Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tables, Tables, Tables

We had a great time at the USDAA trial this past weekend.  Sinco earned her PD3 title in very short time. She was in PD3 standard for only two trials! 

The biggest personal Q was Feisty's awesome table performance on Sunday's Advanced Standard run.  The table was very close to the edge of the ring and very close to where a timer, scribe and bar setter were sitting.  The bar setter was a tall man who I've worked with in the past for proofing her tables.  She is often stressed out by him when doing agility but not when she sees him away from agility.  The table was also near the speaker box which had spooked her during her snooker run.  I did a lot of desensitization outside of the ring near this area before our standard run.  Feisty ran non-stop to the table and got on and laid down immediately with her back to the people.  I praised her the entire time on the table and smiled at her.  I was thrilled!  I thought for a moment about leaving to a party but I remembered the last time I did that I spooked her by being too loud and excited and then she was afraid to do the table near me!  So I opted to just be happy while she was there and continue on the course.  I've spent a year and a half working on her stress over the table.  I have not run her in an AKC Excellent Std class in maybe 9 months or more.

Some folks have asked what I've done to work on this problem, well I've done a LOT of work on it!  I decided to not give up on it.  The problem started in July of 2008 when at an AKC trial the judge had a loud booming voice and Feisty noticed for the first time a judge's presence while she was on the table.  She was visibly distracted and could not focus the rest of the run.  She would not go near him when he was judging the JWW class - she knew he was there.  So I thought at first it was just an individual judge thing or maybe a male judge thing.  But then it generalized to a table problem at trial after trial.  She would stop and sniff the table and not get on, she would run away from the table, she would slam on the breaks and refuse to move, she would jump on and then off immediately - you name it she did it. 

So I first started by leaving the ring to a big treat party when she got on the table.  In the meantime she discovered that judges sometimes laugh when she does her table refusal antics.  She loves to make people laugh.  So I started to not be able to get her to go on the table at all.  I stopped running her in AKC standard classes at that point.  I took her to a group class where I could enlist the help of other students to hover around the table and also be major distractions around the course.  This was very stressful for her - she had a hard time working through people crowding her on course.  She would be fine with people outside the agility ring but not inside it.  I had varying degrees of success with this project.  I also had my students hang out after class to act as distractions for her. 

I used CPE as a good place to train the table because it is the last obstacle in the games so what better way to have a party for getting on the table.  Well she was sometimes reluctant to get on the table in CPE.  I lost a few Qs because she took too long to get on the table.  One time she did get on the table and it was part of the Jackpot class and I was so excited that I scared her with my excitement!  That set us back a bit in CPE last summer.

In USDAA Feisty has been pretty good about getting on the table in most cases.  There have been a couple of USDAA trials where she balked at it and it took a few seconds to get her to go on it.  But this weekend is a major breakthrough for her to get right on the table when so many people were just a couple of feet away from it and it was a male judge in the ring. It was also in a ring where earlier that day and the previous day she experienced some stress.   While it is way too early to tell I am thinking positive thoughts for our next AKC trial which will probably be this summer. 

I have advised some of my students to reward their dog's table performance by leaving the ring after the table to a party.  Mixing up when those rewards come at trials is so important to keeping ring performance fresh and consistent.  We too often take our dog's good performance for granted until it deteriorates to the point of losing Qs.  This is hard to do but it is SO important to improving a dog's performance in a trial setting.  No amount of run throughs or open ring time will be the same as a trial setting.

So we'll see how things go this summer at our next AKC trials.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

The "R" word ... again

While having Jedi's retirement discussion was hard this past week because we were not prepared for it but I was really unprepared to hear the "r" word mentioned for Tay.  It is hard when we have fun doing this game with our dogs and yet they are doing much more physical work than we are out there.

To have to face the decision to retire a very high energy 4 year old dog who loves agility is something I have not had to do.  Amigo's early retirement decision was not so hard because he really didn't seem to like agility (maybe because it always hurt him to do it).  I have lost dogs at young ages so I am grateful that Tay is still here with me.  I love her spirit - she (and Feisty) are always the first ones to volunteer to go with me.  She loves doing things with me, she has boundless energy and she loves learning new things.  While she has not been the most consistent agility dog, she is always fun to run because she is happy to be doing something with me. 

While I love competitive agility, realistically I know it is not something I will do the rest of my life.  I am pretty sure I will always have animals in my life.  I don't know what is in store for Tay and me but I will have to find a way to make time for whatever it is.  I do know it won't involve things that require lots of stays and self-control :)

Tay has had off and on front end lameness since the end of January.   I thought she had pulled a muscle at the seminar.  But after 10 days of massage and chiropractic she was still on and off lame on the left and right legs.  I decided to take her for x-rays.  Having learned my lesson from Spring that this could mean a broken leg, I wanted to be sure that was not the case.  I also had her tested for the tick diseases.  I was not at all prepared for the findings that showed she is in the early stages of arthritis on both elbows and has irritated lungs (she is asymptomatic).  The elbows are due to wear and tear and dogs with straight fronts are very susceptible to this.  I try to be careful about when I start jumping my dogs and where I jump them but some dogs are just more vulnerable to developing this condition.

I went to a seminar the day before the trial and I ran all of the dogs there.  I was concerned with the surface because it seemed harder and slipperier than I expected.  All of my dogs had sore muscles when they had massages at the trial the next day.  My dogs usually are not sore unless they injure themselves in some way. So please, please, please think very carefully about where and when you run your dogs in agility.  The softness of the surface is just as, if not, more important than the degree of slipperiness.  I would definitely not have run an older dog on that surface.  You just never know when your dog might have a condition that is going to be aggravated by running on hard surfaces and you never know what injury you could cause by running on that kind of surface.  Agility is an athletic sport and the risk of injury is ALWAYS there.  I try to stack the deck in my favor to minimize injury as much as possible.  I'm now even more adamant than ever that I won't knowingly run my dogs on a hard surface.  Sometimes even at outdoor trials the ground can be as hard as concrete. 

I guess I have another adventure ahead of me and more things to learn.  I just wish I knew what it was I had to learn and if the lessons could be easier...


Monday, February 8, 2010

Retiring dogs - difficult decisions

Another era in dog agility may be coming to a close.  The decision of when to retire a dog is so much easier when we can make the choice ourselves.  It is much harder when the dog makes it for us before we are ready to let go of the joy of running agility with our canine partner.

My very first dog and the one who got my hooked on agility died when she was two years old - shortly after we discovered the fun of agility!  Then Demi was the next one who went blind just when she was starting to get the hang of agility and being a teammate with me (she didn't come to me until she was a year and a half old and she had no training).  The cataract surgery was not enough to help her see to do agility safely in different types of lighting so it wasn't worth the risk of injury.  Then Bradish came along and really got me hooked on competitive agility.  He loved flyball and agility.  I had planned on obedience as his post-agility career.  However the years of flyball took their toll on his carpal joints and he was not sound enough to do the jumps required in Obedience Utility or Open so he was retired from that activity before I was ready.  Then Nigel was always watched carefully because he was diagnosed with moderate hip dysplasia at 2 years old by two different Orthopedic surgeons (one at the U of M) even though OFA said his hips were "good."  He developed Spondylosis as well as severe arthritis in hips and his agility career was very short lived.  He didn't like agility much and probably because it was painful to him at times even though he was plenty fast enough when he felt good. 

Then the next generation came along.  Leysha loved herding and liked agility and obedience.  I tried to do obedience earlier in her life than I did with Bradish in the hopes of actually finishing a UD with her.  Leysha was retired from agility in 2003 after she gave me the run of a lifetime with a fast clean run at the USDAA Veterans Grand Prix Finals.  We took second then.  She learned to love agility with a lot of help from me and I wanted to remember her running agility with that run in mind when we were in sync, she was giving me 200% and having a ton of fun.  She didn't need to do anymore agility after that - that was my gift to her.  She spent much of her retirement doing herding chores around here and earning started sheep and duck titles in AKC.  She became too stressed trying to earn a UD so I retired her from that.  I was able to work her through her initial stress in agility but doing it again at the age of 9-10 in obedience just didn't seem fair to her.  I wanted our obedience runs to be fun together and if she didn't enjoy it then I was not going to try to make her enjoy it.  She has loved her retirement life and she is still going strong and runs around the yard eager to help with any barn chore.  I love seeing her so happy just doing things around here - she was never that happy to go to an agility trial even though she earned many upper level agility championship titles and won national competitions.

Tobie is the next one in this generation.  He came to me at a year and a half.  I learned a lot from him, he loved agility and ran fast.  He taught me what it is like to train and run a fast dog.  He also taught me what it is like to have a reactive dog who is aggressive.  I learned a lot about training and managing a reactive dog.  He was a lot of work to manage at an agility trial.  He also was what I call an adrenaline junkie in that he would get so high he couldn't think when he was running.  It would interfere with our teamwork at trials.  He would listen and follow direction well in training and even at seminars but at a trial he would become like a drug addict who can't hear or follow directions.  He did earn a couple of champion agility titles but it was not fun for me as his teammate to run him at trials.  Yes he was very fast but when he was not a team player more than he was it made it not as much fun for me.  I retired him when he was 9 years old.  I also was concerned that he does get so high in agility that if he did hurt himself he would keep running and as he aged the likelihood of hurting himself increases dramatically.   He actually doesn't seem to mind retirement.  Due to his dog aggressiveness I can't take him to trials with me and I really can't do many other activities with him.  He and I did Rally but he gets high doing that and started barking while waiting his turn and then he can't think clearly.  He is a great dog around the house and easy to live with.

Amigo had to be retired from agility at the age of 3.  His structure with his front-end was causing repeated tears in his pectoral muscles when jumping.  He would have on again and off again lameness.  After rehabbing him twice from the injuries I consulted with a few different people and decided that retiring him from agility made the most sense.  He is a reminder that structure is really important for agility.  If you know your dog has poor structure for agility in some capacity or another you need to take extra care of that area and you need to be prepared that your dog may have to be retired from the sport at a younger age than most dogs.  When selecting a dog for agility it is so important to look at structure in terms of longevity in this sport.

Sonic, well most of you know he lived a short life with us. He left me long before I was ready at the age of 6.  He was just coming into his prime in agility.  He is a constant reminder that they can leave us all too soon at anytime and we need to cherish our time with them all the time. 

Pam's Jedi falls into this generation.  Her is what Pam writes about her struggle with the decision about when to retire him.

Pam writes: "Jedi is almost 11 years old, and a small sheltie who I expected to be able to play with in agility until he was at least 12 or 13. I thought that in the next year I would move him to 8" jumps in the organizations that have that option, and run with him that way for a few more years. I thought he and I had a lot more opportunities to step to the line together and smile at each other before taking off to play our favorite game. Now it's possible that he and I have had our last agility run together. Two different vets have told me it is time to think about retiring him. Mostly I don't want to think about it. I tell myself to wait until he's had time to heal from his latest episode of limping and pain, and then make a decision. I tell myself how much he loves the game. I tell myself lots of things to try to rationalize how this would be an OK thing to keep doing with him. But in my (broken) heart, I think that he and I have run our last agility course together.

I want to stop doing agility with him before it becomes something he is only doing to make me happy. I want to remember his joy and enthusiasm while running a course, not the little worried look he gets when something goes wrong because he was hurting. I want to remember him running fast with me, not struggling to get around a course. And mostly, I want him as strong and healthy as he can be, so his senior years are as joyful to him as his younger years were. I may have to stretch myself to learn new dog activities that Jedi and I can do together with his aging body, but his wonderful attitude that is about loving to do things with me, not necessarily about loving to do agility.

I'm not ready to make a total commitment to retiring him from agility -- I keep telling myself that maybe he will heal well and I will be able to feel good about continuing to play with him. But I hope I am able to make the right decision at the right time. He deserves that from me for all he is and for all he has done for me for so long." - Pam

As Pam notes too, we are the guardians of our canine partners/friends/family members.  It is up to us to decide when it is time to quit/change activities.  They can be so stoic and not show how much pain they are in.  When I see my dogs doing any one of these things: running slower than usual, running around obstacles, missing weave poles and not seeming as interested in doing agility, I stop to check for physical problems.  I don't ever want to knowingly run my dogs when they are in pain.  We have the privilege to say "I know you really like this game but it hurts you too much to do it anymore."  Agility is a game for athletes and it does take a toll on our dogs.  Many dogs will keep playing because they love us and they want to please us so much.  I want my dogs to play because THEY love it not because I love it.  Knowing your dog is very important and being honest about it.  Dogs don't care about titles, placements or national competitions.

Also keep in mind that it is not just the jumps that are hard on our dogs.  We can lower their jump heights but tunnels can be slippery, contacts can be hard on their front ends, weaves are very hard on backs and legs and turns can be hard on the body too.

So give your canine partners a hug and kiss and love them for who they are and not just for what they can do on the agility field!


Thursday, February 4, 2010

Sinco Video

From this past weekend's ASCA trial and courtesy of Linda Heaton here is a link to a video of one of Sinco's runs!

Thanks Linda!


Tay's amazing January!

Tay started out her agility career trialing at 18-20 months in novice AKC and ASCA and in levels 2 in CPE and P1 in USDAA.  She did really well and did not seem any different at trials than she was at home training.  She was really fun and consistent.  Then when she was about 25 months old at an ASCA trial I put her on a stay and did a four jump lead out.  It was something I had done many times in training so I thought I would try it at a trial.  Those of you who know what ASCA/NADAC jumpers courses are like - it can be really nice to have that long lead-out.  Tay became visibily stressed and by the time I got to jump four she got up and left the start line sniffing.  I took her off the course and began to ponder things.  At an AKC trial around the same time her dogwalk criteria started to fall apart and she was becoming visibly stressed about it.  I tried verbally marking it and that didn't seem to help.  Then I tried taking her off the course for not doing it and it only made matters worse.  These were all things I had done in training with her when she had gotten too excited to be able to maintain her criteria.

Tay is a dog who in training is very resilient.  She has no problem making mistakes and learning from them.  She loves clicker training and she will work endlessly to figure out what I want.  If she gets excited and misses a contact in training it doesn't take much to fix it.

Since she was about two years old I have spent the last almost two years working to get the dog back at trials who loves to train in agility.  It has been a long road with a lot of learnings for both of us.  Tay has had more "PQ" runs ("personal Qs" or "Party Qs") than any dog I've had.  She and I have tried essential oils, Florida Water, Pelliscastle collar and stones, talking to Mary Stoffel, past life clearings, Shamanic healings, T-Touch, Massage, Healing Touch, Chiropractic and probably a few other things I'm forgetting about. She and I have had more short training runs in trials.  I stopped showing her in AKC all together and only entered her in trials and classes where it was going to be easy to make up our own courses.  We did classes where we didn't have to do a dogwalk or weaves.  I would use ASCA and NADAC trials to work on those things where we can repeat the obstacles or sequences and where it is ok to make up your own course even on a regular course.  I stopped asking for a start line stay in trials and began running with her. 

In the beginning of all of this as I let go of asking for a start line stay I saw her ability to do weaves and any contact go downhill.  I figured that they were all linked together under the "self control" issue and if I don't ask for control at the start then it is hard to ask for it later in the run.  I stopped asking for those obstacles and just worked on having her run and have fun doing jumps, tunnels and teeters.  You'd be amazed how many classes you can do with just those obstacles and even pick up some Qs along the way!

Back when the meltdown first occurred I spent some time playing with a running dogwalk contact.  She has a running aframe.  I thought it might help.  I think it made matters worse.  In training she would offer me the two on two off.  So several months ago I went back to proofing the two on two off contacts on the dogwalk.  I really made it hard for her to maintain criteria with treats and chewies within reach of the dogwalk and by tossing things and running in different directions.  She got it.  Mind you had I proofed these things when she was younger but I think this time around she was more mature and the proofing started to sink in.  I did the same with the weaves poles. In training I threw the hardest and most difficult weave entries at her and I put all kinds of distractions by the poles.  I would run backwards and far away and up close on the poles.  She just got faster and faster in training and seemed to love the game.

However in trials she was still stressed if I asked her to do weaves or a dogwalk.  There would be avoidance or sloppy performances if I "tested" it at a trial to see where we were with it.  I also entered her mainly in ACTS trials where I knew what the situation would be like and the equipment would be familiar and honestly I would not feel like I was out of a ton of money in entries and travel!

At ASCA Nationals I totally planned to train in the ring - expensive training but good experience.  She totally melted down when I tried to train the weaves there and she totally stressed and avoided them.  After that I made the decision to move her back to Novice in ASCA and enter FEO so she could gain confidence again on 6 weave poles.  I did that this past Fall.  I think it really helped build her confidence back up.  So in January I decided to try her back in Elite Regular to see how she is doing.

At our January USDAA trial Tay ran the best she has run in years at a trial.  She earned a Starters Standard leg with a perfect run!  I was so thrilled and amazed.  She was really focused and fast and fun to run!  She had more great runs in a trial setting than we have had in ages!

This past weekend at the ASCA trial she gave me her first fast (like she gives me in training) two on two off dogwalk in public in two years on an elite regular run!  I was so thrilled I just wanted to make my way out of the ring and she hit a set of twelve poles like a pro!  I was so excited (she had an off course) that you would have thought we had earned an ATCH on that run!  It was her very FIRST Elite Regular Q.  This was in spite of being a bit sore and by Sunday I pulled her from most runs because Kristin thought she had a rib out.  I won't run her when she is sore, I've worked too hard to make it fun to run that I don't want to ask her to run when she is sore.

While I know enough not to rest on our laurels here I will continue to do proofing and to do calming things with her at a trial.  I still think and know she is sensitive to her environment but I also think she is learning to cope with it much better as her confidence increases.

The one thing that has not come back in trials and I'm still "testing" is a stay at the start line.  I've been training her with both me running with her and with stay leadouts.  I'd like to get a leadout back with her - it is really helpful with ASCA courses.  She still glazes over in a trial setting if I ask her for one there and can't do it.  I need to keep working on it.  She was able to do it at Dana's seminar on Friday which is progress.  She can do it a run thrus too.  I've had to go back and retrain a stay by having her sit on a stool/pedestal so she is more aware of her her foot movement.  Stays have always been hard for her to comprehend.  So I will keep working on it. Since she showed me she can do a two on two off fast and confident at a trial and she can hit 12 poles perfectly with speed I am optimistic we will get our stay at a trial back too!  I am grateful for organizations like NADAC and ASCA where we have more liberal training in the ring policies to help ring-wise and ring-stressed dogs work through things.  Trials are different than run-thrus to many dogs (and handlers) so it is helpful to be able to use these places to work through things.   I have done a lot of positive training in the ring with her.  I tried using corrections with her and didn't realize that her mindset at trials was different from training and it was causing her too much stress.  So after creating my own problem I am finally seeing improvement two years later and I have hope that we can move forward now and both of us enjoy trialing together again!

So it is just a reminder that every dog is a unique individual and the way a dog is in training may not be how they are at a trial.  Many of us are very different in training compared to trialing. 

I am also realistic and know I have a lot more PQs waiting for me than Qs still for Tay and me but it is much more fun this way!

Annelise and the "Amazing Miss Tay"