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!