar on jump 2 which is unusual for her but most likely due to the long grass in the ring.  So I went into training mode and did more distance handling than usual at an AKC trial.  I also "left" her in the weaves.  She proceeded to miss the entry and pop out early and it was the next to last obstacle on the course.  If I do this with my other dogs it is not a big deal.  However I had a momentary lapse in memory of which dog I was running here.  Feisty remembers everything and forgets nothing!  Then on our standard run she popped out at pole 10.  I remembered then that I better try it again and she popped out again so I took her off the course.  I know I can't repeat my mistake from JWW and let her go on without weaviing again.  On Sunday she ran JWW and popped out again at pole 10 - and I pulled her off right away.  Then in Standard she took a wrong course into a tunnel when all who watched said that I was turned and calling her in plenty of time for her to come with me.  So we left the course to cut our losses at that point.  Needless to say I was feeling pretty frustrated with myself for having not "fixed" our weaves on rd 1 on Saturday.

So once again Feisty puts me into a position to consider something that I've only ever done with one other dog of mine (Tobie).  I rarely recommend going home and training something between trial days.  For most dogs they are too tired to really be able to process any training at the end of a day of trialing.  For other dogs the adrenaline rush of the trial atmosphere or the stress of the trial scene is ultimately what is interfering with their performance so practice at home is not going to help that.  I decided that I needed to make myself feel better that Feisty could weave 12 poles.  I also realized that she had been practicing on the 24" poles so I should get out the 22" poles and practice with those.  We stopped at the school on the way home and set up the narrower poles.  I used the container of hot dogs as proofing material and placed the container by the 10th poles.  The first time she weaved great right by it - she got hot dogs for it.  Then she realized there were yummy treats in that container.  Then she actually started to pop out to check out the container.  Yippee!  I recreated the problem and I verbally corrected her and asked her to weave again.  She got faster and more excited about weaving and very quickly figured out how to weave past the container to get hot dogs.  Then Pam offered to guard the container and we had it open and by the 10th pole.  Feisty worked through it and got faster and more excited about weaving.  Proofing does help build confidence and speed!!! 

Our Sunday night training paid off!  On Monday Feisty ran two perfectly clean runs to earn her FIRST Double Q - two years after getting into Excellent!!!  It was great!  She took second place behind Pam and Windy in JWW!

It is really hard to run a dog who has as much as potential as she does and is as skilled as she is when she can act so squirrelly at times!  She is also the first dog I've had who is in that very small minority of dogs who exercises her independence.  She has done this in seminars as well in trials where she has made up her own course that does not reflect my handling at all and she has refused to do obstacles by stopping and standing there staring at me.  There have been times when I could tell it was stress related but there are times when she is definitely not stressed.  So any time she is running as a teammate it is a real treat!  She is a very high energy dog who loves to do things with me but everything has to be aligned just right for her to be willing and able to run as a teammate!  She is also the kind of dog who loves to be challenged in her training and does not shut down when she is mentally challenged.  She can be shut down with stress or boredom.  Proofing is mentally challenging for her and she gets into it.

So I finally got the positive reinforcement I needed to keep going with her!  We have had a LONG dry spell!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Busy couple of months!

It has been a very hectic couple of months.  Mid-April saw Sinco come into heat, finally after waiting since October for that to happen!  Then the mad-dash to decide how to get her to Canada to be bred.  I had planned to do AI when I thought it was going to be a winter breeding but now the weather was better.  I was doing the progesterone tests and it was starting to look like she was going to peak on a weekend which makes doing AI riskier.  It can end up being done too early and too late.  I looked up airfares and decided it would cost the same to send her on a plane with Myra and then in a rental car.  So off they went to a small town 5 hours drive north of Vancouver.  Sinco was great and two breedings took place.

Then Sinco came back and ran great at our April NADAC trial.  The weather was chilly and damp but our spirits were not dampened and many of us wore our Hawaiian Shirts to show Mother Nature we would persevere.  I ran Sinco, Spring and Feisty.  Spring ran great all weekend.  Sinco ran like a champ.  Feisty had a blast with the wide open courses.

Then the first week of May my father fell and broke his hip the day before his 82nd birthday.  He lives in North Carolina.  He had been living alone since my mother died a year earlier.  He had been doing alright on his own.  He had surgery on his birthday and then a couple of days later was admitted into a rehab nursing home.  He has been there ever since.  He lost a lot of cognitive functioning through the ordeal and he is no longer able to read or write well, dress himself or even eat without help.  Before this happened he was almost completely deaf so that doesn't help matters. 

The following week Susan Perry came to town and put on an awesome seminar!  She is great and I heard lots of positive feedback from it.  Things were difficult with my Dad and I wasn't getting good information from the nursing home so I had to go to North Carolina in the middle of Susan's seminar.  I was disappointed to have missed most of it.  However it was good to go on the trip. 

Then we had an ultrasound on Sinco and they heard NINE heartbeats!  Wow that is a lot more than I was expecting!  But it was nice to hear good news for a change!

Then I get back from that trip and have to head out the following weekend to supervise judge in Florida for two days.  It was at this point that I decided to resign from judging for ASCA and to resign from doing course reviews.  I just have too much going on with the school,  my father and the puppies on the way.

Friday night I went to St. Peter to do an obedience run through with Feisty in Open.  She did well and she did things I expected.  She is rough around the edges and definitely not polished.  However she is not the kind of dog I can drill or overtrain.  I have her entered one day at the Lake Minnetonka obedience trial on June 12th. 

Now this weekend I have been able to run my own dogs.  Tay is making her re-debut after being in rehab for a strained/slightly torn triceps tendon that happened at the end of January.  She is physically looking very good.  Unfortunately today the folks in the tent next to me started grilling their lunch.  Tay was freaked and incredibly stressed out by the smell of the smoke.  The wind blew the smell all across the agility rings.  I was able to get her to calm down enough that she was able to somewhat run in the ring farthest away.  She ran better after they were done grilling and the smell had cleared.  I did so much work on it last year and now to feel like I'm back at square one with it is disheartening.   Feisty was a bit squirrelly today.  Spring however had a very good novice standard run.  He is still a bit tentative on contacts he doesn't know and his striding was not the best since he was thinking hard about them.  He did have a clean run in standard and he had a great FAST run.  We had a back jump in novice JWW but otherwise the run was great.  He did very well for his debut in AKC standard.

Now to spend the next couple of weeks getting ready for puppies that are due between June 15-19!  I have a very busy summer ahead of me!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Teacup Trial

We had a fun weekend hosting our first Teacup Agility Trial in our new building!  It was a lot of fun!  Rachelle was a great judge with fun and challenging courses.  Everyone pitched in and helped and we had a wonderful worker raffle organized by Chris Mosley.  We had several vendors here on Saturday and a couple on Sunday.  The food went over well both days having soup on Saturday and ham and turkey on Sunday. 

As of this writing there were three TACHs!  Chris and Winn earned their TACH, Dennis and Daisy earned their TACH and Kelly and Sired earned their TACH2.  Wow!

Windy and Spring made their Teacup debuts and handled the tight little courses amazingly well.  They are both much more adaptable to running collected than we ever imagined.  I wasn't able to run Feisty much because her back is sore. 

We had a great turnout with the most runs entered we've ever had and we had a number of entries brand new to TDAA and a few brand new to agility trials.  Everyone had a great time and it is such a relaxed setting.  We are going to look at our calendar and see when we can have some more of these here!


Sunday, March 28, 2010

Great lessons!

Once again I am amazed at Suzanne Clothier's gift of observation.  I never cease to learn from her and to hone my own observation skills.  She really brought home the concept of "ask the dog" who they are.  We tend to get caught up in what she refers to as the "frame" of what we already know about the dog and our preconceived notions about what that means.  Looking and closely observing the dog without any prior knowledge from the human is an excellent skill to have.

I have always seen and believed in dogs being unique individuals and that "cookie cutter" dog training is not the way to go.  My own dogs alone have shown me that, let alone the many others who have come before me for help over the years. 

Suzanne is also the master of human analogies that can really help drive home a concept or point she wants to make.  This makes her an excellent teacher of the human part of the team.  It is important to learn from Suzanne with an open mind and also with a willingness to let go of your prior beliefs and ideas.  She may upset you if you chose to go that route or you can thank her for the incredible insight she has shared with you.

This is exactly what happened to me this past weekend in a completely unexpected way.  I decided to volunteer one of my dogs for the group exercise of asking the DOG who they are.  I brought Tay out for the group.  She was her usual happy self and wiggling around to visit everyone.  The point of the exercise is to observe the dog and to not seek information from me.  Tay didn't stop moving the entire time and she was aware of things in her environment.  After several minutes Suzanne came over and observed that she is a dog that we don't get to see all the time but we should notice them more.  She noticed immediately her sweet soft eyes.  Many of us have seen her "sweet eyes", it is one of the most salient characteristics she has.  I don't know of anyone who has met her who hasn't commented on her "sweetness."  Well what I learned is that her eyes do lack that intensity and depth that many dogs have.  This is so true.  What does that mean?  Suzanne believes it means that Tay may not be functioning fully cognitively. 

Rather than feeling sad for her, I immediately felt relief!  Now I had a reason why some things are so especially hard for Tay to learn and other things were incredibly easy.  It was a huge "aha" moment for me. What else did Suzanne notice about her?  She used the analogy that Tay does "not take notes."  Now many of you who have read my posts and my blogs know about the detailed 20 volume set of notes that Feisty has and the shorter more concise notebook series that Sinco has.  I have never felt like Tay was a note taker but I did feel that she would generalize some behaviors very easily.  Tay at the seminar greeted everyone in the circle the same whether she knew them or not and she would repeatedly cycle through the group.

So for the past several days I've been pondering the kinds of things that Tay learned easily and the kinds of things that she still struggles to learn and I struggle to teach her.  She learned the agility obstacles with incredible ease, even weave poles.  I waited until she was 15 months old to start weaves.  She learned 2on/2off very easily.  She learned the cone exercises and hoop exercises I did with her from when she was a puppy.  She has an awesome recall.  She is awesome with targeting.  She generalized agility obstacles with amazing ease and she generalized targeting from a lid on the floor to tape on the wall with amazing ease.  She can play "101 things to do with X (fill in box, pedestal, etc.)" with the cue "show me something else."  She learned to run and jump in a chair (be careful what you teach your dog!).  She loves crate games and is wonderful in a crate anywhere.  She has a very good automatic sit in front of any door and will turn toward me automatically when going through almost any door.

What kinds of things have been hard for Tay?  Stays... - even though when I tried to video this she did one of the best stays (I was only a couple of feet away).  She tends to keep moving her feet constantly on a stay whether in the house, by agility equipment or anywhere else.  She has a marginal stay on a mat - it takes a lot of work to maintain.  She has trouble with heel position.  I teach all of my dogs to "choose to heel" with a clicker and treats and I do it on both sides of me.  As I refine for obedience I set a distinct body posture and hand position to cue the heel position as well as the word.  She can not orient to my side - she is a bit random and is often out in front curving around me.  My other dogs have learned this with relative ease.  She does not understand hand signals at all in spite of lots of use of them.  She does not appear attentive at all to my body cues.  My other dogs are very attentive to subtle changes in my body position - one twitch and I can send them off anywhere.  I believe Tay does not understand obstacle names for discrimination.  I am starting to believe it is 50/50 for her.  It is something I work on with all of my dogs and she has the weakest skills in this regard and requires a lot of work on my part.  Suzanne said she would have a hard time  with distance.  She has a lot of confidence on individual obstacle performance that she can do obstacles at a distance with ease.  What she can not do is take direction AND do obstacles at a distance.  This is what I'm discovering with her.  In training I break things down and in pieces she can get it but when put together she has trouble keeping two ideas/thoughts in her head to be able to change direction or do discriminations at a distance.  She will either head to what is in front of her but if she is derailed I can not redirect her at all unlike my other dogs who will redirect.  The other thing she has a hard time with when outside in a field is "auto check-in."  She can do it in familiar surroundings that are not too distracting if my treats are good enough.  At the livestock arena and outside in a field she would not both keep an eye on me and be able to keep sniffing.  I work on this with all my dogs when they are puppies and take them to different places.  When off leash I will make sharp turns away from them and when they catch up with me they get a treat.  Then they can go off sniffing and anytime they check-in they get a treat.  My other dogs do this with ease but Tay often has to be called and then she turns on a dime and comes. 

I have also in the last three weeks been working on her doing front paw lifts/stretches as part of her rehab.  I knew it would be easy to shape it but what I didn't expect was how difficult it is to refine it.  I want to try to teach her to do one paw a few times and then switch to the other paw.  Even after three weeks she still will offer each paw equally and wildly and can not seem to repeatedly offer the same paw over and over in spite of reinforcement to try to shape that.  I am using my hands as the cue.  I am considering teaching her to touch an object to see if that will make it clearer to her rather than touching my body part. 

For comparison I decided to train my dogs who had not ever been asked to do this trick to review how they do it.  Two of the dogs had very strong right paw preference and I had a hard time getting them to offer the left paw (Sinco almost fell over a couple of times trying to do it!)  One dog had a strong left paw preference - Feisty ;)  Tay does not have nearly such a strong paw preference.  Suzanne said that both in dogs and humans that lack of handedness/pawedness is associated with a lack of bilateralization in the brain.  This may also be linked to my difficulty in teaching her left and right which I train all my dogs to do.

On Friday afternoon I set up a session to video for Suzanne.  I had been trying to come up with different scenarios to show what Tay does.  We did one thing which is the start of teaching a dog to find someone or something.  I showed her where I was hiding a treat.  We went out of the room for 3-5 seconds and came back in and allowed her to search for the treat.  She had a really hard time with this and after 45 seconds or so needed help.  We repeated this two times each with two different spots.  Each time she needed help after a long time.  She was wondering around sniffing but seemed to have no recall where the treat was.  Then I had someone else hide the treat in one of the two spots and brought her in and she could not find those either without help or after a long time searching.  This was interesting so I wanted to see how my other dogs would do with this exercise.  I used all the dogs I had who had never been taught any tracking or scent discrimination.  Sinco remembered the treats right away and ran to them every time.  Amigo the JRT did as well (especially after a potty break).  Then I did it with Spring and Tobie.  They both did better than Tay but took a bit more time than Amigo or Sinco but caught on pretty quickly.  After a break we brought Tay back and tried it again with different treats and she did much better the second time and was more like Tobie and Spring on the second time.  Tay is a highly food motivated dog who also if very smell sensitive and uses her nose constantly so one would think she could find a hidden treat easily. 

In a few days I am going to try it again with Tay in the same place to see how she does.  If she does well then I will move it to a new place.

I have a theory about Tay.  I think she can learn behaviors quickly when there is a clear large physical object (stimulus) involved.  All of the behaviors she does well involve some object that is pretty visible.  The behaviors she struggles with involve body cues from me or no physical objects at all.  I knew early on that obedience would not be a good sport for her and clearly that is true - the precision and awareness of my body cues is not a strong suit for her.  Agility is a good sport for her. 

Tay is very high functioning on the spectrum.  But she is here to remind us that there is a spectrum of cognitive functioning in dogs like there is in humans.  We have seen ranges in emotional functioning in dogs (i.e. reactive dogs).  We often overlook the fact that some dogs may not be able to learn what we want to teach them, may have difficulty learning the way we are teaching them or may not have the innate cognitive ability to do it.  I am very glad that I taught Tay with a clicker early on - I think that may have been the smartest thing to do for her.  She does not do well with luring - but the clicker is very powerful for her.  I have been learning that clicker training works well with autistic children.  I don't think Tay has trouble socially, she is very non-reactive and friendly but she does mediate well between people she knows and those she doesn't know.  I am busy reading resources that Suzanne has given me to brush up on cognitive psychology.

The good thing for me about Tay is that she is taking me back to my college and grad school psychology studies and now I'm getting caught up on the latest research in the last 20 years since then!  It is very exciting for me. 

Since this has happened in the last week a number of top trainers have shared similar stories where they thought it was the owner not having a clue about training the dog so the trainer took the dog home to try to work with it.  The top trainer also had a hard time with the dog.  So remember it is not always the owner's fault when a dog is not understanding a concept.  Sometimes it is part of who the dog is.

So when first looking at a training problem - open your mind and ask the dog "who are you?"  There may be physical reasons, mental limitations or relationship with the owner problems that are affecting training the dog.

Open your minds as well as your hearts and you will be amazed at what is out there!

Annelise who never ceases to learn from her dogs and her dogs never cease to teach her!

PS For those of you who want some light reading (or listening) - Suzanne and I recommend the Sapolsky lectures available at or at