Friday, December 9, 2011

Who is the student?

Been a busy several weeks!  Sinco and I had an awesome weekend going 6 for 6 and earning her MACH!  She and I have had some awesome runs lately and some runs that made me stop and scratch my head wondering what happened out there.  Lately she is pushing me out of my comfort zone both in training and trialing.  I really like to be quiet when I am running and rely on my dogs to follow my body language unless I need to send them out for distance then I will use more verbal cues.  Well it seems that Sinco is forcing me to use my voice more than I like.  We have been working on tighter sequences and more going past obstacles so there I need to use my voice so it makes sense that I will need to use my voice more on the more open courses too. 

Feisty is close behind Sinco in their runs for their MACHs and she earned her 19th double Q last weekend on the same day Sinco earned her 20th.  However Feisty is always making me think about our training, communication and relationship.  We have been doing a lot of AKC agility these past few months, more than I usually do at a time.  Three trials ago I rewarded her for doing the table in a standard.  She missed the weave entry on the standard run and it was the fourth obstacle and so I decided to use it to reward her for getting on the table right away.  She got on it right away and went down immediately.  I praised her and we left the ring immediately after the table and gave her lots of treats as soon as we got out of the ring.  This is my "make lemonade" out of the NQ runs.

I have always felt that it is important to make runs short whenever I know for sure I have NQ'd on a run - I either want to reward the dog with a shorter course, find something that I want to try in terms of handling that I might not do if I had an important Q on the line, or find a great obstacle performance to reward by leaving right after the obstacle.  It is easiest to do these things when an NQ has happened.  I have been known when I have something I need to improve on in a trial environment to forget the Q and leave after a great obstacle performance to a "chicken party" aka a jackpot for the dog. 

I feel this helps dogs by introducing random reinforcement to the trial setting.  Too often dogs who are not intrinsically turned on to agility count the number of obstacles and they know when they are close to #20 on the course and will get faster to the end because it is closer to the reward.  Also very often dogs will not perform as well in the trial environment as they do in training/class.  One of the reasons is that we tend to not reward the good behavior the same way we reward it in class.  For most dogs going on to the next obstacle is NOT a reward.  For dogs who do find agility intrinsically rewarding I don't let the next obstacle be a reward because if that next obstacle ends up being a knocked bar, missed weave or missed contact then it is not really a reward.  I want the best rewards to come from me and not from the agility course.  Doing agility is the secondary reinforcer for some dogs but NOT for MOST dogs out there.  Many dogs do agility because we want them to do it and they want to make us happy.  It is our job to make agility fun in and of itself and that can be a lot of work for many of us and our dogs.

So with Feisty I reinforced her table three trials ago after she NQ'd.  I thought that would fill up the table bank account again as I never take her table performances for granted.  I worked for almost a year to get her to do the table in a trial.  Well the next weekend after I had filled the table bank account, on our first standard run a male judge moved in on her as she approached the table and she squirted out past the table and turned to face him and me and then got on the table - a refusal...  I left immediately to a reward - hey she got on it in spite of being concerned about the male judge who was in her space (in her opinion).  I couldn't see any other learning opportunities on the course after that.  The next day we had a female judge but she stopped right in front of the table and peered over it and then hopped on.  It was near the end of the course and it was all jumps and tunnels remaining so we finished the course and had rewards.  So clearly the table problem was starting to return.  The third day at this trial was a meltdown on the standard run because a camera was clicking at her (in spite of my request to not do so).  So we aborted the run when she froze in fear in the middle of the ring.  We never got to the table. Then there was last weekend.  She had a fabulous double Q run on Friday and I was hopeful we were back on track.  But alas on day two of this trial she paused before getting on the table and incurred a refusal.  The judge was female and nowhere near her. 

As I always do I start to reflect on what may be causing the table problem to return.  One table refusal here and there has not worried me but now it is starting to look like a pattern.  One thing that has occurred to me is that when the male judge (even though he was softspoken and average in stature) encroached on her the weekend before she may have had a flashback to a couple of years ago when the large loud male judge startled her on the table with his booming table count.  Feisty doesn't forget anything.  Flashbacks can be scary.

So on day three of the trial this past weekend the table was in the corner of the room and the judge far away and no ring stewards in sight.  Feisty was running great - through a lot of the hard spots on the course, we were 3/4 of the way toward our 20th double Q.  It was weaves that pointed at the table but the course had a jump 90 degrees off of the weaves and then back to the table.  Well in spite of my front cross at the exit of the poles, Feisty squirted out of the weaves and headed to the table!  I managed to call her back and get her over the jump - it was a really awkward move as she somehow went behind me to the jump and then I sent her to the table.  She strolled past the back of the table by about an inch and then got on.  The crowd groaned as did I internally.  A table refusal had occurred.  So I left the ring and I didn't reward her but I picked her up and teased her a bit.  I suspect that calling her off of the table didn't sit well with her so she wasn't sure she wanted to get on the table when I asked her to do so.  I normaly don't attribute such thinking to dogs however this is Feisty.  Her training has been about making it seem like it is her idea to do things.  She is not easily convinced to do things she doesn't want to do.  Fortunately she loves to be busy and loves to do things so it is easy for her want to do things.  I usually try hard not to call her off of obstacles and probably if it hadn't been the blasted 20th double Q on the line I would have been happy that she was heading to the table after having had 3 NQs from table faults.   I let a possible Q affect me as a trainer and I was the bad dog trainer and Feisty was going to make sure I learned that lesson the hard way!!!

So once again Feisty is the teacher and I am her ever humble student!

Monday, November 14, 2011

How stress affects us and our dogs...

Since Kathy Keats was here in November my students who attended have made so much progress. Her "Inner Power" seminar was very inspirational.  Several of my students had working spots and she did a great job of raising their stress level to simulate a trial setting and then give them a number of tools to help them gain confidence in remembering courses, recovering on course and in focusing on what matters most - having fun with your dog which in turn reduces their stress level at trials!

She was fantastic at focusing on each individual and she had great exercises which got the auditors involved too.  We all left with valuable tools, more self confidence and homework!  She truly was a great coach to all of us.

To be able to recreate stress and then work through it is a great skill to have as a presenter. It was also so evident how the human's stress was being conveyed to the dogs as I saw dogs recreating their behavior at trials in a training setting.  How cool is that! 

I've talked in other posts about stress and the signs of it in our dogs. I was told recently that I'm very good at seeing signs of stress in my dogs but I was cautioned that my acknowledging it and trying to sound happy to get them unstressed may actually be reinforcing it.  Interesting - I hadn't quite thought of it that way.  Like "It's Ok" in a happy tone can have the same tone as "good dog."  So I'm paying more attention to what I'm doing and when if I am working with a stressed dog.

IThe two places I see the most signs of stress in dogs are training the teeter and the weaves.  I work a lot with dogs afraid of the teeter because students often come to me for help with a teeter problem.  The one thing I have noticed is that in playing the "bang it" game with the teeter that dogs who are not totally comfortable pushing the board down will show it by not pushing the board very hard, by not wanting to keep their front feet on it after it is down and/or by gingerly putting one paw on it at a time.  Watching them closely it often seems to the student that the dog is fine but in reality the dog is still stressed about it.  So I keep dogs working on this stage until they are very confidently pushing the board down and it is making noise when it goes down.  This is another place where I see signs of stress that are often not realized or noticed by the student.  It is important to watch the dog's behavior carefully at these early stages.  The "bang it" game helps dogs learn that they control both the movement and sound of the board.  For really fearful dogs I will play a lot of games interacting with the teeter so they build a lot of positive associations being around the teeter.  However the dog wants to interact with the teeter for really fearful dogs is rewarded.  I encourage students to play games at home that involve shaping the dog to bang cupboards, bang cans, close lids - any thing that involves movement and noise.  Dogs have so many subtle ways they show stress and they will go through the motions but it is watching their body posture, ears, eyes and mouth that you can assess how they really feel.

I often see dogs licking their lips when doing weaves.  I see it in young dogs when they are in that early thinking hard stage before it has become muscle memory.  It usually goes away in these dogs as their confidence increases.  I saw it the other day in a student's dog the first few times doing the weaves. On the last repetition he was faster and didn't lick his lips at all!  That was a great learning moment and a great place to end that session!  Too often when training by ourselves we can't see these things.  I first saw it many years ago in a video of one of my dogs weaving and he was one who stressed about weaving in public.  Sure enough when I slowed the video down I was shocked to see him licking his lips at every pole!  So I have to say I love it now when my red girls bark their heads off in the weaves - I know they are barking for joy and not stressed!  Licking the lips can help a dog relieve stress and can be present in the learning stages and not be too much of a concern.  It is when signs of stress continue over many sessions or appear only in trial settings that I become concerned about how the stress is affecting the dog's performance.  I see a lot of dogs stressing in weave poles at trials.

When dogs go slowly on a course at a trial until the weaves, and/or do the weaves slowly and then speed up for the rest of the course, or when a dog is approaching the weaves and inexplicably veers off away from the weaves or runs right past them as if they are not there I suspect that the dog is very stressed about the weaves in a trial.  I have found that the handler's behavior toward the poles in the trial often creates the stress in a trial setting.  I have noticed that handlers will correct their dogs when the dog is actually in the act of weaving when a dog has missed a weave entry.  If a dog misses a weave entrance and continues in the act of weaving and you verbally correct and/or pull the dog out for missing the entrance your timing will never be able to actually correct the dog at the exact moment they missed the entrance.  By the time your brain processes the missed entry, you verbalize your correction and the dog hears it and processes it when the dog is weaving and now is feeling corrected for actually weaving.  For the vast majority of dogs out there who are sensitive this can be devastating to weave performance.  This was the huge lesson I learned with Sonic and I was in the process of trying to undo the damage I had done when he passed away.  Since him I never ever correct a dog when they are weaving regardless of the weave entry. If I'm in NADAC or ASCA or UKI I will repeat the sequence before the weaves and when the dog does the weaves correctly, I praise and probably leave to a jackpot.  If I'm in another organization it will depend on the dog whether I will fix it or just go on - that is a case by case basis.  Since I've adopted this with my own dogs I have seen significant improvement in weave performance in my dogs, especially sensitive ones who could easily shut down.  I also am careful about letting some dogs go on when they miss weave poles - some dogs will learn that is ok in a trial setting - others won't care.  Again I keep notes about these things and I want to address it as quickly as possible when I figure out how my dog is responding.  I also do a lot of proofing on weave poles in training to improve focus while weaving in training so that a trial is not that distracting compared to what I've done in training.

Since Kathy was here, a few of my students who actively participated and a few who audited have shared with me how much the seminar helped them.  I have one student who used to get lost on course every week in class and since the seminar she said she has a better idea of how to memorize a course so that her brain is no longer all filled up with just trying to remember the course.  She has now been able to focus more on handling and now I understand better why handling skills were so hard for her. This was exactly what Kathy said happens to many people is that they spend so much mental power remembering a course that they can't even comprehend handling or watching the dog on course.  Her exercises, while great at recreating trial type stress, were great for providing ways to remember courses and visualize them.  Now that the students can remember the courses much more easily they are able to learn about handling and it has been a liberating experience for everyone.  The dogs also are more relaxed now that the students are able to focus more on them in class and less on remembering a course. 

I think this also applies to dogs who are very sensitive to their environment at trials.  Their brains are "full" from trying to process their environment and deal with their concerns.  I have seen this in Feisty where her performance will almost feel in slow motion on a course and I know it is because something is distracting her mentally.  I am also seeing as her own self confidence continues to increase as I am taking her to different places to trial she is becoming better at working through this.  It is my job to help her in training to learn to cope with environmental distractions and keep working.  She is starting to learn that it is fun to keep running agility and that she is still safe.  So this is one of those things where it can be hard to find what is causing your dog to go slowly but if they are physically fine, consider overall environmental stressors/distractors.  With dogs like this I do a lot of short courses - 2-3 obstacles in a trial setting and leave to a party.  As they do those faster and faster then I will gradually build on that.  I don't like to do "flooding" and have them run most of a course slowly.  These dogs will often go faster at the end of the course and appear "happy" at the end.  Often that appearance of "happy" is that of relief that they are not longer stressed.  Think of how you feel about an amusement ride.  If you get in line to go on a ride that you are both excited to do but you have some anxiety/fear about doing it.  You are tense and you have a hard time focusing on other things.  You are on the ride and you go back and forth between anxiety and adrenaline rush depending on how fearful you are.  When you are done you feel a rush of relief and a sense of happiness.  Often if the ride was scary you may not want to get back on that ride right away.  Dogs can feel the same way about agility courses.  We can't make amusement rides shorter and build up our confidence but we can do that with agility courses at trials.  Leysha was the first dog I did this with and it was the best thing I could do for her.  I did it with Feisty, Sinco and Tay and it build their confidence in every case even though they may not have had extreme cases of stress - it is a way to start trialing and build confidence.

Thanks to Kathy I learned how to look for stress in my students in class (I could see it in trials but now I can start to see signs of it in class!) and I hope my students will be able to learn to see signs of stress in their dogs.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Mental Block Revealed

For three years Feisty has been in Elite Chances and for over two years Sinco has been Elite Chances in NADAC.  For the first time I have had a "block" on qualifying in a specific class with multiple dogs.  Going into the trial this weekend Sinco had 2 Qs and Feisty had 1 Q in Elite Chances.  I have been training all of my dogs distance skills from the time they are puppies.  Both dogs have earned many Gamblers legs in ASCA and USDAA.  I have earned many NATCHes with multiple dogs back when NADAC had the Gamblers class. 

So when Susan Perry was here I told her that I needed help figuring out why I was having so much trouble with this class.  We worked on some challenging distance sequences on Friday with both dogs in the seminar.  I was really pleased at how well both dogs did and I found a couple of things I was having a tendency to do - like moving too fast as if I was runnning with them instead of going slower when they were at a distance.  After Friday's session I felt very confident going into the trial.

On Saturday morning I handle the Elite Regular courses from significant distance. One of the courses had a "bonus box" in it and I handled quite a bit of the course from that box with both dogs.   I did a lot of distance with both dogs on both courses. 

On Saturday of the trial the Chances course felt very doable to me.  I had a plan.   I ran Sinco first and somehow I thought I had cued the rear cross flip out to the jump in a timely manner but she kept going straight ahead into an off course tunnel.  I ran Feisty and she was amazingly thoughtful and smooth and she did the course perfectly to earn her second Elite Chances Q!

I ran jumpers and handled the jumpers courses with a lot of distance 40 plus feet with both dogs and they both qualified which was really a rush!

On Sunday morning I did some distance on one round of regular and ran with the dogs in order to work on Feisty's dog walk on one run and to help keep Sinco motivated I ran with her on one of the regular rounds.

On Sunday the Chances course felt even more doable than Saturday's.  I had a plan.  I was going to be far from the line.  I ran Feisty first and she did the distance part beautifully like clockwork and then I did a front cross and came out of it blocking the aframe which is what she was supposed to take and she went into the tunnel under the aframe for an off course.  Then I ran Sinco and I somehow didn't support the "out" jump enough and she came in to me.  I was pretty upset with myself after both of those runs.  It occurred to me pretty quickly that I am mentally sabotaging myself in this class for some reason.

I ran Tunnelers and handled it with a lot of distance with Sinco and she qualified.  I did the Jumpers course from about 20 feet from the bonus line and she qualified.  I feel as though my dogs and I have distance skills.

I feel strongly that with good quality training that is consistent with strong foundation skills in handling and distance that dogs and handlers can compete in any organization they want to do.  If I have a dog with strong obstacle focus and weaker handler focus I spend most of my training time working on the handler focus.  I would be careful to not keep a dog like that in Novice very long so the dog is having to run more complex courses where they face choices in obstacles.  If I have a very handler focused dog then I would work more on distance and increasing obstacle focus and I might keep them in novice longer to develop confidence and distance.  I am always working on maintaining a balance between handler and obstacle focus. 

Therefore my dogs and my student's dogs can go from Teacup trials one weekend where spacing between obstacles is 8-12 feet to a NADAC trial the next weekend where spacing is 20 feet between obstacles to an AKC and/or USDAA trial the next weekend which is in between the two for spacing.  I do think it requires more training to have a dog who can compete in different organizations which have different niches in the market.  It is a challenge I enjoy.  I do have one small dog who does not enjoy Teacup courses and has made that very clear so she doesn't have to run in it very much.  I have another dog who stresses too much at AKC trials so she doesn't have to them for now.  So I do look at what my dogs seem to enjoy doing and will respect that.  I personally enjoy doing all of it and I enjoy the different training and handling challenges presented by each organization. 

So now that I have realized I have a mental block in one class in one organization I am determined to work on it.  I'm grateful Kathy Keats will be here soon with her Inner Power Seminar to hopefully help me overcome this particular mental block I have.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Hit me with the 2 x 4... or I hate the AKC "Double Q" syndrome

Lesson 1: Sinco

Ok so at Saturday's AKC trial I had qualified with Sinco in our first run in Standard - it was a lovely run.  The Jumpers with Weaves course had a section that was going to be particularly challenging for us (and for many others...).  I ran Feisty first and had messed up the section when I came out of my front cross completely not where I thought I would be and I lost track of the course so we left the course early and I never let Feisty know something was wrong.  When I ran Sinco on that course I got to the section in question which involved an offset line of jumps with a 180 degree turn from a jump into the weaves with an off course jump set 90 degrees out from the jump before the weaves.  It was difficult to get there with a fast dog without doing a rear cross.  So I rear crossed and tried to pull Sinco into the weaves.  She went wide heading to the off course jump.  I called her and even clapped - I never do that on course with her.  She came to me but missed the weave entry.  I let it go and finished the course.  I knew immediately that I had shut her down and began to ponder what I should have done differently. 

Well she is a fast dog but she is a sensitive dog and I have always vowed to let her go off course if I make a mistake and can't be clear to her.  Well that time I didn't and I did a "call off" which I abhor.  It shut her down and I felt horrible about it.  Yes she needs to be able to recover better but really it is just another course and it really is not worth shutting my dog down in order to get a Q.  The last thing I want to do is cause her to slow down and worry any more than she already does about making mistakes.  She is very fast and that is due to a lot of work to build her confidence. 

As a young dog just starting to trial she would go into stress zoomies and search for any friendly face if I even thought a mistake had been made by either one of us!  I had to work hard to always pretend as if everything was going along well.  It took a long time to get her confident enough to pull her off a start line when she broke a stay or to take her off for launching a contact.  She so rarely does either because she wants to be right.  In fact she will ask "are you sure" at the start line more often than break. 

What I should have done the second she started to come toward the weaves was praise her with "Yes!  Good girl!" instead of telling her to weave in an emphatic tone!  Out comes the 2 x 4 for me!  If I hadn't had a "double Q" on the line it would have been easier for me to let her go off course and tell myself how I should have handled it better.

Sinco also reminded me that I need to be very careful with her physical well being. She loves agility and working but she is so rarely sore that when she is the least bit sore it distracts her. I've learned to notice that if she doesn't bark before we go in the ring, doesn't bark on course, takes unexplained off courses (probably to avoid turning in a direction that hurts) and can't do the weaves that she is sore. This happened on our first run on Friday and sure enough after the run I found a muscle that was spasming. I was able to massage it and loosen it up and she ran better in the second run. This was a hard lesson I learned at AKC Nationals when she was very sore there and she and I were so disconnected as a team because she was so distracted by her own body.  Very often this kind of distractedness is not properly related back to the dog's physical well-being when it should be.  Again a lesson relearned again to first check out the physical aspects of the dog when something is not going well in training and/or trialing.

My lesson was learned and applied and we had two beautiful clean runs on Sunday that were fast and smooth.  So that was good for both of us to end the weekend on very good high notes!  I needed a reminder that no Q is worth shutting my dog down to get it or running my dog when she is sore!

Lesson 2: Feisty

Friday at the AKC trial, w ran early in the day and it was hectic so I didn't have time to watch many runs before our turn.  On our first run which was standard the judge had to move a lot to be able to judge all three contacts - it was not the greatest course design from a judging perspective.  She was moving toward Feisty as she approached the teeter which caused Feisty to veer off toward me and I had to "herd" her on to the teeter.  Then the table was three obstacles later and Feisty got on the table at the far corner from the judge and was barely on it.  After that she ran well.  I was not sure how things had been judged and whether Feisty had veered off enough to have gotten a refusal on the teeter or not but she hadn't.  I have not had her veer off toward me like that in a very long time and it caught me by surprise.  She usually veers off completely away from me and the judge.  So this was a huge lesson to me to remember to watch the judge's path before we run.  Ideally in AKC if I can watch the judge's path before I walk the course then I can have a plan that is  hopefully ideal from both a handling perspective as well as manging the environment perspective.  AKC and USDAA and sometimes CPE judges are most likely to encroach on her. 

Whenever I feel a judge is encroaching on us I always say outloud to Feisty in hopes the judge will get the hint "It's OK Feisty - its just the judge - don't worry".  In this case I think it helped because in Jumpers with weaves the same judge was especially still for our run over by the weaves.  Feisty was very slow in the weaves as she went by the same judge and was licking her lips as she weaved which is a sign of stress.  She was concerned that the judge could walk toward her at any moment. She did earn a double Q under this judge which demonstrates how well she is doing recovering from a stressful experience with a judge.  Two years ago it would have set us back months in our training.

On Saturday Feisty stopped and sat in front of the table and then bounced on and off and then stayed on in the ring with the same encroaching judge who had encroached on us the day before.  I knew for sure she was concerned about the judge.  But she did get on the table and stay and it was near the end of the course so we could just run out and have a party anyway.   On Sunday she did well in standard with a different judge and qualified. So that was also huge recovery for her to get on the table perfectly with a different judge. She has come a long way!  She ran in Jumpers with Weaves with the judge who had bothered her and I watched the judge's path carefully before I walked the course.  I noticed that the judge would walk behind dogs while they were in the weaves and I noticed where she stood relative to a hard part of the course.  So I stayed close to Feisty in the weaves and reminder her to weave - she slowed down at pole 10 and started to sniff but I was there to remind her to weave and she did.  I know she felt the presence of that judge walking up behind us in the poles.  After that she sped up but she was not as speedy as she can be so I know she was watching the judge.  I stayed close to her in spots where I knew the judge would put pressure on  her and she may feel it.  We earned a Q on that run and she doubled Q'd too.  I feel that she did well on that course in part because her recovery skills and coping skills are improving all the time in dealing with stressful ring situations and because I paid close attention to things that might bother her so I was there to support her at those points on the course.

While I would like to be able to handle Feisty as if there were no issues I know that it is in her best interests if I handle the course in a way that supports her.  What I won't do is handling moves that she is not used to me doing just to try to avoid an environmental/judge issue.  I will always only use handling techniques that she is comfortable with because that will also build her confidence. 

So I had the hard reminder this weekend that I must do what is best for my dogs regardless of the Q on the line - it is about the journey, it is about the progress we continue to make and it is about having fun doing it!  Feisty is proof that patience does pay off and attention to details is very important in trialing and training.  Also she has taught me that it is not always the most obvious thing that is the stressor.  What is stressful for one dog may not be stressful for another. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Training Sessions

I am frequently asked by students how long a training session should be, what does a training session look like, how often should I train etc. 

My answer is almost always "it depends".  My general guidelines are that a training session with a puppy/young dog should be about 5 minutes for one exercise.  This may or may not include your set-up time for the exercise.  I don't let my puppy run amok when I'm setting up.  it is a good time to practice being tied up or crated or staying on a mat while I set-up.   While this may seem like hardly any time if you sent a timer for 5 minutes you will be amazed at how much you can do in that amount of time. 

With a puppy/young dog shorter sessions fit well with their shorter attention spans.  You don't want to go past what their brain capacity can handle.  Some puppies may even need a 2 minute limit for a training session if they are easily distracted.  The last thing I want to do with any dog is over-face them or stress them in a training session especially when teaching something new.

With Carmine I try to do a minimum of two 5 minute sessions each weekday.  If I get a third one in on a day we are doing really well.  On the weekends I may get one session in if I'm lucky when I'm away at a trial.  If we are on the road then we do a lot of "life training" where we work on walking around distractions and new sights and smells and that is the main focus of our training.

I have a couple of exercises that I like to take with me to new places because I don't need any equipment and they are about focus, control and drive.  The one is the game I call "Ready 1-2-3" which is about focus, self control and drive when called.  I can do the game anywhere and I can do it with the leash attached if I feel I need to do so. 

The other exercises I do with my puppy/young dog in different places for quick on the fly training sessions are to work on fast sits, fast downs and fast releases to a toy.  Lastly I try to continually work on loose leash walking wherever we go and I work on not losing their mind around people and dog activity.

When I go to agility trials with my puppies I do not want them erupting outside the agility ring.  I have seen over and over again that there is no correlation between dogs who are reactive to the motion of dogs and people and their success/drive in the agility ring.  Often fast, high drive dogs are the ones more likely to have high prey drive and demonstrate that outside the ring.  I have seen many dogs be reactive to dogs running agility and then have a low interest in doing agility themselves.  It is prey drive that is activitated when they see a dog running so all they may want to do is chase that dog.  Some dogs do get excited to have their turn out there once they understand the game but in the beginning the puppies don't know what the game is and all they see is a dog running.  Having adrenaline levels amped up before an agility run often correlates to low productive brain function inside the agility ring.  My personal experience with my own dogs, student dogs and friends dogs has showed this to be the case time and time again.  So I work on teaching my dogs how to function well outside an agility ring so that they do not "lose their minds."  Keeping a dog below "threshhold" for adrenaline levels is very important.  Once a dog goes "over the top" they need to be removed from the situation to get the excitement level back down.  It won't go down on its own by staying in the environment.  If the adrenaline level did go "over the top" studies have shown it can take up to TWO weeks away from stimulation for levels to return to normal.  If  dog is continually and habitually in that environment they run the risk of becoming addicted to the adrenaline rush and will be more difficult to train.  I've had a dog who was what I called an "adrenaline junkie" and while he was fast in agility he often lost his mind and could not be thoughtful on course and therefore had trouble collecting, had trouble maintaining contact criteria and stays at the start line.  So I work hard to teach my puppies early on how to behave around dogs in motion.  It is the number one thing and until I have focus around motion.  This has to be the highest priority in training if you want to have a performance dog.  The agility training is far easier and can be done any time but working on self control around dogs in motion is much harder for many dogs and handlers.

In terms of being a good dog person, having a dog outside the ring barking at dogs running agility is also inconsiderate to the dog running.  It produces an intimidating environment for the dog running agility or it can provoke a dog who is running to go after the barking dog for staring at them.  So there are many reasons having a dog overly aroused around agility is inappropriate behavior. 

So I like to take my dogs around distractions early on as puppies so I can see how they can function and start to build on their focus.  In the beginning it may only be a few seconds and gradually - over months - work up to minutes of focus around distractions.  Every dog will work at its own pace.  Since my dogs don't usually get to group classes I have to be more creative in setting up distractions for my dogs.  Generally group classes provide a lot of distraction for young dogs which is why it is a hard place to train new things to a young dog.  When I have a puppy/young dog who is easily distracted by their environment I do make a point of enrolling them in group classes so they will have more exposure to those distractions and that is the main focus of my training in those classes. I make sure my dog is not going to be disruptive in a group class - then it would be too much for my dog and the other dogs.  But if I just need to do short training sessions with the distractions and the dog just needs to learn more focus then it is fine.

Again short training sessions - less is more is the key to quality dog training!  My dogs don't get a lot of time in training but they get short high quality training sessions focused on only one or two skills.
Enjoy training your dog! 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Different dogs, different training, different handling...

The universe continues to send me different types of dogs for my own personal training experiences so I can learn and presumably use that knowledge to help others (at least I think that is what is supposed to happen!)

This past weekend I ran Tay in  a NADAC trial in all the runs for the first time in close to two years.  She has been one of my interesting training and trialing challenges for me.  Now that she is not in pain when running she is less stressed and not avoiding obstacles as much as she was before I found out about her injury.  In training she is fast and brilliant.  She rarely makes a mistake or misses a body language cue.  She loves agility and any kind of training as long as food and running are involved.  Training her is so easy because she catches on to things quickly for agility purposes.  However trialing her is very different.  She is a very different dog in a trial setting.  She absolutely can not do a stay at the start line in a trial.  I've tried pulling her off for breaking it and it doesn't get through to her.  She is so high at a trial that she can't put that together.  By the end of a three day weekend she was tired enough that I could do very short sit stays with her on the last couple of runs.  At a trial she does not seem to pay any attention to my body language.  I really want to run quietly with my dogs and I train that way.  However there are times when I have had to be louder than I like on occasion.  With Tay it seems like I need to be loud and extremely vocal with her during the entire run.  This takes me way out of my comfort zone.  I also need to sound threatening to her in order to get her to do her contacts correctly.  I think she gets very excited and then becomes easily distracted.  She often seems to be scanning the outside of the ring when she is running.  Some of her photos show the whites of her eyes like she is very excited out there.  She really wants to play but there are times when she starts to sniff that I know she and I are not connected and she is worried - I think she loses focus and then needs me to help her get back on track.  Anyway she requires more micro managing on a course than I am used to doing.  At the trial some folks said maybe I should just train her and not trial her.  I thought about that but when you see how much she wants to run and she was trying hard to do her dogwalk contacts at the trial.  It is the first trial where she actually did her dogwalk with a 2 on 2 off (sometimes sloppily) and she stayed on course more than she has in a long time.  While she is a lot of work to keep on course I do think she is enjoying it and she is fast enough to make time in elite jumpers even when we had to fix a jump - that is pretty fast!  Everyone who watches her thinks she looks like she is having fun out there.

So once again I am adapting my handling style and techniques to the dog in order for us to be successful teammates. 

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Chances - more than just a chance!

It has been hard for me to handle (no pun intended!) my abysmal Q rate in Elite Chances since December 2008 when I moved Feisty up to Elite.  I have had 16 NQs (at least that many that I recorded).  That was hard for me to take given that I teach and train distance from the time they are puppies, I have a lot of experience handling distance type classes and Feisty prefers to work away from me and loves NADAC courses.  So why was this class so challenging for me? 

For awhile I chalked it up to Feisty's quirks.  The first quirk was that she literally would balk at the gamble line.  I was able to recreate this in front of Susan Perry at one of her distance seminars.  So I spent some time working with her and a line on the ground and just getting her to ignore it whether I was doing distance or not. 

Then I moved Sinco up in April 2010 and we had 9 NQs with no Q and I was really feeling challenged.  When the going gets tough for me in dog training I can get pretty tough.

I had made notes of why we NQ'd on most of the runs.  It was never just one thing.  It was either my late timing of cues, my poor body position, my dog's lack of training for a specific skill or my dog's lack of attention.  So I decided to focus on the specific skills and started to focus my short training sessions with my dogs on improving their ability to turn away from me and find various obstacles, ability to comprehend directionals such as "right" and "left" at a distance.  Their independent obstacle performance on weaves and contacts was pretty good.  I did work on their ability to find hoops at a distance however.

My discouragement in my own inability to qualify in Elite Chances was so bad that when I decided I wanted to go to Championships this year I moved Feisty and Sinco back to Open so we could have a better shot at getting the two Chances Qs we would need and since we had 0 Elite Chances Qs.  In one weekend both dogs earned two Open Chances Qs.  This bolstered my confidence.  After that I moved them both back to Elite and  I went to Des Moines and Feisty came as close as she ever has to earning an Elite Chances Q and Sinco was wilder than I expected.   The following weekend I was in Gillette WY for a NADAC judging clinic and funraiser.  It really helped me to get some insight into the course design philosophy for Chances and to build some courses and discuss the tests and design.  Then at the funraiser both Sinco and Feisty earned their first Elite Chances Qs.  I was starting to feel like the training was paying off but I found myself paying closer attention to my handling and being more careful and thoughtful in my walking of the course. 

This weekend Sinco earned her 2nd Elite Chances Q and it was a beautiful smooth run - I was where I was supposed to be and she was taking direction beautifully - she came in and went out and did a difficult discrimination at speed. 

Now I don't pretend to think that we have it mastered but I do feel like I've made strides.  I do think in analyzing this over the last few weeks the one thing that needed to happen for me is that I needed to remember that my dogs work distance well because I trained it.  Sinco in particular is not a natural distance dog so she needs a lot of confidence to work away from me and she wants me to be perfect in my timing and position.  Feisty is a natural distance dog but that gets in the way at times because she will lock on to obstacles and if I break through her desire to grab an obstacle it is often hard to recover because she comes off the line/course too much.  So it adds a level of difficulty with her to keep her on course from the very beginning and not let her lock on to the incorrect obstacle. 

I also have to remember that training versatile agility dogs requires that I have to work harder to maintain the different skills they have and to maintain a balance.  This is one of the challenges I like in doing different forms of agility.

Now I'm looking forward to trying "EGC - Extreme Games Classes" tomorrow where there will be some different kinds of distance and handling challenges.  I've taught my dogs distance using gates as youngsters so I will find out how much they remember about them!  I am looking forward to another type of agility training challenge.

It is a good reminder that there are a lot of skills needed in agility and I need to remember to continually hone those skills and do tune ups on those that are most needed for a given type of agility.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


My puppy owners and students have been asking me a lot of questions such as "when should I start weaving?", "when should I start jumping?" and "when should I start... (fill in the blank)?"  I've been giving this a lot of thought especially with so many puppies currently training at ACTS right now as well as my first litter of puppies approaching 12 months of age soon. 

Puppies need to not only be physically ready for training - meaning growth plates have closed and there is an awareness of their body and how to use it ,but  puppies also need to be mentally ready.  This mental readiness is much harder to assess but it is so important to the training program.  We often talk about how males mature more slowly than females mentally or about how this or that puppy seems to be more immature or mature than others its age.  When it is something many of us can see - is there a way to really quantify this so we can have some measure of a puppy's mental readiness?

In my experience with my own puppies and my student's puppies it makes a huge difference if weave training is started when the puppy/young adult is mentally ready compared to starting it when they are still mentally immature.  Weaving is a complex behavior involving a lot of mental and physical coordination.  It doesn't matter which of the many training methods you use, if a dog is not mentally ready for weaving when it is started it can take an excruciatingly long time to train it to fluency and/or it can cause mental stress for the dog.

I first really noticed this phenomenon 4 years ago with Sinco.  Generally I like to move dogs through weave training as quickly as they can handle it which is why it is important to be sure they are mentally ready.  Sinco continued to show me that she was having trouble grasping the concepts.  Tay who was the same age caught on to weaving very quickly and really seemed to enjoy it at an early age.  Feisty also caught on to weaving quickly.  I chose to be patient with Sinco and just try her on the weaves every couple of weeks throughout the summer.  We were having to rework the teeter as well since she had a set-back on the teeter.  One day Sinco went through the weaves with the guides I like to use without hesitation and with speed and I knew that she was getting it.  It had paid off to not push her on it but to let her try it every couple of weeks just one time.  I believe if I had done a lot of repetitions with her she would have thought too hard about it and stressed herself trying too hard to learn it.

Now I wish I could put my finger on what clued me into giving her more time to learn to weave while the other two dogs I had who were about the same age were able to handle learning to weave and progressed at brisk pace. 

I do find that students who start agility training with older dogs have an easier time if and only if their dogs have been taught how to learn and how to make mistakes from a young age.  The older dogs seem to have a mental readiness for learning complex behaviors that is missing in many young dogs.  Now there are young dogs who are very mentally mature for their age (just as we see in people) and these dogs can be amazing at what they learn at young ages and in these cases we have to use the physical limitations to slow down the training process. 

So some things I'm starting to look for in terms of mental readiness for learning complex behaviors and behavior chains (sequencing obstacles for example) include:
  • Ability to focus on learning new things for a few minutes at a time - continuously without getting distracted.
    • This may not seem like much but for those who have done two minute timed shaping sessions will realize that two minutes can be a long time and dogs can lose focus multiple times in that two minutes. 
  • Ability to learn new things in a distracting and/or novel environment.
    • This is another indication of a dog's ability to focus on tasks which requires a degree of mental maturity.
  • Ability to learn new things that involve different parts of their bodies. 
    • For example teaching them to lift both the left fore and left hind legs at the same time, teaching them to stand on cans/pedestals/pods with one foot on one item and the other foot on a different item (ultimately all four feet each standing on a different item).
  • Ability to exercise self-control amidst distractions.
    • This is a sign that they are able think about controlling themselves in the face of fun things like toys which requires a lot of mental energy.  Doing stays with toys moving around them or food tossed on the ground for example.  Dogs who mature early have an easier time with learning the concept of stay at a younger age than dogs who mature more slowly.
Mental readiness for weave training should be the biggest concern for agility trainers who are asking "when will my dog be ready to learn to weave?".  I am familiar with a lot of different ways to train weaves and I know that not all methods work for all dogs and handlers - even the way I have had the most success using.  Weave training can also highlight a trainer/handler's strengths and weaknesses as a trainer.  If a trainer tends to want to "help" their dog solve problems rather than let them figure it out then this will show up in weave training .  The desire to help the dog will inevitably cause weave training to be delayed.  If a trainer is not able to work with their dog on a regular basis with weave training then this will also cause a delay in learning the weaves.  The biggest pitfall I see - no matter what method is used  whether it is 2 x 2, channel, guides or weav-a-matics is that people tend to stay too long at a particular stage in the training which causes delays and problems in the training.  If a dog is mentally and physically ready for weave training then the training should be able to progress at a brisk pace.  Often a dog is started on weave training that is not mentally or physically ready for the training and then training is delayed due to the dog's inability to grasp the complex concept.  This can prove frustrating for everyone involved and this is hard to identify as the underlying cause for the difficulty in training.  If you are unsure whether your dog is mentally ready for weave training then I recommend waiting.

It is also very important to allow dogs to make mistakes as they are learning weaves - if they are trying to go faster then let them be sloppy.  If you put pressure on them to be accurate when trying to speed them up it can backfire by creating stress in the dog and then creating slow weaves.  When training weave entrances in a sequence I always want to repeat the obstacle(s) before the weaves so the dog learns the entry on their own.  I don't want to stop the dog and "fix it" for them or dogs will quickly learn that their handler will always "fix it" for them.  In the first year of doing weaves the dogs will seem to come and go with their fluency for weaves so be prepared for this and have a plan for how to handle it when it happens.  It is very important to be aware that physical soreness/pain can severely impact weave performance. 

Once my dogs are proficient with weaves I rarely practice them.   I feel that weaves are a physically demanding obstacle much like the aframe and therefore I minimize how much I practice them once my dogs are fluent with them.  I have also learned that if weave performance decreases after they have demonstrated fluency that 99% of the time it is due to physical soreness and/or mental stress/fatigue and not due to the weaves themselves.  Weave poles can bring out the best and worst in our dogs and our teamwork.  If a dog is stressed on a course it almost always shows itself in the weave poles.  If a dog is sore it almost always shows itself in the weave poles.

                                                                                                                   Photo by Great Dane Photos

                                                                                                     Photo by Great Dane Photos

I am still amazed that we are able to train our dogs to weave at all - it is truly amazing! 

Saturday, April 30, 2011

When to trial?

I have been having this discussion with my beginner students at class and via email.  When to trial? 

It is human nature if you have any competitive bone in your body to want to get out there and start competing and seeing what you've got compared to everyone else out there!  Well at least get out there and start to feel like you've made progress toward a goal.  Now I know not everyone wants to compete in front of a bunch of people, it can be a nerve wracking experience. 

Nothing makes me happier and prouder as a teacher than to see my students succeeding at their goals with their dogs.  For some it is being able to run the course in class flawlessly the first time and for others it is to earn a qualifying score at a trial and for still others it is earning an agility championship title on their dog.  My goal as a teacher and a coach is to help students realize their goals/dreams, whatever they may be.  I train everyone as if they were going to compete because that will help ensure success in whatever they want to do with agility. 

I really want my students to succeed when they first start trialing, especially with their first agility dog.  However many of us tend to get in a hurry with our first agility dog and we all tend to enter trials earlier than maybe we should have done with our first dog.  I have had only a handful of students who wanted to compete and had to be poked and prodded into entering their first trial.  I rarely need to do that.  In fact some students ask me to be a gate keeper for them to help them wait until I feel they are ready.  Sometimes I have had to push hard on that gate to keep it closed!  I try to keep the best interests of the team in mind and the last thing I want is to overface a dog and handler. 

Too often I see dogs and handlers in the novice class at a trial who are not ready to be there.  I often feel sorry for the dog because the dog is often confused and stressed in the situation and the handler is unsure how to cope with it.  Or the other extreme is the dog is so driven to be out there doing agility that the handler is left in the dust and not sure what to do with this very fast dog who has broken a start line, launched off a contact and is running past weave poles. 

Before entering a trial I feel that students should have the following skills:

1.  Be able to perform courses that are more difficult than novice courses and know how to handle the sequences on their own without outside assistance.
2.  Be able to keep the dog focused on agility both in class and at run thrus/open ring time in different places.
3.  Have a strategy for maintaining criteria on start line stays, contacts, weaves, jumps and general attitude for a trial setting and have practiced executing this strategy.
4.  Have implemented a program to transition from training to trialing that involves random reinforcement on course, concealing toy and food rewards in training and introduced a verbal reward marker that can be used in agility trials.

I have found when students are able to do all of these things they have a very easy time at the novice level in trials and will quickly move to the upper levels if they choose to do so. 

I also feel strongly that regardless of the organization's rules that teams should be running novice courses cleanly (no refusals/runouts or off courses) before moving up to the next level.  This will help reduce the "brick wall" effect that happens as the qualifying criteria increases in the upper levels.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Building drive and building self control

These are not mutually exclusive concepts.  Having a lot of young dogs in class right now I am thinking a lot about which dogs need more drive building, which dogs need more self control and which handlers need more drive building and which handlers need more self control (to slow down their training goals).  I frequently get questions about concern about whether a puppy has enough drive or enough control. 

I know from experience it is much easier to train a dog to do agility slowly than it is train it to go fast and I am very careful to monitor every step in a student's training to ensure that speed is being encouraged and reinforced.  Some dogs are naturally speedy and so much so that they are not really thinking but just going.  Dogs need to be able to think and that usually means go slowly to learn something.  Most of us did not go fast the first time riding a bike, driving a car, walking or any sport or physical activity.  We need to go slowly to process new information.  As we get confident we get faster, especially with encouragement.  Even doing this it is still hard sometimes for newer students to be able to encourage speed in their dogs.  There is a small percentage of dogs who naturally want to do everything fast and are very reactive to motion and these dogs need more self control training. 

Some of the things I want to see early on in a young dog's training long before agility equipment is introduced is that they can send away from the handler to a target and a toy with speed.  If there is no speed here it will be even harder to get them to send to a jump with speed.  If the dog learns to go ahead of the handler with speed then it will be much easier to get speed in agility as well as to get distance.  I also want dogs who are thinking.  Thinking dogs are much better at problem solving, much better at generalizing to different types of equipment and to different environments, much better and body awareness and have an easier time of having sustained focus.  If we are always luring (not that all luring is bad mind you), always showing them what we want and not ever letting them learn on their own and make mistakes then we will have dogs who are very dependent on their handlers to be able to do obstacles.  This lack of independent thinking makes training independent obstacle performance and distance very difficult.  Dogs need to be willing to go out and make mistakes in order to do well with distance in agility.

Using shaping to teach various tricks that use their bodies differently, that involve making noise, that cause movement of objects and that are complex can make agility training so much easier. 

The things I want to see in my own dog and in my student's dogs before we introduce obstacle training (aka what is taught in our sports foundations classes - pre-agility foundations)

1.  Student and dog's ability to learn new behaviors with shaping including tricks that make noise and/or use various body parts - especially rear legs.
2.  Ability to send to a mat, target and a toy with speed.
3.  Self control - demonstrated in numerous ways with various games we play in pre-agility foundations classes.
4.  Dog is comfortable walking on different surfaces including ones that move.
5.  Student understands dog management skills and can use them effectively.
6.  Student is working on loose leash walking.
7.  A good (not expected to be perfect in young dogs) recall with distractions.
8.  Able to be quiet in a crate during class time.

I have found these skills are the most useful for agility training and overall success in the hectic agility class environment as well as in other performance sports.

It is not good for herding to have your dog pull you into the arena - the sheep will read that the dog is in control and be very unsettled and not trust the dog or handler and it will be a wild ride.  When dogs walk in under control the sheep are settled and more trusting of the situation so they will be calmer which will help the run be more successful.  The same is true in agility, when a dog pulls you into the ring very often the dog is in charge on the course and the handler appears to be going along for the ride.

In the over 20 years I have been doing agility I have seen lots of dogs with different personalities.  From my perspective the most difficult dogs to work with in agility are the ones who have high reactivity to motion, noise and/or dogs.  These dogs have the most difficult time developing the sustained focus needed for performance sports and they are prone to having high adrenaline levels which interferes with the brain's ability to think clearly.

Sometimes highly reactive dogs also come in high energy packages and sometimes in low or moderate energy packages.  Sometimes highly reactive dogs can be high drive dogs in very quiet and calm settings but they have a difficult time being high drive in distracting environments.  In my mind "high drive" refers to a high desire to work with a human and a high desire to do what is asked/taught.  There are high energy dogs and/or highly reactive dogs who are not high drive, in my opinion because they are in it for their own reasons and have little use for humans in their lives.  These dogs require a lot of work to develop a good working relationship with a human. However very often high energy and/or highly reactive dogs are considered high drive without regard to how they interact with people.

I think it is important in the early pre-agility training to get to know your dog/puppy and determine whether you will need to work more on self-control exercises, more on drive/speed building exercises or an equal amount of both.  This assessment is important for channeling the handler/student's training time and resources.

These are three traits which can come in any combination in your agility dog (do the permutations and there are a lot of combinations possible here):

low, moderate or high energy
low, moderate or high drive
low, moderate or high reactivity

Personally I like moderate to high energy, high drive, and low to moderate reactivity for the ideal agility/performance dog.  These dogs tend to need an equal balance of all the exercises - if I find a dog is able to learn stays and general self control exercises very easily and has a harder time putting speed/energy into other types of exercises then I will focus more on drive/speed exercises and less on self-control.  The opposite also applies. 

Right now in my household I have a myriad of combinations of energy level, drive level and reactivity level.

I have a moderate energy dog who is very high drive - she has a strong willingness to please, strong sustained focus on tasks at hand and if going fast is what I want she is very willing to do it and if going slowly is what I want she will try to do that too. As a young puppy she was very reactive to movement, however I worked very hard on it from when she was 8 weeks old.  She could not be inside where agility was going on for more than a few seconds for most of her puppyhood.  When she was about 18 months old she was able to sit next to an agility ring while dogs ran through the tunnel and she would look at them and look back at me without making a sound!  But that took lots and lots of gradual work on learning to focus around moving dogs.  We only stayed a minute and left but that was how long it took to get to that point working on it very hard all the time.  I then started to take her to group agility classes for the purpose of working on her focus on me while other dogs are running agility.  If I always trained her by myself I never would have been able to work on that. Now at almost 5 years of age she can be crated next to the ring and she only barks when I run another dog. 

I have a very high energy and high drive dog whose high energy can interfere with her ability to focus.  She is also highly sound and energy reactive which also interferes with her ability to focus.  I took her to many group agility classes when she was around 2 years old.  This helped a lot for her to learn to focus on me in loud and busy environments with lots of different types of energy around.  When she is able to focus she is very much there and able to sustain her focus and do tasks at hand fast and accurately.  She loves to learn new things.  She likes to think things are her idea most of the time so that is a challenge but at the same time she likes to be with me all the time so ultimately she really likes doing things with me (but don't tell her that!)

I have another dog who is very high energy but has a very hard time focusing on tasks at hand.  She seems to have an attention deficit disorder no matter how hard she tries to do a task at hand she is very easily distracted by her own busy mind and busy world.  Stays are almost impossible for her.  She can do things well that involve movement but she will rarely do the same thing exactly the same way twice.  She loves clicker training and is very operant but she can get into patterns very easily and not always pay attention to the correct verbal or physical cue.  She has trouble "filtering" her environment and sorting out things that are relevant from those that are not.  I consider her to be have moderate drive but she is capable of speed when she can focus. 

Then I have my youngest dog who is in many ways a very ideal combination of traits.  She is  very high energy - I have never seen her walk on her own - she has a stop and a 90mph button and nothing in between - yet.  She also has incredible sustained focus for a young dog.  She is not that easily distracted from her work (for a 9 month old puppy) - whatever it is when she understands what I want.  She is very high drive - she loves to learn new things and loves to do anything and is very much of a team player.  She is more of a team player than I ever thought she would be but it is because I learned early on that toys have much higher value to her than food so once I started using toys for recall rewards instead of food she started to pay closer attention to me.  She very much wants me in the picture and if I walk away she will even drop her toy and come with me - that is huge progress for her!  I did work hard on this from the start because I knew at 3 days old she could easily become a very independent dog and I didn't want her to do that and it may have helped her that I've been the central human in her life since she was born.  I can work on an equal balance of self control exercises with drive/speed exercises and she sees them all as fun and "work" and she likes work.  She likes to do stuff.  While being a team player in herding is a long ways off she is already becoming a team player in her early pre-agility training and pre-obedience training.  I have not had a successful high drive AND high energy stock dog before so that will be a new experience for me.  High drive and high energy agility and obedience dog I can handle and will enjoy the challenge!

My retired Border Collie was probably the worst combination of traits for a successful performance dog.  He was a fast agility dog but he was highly reactive to other dogs and to movement and his adrenaline levels could escalate quickly.  This interfered with his ability to focus in a trial environment.  These dogs are the hardest ones with whom to have success in agility.  They are a rush when they run well because they are fast and they can win their class.  Then they can be eliminated on the next run. They can be very inconsistent due to their adrenaline levels getting high and out of control from being so reactive to their environments.  These dogs need to work on self control and focus from the very beginning - as young as possible and the primary exercise for these dogs is self control/focus with distractions.  I would only work on that and until I could get that I would not do agility training with a dog like this.  Managing dogs like this outside the ring is exhausting and stressful for the handler.

So this is why I strive for my students to have a good balance between drive and control so they can find their trialing experiences enjoyable and successful.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Puppy Training - nine months old and what lies ahead

I am enjoying training my puppy, Carmine, so much.  It is really fun to train a puppy that I've known since the moment she was born.  She was labelled "wild child" because she would wiggle and yell when I tried to tube feed her, she crawled backwards so fast off the cold washcloth at three days old and she would be the last one standing whenever the puppies went on an outing.  She is still very high energy and always game to go anywhere, any time.  However with a lot of help from me she actually loves being touched, she gets carried a lot around the house because she doesn't walk - she tries to run and often is leaping over elderly small dogs.  She has two speeds stop and 100mph.  It is very hard for her to walk or even trot.  I watch her play and she runs a lot when she plays and she loves games of chase and keep away with other dogs.  I play these games with her too.  It is really fun to chase her and encourage her to run away with "go go go!"  Because I play these games with her she is very ready to chase me when I run the other way.  She is motivated to pay attention to me when we play.

After having three excellent puppy seminars over the last three months and assessing my own training programs here is where I am in training Carmine.

She has 20 feet distance with the attention/recall game.
She can do a sit stay while I wave a toy or treat around and while I walk around her.
She has verbal cues for sit and down no matter where I am and she can be several feet away.
She loves to play ball but clearly has favorite toys.
She has learned a variety of tricks using shaping including backing up on objects, putting her two right feet up on a board, pawing at things, touching her hip on walls, turning both directions around a post, she can "bow" on cue, she has a stand stay on a platform, she can do hand touches and send to an empty target (plastic lid) from 20 feet away.
She can do front and rear crosses around a cone and hoop.
She does fun recalls between my legs.
She is doing well with finding heel position off leash.
She is doing well with loose leash walking in most situations.
She can focus on me around agility activities.
She can do recalls to side.
She will send to a stationary toy.
She can do a stand to a down and a sit to a stand.
She can send and stay on a mat and send to her crate.
She will play tug on a table top.
She has a verbal cue for backing up on the flat.
She regularly offers a sit before any door whether on leash or off leash.
She is learning herding.
I'm sure there are other things she knows that I've already forgotten!
I am contemplating her running contact training.  As a training challenge for me I want to teach her a true running dogwalk and aframe.  She has a very long stride and is fast so this will be a fun challenge. 

I will digress here... I have been thinking a lot about running contacts and attended Silvia Trkman's session on it,  I also watched Rachel Sanders Running Aframes and had a lesson with her about her running dogwalks and aframes.  Training a large dog to do a running dog walk is very challenging.  I have experience with small dogs on the dog walk and aframe with true running contacts. 

Many of my students morph into some form of running contact after training a 2 on/2 off either because of failing to enforce the 2on/2off or because of a desire for a running contact.  For small dogs, especially Corgis, using quick release and then fading the release works well for both aframe and dogwalk, but they first have to be patterned to go to the end of the contact so they don't leap.  Larger breeds can be more problematic because their strides can carry them right over the contact zone.  I see so many students and others creating confusion with their dogs by not having clear criteria with proper enforcement and reinforcement.  The confusion leads to slow and/or leaping contacts.  I don't ever want to reinforce a contact that is slow - no matter how accurate it is.  I will say "good dog, let's try again!"  When they do it faster then they get a treat or toy.  Too often people only focus on the accuracy and not on the speed and inadvertently train slow contacts.  Then they want to speed it up and the dog gets confused.  Almost every dog I've seen goes through a phase early in their contact training where they stop part way down the contact, pause and reflect, and then with coaxing they will step into the 2 on/2 off.  The biggest mistake people make is to reward this with a treat or toy.  As soon as I see a dog stop I want them to step in and put a hand in their collar and gently guide them into the position.  Then verbally praise (no treat/toy) and then repeat the contact again.  I have found that this gets rid of the creeping contacts very quickly. 
Going to a running contact doesn't fix this problem - it only causes confusion for the dog.  I see many dogs who have not been taught any criteria - running or stopping on the contacts.  These are the dogs who are most likely to miss/leap over the yellow zone.  In my opinion these dogs who are leaping are more likely to harm themselves than dogs doing well trained 2 on/2 off contacts.  I have seen very small dogs leap over contact zones as well as large dogs leaping off the aframe over the contact zone. 

The aspects of training a true running contact require a lot of keen observation and videotaping.  The first step is to find the striding that will carry the dog through the contact and having that become muscle memory when going straight ahead and then training turns.  Whether that is watching the hind feet and being sure they are apart as Silvia does or whether it is marking the dog hitting near the end of a board when running - that is the first step.  Once you have that criteria established and your dog can do it on a flat board, then slanted board, then a low dog walk and then a high dog walk and then in sequences you have the first step.  This is a long step and one I find that most people don't have the patience to do, especially if they want to retrain.  Doing it only in class on a weekly basis will make this process take much longer. It is hard to do without access to full height equipment 3-4 times a week.  2on/2off can be taught very well without access to full height equipment and that is a huge advantage of that training method.  The next step in running contacts, is having the dog go into the yellow zone and make a tight turn which can be a training challenge.  I have worked on this with small dogs and I have found that there has to be some collection/short striding when making a turn.  The dogwalk is much like a jump grid.  The way a dog does it will be different whether the dog is going straight or turning.  In a jump grid dogs will add a short collection stride in order to make a tight turn on a jump.  In full extension dogs will take fewer strides in a jump grid.  The same seems to be true of the dogwalk.  It is not unlike jump training in that you have to constantly balance the tight turns with extension so the dog is clear that it can do both and when to do which one.  Dogs will start to run overly collected if too much tight turn work is done with them or vice versa they will not know how and when to collect if they do too much training in full extension.  The same is true of the dogwalk.  The third step is making sure the dog can do the running contact not only when the end of the dogwalk requires collection but also when the entrance to the dogwalk requires collection such as a tight turn getting on to it.  This in my opinion is the hardest step from my experience with small dogs. Obviously there are many smaller steps within each of these but these are the three major training challenges I see to running contacts.  The fourth one depending on where you trial would be to work on it with slatted and slatless and rubber matting and rubber granules - all things which can affect striding.  In addition the height of the aframe can vary from 4'8" in Teacup to 5' in NADAC, to 5'3" in CPE, to 5'6" in AKC/small dog USDAA to 5'9/11" in USDAA.  Lastly the 36" versus 42" contact zone on the dogwalk can make a huge difference too.

So while I contemplate this and work on my own observation skills, my puppy is running across a flat wide board.  Yes it would be easier to train her to do a 2on/2off but I feel like I want a training challenge and I know I can also bail on it and retrain to a 2on/2off if needed. Training true running contacts is not for the faint of heart and really requires a lot of time and effort to have them be independent, fast and accurate.  Meanwhile she is also going to learn 2on/2off on a small travel size plank but it won't be applied to a full dogwalk or aframe as long as I am committed to training a true running contact. 

We'll see what happens...

Friday, February 4, 2011

Silvia Trkman seminar thoughts

I'm starting to recover from five days of work hosting a seminar at the school.  It was so worth it, most everyone enjoyed it and learned from it.

The Silvia Trkman seminar was fantastic!  She is so positive and has such a good eye for helping everyone.  I got some additional clarification and ideas to add to my training and teaching program.

I first saw Silvia in person a year and a half ago and I really learned a lot from her then.  Her handling style fits well with how I handle and teach handling.  That is an important consideration for me when bringing in someone to give a seminar.  The last thing I want to do is to confuse my students.  She also really wants to give the dogs as much information as possible so they can not only turn tightly but not injure themselves in the process.  Many dogs are injured because of lack of information or late information regarding turns.

Where Silvia competes in Europe they have very tight courses and the courses have lots of turns on them.  This is what she trains for with her dogs.  Here in the states we don't see courses like these on a regular basis.  Those people wanting to be on a World Team will want to train and prepare for these European style courses.  For most of us these courses are just good training exercises.  It can help improve your course times if your dog's turns are tighter and if the your dog has more information ahead of time.  Dogs without a lot of flat ground speed can make up a lot of time with tight turns on a course.  It also reduces the chance of injury when your dog has time to prepare for a turn on course.

In her "Turns" seminar I got a much better idea of the level of detail she has in the training of tight turns with her dogs and what specifically she is looking for when training turns.  These exercises are ones that I am going to incorporate into the training of my own dogs and that of my students.  She noted that Sinco has good tight turns that are cued by body language.  She suggested I add verbal cues to those tight turns to allow me to handle her when I can't physically get to a spot where I need a tight turn.  I have already started it and it is making a huge difference.  These cues are much more than just "left" and "right"  - there is much more to it than that and I'm glad to finally understand her detailed system of training turns much better. As part of Tay's rehab and conditioning I am going to teach her turns in this manner.  It will be very important that she be able to make turns safely and that she knows she is turning well in advance in order to keep her front end sound.  I will definitely be adding detailed verbal cues to her training. 

The Tricks seminar was excellent because she showed how she does a number of tricks and we got to see some experienced trick trainers and some new to trick training working with their dogs.  As a result there will be a lot more trick training added to our Sports Foundations classes that will help to build confidence and body awareness, and to help condition the dogs.  However for me the most informative was to be able to observe Silvia at her lunch and dinner breaks interacting with her 9 month old puppy and to see how many new tricks she taught her puppy during her stay here.  It was very inspiring and great to see how to utilize short blocks of time to do training and conditioning at the same time with a dog.  Her techniques were interesting to watch.  I've already started to do even more shaping exercises with my puppy and her comprehension of some of exercises has improved greatly.  I had been frustrated that the luring was not working as well with her - she was going through the motions but she is so toy driven that I felt she was not thinking enough.  So now I am shaping them with a clicker and treats and the light bulb has gone on and she has it so much faster.   I shape a lot of behaviors but there have been a couple that I used to think were easier for me and for students to do with luring but now I am rethinking that approach.

The handling sessions were very interesting and challenging.  Personally I like to be challenged when I go to a seminar and I like to leave with some sense of success but also with some things to work on for "homework."  If I can do everything easily then I am not being pushed to be a better trainer and handler.  Seminars are for learning and not for showing off what we know, in my opinion.  She was fabulous in finding something positive to say about every handler and run and finding something to work on for everyone.  We can all get in a rut in our training and tend to do that which is easy and fun and not push ourselves outside of our comfort zone.  I think everyone was pushed outside of their comfort zone but in a positive way.  Silvia had some great expressions to help bring humor to situations that could otherwise be awkward.

The running contacts session was very well attended.  Silvia is well known for training running contacts.  I found it interesting when she said that more Americans are training running contacts than Europeans and when you watch FCI videos it looks like most Europeans at that level are doing running contacts.  There are "true running contacts" and there are "modified running contacts."  Most people have some form of "modified running contacts" and few have true running contacts.  True running contacts take a lot of work and require a gradual progression in training and access to boards and eventually a dogwalk and aframe to use on a regular basis.   The larger the dog the harder it is for a running dogwalk - not only for hitting the contact zone but also for having turns after the contact.  She said she does very few aframes and she trains it on the dogwalk mainly and the aframe is "free."  However she is very athletic and she can keep up with her fast dogs.  Many of us are not able to keep up with our fast dogs and a running dogwalk can be hard to keep up with on a course.  Running aframes are usually easier to train but still can take a lot of work to get a natural relaxed stride across it.  She noted something that I've observed but have not put my finger on it.  That raising the aframe slowly puts it at a height where it is hard for dogs to be successful so she goes up about several inches at a time.  That was good to hear because I've observed that as well and wondered about it.  I've successfully trained true running dogwalks and aframes with my small dogs and some of my students dogs. Training small dogs can be hard work and is not for the faint of heart.  It takes a long time to get the rhythm needed.  However it was reassuring to hear Silvia say that dogs don't always stride across the dogwalk the same way and nothing can change that and to obsess over it will only stress everyone out.  That was a relief because I've noticed that myself and yet so many people obsess that the number of strides needs to be the same every time but that is not realistic.  The striding will change depending on where they are coming from and where they are going to next from the dogwalk.  She also doesn't obsess over where in the yellow they touch and focuses on hind feet rather than front feet which is also much easier. Training larger dogs to do running aframes has been more difficult and more frustrating for students.  I am still struggling with that when the dogwalk is a stop. Teaching two on two off is much easier for me and most of my students on the dogwalk.  Many of us have a hard time keeping up with a fast dog on the dogwalk.   Carmine will be my first personal experience of training true running dogwalk and aframe with a larger dog.  She is currently 20" at the shoulder.  It is my motivation to get in to better shape to keep up with her because her ground speed is very fast.  She will know two on two off on a board as an exercise like Silvia teaches all her dogs.  So in worst case I will be able to do that.  I will also be teaching Carmine verbal cues for all aspects of turning. 

It was also good to hear how slowly she goes with her training.  I feel there is so much to train a dog in agility and I don't understand why so many want to rush it and are willing to skip steps in their training.  Every dog and handler is different and will progress at their own rate.  I try to assign homework to my students.  Training turns and jumps is the most important training and yet it is the one that we often have the least patience for doing.  Watching her with her pup and doing exercises with poles on the grounds was inspiring and it makes so much sense to have tight turns and speed with poles on the ground on jumps before adding height.  I have done this with my young dogs and my students dogs for years.   I do a lot of these kinds of things using hoops (like NADAC style hoops) because they are easy to move around, there are not poles to go rolling across the floor and yet there is still the concept of two standards for the dog to go through.  Using these to teach wraps, front and rear crosses, 270s, serpentines, sends and boxes is so easy and it teaches dog and handler about handling and about how to turn with speed.  As a bonus, if someone decides to do NADAC when their dog is older they have no problem with hoops because their dog saw them as a puppy/youngster. 

So now that the dust is settling after the seminar I am processing all that I learned and I am planning what things I will incorporate into my agility foundations and advanced level training that will be complimentary to what we already do and I will see what I want to add to my own training program.  When I go to seminars I don't like to totally change everything I do in my training and teaching program because I feel that is counterproductive.  I like to add things that will enhance my program and/or will "fix" problems I have had.  My program is pretty stable and I like to improve it all the time and make sure it grows as agility knowledge and training grows.  I like to try out new training techniques on my own dogs first before teaching it to students so I have some idea of the pitfalls there may be and the effectiveness of it.  I'm lucky to have a few dogs who have very different personalities and learning styles to work with when I want to try something new.

Agility in the US is much more diverse and open to a wider range of breeds and sizes than in Europe.  There are so many agility organizations that it is easy to find one where any given dog and handler can be successful.  We are fortunate to have more agility options here.  Just as we have diverse agility organizations we have diverse requirements in agility training.  In the US we have many more classes and organizations with distance type challenges on the courses so we tend to focus more on distance training here than in Europe.  I feel it is important to also train distance at an early age with puppies because we have a lot of distance requirements in our courses.  So for us there needs to be a balance between lots of tight turns and handler focus and distance and sends to obstacles at large distances.  This is why I am careful about what I add to my training/teaching program so that it will still fit with our trialing requirements.  We also need to have reliable contacts at a distance - 20-50 feet for some of us - that requires very special training. 

So when you are processing information from a seminar or an instructor you really want to look at how it fits in with the other things you need/want to train for success in agility.  Be thoughtful about what will work and fit into your existing program.