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!