Thursday, February 26, 2009

Small steps

What a difference a week can make! Yes, I was quite depressed after last weeks crappy training sessions. This week I am pleased to say that we appear to have recovered somewhat and things are going OK once more. I admit that I have been spoilt having a pup like Sonic who always tries his best and always works his arse off for me. So a sobering and important lesson for me as a dog trainer that there will be many ups and downs and it's not the end of the world.

His contacts, although still not quite what they were, have improved dramatically (even with me lobbing a toy as he's coming down the ramps). I maintained a high level of reinforcement on his contacts both Tuesday and Wednesday nights and tonight went with a 75% reward rate. This seems to have helped him regain some confidence (pause to wipe sweat off brow...).

Tonight was by far the most interesting though. For some reason the young fella switched up a gear in arousal and speed. He has been getting more and more aroused watching the other dogs while we wait our turn and likes to bark at anything and everything. I have been managing this without getting too worried about it with "look at that games" which does help a bit with keeping him under control. But tonight he was on fire. He was actually barking/screetching as he was running the courses. It felt a bit like at any moment I was going to loose any semblance of control but he seemed happy to yabber away while going where I asked him to. I couldn't say if the cooler evenings this week have made him feel "fresher" or if he was just feeling super good. Personally I hope that he is getting to that confidence level where he has less questions about what I'm asking him to do.

I have decided to stick with my decision to not run him in any of the games classes over the weekend. Although his contacts are much improved, I don't really think they are good enough to stand up in the ring. So it will be the Jumping classes on Saturday night for our exciting debut! I'm really looking forward to having a great time out there with him.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Just when you thought you had it...

This last week at training has all focused around proofing Sonic's dog walk performance. It's been a really up and down process. Tuesday night I packed up all of Sonic's favourite toys and when it was our turn on the equipment, placed the toys all over the ground and on the bottom part of the plank. As soon as he started descending down the ramp you could see he was overwhelmed by what was in front of him. After a couple of goes however he improved quite a lot, although there was a definite slow down in his performance.

On Wednesday night I took the bag of toys down to training again and once more dumped them all over the decent ramp and the ground. This time however there was a definite increase in confidence and speed. At this stage I had his rate of reinforcement at about 50%. Sonic is still not running at the speed he was prior to proofing but he is handling the distractions much better. I was quite happy to pick all the toys up after Sonic's go but everyone decided they would like to work their dogs through the distraction exercise as well. It was quite funny watching all the dogs the first time that they noticed the toys. For some of them their eyes just about boggled right out of their head! We all agreed that we should make a lot more effort to include these types of things into their training routine.

Then Thursday night Sue brought down a bag of her toys so we could have some different things for the dogs to look at. To my surprise Sonic went back to stopping before he went into 2o2o position. I never thought that he would get so used to his own toys being there that he couldn't cope with seeing toys on the ground that he didn't recognise. I have to admit I was a bit disheartened after this session as I had also run a few without any reward to get him used to completing the behaviour and moving on but unfortunately it really didn't work well at all. Plus on top of that he caught one of his toes in the top of the A-Frame so I had a dog who had started the week skying the AF and going so quick he couldn't hold his 2o2o to a dog who was unhappy going over the top and subsequently crawling down the other side! In the end we finished our contact work off with a couple of dog walks and A-Frames with a really large reward while in position for each to help him recover from all the trauma.

This morning I headed off to Brian's to work on some grids. I have hardly done any grid work in the last couple of weeks cause I've been so focused on either weavers or contacts so I was quite keen to get back into some handling work. I still did a few dog walks with Sonic though when we first arrived. Rather than have toys strewn all over the place I decided to throw his toy while he was coming down into position. The first two he just flew straight off and went after the toy. The third one he went down into 2o2o but it was very slow. The next few weren't too bad (excluding the one where he was so busy watching the toy flying through the air that he fell off the edge...) and each one I rewarded with very high level treats and lots of them.

The grid work went pretty well. We jumped them over 600mm jumps today and it was very interesting watching Sonic really think about his jumps. The other bonus being that you have quite a bit more time to get into position when they have to jump a bit higher. We did some really great serpentines, something which we have struggled with over the last couple of months. On the down side the tight rear crosses that we did were pretty rubbish. We have been working quite a lot on getting serps right so I was really please with the progress. Now I will put rear crosses on the list to work on so we make those much better.

Next weekend spells Sonic's debut in the agility ring. He was entered in Snooker and Gamblers events on the Friday and Sunday nights and Novice and Open Jumping on Saturday night. At this point I have to say that I won't be running him in the games classes. I'm just not happy enough with his dog walk and to do them multiple times over in a games class with no immediate reward would be very detrimental to his agility training. We've come way too far to stuff them up now. On the plus side his jumping is going really well so I have no doubt that he will do great in those classes and it should be a really nice introduction for Sonic into the world of trialling. The following weekend is the Classic where he is entered in both Novice Agility and Novice Jumping. At this stage he should run but once again, I will make that decision the week before.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Importance of Proofing

Proofing your dog training is something that I have always liked the idea of. When I see people like Susan Garrett or Greg Derrett do proofing work you can see how relevant and important it is. For some reason I have never really spent a lot of time doing it myself. I'm not really sure why. I guess it just seems like extra work and effort that you have to go to when you could just be running sequences. Once the behaviours are trained it's easier to get on with the fun stuff. Not to mention that if you test the behaviours there is a pretty high chance that your dog will mess up. That means slowing things down which is generally undesirable for most of us.

Training Sonic is something that I wanted to do properly. I've had a dog who five years ago use to be one of the best agility dogs in Perth. She was amazing, but my inadequate training and inexperience held her back. They say that the definition of stupidity is repeating the same behaviour and expecting a different result, so this time round I plan on being a smart dog trainer!

I have been merrily proofing the weavers for the last few weeks and I plan on continuing with it using some different scenarios for Sonic over the next few weeks. But this week the weavers have been packed away and my training plank/improvised dog walk has come out to proof his 2o2o. I started out throwing his toy as he was running down, followed by throwing toys all over the ground, followed by placing some of his favourite toys on the plank itself. The first couple of days he made plenty of mistakes ranging from coming off early to not quite going into 2o2o. He had also slowed down a bit, especially when he saw a toy on the plank. However during last nights session he wasn't just going into position, he was launching himself into position with a gusto that I have not previously seen. I didn't think Sonic had any questions about his dog walk performance. Until last week he always went straight into 2o2o and at a fairly reasonable speed. Now I know he did have questions in certain circumstances, questions which he seems to now have answered as his performance has improved 100%.

So this post is a reminder to me for my future training that proofing is worth every minute of setting up.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


This week has been a quiet one on the training front with another spate of extreme heat in Perth. Tuesday and Wednesday were so bad I didn’t even bother going to training. So instead of our usual routine I decided to work on some distraction work at home when the sun had gone down enough to take the sting out of the day. Weavers were my obstacle of choice but rather than work on a full set of twelve poles we worked on six. Most of the distraction work revolved around me throwing or dropping toys while Sonic was weaving as well as having some of his favourite toys all over the ground. He did so well with those distractions that I added in a flexi tunnel right in front on Wednesday night. Sonic skipped off into the tunnel a few times before realising that he just had to weave to earn his toy. I think we’ll do that one again next week though to reinforce the behaviour being that dogs are often drawn out of weavers by upcoming tunnels in a trial situation. Then we finished up with some really hard angles from the tunnel into a near side weaver entry. Sonic did fairly well but it is a work in progress.

Thursday brought some relief with a wonderful cool change so I headed off with the dogs down to training to try get a bit more done than what I can do in the backyard. I started out with a simple sequence that involved quite a challenging weaver entry. By changing your handling you could have made it easier but that kind of defeats the purpose of what I’m trying to achieve so I ran it with a rear cross into a 90 degree entry just to challenge him a little bit more. I’m please to say that he hit the weaver entry like a Masters dog. Then we followed up with a really tricky sequence that required some very tight handling. That was much harder and really challenged a lot of us who tried to run it. I broke most of it down and just rewarded his handling through the hardest bits. Sonics contacts were pretty good. He skyed the A-Frame in his enthusiasm which was great but I wasn’t quite so happy with his dog walk. Mainly being that he was getting to just above the 2o2o position and stopping. To work through this I increased my rate of reinforcement when he got into position to help remind him of where he needs to be. I think what I really need to do is get onto some proofing of the behaviour. It’s been pretty solid so far but I’ve never really challenged him on it. Certainly nothing like the way I have been proofing his weavers. And let’s face it, it’s just as important. So I shall set up my piece of dog walk at home and work on building it back up again. Otherwise the behaviour will hold up for about five seconds in the ring.

On another front my big fluffy boy Riot has another upcoming commercial to do for Better Pets and Gardens. I’ve got a list of behaviours to train which shouldn’t pose too much of a problem. Riot is such a funny boy. If I ask him to hold a toy or lead in his mouth, he will do it but it’s under sufferance. He will generally spit it out as soon as he can. However if I put the object that I want him to interact with in front of him and wait for him to offer me the behaviour I can have him picking up and carrying it around the house within a couple of minutes. Perhaps that’s why he doesn’t really like agility, because I didn’t give him a choice! I guess I’ll never really know but he really enjoys trick training and it’s nice to be able to do something with him that he can have fun with. The latest trick is him going to his bed and pulling a blanket up over him. It took me three sessions to get him doing it really well. He’s so enthusiastic about it he charges onto his bed, reaches around grabs the blanket and then yanks it over onto himself. All you can see is a blanket with a set of legs sticking out. It absolutely cracks me up. I still have another five weeks before filming but the way he’s going all the new behaviours should be pretty solid.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Bang Game

At last it is time to teach the seesaw. I can put it off no longer. The seesaw is a touchy subject for me. I always get rather hot under the collar when I think about the ridiculous situation we are in here in Australia since in its wisdom, the powers that be decided to remove the slats from the dog walk. Thus with the removal of the slats removing the ability of any given dog to figure out for itself whether it just got on the dog walk or the seesaw (until it flies off the other end of course!!). I have spent the last two months teaching an awesome two-second dog walk and now I have to risk compromising that because as soon as I teach the seesaw it brings a grey area into his performance. He will never be able to run it at 100% speed and know for certain that it is the piece of equipment that he thinks it may be. It’s a situation that just should never have occurred. When big name international competitors come here to give seminars they feel really sorry for us that we have to be in this position. They are lucky enough that the countries they compete in have more sense and understand the implications behind it.

I’m not sure why there is such single mindedness about this from certain members of the Australian agility community. The reasons I’ve heard for justifying no slats on the dog walk have no basis or scientific research behind them. One reason given was that the slats cause arthritis in dogs toes and feet. Considering the amount of impact that repetitive jumping and weaving cause on a dogs body it is ridiculous to think that slats would do any more damage. Apart from the fact that one fly off from the seesaw has the potential to do more damage to a dog in one second than a lifetime of running on itty bitty tiny little slats on a dog walk.

We constantly hear that dogs flying off seesaws and crawling up dog walks is a training issue in that the dogs haven’t been taught to understand the difference between a dog walk and seesaw (that look identical). It is the one piece of equipment where a dog has to rely on us 100% of the time to get it right (because naturally I never make a mistake when I’m doing agility!! Lol). As you would expect the people who appear to spout this rubbish either have dogs that run an agility course slower than my Grandmother could get around one or haven’t actually trained or competed with a dog in agility for years.

The other downside is that it makes our equipment different to what the rest of the world is currently competing on. If we do ever get the chance to go overseas and compete we will be faced with big variances in some equipment. Who would be mad enough to spend a few thousand dollars to get over there and put their dog on equipment that is different to what their dogs are used to? The dogs over there that do World Cup events are the best in the world and there is no room for hesitations because the dog doesn’t recognise what it is use to in backward old Australia (except for ADAA of course who recognised immediately the danger behind using no slats and immediately put them back on).

So, now that I have got that off my chest I can get started! I have been playing the ‘bang’ game with Sonic on the odd occasion for the last few months. He appears to quite enjoy jumping on the end and banging the seesaw down - probably a boy thing. I’ve slowly worked up until I now have him jumping on it when the seesaw is horizontal so it’s coming down fairly hard. I was using food to reward but he puts a lot more gusto into it when the toy is involved. He is not showing any signs of concern at this height (for Sonic fear is reserved for my electric toothbrush and ironing board/iron). I would expect over the next couple of weeks I will experiment with setting the seesaw up so it’s horizontal and then do recalls across it into the bang. This will then allow me to slowly progress increasing the angle of how high the board is over the ensuing weeks. I’m not going to start doing any agility trials with him until March so that gives me a bit of time to build it up and hopefully not wreck his dog walk in the process. I have been making a concerted effort to use the verbal cue “climb” when Sonic uses the dog walk to hopefully build a strong association between the two. This method worked really well for Riot. Riot has always had a very good seesaw so with a bit of luck and good management I'll be able to have just as good a results with the young fella.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Home again

So we're back home in Perth. Both Sonic and I are recovering after some very early mornings and long days. Now we just need to catch up on many hours of missing sleep.

Friday morning we were up at 3am to make sure that we made the airport by 4.30am. I didn't sleep much for thinking about the trip and anxiety about Sonic being OK on the plane. Getting him to air freight and me to the airport went smoothly, my only concern was the forecast heat in Melbourne when we arrived. Sure enough as we were descending into Melbourne at 11am the pilot kindly informed us that it was a crispy 40 degrees. Instantly my stress levels went up and all I could think about was Sonic being left on the tarmac too long in the heat etc. The air freight guys were great though and by the time I got there to collect him he had a big bowl of water and was pretty relaxed. So with the air conditioner going full bore in the hire car we headed off for my Aunt and Uncles house in Somers on the Mornington Peninsula. Unfortunately the drive didn't go quite as I'd hoped. I took Colin's GPS and the stupid thing kindly directed me via the Melbourne CBD and I mean literally down Lonsdale and Collins streets. With the temperature outside showing in the car as being 49 degrees my stress levels started rising again as I made my way through the city trying to avoid dreaded hook turns around the tram lines. After almost an hour of cursing the GPS at every intersection we eventually made it out the other side. By the time we got to Somers the sea breeze had come in and the temperature had dropped dramatically (I don't think that the breeze made it to Melb though). However a trip to the beach was a must do and it was a nice way to unwind after a big day. The evening was topped off with a local Koala wandering down my Aunt & Uncles driveway on it's way to the next door neighbours tree. It was an amazing sight to see for someone from Perth.

Saturday morning we were up at 5.30am and off to KCC Park by 6am. The seminar start time was sensibly moved to 7am to help us get as much work done as possible before the worst of the heat hit. Saturday's forecast was only 37 degrees so a marked improvement on the 45.5 degrees that it had reached the day before. The group that I was in spent the first four hours working with Laura on front cross sequences focusing on positional cues, timing of our front crosses and cueing our dogs for tight turns. We worked our way through about five grids over the course of the morning. Sonic handled himself beautifully and although initially a bit overzealous settled in really well. Laura had all our first run throughs videoed so we could watch them back and really pull apart our timing, positional cue placement and foot work. Everyone had strong and weak points, mine being a late front cross and one of my positional cues was way out because I didn't get across my diagonal in time. Those things really sumed up most of my work really. I think I did one grid where out of the three turns I managed to do the first one perfectly, the second one early and the third was late. At this point I was still struggling with my timing of the front cross position itself. I seemed to always be either too early or too late when I rotate. When I do get it right though Sonic's turns are amazing and he digs in brilliantly. Plenty of reason for me to work hard on getting it right.

Once we'd finished with Laura we were sent off to work on rear crosses with Greg. He had set up a grid that we had to run to show him what we could do. This was a real weakness for most of us although I think Sonic handled himself really well with my mistake being an off diagonal line. Most of the others were doing really bad flick aways and pulling their dog off the jump when they completed the rear cross. Greg then had us show him our inside circle work. Sonic and mine was appalling as it was something that I really didn't do much of when Sonic was little. We did loads and loads of outside circle work but I kind of ignored the inside ones! Greg explained to us that inside circle work is the backbone of rear crosses. Guess Sonic and I have some work to do on that front. The other ground work that we did where you cross behind your dog to train the turn and also a running exercise Sonic managed easily because those were things we had done. By this time the day was really starting to get hot and the cool coats were out in force. We finished up the work with the dogs and headed into the air conditioning to do some course analysis. I got most of my choices right but I still get a little caught on some of the more obscure obstacle combinations. When Sonic and I got back to Somers in the afternoon it was back down the beach for some more relaxation and swim time. Needless to say we both slept pretty well that night.

Sunday morning and it was another 5.30am wake up. The day dawned very overcast and it more or less stayed that way for the duration. It was pretty windy at KCC park although still reached low 30's. With the cloud cover it was an OK training environment. Once again my group started with Laura but this time we worked on serpentines. We made our way through about four different grids, each one with a variation on the serpentine. Sonic was wonderful again and performed beautifully. My biggest issue like the front cross exercises, was timing of my change of arm and getting Sonic to move out of the serpentine. It made such a huge difference when my arm change was when he was committing to the jump. More often than not I tend to be too late and the difference in Sonic's performance is very noticeable.

After Laura's session we headed over to work with Greg, this time on a couple of courses looking at course choice. We set up a Masters Agility and Masters Jumping course from last years Nationals. I had run both of them with Riot and had gone clear, but unfortunately Riot was too slow and way off making finals. From what I remember they were nice runs though. I managed to pick 90% of the handling that was needed to maintain consistency of Greg's system but once again there are those few grey areas where I get a bit unsure. Once we'd all talked about how it should be run we had the opportunity to have a go. I broke it down into about four parts for Sonic to help him through. He actually managed all the complicated sections beautifully. One thing we did get caught on was 180's with an off course obstacle at a 90 degree angle. He invariably would try and head for the 90 degree obstacle rather than come around with my shoulder for the 180. So that's on the list to work on. We haven't done a lot of that so not surprising that it is a weakness. His contacts and weavers were very good as I was unsure what he would be like on strange equipment. They weren't the fastest he's done, I think his dog walk was 2.4 seconds, however he was getting mentally and physically pretty tired by this point so it was not shabby by any means. Following the agility course we set up the jumping one which had some really tricky handling in it including two pull through/rear cross manoeuvres which Sonic had never done before. Once again I picked out most of the handling decisions but a couple of greyer ones where quite hard and most of us where quite stumped as to how to handle them and maintain consistency. With some really great help from Greg I got Sonic around most of it unscathed. He managed the pull through/rear cross really well once I made myself stop for the pull throughs! By this stage poor Sonic was pretty much ready for a long sleep so I was thankful that we had finished our last run. So while Sonic had a power nap we headed back to the rooms for some more course analysis. This time we looked at some runs from last years World Champs and examples of good and not so good handling. We watched one handler in particular whose front crosses are so early that the dog still managed to miss the jump even though the handler was rotated into the front cross position from the jump before. A great example of how early cues catch up with you eventually. Then as tends to happen, we finished off with discussions on what Greg and Laura do with their own dogs.

So all in all a great seminar. I've taken away some really important stuff on my timing and working on when to change arms. It seems much clearer to me this time. It's weird that after going to four seminars with Greg & Laura over the last four years it is only now that I have a better idea about the timing. I guess it's all about the mind set you are in when you attend them. At different points in your agility training you are focusing on different things and this time around for me, those particular points are high up on my list of things to work on.

I had some lovely comments about Sonic from other attendees, mainly about his great attitude and also about how athletic he is. A lady that I met was telling me that the Victorian working border collies are generally quite heavy whereas she loved that he was so light and streamlined. Someone else told me that with a dog like him the sky's the limit as he could see that Sonic has huge potential. I know I think that of Sonic anyway but obviously having someone else say it makes you feel extra proud of them.

I think that Cathy will try and bring Greg & Laura back next year again so I will do all that I can to be there for it.