Sunday, December 30, 2012

What About Poppy?

What about Poppy? I haven't said too much about her as of late. True, I've been training her to become a nosework superstar and she absolutely loves it. But, as far as agility goes,  between her stressing in the ring at trials, a sudden issue with the teeter that appeared early last spring, and then her injury in July, her agility career has been put on hold while I focused on achieving my 2012 agility goals for Ollie and worked on Hokey's foundation training. But I've really missed running my crazy girl. This is a video I made back in the fall of 2011, when we'd been struggling, but I was still holding on to the hope that the worst was behind us.

Poppy with her ribbons from her first trial

Despite her multiple issues, I LOVE running this dog in agility. She started out with such potential and I really thought she was going to surpass Ollie in superstardom. She has a lot of drive and learned everything so fast. I entered her in her first trial (USDAA) at 19 months of age as a 22" championship dog. She Q'd in 4 out of 4 runs.

Results of her 2nd trial: Poppy AD

The following month, I entered her in her second trial. She Q'd in 5 out of 5 classes AND because that gave us all the Qs we needed, plus the 3 judge minimum, she finished her AD title. At 20 months old and in only 2 trials!! I couldn't be more proud of my crazy little shelter mutt. 


Then everything fell apart. I had brought her to the Mid-Atlantic Agility Showcase and, I don't know what - the intensity in the atmosphere? Certain sounds? A combination of factors? Who knows? But her sensitivity to something turned on big time. She melted down in some form of doggy panic attack. This carried through to smaller local trials. Suddenly this dog who was still fast and focused in class, could barely manage to do more than an obstacle or two at a trial. Once, after I'd decided to do an arc of 4 jumps from the start to the finish and leave in the hopes of giving her a relatively stress-free & positive experience in the ring, she did 2 jumps and ran out of the ring. After less than a handful of trials, I tried dropping her down to Performance 16" to see if that would have any effect on her stress levels. Nope.

Then I decided to try doing a little CPE (easier courses, more laid back environment) in the same building where we were taking weekly agility classes, starting at level 3. I started off slow, only entering a couple of classes/trial at first. It was better. Not perfect. There was still some stressing. But it was better. A few months later, after I fully entered a couple of trials, she even managed a couple of perfect weekends.
Poppy's first CPE perfect weekend

A new CPE title

Then there are my handling issues and the holes in her foundation training. I've always known those issues were there and tried to seek help, but didn't get far. Some of the things I've been working on with Hokey have given me ideas for plugging the holes in Poppy's foundation.
Poppy Jan 2010 - the day after I adopted her (6 months old)

After several months of no agility, during a break from nosework class, I signed her up 4-week mini agility class. The experience provided me with the opportunity to "take her temperature" when it came to agility and gave me some very useful feedback:

  1.  Ring-stress. She still stresses when it comes to agility. There is a huge difference in stress level and focus between when she does nosework and when she does agility. However, she still worked very well and, after the first couple of classes as she started to feel more relaxed, I did start to see more of her true personality coming out. It will continue to be a work in progress.
  2. Handling. I really learned a lot about how I need to handle her in this class! I felt like for the first time, I finally got the type of feedback I needed. Poppy handles quite differently from the two little ones. With those long legs of hers, she's faster, bigger striding, bigger jumping and doesn't respond as quickly. I've found it very difficult to get my timing just right with her. Ollie has spoiled me in that my handling can be so-so and he'll still do just about anything I ask. No so with Poppy. She requires much more precision. I need to communicate my cues sooner and remember to always keep moving. After this class, I have a much better idea of where I'm headed with her and what I need to work on. And for that, I am so thankful.
  3. "knuckling over" behavior

  4. Physical soundness: This remains an open question as far as Poppy's future agility career goes. I'm still not sure what caused the severe lameness back in July. I will say that she has an odd quirk of standing knuckled over on the toes of that same leg. This is nothing new; she's always done it. It hasn't gotten any worse over the past 2 1/2 years and has never seemed to bother her or affected her ability to run like a fiend, careen off the walls of my house, launch herself down the stairs, or do agility. However, since she only displays this behavior on her left rear leg, which was the same one she came up lame on, it does make me a little suspicious. I did mention it to the vet back in July and, off the top of her head, she didn't seem to think it was related. I've also noticed that sometimes when I'm holding her and put her down, as soon as she touches the ground she has a tendency to poke her nose or bite at one of her hips --- not always the same one. Is it just another one of her weird quirks, or is she indicating that something is bothering her? 
Wild and Crazy Girl
Anyway, the agility class gave me more food for thought and has me wondering even more about her teeter-fear issue. The first week, at the end of class, I wanted to see where she stood with the teeter since it had been many months since she'd seen one. It was obvious she'd forgotten her fear at first as she tackled it with a little too much gusto before realizing what the obstacle was. Not exactly what I was going for. She was a little more reluctant after that, but I did manage to coax her across a couple more times. After each class, I massage her before turning in for the night. That night, when I went to massage the upper part of that particular leg, her hackles went up and she growled. NOT typical Poppy behavior! Obviously it hurt her and she didn't want me touching it. She had had the same reaction back in the summer when she was lame on it and we were trying to pinpoint the issue. The last 3 weeks of class I did not put her on the teeter, but she did all the other equipment, including the usual suspects that might cause a problem: jumps, A-frame, and weaves. I had no problem with her reacting to my massaging the leg on those nights. So might her teeter issue primarily be a reaction to pain that it might be causing her with the noise and/or motion only being secondary fears due to their association with physical pain? I don't know. But it warrants further investigation.
So, as it stands now, I do not have any plans to trial her in the near future. I want to spend some time really working on my handling with her, continuing to work on her ring-stress, explore her physical issues --- and then see. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Laying More Bricks in the Foundation

Sometimes I feel like I'm in training overload. There are so many things I'm working on right now. but so little daylight for me to be able to train outside. I never feel like there are enough hours in the day and that I can't do it all justice. Here are just a few of the things I've been working on as far as Hokey's foundation training goes, in no particular order:

1. Running Contacts. The dogwalk training has kind of been put on the backburner simply because by the time I get home from work, there just isn't enough daylight for me to set up and work on it. In the meantime, I've been questioning if a running dogwalk is going to be the right behavior for Hokey. Being that consistency in striding is key, I'm not so sure if her habit of naturally adding an occasional leaping motion into the middle of her full out run might interfere. However, I will continue to train the foundation for a running until I'm ready to make a decision because, no matter what contact behavior I decide on, I still want her learning to drive with speed to the end of the walk.

With the dogwalk on hold, I have, however, gone back to work harder on the foundation for the Aframe running contact. Hokey is working the box on the ground consistently well. Here is a video showing me setting her up so there is a direct line between her and I, with the box offset from that line. She shows that she understands what she's supposed to do by leaving the line in order to bounce through the box instead of coming directly to me when I release her. Also shown is that she is able to drive ahead of me independently (although I'd still like to see little more forward drive in her behavior) when I'm well behind and several feet lateral from the box.

I've also started to apply the grid to the box. She's working it pretty well although it's not a ingrained behavior yet (we just started, so that's expected). Sometimes when I first set it up, she loses sight of the box behavior and does the 2 jumps and then comes to me instead of driving forward through the entire grid. I've found that if I start off relatively close to the box and then increase my distance, it seems to help remind her that she needs to bounce through the box. I noticed in reviewing the video below that when I added the grid, she is also looking at me a little more instead of driving forward into her reward zone. I may need to be just a little quicker with throwing my reward. Right now I'm only working the first (forward) position on both sides in conjunction with the grid. Once she's moving forward consistently and seems to understand her job, I'll start working the other positions. Here she is doing a nice job with the grid:

2. Line Setting. I started working on some foundational "line" exercises to teach her to stay in her lane/path while I'm in mine. Here we set up on two parallel paths both heading forward. I have a dish set up in the middle of her path that contains one very small treat. I do a restrained release so that she drives ahead of me to the dish, staying in her lane. When I catch up and pass her, I get her attention with a toy so that she breaks from the dish ASAP and chases me while both of us stay in our individual lanes. I do need to be a little more aware of not veering into her lane or pulling her off into mine. It's harder to keep track of in my yard than it is in the training building where we go for lessons. In the building, there are mats to help clearly define our separate lanes. We'll be adding challenges to this exercise as we move forward with our training.

3. One Jump Exercises. I started doing some one jump work with Hokey to teach her to use her body properly when jumping. It is used to teach her proper form when turning tightly over a jump by training her to keep her head down into the turn. I am also teaching her to keep her feet up so that she doesn't tick or knock the bar. Sometimes my timing isn't the best and sometimes my treat placement isn't great, mostly because they bounce, but for the most part, she's doing well with this.

4. J-turn for a change of direction. I'm training a turning cue so that, when she's facing me, Hokey passes my side and turns away from me to change direction so that we are then on parallel paths. Here we are working on the flat, around an obstacle, and over a jump. Note that, because I just started training this, my arm movement is highly exaggerated at this point. As her understanding of the cue increases, I should gradually be able to keep my arm much closer to my body.

5. Pinwheel. Starting with a close-set pinwheel of jumps, I'm am training Hokey to drive into a pinwheel and carry through all 3 jumps independently. My path is to run up the middle on a straight line toward the standard of the center jump. As soon as I see her commit to the 2nd jump, I move back down the center line in the opposite direction (I am not happy with the last example in the follow clip as I paused instead of moving when I should have).

6. Sends. Because deaf dogs have a tendency to be velcro and not easily amenable to working at a distance, I wanted to make sure I was working on sends right from the very start. As mentioned in my "Living Room Agility Training" blog post, I often use the dining room table to practice sends with all my dogs. I just trained Hokey on dining room sends a few days ago. Here we are having a blast with it. This will come in handy when it's 20 degrees outside with a foot of snow on the ground.

We can use patio furniture in the yard to do something similar:

 Since she tends to like to drive into my tunnel, I also put that to use in working sends:

7. Backside Cues. If we end up running in USDAA trials, Hokey is going to have to learn how to read my cues to do a backside approach. We just started this and she's already picking up on it really well. I mix it up with front approaches so that she doesn't get locked into a particular pattern. The key is my foot position - notice the difference in where my sending foot is pointing when I send her to the backside as opposed to the times when I'm sending her for a front approach and asking her to wrap back to me. As for my arm movement - it's too exaggerated and distracting. I need to work on that.

8. Tunnel Rear Cross. This is something I'm really struggling with. I have had some trouble with Hokey pulling off the tunnel, entering and then turning around to come back out, or showing hesitation/drop in drive when I work on this. Putting a toy several feet from the far end of the tunnel for her to drive to usually helps with that aspect of things. However, as shown in the 2nd half of the following clip, she still has a long way to go as far as learning to read the rear cross. It is simply not clicking thus far. Her deafness doesn't help because I can't help her with a verbal clue to let her know where I am once we've lost visual contact. I've been thinking about how I can use the placement of the toy to help her learn to read the cross. I also need to think about my own timing and placement of the cross to, hopefully, make it more clear to her where I'm going. It's hard, because if her head is already in the tunnel and, especially if she's driving to the toy, she might not notice my cross at all. If I cross too soon, it might cause her to pull off or turn around and come back out  of the the same way she went in. I'll have to play with it and try to come up with a solution.

So that's the update. I can't wait for the daylight to lengthen again in order to give me more training time during the week. However, with January and February on the horizon, even with enough daylight, there may be snowy and cold weather ahead. I sure am looking forward to spring!

On the way?
Wake me when winter is over!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Backyardless ADCH: Apartment Training for the Agility Dog

ADCH Ollie: title earned in 2009 during 4 years of apartment living with no place to train or practice "real" agility

This is my first time participating in a Dog Agility Blog Action Day event and it just so happens the topic is on something I know a lot about! The topic is backyard training, including the logistics of training in a small space. Or even, as was the case during my first 4 years of participation in the sport, no yard whatsoever.

That's right. Those were the apartment years. I had no place to train or practice. None. Not even a postage stamp sized yard. My "practice" was my weekly group agility class, which, usually consisted of running 2 or 3 courses. That's all the "real" agility I got. I didn't own any agility equipment because I had no yard to set anything up and, with Ollie's dog reactivity and his crazy critter prey drive, I never felt comfortable taking him to a park or other open space to practice off-leash. Looking back on it now, I wonder how my first agility dogs, Wave and Ollie, managed to learn such complex behaviors like weaving without me having a place to regularly train them on equipment. On rare occasions, I would rent a place with equipment, but, as I also find it necessary to practice agility-on-a-frayed-shoestring-budget, those were supplemental treats that were few and far between.
Ollie in our first and littlest apartment - dreaming of the day he could have a yard

Yet, somehow during a time when I had no place to train or practice any "real" agility other than a weekly group class, I managed to take a dog from adoption all the way to finishing an ADCH.

So if you take anything away from this post, let it be this: Do not let a lack of training space discourage you from becoming involved in the sport and do not let anyone tell you that you shouldn't even bother to attempt becoming involved in agility unless you have a large, fully equipped yard, field or building in which to practice. Not having space or equipment may be far from the ideal situation, but if you have a passion for agility you CAN still participate. You just need to be a little inventive.
Ollie AD, 2007 - that space in the background was all we had for training.

I spent my first four years in the sport doing apartment agility training.  What does that entail? Basically building a relationship between you and your dog while playing games together that incorporate some of the skills used in agility. Below is a list of a few of the things I did while living in a small space without access to a place to train.

1. Shaping Games: There is no better way for you and your dog to learn how to become a team than playing shaping games together. They learn how to think through situations and become better problem solvers and you both learn how to effectively communicate with each other. How you play is only limited by your imagination. I've done everything from 101 Things To Do With A Box (or chair or some other random object) to training tricks such as the Put the Ball in the Bucket game, the end product of which is shown here, but was trained through pure shaping with a clicker:

2. Body Awareness: This dovetails onto the 101 Things To Do With A Box shaping exercises which help a dog learn body awareness. Other things that can be done:
  • Place a row of boxes with low sides across the floor (or a small ladder or slightly raised jump bars) and ask your dog to move straight through so that s/he learns to lift up all 4 of his or her feet while in motion.
  • Have your dog place its front feet on some sort of object - a short stool, a sturdy square box, or even, as I've been using due to my ongoing household projects, a paint can - then teach them to pivot on their front legs while moving their hind legs in either direction around the perimeter of the object.
  • Build your own makeshift wobble board. Take a large box, crate pan or some other suitable object and put a rolled up towel, a ball or some other small object underneath it and go to town having your dog move around on top, including having them have to sit up and balance on their hind end while reaching for a treat. With my little Hokey, I've found I'm even able to get the desired effect using a large square throw pillow.
  • Teach your dog to move backwards onto objects. Refer to my past post, Back Up That Booty, on how I train that.
3. Crate Games: Always great for a variety of reasons. Since I recently wrote a post on the subject, I won't go into the details here, but here is the link to that entry - Playing Crate Games.

4. Target Training: My dogs were all taught how to target objects (my hand, plastic lids, a target stick, alley-oop style targets, or random objects) with their noses and individual feet. It's a big game that they absolutely love!

Hokey targeting the alley-oop
Ollie targeting the alley-oop

Poppy demonstrating targeting with a back foot
(and also how to target an eye with a tongue)

Ollie hand targeting
Ollie nose targeting a flat target

5. Sends: Even in a very limited space, you can work on distance skills. I used my alley-oop style target to teach my dogs to send outs. I also used furniture to practice straight and lateral sends. Any object that you can send your dog around will suffice. I was fortunate that the last apartment in which I was living had a large enough living room that I was able to configure the loveseat and sofa in such a way that I could work a figure-8 pattern. Even without that kind of space, I've been able to at least use the dining room table or pull a chair out to practice sending my dogs out and around from different positions.

6. Directionals: I don't use verbal right/left directionals, but I do teach my dogs various non-verbal turning cues. This can mean some as simple as having the dog facing me then spin either left or right in response to my hand signal. I also teach them to change direction by either turning into me or away from me while at my side in a heel position, depending on what cue I give. Another thing I've done is set up a couple of cones for the dog to go out around and practice different cues and crosses. I've also worked the J-cues for distance redirectionals and a modified version for closer "flick away" turns.

7. One Jump Exercises: Even the smallest apartment space usually has enough room to work on your dog's jumping skills using one jump exercises. You can also work on recall-to-heel positions with or without a jump.

8. 2o/2o Contacts: Although I've recently been training running contacts, Wave and Ollie were both trained to perform a 2 on/2 off contact behavior on all contact obstacles. I was fortunate enough that the apartments I lived in during the first 3 years of my involvement in agility both had a set of carpeted stairs. If you choose to train 2o/2o contact behavior, stairs can be an invaluable tools for both training the behavior and maintaining the 2o/2o criteria.

Ollie demonstrating a 2o/2o using the stairs

9. "Table": My dogs were trained to do "table" as a behavior, not an obstacle. Since USDAA is my primary venue, this means when I give the verbal cue "table" they are to jump up on whatever object I am directing them to and immediately drop into the down position. (Because of Hokey's deafness, I will need to come up with some other kind of signal in lieu of the verbal command when I train this). Beds, sofas and arm chairs have been my most convenient "tables" over the years. If your dog is small enough, you could also use a large, sturdy, reinforced cardboard box covered with a non-slip surface, such as a non-skid mat, placed on top.

10: Tricks, Tricks, Tricks: Nothing builds and reinforces the bond between you and your dog like trick training does. Teach many and have them perform a few every day. Enjoy every minute of it!


10: Play!: Have fun together. It's all about you and your dog experiencing joy together while interacting in a fun and positive way. My dogs love it when I hide and they have to find me. And, no matter the size of your abode, there is always enough room for playing retrieving games or having a good round of tug. Just make sure to move that vase or lamp out of the way first!

Our first spring in our own fenced yard
Three years ago I was finally able to purchase a house of my own. However, all I could afford was a row house in the city. I actually selected the house I live in now based partially on the size of the yard; it's a little larger than the average city backyard (although the house itself is smaller than my last apartment). Although sizable in comparison to the majority of city yards, it is still far from the ideal size for practicing agility at 40' in length with 2/3rds of the yard having about 15' of usable space across and the remaining 1/3, about 20'.

Compared to the years spent with no yard to practice in, having my own fenced in space is a welcomed luxury. However, because the space is relatively small, I'm still constrained in what I can set up and what I can train and practice. (Note: on this Blog Action Day I expect there will be several posts on exercises that can be done in a small yard, so I will leave that up to others).  I have no space for contact equipment, so am limited to setting up exercises involving jumps, weaves and my canvas practice tunnel. It's better than nothing though, and Hokey and Poppy are reaping the benefits of "real" training space that Ollie never had.
Yard set up with jumps and weaves

Finally a little bit of room for some training