Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Sniff Test

Poppy - 1st place container search with a time of 5.37 seconds
On October 26th, Poppy and I competed in her first nose work trial. It was a beautiful day in a gorgeous location - Welkinweir in Pottstown PA. Having been through the experience of a nose work trial with Ollie only a month before, I had a much better idea of how a nose work trial is run and what to expect. This time, my 2 fellow former classmates and their dogs were also entered, so it was nice to have the camaraderie and support. I was much more relaxed at this trial than I had been at Ollie's.

Linda with Kyra (who finished her NW1 title this day at age 13), Marilyn with Mia, and me with Poppy
We started with our morning with check-in followed by a walk-thru of all 4 elements. The searches would all take place around an estate house that is often used for wedding rentals.

Interior followed by exterior would take place in the morning and then, in the afternoon, it would be container followed by vehicle. I was a little perplexed about what to do with the interior search. I wanted to let Poppy do the search off-leash. However, after seeing the room, I had second thoughts. Not for the purposes of the search, but for the preservation of the room. This was a fancy room full of antique furniture. Poppy is an enthusiastic nose work dog. She puts her paws on on things and sometimes scratches at the hide. She jumps on furniture. I've trained her that there are no real boundaries - the hide could be ANYWHERE and it's up to her to go anywhere to find it. We were told our dogs shouldn't be allowed to jump on the furniture. I was thinking "UGH! How is that not going to happen?".
Part of the room where our interior search was held
Then it was our time to start the journey toward the house. There were several wait-stations from the in-gate to the house involving a lovely walk down a pretty trail. Unfortunately, Poppy did not have a lovely, relaxing time. The people running the trial were using several golf carts to move from here to there. Poppy has some weird fears and sound sensitivities and golf carts suddenly occupied the top of that list.

The most evil invention of mankind according to Poppy

She was having a series of mini-panic attacks during our journey through the various stations. What's more, it was turning out to be a pretty windy day, which only added to her anxiety and hyper-vigilance. The rustling of leaves had her bolting and jumping in terror thinking that there was a golf cart sneaking up behind her. I was relieved to get to the final wait station where the golf carts couldn't be encountered. To go from that into the fancy room of complete silence was a huge environmental adjustment for me. I can't imagine what it must of been like for Poppy. I decided, for the sake of the fancy room, to keep her on leash, although I was really disappointed that I didn't feel as though I had the kind of freedom I wished to just let her loose. (Turns out she ended jumping up on the most antique looking sofa in the room during the search anyway - I was momentarily mortified).

Fireplace where hide was located sans holiday flowers

The hide was located at the bottom of a stanchion at the fireplace. Poppy showed some interest in the area early on in the search and the thought crossed my mind to call it, but, whereas she's normally very bold about her indications leaving me with no doubt, this indication was luke-warm at best. I didn't feel the kind of confidence I normally feel with her and she moved on, which is not like her either. She typically exhibits pretty strong odor obedience and wouldn't generally move off an odor. However, I did notice that she seemed very cautious about the dark marble floor directly in front of the fireplace that she would have to step on to indicate the hide location. I'm not sure if it was a visual thing with the shiny surface or the slickness of the surface making her feel unsteady, but she definitely had a reaction to it and wasn't crazy about putting her paws on it. I worked the rest of the room with her with no other signs of indication and eventually was given the 30 second warning. I felt my best hope was to take her back to the fireplace to see if she would at least give me a weak indication again, but she really didn't want to get that close to it. Something was scaring her. Time was called and that was that. No title for us today. It was both disappointing and liberating. At least now I had nothing more to lose the rest of the day, although I would spend the next couple of days second-guessing myself and wishing I'd called the alert on her weak indication since I sort of thought maybe it was there. If nothing else, I've learned how she might react in a trial situation and that her normal alert behaviors may be much weaker than what I'm used to seeing in practice.
We went from the interior directly to the exterior search without any real waiting period in between, so Poppy and I needed to recover fast. The pictures below show the exterior search area which was in the front of the house. The picture on the right gives a better perspective of the area. The threshold was the doorway (since we were coming from inside the house) and extended from the foreground of this picture to the edge of the garden area in front of the windows in the background. It ran across the macadam to a stone wall bordering driveway directly across from the house (just off camera in this picture). LOTS of cracks and crevices for hides! The hide was actually up under the seat of the bench to the right of the doorway shown in the picture on the left, although it was pulled out a bit from the wall of the house.     

When Poppy and I crossed the threshold into the search area, she turned to the side of the door opposite where the hide was and worked that area for a short time. Then she moved to the side where the bench was and seemed to catch the odor pretty quickly. She worked the bench and went around the back side of it. This time she gave me a typical, strong indication including pawing at the bench seat and I immediately called the alert - 22.27 seconds and the 5th fastest exterior search of the day. I felt some sense of redemption.

After a lunch break, the afternoon searches got underway - container followed by vehicle. Again, we had to run the gauntlet of scary golf carts and swooshy wind noises. Poppy almost came unhinged during our walk down the driveway to the final waiting area as a golf cart came down the drive behind us. Argh! The container search was set up in a large tent area next to the house. I gather from many photos I've seen, this is often used for weddings that take place at this location.
 Of course, when we did our search, it was minus all the chairs and tables and the sides of the tent were closed. My biggest concern was how the already hyper-vigilant, hyper-sound sensitive Poppy would react to the wind noise inside the tent. The tent sat in a gorgeous location on a hill overlooking a lake, but that just meant an open area for the wind to pick up and slam into the side of the tent. It turns out, our search was so short that
it didn't become a factor at all. Whereas Ollie's container search had involved searching
Evidence of our proud triumph
boxes in the shape of a jack-o-lantern, Poppy's containers were in the shape of a pine tree with the startline facing the "tree trunk". If I remember correctly, the hide was on the exterior left hand side of the 3rd "bough" from the bottom. As soon as I released her from the startline, she was off and running. It just so happens that she chose to work the boxes on the outside left first. When she started to pass the box where the hide was located, she whipped around and showed interest. That was enough of an indication for me; I called the alert. Our time was 5.37 seconds!!! First place! And by far the fastest time - the 2nd place dog had a time of nearly 14 seconds. We got a nice pretty purple first place ribbon to take home, so even though we didn't get a title ribbon, at least we brought a reward home with us for our efforts.

Last came the vehicle search. The 3 vehicles were parked side-by-side in a staggered pattern with the startline face the drivers side of the first vehicle. It was VERY windy by this point and competitors were instructed to call the alert loudly so we could be heard over the noise of the wind. If I remember correctly, the hide was located on the inside of the wheel-well of the rear passenger side of the first vehicle, an SUV. Poppy worked the that vehicle a bit, as well as the drivers side of the second vehicle, which was parallel to the location of the hide. She then went around to the front and worked that a bit before coming back down and working the passenger side of the correct vehicle. She stopped and gave me a medium indication on the hide. I wasn't very disappointed in her indication behavior because normally she is too exhuberant in indicating vehicle hides and scratches like mad at the car. I'm quick to reward the find and stop any major damage, but scratching like that in a trial could be faulted, so I was almost relieved that her indication was just nose touch and some excitement. Here is a link to a picture of her indicating the hide. Having learned my lesson from the interior search that morning, I decided to call it. It was the right thing to do. Her time was 26.73 seconds, which was the 8th fastest vehicle search of the day.

So, while Poppy didn't end up with her NW1 title, we had 3 really good searches and I learned a lot about what I might expect from her in a trial situation. I plan on trying again in 2014. At this time, I don't have plans to pursue a NW2 title on any of my dogs, but that could change. I AM looking forward to the element specialty trials starting up next April. In the meantime, I'm going to start Ollie and Poppy on anise. And I've started training Hokey in nosework. She's absolutely MAD for it!!! I'm going to be starting her on birch odor TODAY, but here she is doing one of her first search sessions, looking for hotdogs in boxes. She caught on like she's been doing it her whole life.


Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Contact Zone

I am currently in the midst of training Sprout to have great performances on all three contact obstacles. I'm training running contacts for both the A-frame and dogwalk and a 4-on teeter. Because I live in a city home with only a small yard, I don't have space for my own contact equipment. In order to gain access to equipment, I rent an agility building once a week to train. Right now, this means those particular training sessions are very contact focused; basically, I work one contact obstacle then take a short short walk break and/or run a short jump-tunnel-weave sequence before moving on to the next contact. One hour per week, may not be ideal, but it's what I have to work with and I believe I'm making the most of it and being rewarded with good results for my effort.

A-Frame: This is the one contact obstacle where I was able to do the ground work at home. I am using Rachel Sanders box method, which I previously used to train both Poppy and Hokey's running contacts. I started Sprout by running him straight through the box laid out on the ground. I decided in order to get him a little deeper into the box and to get a better bounce, I needed to raise the back end a few inches. The cardboard insert from toilet paper or paper towel rolls works great for this, although you can also add some PVC extensions. I like cheap, quick, and readily handy myself. I worked all 3 of the stationary positions on both sides of the box:

Next I added the jump grid to the box. These are two low jumps that precede the box. The 2nd jump is placed exactly 9 feet from the back edge of the box. This simulates the down ramp of the frame. Running through the grid teaches the correct striding up over the apex of the frame then one bounce before the contact zone and then a 2nd bounce into the contact zone and off the frame. It's building muscle memory for the real thing. I did have a little bit of trouble getting the correct striding from Sprout early on; sometimes instead of the two bounces in 9', he was adding an extra stride - so two little strides then a bounce through the box or sometimes he was missing the box altogether. By messing around with the jump heights and their distances from each other, I was finally able to get a consistent 2-strided performance from him. Once the consistency came, I was able to set the jumps as I normally would have. The following clip shows us working the grid over a few different days. Again, I worked the 3 stationary positions on each side and then, once he was proficient and giving me a consistent performance, I added some motion and obstacles.

Then came time for the real deal. First, I set up the grid right next to the frame and ran him through it a few times. Then I set the A-frame pretty low and transferred the box to the down contact. I set a jump bar on the apex in case that helped him get the idea of leap over the apex; I had done this with Hokey and it had helped her. I'm not sure if it really helped Sprout or not. I didn't use one in subsequent sessions. If you look at the pictures above from our most recent A-frame session, you can see that he is now consistently leaping over the apex and catching a lot of air in the process - and getting a nice two bounce descent. For him, it seemed to come as a natural progression as his confidence increased and his drive accelerated. Here is his first session on the frame. I did raise it a little bit during this first session.

Here is Sprout's 2nd session a week later with the A-frame a little higher. As you can see, he's putting in some solid performances.

And here is Sprout's most recent A-Frame session on a still higher A-frame. Just look at him FLY! His confidence and drive are really starting to take off and he is sailing over the apex and putting in two solid hits. It can be hard to really see what's going on, but the pictures above are snapshots taken from this clip. He is catching some major air!

My plan from here is to continue to move to full height and to continue to get this kind of performance on a consistent basis, then fade the box. What is truly awesome is that NOT ONCE in any of these training sessions, has he missed bouncing through the box. He's 100% when it comes to hitting the contact on the frame so far. I am so pleased with his progress to date.

Teeter: In a previous post, I had shown a clip of the end behavior work I'd done in preparation for training the teeter. Finally, it was time to work the entire obstacle, starting with it set low, of course. Here is part of our first session (after training Hokey, I often forget that I can use a clicker with Sprout, even when it's in my hand!):

And here we are a couple of weeks later, with the teeter a bit higher:

So far, each teeter session goes like this: the first time, run like mad just past the fulcrum, then as it starts to drop suddenly panic and put on the brakes and look like a back-peddling cartoon character, end up in the contact zone, but not down close to the end. The 2nd and maybe the 3rd time through "Oh it's that scary thing that moves when I run across it. I need to be cautious." = a slow performance and a less than stellar contact performance (i.e. in the upper part of the yellow instead of down near the end of the teeter). Then the confidence builds and builds and by the end of the session he's got tons of teeter drive. My plan is to build his confidence while gradually raising the teeter to full height over several weeks. I also hope I can get him out and get him some exposure to other teeters.

Dogwalk: I'm still in the early stages of training Sprout's dogwalk. So far, I am planning a running contact performance. Unlike with Hokey and the foam tiles, I didn't do any ground work with Sprout. Instead, the last month or so, I've spent time each week letting him get used to the dogwalk by walking him on leash back and forth and letting him turn around. Then I've worked the down ramp by having my partner restrain him while I get him excited and then, when he's released, I throw a toy for him to run down the ramp and through a hoop I have set up at the end of the ramp. I had originally made the
hoop for Hokey's running dogwalk contact training and found it quite helpful since I was really at disadvantage trying to teach a solid running contact without the ability to use a clicker or any other sound to mark the correct behavior. I found the hoop taught her to run straight off the end of the ramp without leaping off while keeping her head low. She was able to retain the behavior after I faded the hoop. I'm hoping to have the same result with Sprout.

This past week was the first time I worked the entire length of the dogwalk with him (after the retrained ramp runs). Here is a clip of the result:

I'm pretty happy with this. I think his confidence will continue to build off this and his drive and speed with increase as a result. Once I feel satisfied with that, I'll start to fade the hoop and see if we retain the contact behavior I'm looking for.