Teeterphobics Anonymous: How Widget Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the ‘Bang!’

Way back when I first got Widget, I took her to a great puppy playgroup once a week.  This particular group happened to be frequented by a lot of Seriously Serious agility folks and their new “he’s gonna be my MACH dog!” puppies, so along with the standard playgroupy socialization things, we also did a little bit of stuff designed to expose our dogs to some stuff they might encounter in agility.


Dim room + maniac puppies = blurry photos

Even as a baby, Widget was an alarmingly fearless little animal who was willing to try everything. Would she run through the baby play tunnel we put out? Obviously! Would she walk across the elevated board (just a piece of wood held up by a couple stacks of books)? Of course, and then for good measure, she would tug while standing on it.  Stack of blocks to knock over (to simulate the sounds the equipment makes)? Fun! Running through a jump standard? Sure, why not?

And then one day, the lady who ran our class was like, “Hey, let’s try out some baby teeter stuff!” and pulled out her wobble board (a piece of wood with a halved tennis ball glued to the bottom: it tips, but only slightly, and is just designed to expose a dog to the feeling of the ground moving a little).  All the other puppies happily pounced on the board, rolled around, played tug while standing on it and otherwise behaved like model pre-agility pups. Widget walked over, put a paw on it, and when it wiggled, she gave me huge whale eyes, ran over to the corner of the room and refused to engage for the rest of the class. “Is she….sick?”, my instructor asked. “Um, maybe?”, I responded. It was so out of character for her to be scared of anything that ‘sick’ seemed like the most logical reason.  But a couple of weeks later, we tried again: same thing. And then a couple of weeks after that, we tried getting the puppies up on the fancy moving exam table (the class was held at a vet’s office, and they had a cool exam table on an elevator platform so it could be raised and lowered at will). Again, Widget was not having it. She was very adamant that a) the ground is not supposed to move, WTF! and b) Widgets do not like to feel like they are out of control. “You better watch out–you’re going to have a teeterphobe on your hands!” said one of my classmates, who was no doubt envisioning Widget running against her pup three years down the line and feeling a little gleeful about it.  At that point, I did what was, in retrospect, probably the smartest thing I could have done: I backed off doing teeter stuff completely. For the next eight or so months, Widget and I worked on a bunch of other pre-agility skills, but the closest we came to doing teeter stuff was doing some basic contact training. This was not easy: I am a problem-solver type, and what I really, really wanted to do was to build all kinds of different wobble boards and do some crazy thing where Widget ate all her meals off the boards and had to stand on the board before we went outside and and and…..Luckily, for once in my life, I did not succumb to my crazy, and so for several months, I just pretended that the teeter did not exist and would never be a factor in our lives.

And then, about a month ago, I decided to start reintroducing The Dreaded Teeter. Widget has gotten a lot more physically confident since our puppy class; we’ve also done a ton of shaping, and a TON of 101 Things To Do With A Box and its variants.  One of the things I do with her all the time is set a novel object out and reward her for interacting with it in different ways: basically, anytime I bring anything even vaguely durable in the house (cans of tomatoes, new brooms, boxes of mail), I put it down on the ground and click/treat Widget for figuring out new ways to interact with it.  I warn you that this kind of creates a monster: these days, any time I have anything new within Widget’s sight line, she is like, “WHAT IS THAT CAN I STAND ON IT CAN I BITE IT CAN I GO IN A CIRCLE AROUND IT, YAY FUN GIVE ME TREATS!” However, it also creates a puppy who is brave around new objects and whose first instinct is to try to engage with new things rather than shying away from them. This is a very useful thing for a jack-of-all-trades sport puppy: if they’re presented with a treiball ball or a lure-coursing lure or an unfamiliar agility obstacle, they’re pretty likely to go over and see what’s cookin’, rather than shying away from it. Just as a backup, I put the “go over and look at that new thing; you will probably get some treats out of it” behavior on cue (Widge’s is ‘go check it out!’) So between all those things, I felt hopeful that we could get some teeter back in our lives without it becoming Big Scary again.  However, I still went (and am still going!) very very very slowly. Here are a few things that we did/are still doing; hopefully, the combination of these things will result in a dog who, in a few months, thinks the teeter is the best thing since sliced bread.

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K9 DIY: Make some quick & dirty 2×2 weave poles

Project difficulty level: Really easy, especially if you have the hardware store cut your PVC for you. If you can snap some Tinkertoys together, you can do this

Widget and I have been playing around with some backyard agility recently, and she’s been steadily working her way through my motley collection of (mostly homemade) equipment. We’ve been having fun jumping and tunneling and playing with our DIY’ed contact trainer, so recently I started thinking about starting to teach her the weaves. My favorite method of teaching weaves is the 2×2 method that Susan Garrett developed (here’s the link to the video explaining the method, which you can buy or rent on bowwowflix; there are also several good explanatory videos on YouTube). However, doing 2x2s requires a slightly wonky equipment setup that’s a little different than your standard channel or competition weave setup. The only place where I have access to ‘real’ equipment has channel weaves, so if I wanted to teach Widget weaves using 2×2, my choices were a) drop $250 + shipping on a nice 6-pole set of Versaweaves, b) make or buy some stick-in-the-ground weave poles or c) attempt to put something together using PVC in my back yard. Now, if money were no object, I would get the Versaweaves and never look back (those things are awesome!); however, you’ll be shocked to hear that I didn’t have $250 just burning a hole in my back pocket, so I relegated that idea to the ‘someday!’ list. Lots of people love option b, the stick-in-the-ground method; however, I live in the desert where the ground is hard as a rock and not amenable to having pointy things stuck in it. Also, one of the things that’s always annoyed me about the stick-in-the-ground method is that it’s hard to keep the spacing between the individual poles consistent, and the idea of having to bust out my hammer and my measuring tape every time I wanted to move a pole seemed a little unfun to me. So that left me with option c!

Before I begin, here are some obligatory caveats:

1) The drawback of using PVC for weave poles is that there’s a piece of PVC running under the dog’s path as they run, which can have a small impact on their gait going through the poles. The weave poles at lot of training clubs are made of a long flat piece of metal that connects the individual poles together; this flat piece of metal sticks up about a 1/4″ off the ground. If you build your poles the way I’ve outlined here, with 1/2″ PVC, the connecting bar will stick up twice as high as the flat metal bar variety. My dogs have not had a problem adjusting to this, but it annoys me. If you’re working outside, one way to get around it is to scoop a little bit of dirt over the center bar to level things out (or alternately, to dig a very shallow channel to set your poles in). But just so you know, it’s a compromise that you make if you’re doing it this way.

2) The weaves aren’t precisely to competition standards, largely because of the center bar thing. This doesn’t really bother me: I know some people like to have precise replicas of competition equipment in their backyard so their dogs never have to adjust to anything different in trial settings, but for me, the most important thing is to have something that I can afford that works pretty well and allows me to train at home. Plus, I figure that equipment varies between clubs anyway and it’s not a bad idea to teach my dogs that the game is the same even if the gear looks a little different.

3) I used 1/2″ PVC here, in part because it was cheaper and in part because I like my poles to be a little springy: however, if you want something a little sturdier and closer to competition size, you should use 3/4″ PVC. Just make sure to get 3/4″ fittings to go along with the larger pipe

4) The directions here are for weaves with 24″ spacing. If you are a hardcore USDAA person, you can adjust this down to 18″ pretty easily. That said, if you’re a hardcore USDAA person, you probably bought Versaweaves as soon as you got your import border collie puppy, and you’re probably sitting there in your Vibrams and Clean Run pants giving me an icy Teutonic glare through the computer screen RIGHT NOW.

So, for the rest of us, here’s how to build some cheapy 2x2s. The materials cost me $22.79 at my little local kind-of-expensive hardware store, and the poles took me 20 minutes to build (and that was including picture-taking time), so even if you are broke and scared of DIY projects, you can do this one, I promise. I recommend having the hardware store cut your PVC for you: unless you have a chop saw, it’s a little annoying, and they can usually knock it out for you in about three seconds at the hardware store (often for free!)

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Group Post: Lessons From Difficult Dogs

One of the things you’ll hear a lot if you participate in dog sports with a non-traditional dog (read: anything other than a perfectly healthy and sane specimen of whatever three or four breeds dominate your sport) is “oh, you’ll learn so much from working with that dog!”

This refrain is not always as helpful as the people handing it out seem to think. Sometimes, at least for me, it’s a downright bummer. Like an apprentice who’s been knocked too many times upside the head by a particularly hard sensei, there definitely comes a time when I feel like, you know what, I would be totally okay with having less wisdom if that also means fewer bruises.

But as dispiriting as those struggles can be in the moment (and, oh, they are, they are!), there’s a good bit of truth to the sentiment. We at Team Unruly know difficult dogs — and we’re not talking about doing agility with an Aussie instead of a Border Collie. We have actually difficult dogs. Reactive dogs. Fearful dogs. Dogs with three legs. Dogs with low drive. Dogs of non-traditional breeds. Dogs of non-identifiable breeds.

And we have learned lessons from these dogs that no other dog in the world could have taught us.

Of course, occasionally you DO win, even with a difficult dog.

Rebecca, Cerberus and Fly

(1) We were never alone.

When I first got Cerberus, I jumped head-first into the world of dog shows and competitions. In that environment, you (usually) see dogs at their best. You don’t see all of the hours of training the owners put in, and you generally don’t see really reactive dogs because, well, they don’t often get to compete. It’s easy to look around and think that you’re the only one with a “problem child” and that you don’t belong there. At first, Cerb’s fear issues made me feel alone. There we were, struggling just to keep his reactivity in check in the group ring, while his littermate brothers and sisters racked up titles. I blamed myself for our problems and felt sure that nobody else could be struggling like we were.

Luckily — amazingly — acknowledging Cerb’s reactivity and seeking help put me in touch with people who have become some of my best friends. I met Karen, my saintly trainer who changed my entire perspective on dog training and taught me pretty much everything I know about positive reinforcement training. I also became closer to all of the friends who eventually formed Team Unruly. I realized that there are no perfect dogs and that everyone is struggling with something, so I was never really alone.

(2) Just when you think you have it all figured out…

Along comes a game-changer. I learned so much from working through Cerb’s reactivity and training with him for weight pull and rally. I learned even more by working with my trainer, Karen, as her assistant for her Control Unleashed and BAT classes. I wouldn’t say that I was over-confident or cocky, but I definitely felt like I had a pretty good grip on “dog training,” in a general sense. I had worked it out with Cerb, right? I could totally do that again. So I adopted a second dog, Fly.

Game changer! Fly is so much like Cerb and yet so very different. She has fear issues, too (d’oh!), but expresses them in different ways. When it comes to things that make her nervous or afraid, I feel like I have the tools to work through that – the same practices that helped Cerb will help Fly. When it comes to teaching her tricks, though? Very, very different dog. See, Cerb now has this four-year background of positive reinforcement and shaping games. He has always been an enthusiastic (ballistic, really) participant in training. Once he realized I would reward him for trying, he couldn’t be stopped. He offers behavior after behavior until he gets the answer, and I… totally, totally took that for granted. When I adopted Fly and started working with her, I quickly learned what it’s like to have a dog with no reinforcement history. Where Cerb responds to the “pressure” of me asking for a behavior by throwing out his entire repertoire, Fly quails. If she doesn’t get the answer right on her first attempt, she just curls up and looks worried.

I don’t know if Fly’s behavior was caused by history of corrective training methods or if it’s just her personality, and I guess it doesn’t really matter: the point is that Fly requires a very different approach than Cerb, and she is challenging me to be a better trainer and dig deep for solutions. I have to take it very, very slowly with her and train in very short sessions, then give her time to recover, something I never had to do with Cerb because he will work until he drops. I often find that I will work for several days on something with Fly and feel like we’re making no progress, and then we’ll come back to it a week later and she’ll have figured it out on her own time. This is frustrating for me, but also an extremely valuable lesson that I needed to learn.

Batty-eared crazy creature learns to concentrate in a busy environment - note our distance from all the action!

Batty-eared crazy creature learns to concentrate in a busy environment – note our distance from all the action!

Jennifer and Pongu

As I’ve talked about at length elsewhere, Pongu wasn’t a dog that I got with competition in mind (I didn’t even know dog sports were a Thing back then, much less a Thing that would end up consuming major chunks of my life), and our journey has been a long series of struggles and setbacks punctuated with occasional brilliant flashes of joy.

I have learned many things along this road, but if I had to distill them down to three main points, they’d probably be:

(1) Patience makes possibility. Working with a fearful dog is not a quick process, and it isn’t one that lends itself to major forward leaps. Progress, for us, is always tiny and incremental; whenever I get tempted to push too far too fast, I end up setting us back (and yet I still keep doing it, because I’m an idiot). But when I can force myself to rein in my impatience and work in teeny tiny bits, we move forward. It happens in slow (often frustratingly slow!) steps, but it happens. Patience and practice have enabled my fearful dog to do things that I once believed would be totally impossible for him.

(2) Failures only affect you. Victories can affect the world. No one really cares when we NQ a Rally run (least of all me; at this point I’m only tracking to see if we NQ in some new and interesting way that we haven’t previously accomplished). But when we succeed, we can be a little spark of light out there showing that yes, you can participate in dog sports with a scaredy dog; yes, you can do it with a pound mutt; yes, you can do it force-free. All of those messages are worth creating and sending out to the world, because all of them have the potential to give people hope and improve their relationships with their dogs. That belief helps keep me going on days when I don’t necessarily feel all that excited about stepping back into training.

(3) My greatest victory is a joyful dog. I’ve had Pongu’s ARCHMX certificate sitting in an envelope on my counter, unopened and collecting dust, for about a month now. At some point I’ll take it out and put it in a frame and hang it on his Wall o’ Trophies. But it’s really not a priority anymore.

These days, I don’t generally keep ribbons or placement rosettes in WCRL; one per competition, just to hold the memory that we were there, is enough for me. I don’t worry about the points or scores except as a measure of whether we’re making progress overall. Triple Qs are nice, but I don’t especially care about those either.

At this point in the game, the only victory I really care about is having a happy dog who wants to be there with me. I want to look down and see Pongu’s face smiling back up at me as we heel off the start line together. I want to see him grinning confidently as he snaps through a left finish, or bounding along with his tail in the air on a recall. Everything I do is aimed at building a happy, confident dog who can work in the ring with joy.

I got into dog sports because I hoped they would build Pongu’s confidence. It would be a lie to say that’s the only thing I care about, of course; I do want precise heeling and high scores and a clean performance in the ring. But the biggest lesson I’ve learned from Pongu is that those aren’t and can’t be inconsistent goals — the only way I get those things is if I have a happy and confident dog at my side.

I started doing this for my dog. He started doing it for me. The point of all these games, as far as I’m concerned, is for us to find joy in this partnership and in working together to bring happiness to each other. That’s what we’re out there to win.

Kelsey and Nellie

When I was initially trying to figure out who to write about here, my first idea was to write about Lucy, my hyper-reactive dog who has taught me like 90% of what I know about training.  After thinking about it a second, though, I realized that the dog I’ve had the saddest and most frustrating experiences with is Nellie, my cute little tripod pit bull.  In a certain way, Nellie is probably the easiest of my three dogs: she’s a total people-pleaser, friendly with everyone, reasonable with (most) dogs, loves to train, is very easy to motivate, etc. etc. etc.,.  She is also a BLAST to play with and when we’re working, everything else melts away and the rest of the world outside of me and my dog ceases to exist.  Nellie and I have competed in rally and trained in flyball, and she’s always up for learning tricks and dancing around the house with me. She’s also super athletic and pretty well-structured, so doing sports should have been no issue for her.  And frankly, the issue has generally not been Nellie: it has been, not to put too fine a point on it, everybody else.  Which leads me to the things I’ve learned playing sports with a tripod pit bull.

(1) Try very very very very hard to think about what you CAN do, not what you can’t.

and the corollary to that:

(2) Ignore anybody who tells you what you can’t do.

nellie runs b/w/color

Poor sad, disabled dog. What a shame that her life is going to be so limited.

I got a lot of pushback when I started thinking about doing sports with Nellie.  I cannot tell you how many classes we signed up for but ultimately were not allowed to participate in: because she’s three-legged, Nellie is not allowed to compete in most rally venues (though she’s allowed to compete in APDT/Cynosport) and before the AKC’s recent rule change, she was not even allowed to test for her CGC.  As a consequence, we weren’t allowed to participate in any AKC-endorsed CGC classes (because what would be the point, right? she wasn’t allowed to test!) and the first three rally classes I tried to sign up for wouldn’t let us in when they found out that Nellie was a tripod (because those classes all taught the AKC version of rally, and Nellie was not permitted to compete in AKC rally, so what would be the point, right? she wasn’t allowed to play!)  I only tried to sign up for one agility class before I got discouraged: the person on the phone told me flat out that pit bulls were not appropriate for any group classes, and that ‘disabled dogs’ were not appropriate for agility, and that “maybe you should just try to appreciate the dog you have instead of trying to turn her into something else”. Oof. That one did a number on me, I admit.

On the other hand, even though I was feeling shaken and sad, I DID know the dog I had: I had an athletic, happy little dog who was in great shape, loved classes and was dying to work in some structured way.  Bless the good people at the K-9 Kamikazes Flyball Team in Richmond, VA who were nice to me when I first got in touch with them, didn’t think the idea of running a tripod pittie sounded crazy, and were totally happy to help me figure out the best way to teach Nellie flyball (and were also happy to help me work out nice practical ways to accommodate her missing leg: for example, we spent one interesting night trying to figure out whether a left or a right box turn would best help her activate her core muscles which would in turn support her through the motion of coming off the box).  They never once told me that this was something we wouldn’t be able to do, they never suggested just going home and wrapping my dog in cotton wool, and they absolutely rebuilt my confidence in both myself and my terrific dog.  And so gradually I stopped thinking about Nellie as this problem waiting to happen and started seeing all of the things that made her an awesome sport dog.  So she’s missing a leg: the important part is that my little dog is fast as heck, works incredibly hard, is beautifully handler-focused (most of the time!) and gets a tremendous amount of joy from playing with me.  She also has a gorgeous box turn that would, frankly, be screwed up by the addition of another leg, and in rally, she has a lovely pivot honed from years of swinging around on her front leg when she’s trying to chase down a ball.  So there!

Dealing with the nonsense of people’s low expectations has thickened my skin, and it has also given me a little chip on my shoulder.  I admit to feeling a little bit of snarky pleasure when my dog runs a heat faster than a purpose-bred sporter collie or when we outscore somebody’s oh-he-comes-from-a-long-line-of-obedience-champions Golden in rally.  I love, love, love blowing people’s minds when they come in expecting nothing from us and then see something great.  I love telling people that Nellie isn’t some dog I bought and raised from a puppy who lost a leg to cancer: she was a chained pit bull with neglectful owners who dumped her on the street with a badly-healed leg break, and look, here she is making friends with your Aussie and then outscoring him.  Now, we don’t always turn in rock-solid performances, but oh, those days we do: those are amazing days.

(3) When you do it, celebrate mightily.

For the longest time, when I showed up at a trial, I heard a lot of “Oh, you’re the one with the three-legged pit bull! Well…..how nice that you’re giving her this experience!”  I knew that I was doing something right the first time I heard, “Oh, you’re the one who always picks up your dog and dances around with her when you Q!”

Nellie sometimes does a little dancing herself.

(4) When you don’t, try not to internalize it.

I think that frequently, people with, let us say, non-traditional sport dogs are cowed out of the ring, and that is both a crying shame and frankly antithetical to the whole premise of dog sports.  It is true that too many sports and too many classes contain people who have purebred dogs from ‘traditional’ sport breeds and who give you a condescending smile when you walk in, then go back to talking to the people who they consider to be real competitors.  In my experience, you can do one of two things when confronted with that: you can feel awkward and out of place and then quit the class and go back to training tricks in your living room, or alternately, you can feel awkward, push through it and then work hard with your dog to make sure that he has the prettiest heel/smoothest A-frame/best retrieve of anybody in class.  I try hard to always choose the latter of those two options; being kind of a stubborn jerk helps with this.

Of course, Having Something To Prove means that it becomes even harder when you have bad days.  And you will have bad days: let me just refer you to my post Sometimes Everything Just Sucks because, well, sometimes it does.  The really important thing to remember when these kinds of days happen is that these kinds of days happen to everyone. It’s not just you and your imperfect dog.  It is tempting to think about quitting your sport or discipline altogether.  It is tempting to fantasize about how in the future, you’re going to just get a purpose bred dog that you raise from a puppy and that dog is not going to have ANY PROBLEMS EVER, unlike your current/imperfect dog.  It is tempting to go hide under the covers with your dog and watch old episodes of 30 Rock while contemplating never training anything again ever.  It is doubly tempting to do all these things if you’ve been hearing a constant refrain of “you can’t, you can’t, not with that dog” for a lot of your training career.  But it’s also doubly important not to let those voices win. Because you can succeed and you know it: if you’ve learned Lesson One, you have a whole set of great experiences with your dog to draw on, and remembering those experiences will help you get through the bad times. You know that your dog is awesome; you have seen it. Don’t let negativity win. Seek out people who will not shut you down, learn as much as you can, and above all, just keep going.

me & nell 2

Bad photobooth picture/good pit bull.

Michelle and Dahlia

dahliaDahlia is not difficult as in reactive, dog aggressive, fearful, hard to manage or any of the things most people associate with difficult dogs. Dahlia is, in fact, the perfect pet. But the perfect pet does not make the perfect agility dog. Ultimately, I started agility class with Dahlia because she was smart, I thought it would be fun, and she liked to leap over snowbanks. That’s it. The whole reason I started it with the most mellow dog on earth. At the first class, when they released dogs from a stay and other dogs had to remain sitting (hello impulse control!), it was mass chaos. The dogs who were supposed to stay didn’t. They took off running and it was crazy time for the dogs.

Except Dahlia, of course. Who sat in the middle of it all looking rather befuddled.

Couple a mellow personality with a complete lack of confidence and you have the recipe for agility “disaster.” I’ve walked out of classes and trials in tears as my dog simply did not do anything. So what have I learned from working with Miss Dahlia in agility for over 4 years now?

(1) Enjoy the dog you have. She’s quirky, she’s goofy. Recently she hesitated at a jump because she wasn’t sure if she should take it and once she decided that yes, she really should take it, she was too close to make a proper leap over. And so she put her foot on the jump bar and launched herself over it. And did not displace the bar. It was hilarious. It was adorable. This is the dog I have. She has rolled over at a trial when she decided it was too hot to work. She has left me in class to go to the trainer who was a 100 feet away with treats. She’s an absolutely ridiculous dog and I walk out of more classes than not thinking that at least everyone got a laugh out of her.

(2) Don’t let other people steal your joy in your dog. I know I’ve talked about this before in an older post. But I cannot reiterate this enough. If you were happy that your dog finally did an automatic sit or took the A-Frame or actually came back to you when called, don’t let someone else tell you that it wasn’t up to their standards. She’s your dog. And only you know how far she’s come.

(3) Make it fun. Dahlia was a dog who had almost no confidence and we struggled terribly in agility through our first years (I won’t lie – we still do on occasion). Making it fun for her, rewarding a lot, making it a game we play and nothing overly serious has helped her to see the joy in doing it. It’s not just a job. It’s a game she plays with her Mama.

(4) Reward…a lot. Even when you don’t think the dog deserves a reward. Even when you go out there in the trial and she misses half the jumps or blows past the dog walk or decides that the weave poles just aren’t her thing that day, thank you very much. Walk out of there and throw a party. She went in there for you. And she deserves to have the best experience of her life no matter what. She doesn’t know she didn’t Q. She had an awesome time and doesn’t realize that dropping that one lousy bar cost you the Q. So reward her, even if you don’t feel like she “deserves” it. She does. Because she went out there with you and gave it her all. Even if her “all” means weaving in between the last jump and the timer stantion over and over again until the course time buzzer goes off.

Dom and Julio

In the year that we’ve had Julio, we’ve gained an insight to some of the reasons why he was probably dumped by his previous owner. Unlike Dahlia, Julio is not the perfect pet! We’re not even trying to do anything along the lines of competing (or even going out in public!) but Julio provides a challenge at every turn. From eating underwear to peeing in the house to barking at the same two horses who have lived in our backyard for the last six months, Julio knows how to stomp on my very last nerve. But despite his reactivity, poor recall, and inability to learn anything beyond sit, down, and ‘go to your crate’, I love him to pieces. While having Herbie has been an education in bringing up a dog, Julio has provided lesson after lesson about dealing with what you’ve been given. In the last year, he has taught me countless lessons. Here are just a few things I’ve learned…

(1)  It’s not the dog’s fault. This one should probably go without saying, but it’s so easy to forget when your dog has just done something really, really bad. The truth is that dogs don’t premeditate and they don’t maliciously try to ruin our lives. In Julio’s case, his past life is responsible for his issues. A lack of socialization, attention, and training really left him with a slew of problems that are very tough to resolve.

(2) Treat the problem, not the symptoms. Along those same lines, it’s important to remember that if your dog is acting out, there’s probably an underlying reason for it. For example, Julio’s destructive nature stems from his severe separation anxiety. As he has accepted that we will come back, he has gotten more trustworthy. Working with him on his anxiety helped eliminate some of his destructive behaviors much more effectively than trying to tackle all those individual problems directly.

He’s so good at humoring me.

(3) Appreciate your problem child’s strong points. Julio is an escape artist who can’t be trusted to ‘leave it’ (whatever ‘it’ may be). He’s reactive with other dogs and skittish around certain new people. Sometimes, I’m not sure he’s actually housebroken. BUT, he’s also the sweetest dog I’ve ever met. He’s a cuddle bug. He is easy to exercise, and isn’t demanding more activity all the time like Herbie does.  He’s loyal and tolerant and hilarious. He brings so much joy into my life and I can’t imagine not having him. When those chocolatey eyes stare into my soul, it’s worth losing all that underwear (and that one t-shirt).

(4) Grade on a curve. Herbie was always a good learner. As a result, I got into the habit of looking for perfection. To get the treat, you have to do what I say (the first time). With Julio, I’ve had to let the standards slide a little bit. For example, ‘high five’ for Herbie means put your paw squarely and enthusiastically on my hand. For Julio, ‘high five’ just means ‘something about my foot’. At first, that was good enough. I had to learn to reward the little steps that form the bridge between ‘I’ve never heard that command before’ and ‘I know what that means!’

(5) No two dogs are the same and you have to be flexible in your methods to match the dog you’re working with. I think that’s pretty self explanatory.

Lindsey and Raiden

Raiden is the dog that every trainer never wants. He’s stunning, with a command presence in the show ring that judges comment on after awarding him Best in Show. A champion at 8 months, Best in Specialty Show and Best in Show winner at 9 months and with a German Excellent Select rating the day he was old enough to step into a Sieger ring. “I couldn’t take my eyes off him,” I’ve heard on countless occasions while taking group win pictures. Raiden wins by sheer presence- he commands the attention of the judges so they can’t look away at any other dog. He may not be the best (he’s enormously oversized) but he’s got the attitude. And in case you think he’s just beauty, Raiden has brains too. A spectacular working dog, he had the most impressive drive to work that made him a coveted asset of my search and rescue team. The head K9 trainer on the team, an ex-police K9 handler, was the head of the Raiden fanclub. My schutzhund trainer tried to bribe me weekly to sell Raiden to him, offering me two and three German Shepherd puppies in exchange for Raiden. He is a dream to see in action, clearing schutzhund blinds, completing variable surface tracks at a dead run, and with a precision to his obedience that led us to a high-in-trial obedience score one schutzhund trial.

Raiden and his BIS rosette

Of course, all that only happens on days that I can convince him to behave enough to not try and eat every other dog around. And, to be perfectly honest, that’s not very often. For every group win we have, Raiden has at least 4 ring excusals.  He’s the kind of dog reactive that results in instant euthanasia if he were to land in some sort of animal control facility. The sort they don’t even attempt to place in a home. To have a dog with the most amazing skill set, the kind of dog that could easily compete at the WUSV World Schutzhund Championships the day after completing a 40 mile track for a missing child in the most remote backcountry, but not be able to take him out of the house because he’s so extremely reactive?  It’s a trainer’s worst nightmare. But he has taught me a number of valuable lessons.

(1) You know your dog best. If I had a dollar for everyone that’s given me advice or opinions on Raiden- I’d be a millionaire. From all outward appearances, Raiden looks like The Hulk. Either that or an 8 foot tall Olympic triathlete. He’s massive for a German shepherd- a lean 110 pounds, tall, thin, with hulking shoulder and thigh muscles. When he reacts he does it in style. Hackles up all down his back, barking, lunging, snarling, foam flying from his mouth. I’ve been told I need to ‘show him who’s boss’ and ‘dominate him’ countless times *eyeroll.* I’ve been told that I need to not tolerate his ‘bad’ behavior, and give him a firm correction. I’ve had people tell me I just need to enforce a solid sit/stay and he’ll give up trying to gobble up every other dog. Not once have I ever had anyone hit the nail on the head on the first try. My dog is *fearful.* Inside his mind he’s a timid, quivering, nervous, anxious ball of nerves. At home, he’s a giant marshmallow. He’s soft, he doesn’t like yelling, he wants to be softly stroked, have his head massaged, and have his belly rubbed. He’s the complete opposite of what you’d expect from just looking at him. And not one of those above recommendations would do anything but make his problems even worse. How do I know this? Because I followed all the other trainer’s advice in the beginning. I would try to argue that he was just a soft, sensitive, fearful guy, and people would look at me like I’d grown 6 heads. 110+ pound dogs aren’t fearful! What do they have to be fearful of? Show that dog who’s in charge! His problems got worse, and it’s taken years to undo what careless advice I should have ignored because- I know my dog best.

My dog is a marshmallow

My dog is a marshmallow

(2) It’s ok to be fearful, nervous, or anxious. It’s ok to not be social. It’s ok for your dog to not be a cookie cutter dog. This was a big one for me. At first I saw this as a problem that needed to be fixed. Let’s work on this until you’re dead tired! We’re going to tackle this every day until we get this right! In all reality- it’s perfectly ok for a dog to be a bit leery of things. Forcing the issue can make it worse. Not every person likes everything, and we can’t expect the same of dogs. We can pair good things with scary things, do LAT and BAT and behavioral interventions, but at the end of the day, if Raiden just doesn’t want to be happy around other dogs, but is perfectly content to ignore them if they ignore him- that’s good enough for me. He doesn’t need to be social. It’s not a prerequisite to life. With years and years of hard work, we’ve gotten to this point in Raiden’s life. He’ll ignore other dogs if they’ll ignore him. And that’s fine with me. I don’t have a lunging, snarling wild animal anymore, and as long as other people respect personal space and listen to my directives to keep their personal dogs in their own personal space, we can lead perfectly productive lives.

(3) Know your dog’s limits. This goes along with knowing your dog best. I’ve had Raiden for nearly 9 years- I’ve worked him in all sorts of various sports, dog rings and situations. I know his limits, and I know how to keep him from hitting that threshold. And as such, I have to be his advocate. Raiden gets nervous when lots of people come over unless he can be calmly introduced to each individual person. Not always possible, so he stays put away during family get-togethers. I have a walk-in closet in my office with (strangely enough) a window in it. We’ve outfitted this closet with vinyl flooring, frosted film on the window to let in light but not let Raiden see out, and an extra-tall iron pet gate across the door. This is Raiden’s ‘safe room.’ When people come over, Raiden gets put in here. (Also- when we leave the house, as Raiden suffers from pica and will swallow anything he takes a fancy to). When people come over and want me to let him out, or want to see him/play with him/irritate/antagonize him, I have to have to wherewithal to stand my ground. No, Raiden doesn’t need to come out and come play. No, you don’t need to meet him, or show him off to your friend you brought along. No, I most definitely am NOT taking out the bite sleeve for a ‘demonstration.’ Know your dogs limits, and keep them from reaching it.

Raiden's closet

Raiden’s safety closet

Marketing Foster Dogs For Sports

In today’s installment of my semi-regular series on hocking foster dogs, I want to talk a little about marketing foster dogs specifically to sport and performance homes.

This is a subject that I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about, since I’ve been on both ends of the equation. I currently own and compete with two shelter dogs (and if you’re familiar with their stories from past posts, you’ll already know that neither Pongu nor Crookytail is what I would term an ideal competition dog, in large part because I adopted both of them before I had the first clue what I was doing), and I have also had several foster dogs that I think had excellent potential to succeed in performance venues.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of how to identify foster dogs as potentially promising candidates and how to market those candidates to sport homes, I want to lay out a few of my starting assumptions:

(1) Shelter and rescue dogs can succeed at the highest levels in sports. This shouldn’t be terribly controversial. Quite a few working and sport dogs get dumped in shelters precisely because they’re too much for casual pet owners to handle. They’re out there.

(2) However, not every dog — whatever its origin — can succeed as a performance prospect. Even if we totally remove the handler/trainer end of the equation, some dogs will not be able to consistently achieve top scores/times/titles/whatever in their sports.

Some dogs don’t have the biddability, intelligence, or drive. Some don’t have the physical ability. Some don’t have the emotional resilience. Some have behavioral quirks that cripple their capacity to compete. The simple fact is, not every dog can succeed in everything, and some dogs are going to require a lot more time, patience, and skill on the handler’s part to achieve things that come much more easily for other dogs. The more difficult your sport, and the more demanding your level of competition, the fewer dogs are going to be able to hack it at that level. Learn from my agonies, I implore you, and be realistic about what a particular dog may or may not be able to do.

(3) There aren’t that many performance homes out there, and the majority of those homes do not compete with shelter dogs. Most shelter and rescue dogs looking for homes will wind up in pet homes. This one is simple math. Dog Show Scores estimates that in 2013, there were 13,224 dogs entered in AKC competition obedience, 12,894 dogs entered in AKC Rally, and 24,716 dogs entered in AKC agility. I think it’s safe to say that there is probably considerable overlap among those dogs, as most people who are active in one sport are also active in others. It is also probably safe to say that the number of owners participating is lower than the number of dogs, since many people compete with multiple dogs. On the other hand, those numbers don’t capture dogs who are active in non-AKC sports and registries, of which there are many.

Because of that variability in registries and definitions, it is impossible to tally how many dogs are actively involved in performance venues, but the most convincing guess I’ve seen bandied around was about 50,000 to 75,000. Meanwhile, the American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that in 2012 there were about 70 million owned dogs in the U.S.

Thus, in terms of raw numbers (if I’m crossing out my zeros correctly), a dog has somewhere around a 1 in 1000 chance of ending up involved in a sport. However, those numbers are misleading, because dogs don’t have equal odds at birth. There’s pretty much a 100% chance that a purpose-bred performance puppy from a Famous Big Name Kennel is going to be involved in some working or performance venue, and a much, much lower chance that a random shelter mutt from rural Georgia is going to end up with such an owner. Regional variations matter too: it’s much easier to participate in sports if you live in a densely populated area like the urban East Coast. In other areas, your options might narrow considerably.

These three points frame the discussion for me because, taken together, they mean that there are great performance prospects waiting to be discovered in shelters and foster homes around you… but there are also many, many other dogs who would most likely be better suited to pet life. And even if a particular dog does have all the potential in the world, simple math makes it overwhelmingly likely that the dog will match up to a pet home before a performance home. That is, I think, a fact that any realistic foster should be prepared for: if you are absolutely determined that your dog can only go to a sport home, you may be holding onto that dog for a long, long time until the stars align.

Foster dog Dori went to a home that wanted to pursue therapy work for her (a vocation for which I think she had immense promise). Holding out for a Seriously Serious competition home might have caused her to miss the chance to use her talents in that way.

So now that we’ve gotten those framing assumptions out of the way, how does one go about marketing foster dogs to performance homes?

I. Participate In Dog Sports

This might sound really obvious, but there are lots and lots of people advertising shelter dogs as sport prospects without having competed a day in their lives.

I feel very strongly that it is only possible to make accurate assessments of a dog’s potential as a sport prospect if you have some experience in dog sports. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen shelter workers and rescue volunteers — none of whom had any experience trialing in any competitive venue — try to pitch dogs as “agility prospects” because they’re hyperactive and frenetic in their kennels, or because somebody suggested that this litter of 6-week-old puppies might possibly have a Border Collie somewhere in its ancestry, or the dog runs around like a maniac when let out into a yard to exercise after being stuck in a tiny cage all day.

These are, um, not suggestions that experienced competitors are likely to take seriously. An inexperienced competitor might believe them, which is pretty much how I ended up with Crookytail. And as someone currently living through it, I’ll just say this: it does neither the dog nor the person any favors to end up in a mismatch like that.

It doesn’t do the shelter or rescue any favors either, frankly, because putting a dog that struggles in the ring is likely to encourage the misperception that shelter dogs (or, at best, dogs from your shelter/rescue) cannot compete on equal terms with pedigreed performance dogs, especially if there aren’t a lot of other shelter dogs counteracting that image in that venue. That discourages other performance people from adopting.

An in-depth discussion of focus, drives, structure, environmental nerves, etc. would go far beyond the scope of this already overlong post. The point I want to make here is just that if you aren’t already familiar with those traits, and you have never seen or worked through them as applied to your sport of choice, how can you accurately identify promise in an untrained dog? How can you rightfully tell someone else to invest thousands of dollars and thousands of hours and one of a very limited handful of opportunities in their lives on an unknown rescue dog?

My opinion is that you can’t, and that humility and awareness of your limitations is really important here. At this point in my life, I feel reasonably confident that I can identify a solid prospect for obedience, Rally, and trick work. I can probably pick out a dog who’d have fun with casual recreational agility, but I would be out of my depth trying to select a dog for seriously competitive agility. I would have no confidence in my ability to judge a dog’s capacity for IPO — I just don’t know nearly enough about what is needed to excel in that sport or what those traits look like in an untrained dog. I don’t have the experience to make those judgments. Thus, I wouldn’t presume to market a dog for IPO.

This is from the 2013 WUSV international championship. Do I have any idea what a dog of this caliber looks like untrained? I do not! Not a clue!

Being active in the sport scene will also (hopefully!) enhance your credibility among other competitors, since if you are actively trialing and testing your skills in competition, people are more likely to believe that you do indeed know your stuff when it comes to spotting strong prospects.

And it broadens and widens your network of “dog people,” which can be really helpful in spreading word of mouth about a particularly promising pup. Most people who are active on the trial circuit already have dogs of their own, of course… but they are also often very active in training clubs, as volunteers with other rescue groups, as friends with other performance people who may be on a temporary dog-less hiatus, and so forth. Even if they don’t have room in their own homes, they might know someone else who does.

So step one is: get out there. Train your own dogs from beginning to… well, there is no “end,” but to readiness. Trial. Train your foster dogs through the beginning steps. Learn what it takes to do well, and what that potential looks like in its rawest form. The more you do it, the better your eye will become.

2. Show, Don’t Tell

Okay, so you’ve put your time in and you’ve got a foster dog who genuinely has performance potential. Now what?

Show it.

“This dog would be good at agility” is a conclusory statement. Like most flat conclusions, it offers very little information. Explain, or better yet show: why does this dog have potential? What have you seen or done with this dog that leads you to believe that this particular pup would be a strong candidate for a particular type of work?

An informative writeup is crucial for two key reasons. First, it establishes that you actually know what you’re talking about. “Dog X would be a good sport candidate because she’s got great natural focus, is highly motivated by play and praise as well as food, has superb body awareness, and is confident in new environments” is very different from “Eight-week-old Puppy Y would be a good agility dog because he’s half greyhound.”

(Protip #1: pitches based solely on the dog’s breed are rarely convincing, but pitches for off breeds are in their own category of Specialness.

“This dog would be a great agility candidate because she’s a St. Bernard mix!” = NO. NO. A THOUSAND TIMES NO. (She might turn out to be one anyway, of course, but not because of her breed mix.)

Protip #2: don’t pitch two-month-old mystery mix puppies as prospects. Just… don’t. It is impossible to accurately predict the size, structure, or temperament of a baby puppy of totally unknown heritage, and trying to pawn one off as a sport prospect is a dead giveaway that whoever’s doing the pawning has no idea what they’re doing.)

A good writeup also helps people determine whether that dog would be likely to succeed with their preferred handling methods. If somebody trains obedience using old-school yank and crank techniques, they are probably looking for a slightly different set of traits than somebody who trains using exclusively motivational methods. Personalities matter too. Some people like really enthusiastic, boisterous dogs. Others prefer a calmer and more controlled partner. A “good obedience dog” for one handler may not work so well for another. Spelling out the reasons for your conclusions helps people figure out whether that dog is likely to do well with them. Dog sports are team sports, after all, and getting that team chemistry right is extremely important.

A writeup alone isn’t enough, though. Videos are also important. Show the dog in movement, both natural (unprompted) and while going through some basic foundational exercises, if possible. When I was putting together foster dog Queenie’s Novice Trick Dog video, I was careful to include both cute tricks that I thought would appeal to pet owners and foundational behaviors that I hoped might catch the eye of a performance person.

Video can help a prospective adopter evaluate your dog’s structure, natural athleticism, response to cues and common distractions, engagement in training, level of interest in motivators, and more. Performance people, in my experience, really really like to have video footage of any dog they’re considering.

3. Be Aware Of Tradeoffs

Listing a dog as a performance prospect is likely to deter some pet homes.

I think this is unfortunate, because what I have found is that it’s often founded on the same misperception that leads shelters and rescues to label frantic, zero-threshold, high-energy dogs as “agility prospects.” But it’s still something to keep in mind. In large swaths of the public, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what qualities make for a good performance dog, and as a result, a lot of potentially awesome pet homes will take themselves out of the running because they think they’re going to get a crazy dog who’s constantly bouncing off the walls.

Sometimes, of course, these self-judgments are accurate: people who have no interest in doing any sort of advanced training and are looking for complete couch potato dogs probably shouldn’t match themselves to high-drive sport dogs. But in other cases, you will lose out on some great, perfectly capable homes because they just want a pet and are worried about or intimidated by the idea of living with a “sport dog.”

When I was trying to place Queenie, I saw many, many people pass her by for exactly that reason. At adoption events, Queenie was quiet, calm, and well-behaved — nothing frantic or frenetic about her at all — but because I had written that she would make a good sport prospect on her crate card, adopters turned away from her again and again. Many pet owners, for whatever reason, are scared off by the “performance” label.

This can really bite you in the butt, because, going back to our initial discussion of framing assumptions, there are just not that many sport homes out there, and only a small minority of those homes are open to shelter dogs. Before making the decision to market toward this niche, it is important to be aware that it is a tiny niche, and it may not be your best course of action for a particular dog.

Mab was one the most promising foster dogs I ever had, but I still pitched her as a pet first, sport prospect second — and just made sure that her owners knew that if they wanted to explore that, she’d likely excel.

Many dogs are better served by a strategy that puts them forward as great pets first, and then by a gentle nudge to the adopters that suggests they might want to get involved in dog sports to explore their new pup’s potential. In other words, quite often it is more fruitful to try placing the dog in an active pet home, and look for adopters who can be persuaded to start sports with their new dog, as opposed to looking for already-established sport homes and trying to place the dog there. Creating a new opportunity might be your best option.

K9DIY: Make a mini-A frame to practice contacts at home

Project difficulty level: Medium hard (some fiddly bits; a fair amount of assembly, even with pre-cut parts; a lot of waiting for things to dry; some fluency with power tools–a drill in this case–is helpful)

I’m starting an agility foundations class with Widget soon, and because I’m impatient and bored with playing target games, I thought it might be fun to start shaping some contact behavior with her.  I also like to make stuff, and will also take pretty much any excuse to start a weird project, so I decided to build Widge a tiny little contact trainer.  A few years ago, I made Lucy a dog walk to use as a contact trainer, but that was cumbersome, heavy, and a pain to move around, so I decided to go a little smaller for Widget.


Lucy’s dog walk/contact trainer. Please note my EXTREMELY fancy expensive bases from Clean Run…..oh wait, those are broken director’s chairs.

So I made a little A-frame, just tall enough for her to climb over it and practice her contacts, and short enough that I could fold it up and hide it behind her crate when I wasn’t using it.


Shrimpy contact trainer for shrimpy dog.

So before I tell you how I did this (and before I encourage you to make your own), let me tell you that if you are looking for extremely specific directions, you are going to be disappointed by this post.  You know how sometimes you look in a cookbook and the recipe tells you to use exactly a quarter-teaspoon of salt, and then you ask your mom for a recipe and she’s like, “Eh, you just get a bunch of butter and throw it in a pan and cook it until it smells good”?  This post is in the style of that second recipe.  You’re going to have to adjust it to fit your specific dog’s height and weight; you’ll need a thicker and wider set of boards if you’ve got a dog who’s bigger than teeny little Widget, you might want to swap out the hardware based on what you can find, you might want to go a little taller if your dog is confident on equipment, etc. And that’s all fine! This is all just to give you a general idea of how you could make something like this if you wanted to.

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On why I keep a training log

dahlia1In agility class the other day I was doing what I do every class: I was creating a course map in my sketch book. One of my fellow classmates, a long time competitor in agility and other dog sports, came over to ask what I was doing. “Do you recreate the courses in your backyard?” While that would be a great use for the course maps I write down during class, it’s unfortunately not what I do with them. I have no backyard, you see. So there’s little chance to recreate a course, much less a full one, for me outside of class.

So what was I doing then?

Well, I tend to be the kind of person who likes to keep track of things. Oh, I don’t keep lists or anything. But I like to document things. I like to be able to look back and relive moments in my life that I really enjoyed. And so when I started agility classes three years ago it was natural for me to make a log of what happened each class.

I didn’t start doing it with any real goal in mind but the longer I took classes, the more I realized that there were really several reasons to keep such a record and I’m glad I did so from the very beginning.

1. Tracking progress. Sometimes when you’re in the middle of it all, you feel like you’ve been struggling forever. There have been days I’ve walked out of class and felt like we would never ever improve. I would come home so disheartened. I’d see all the other dogs so easily taking some complicated maneuver that we just never quite got the hang of, or that we blundered our way through with Dahlia occasionally hesitating and looking to me for help. These are the moments I go back to the log. Sometimes I go back and skim through entries from the year before, just so see where we were at that time.

Here is a course we did in class at the end of May last year. As you can see it’s a fairly simple course, one cross (change of sides), only 9 obstacles. My note on the beginning of our run was this: I got Dahlia out there and she was slow. Not like she was trotting through it. She was walking through everything. This was pretty typical of her at that time. She walked through courses, occasionally trotted. Even the easy ones without pinwheels and fancy maneuvers. She hesitated at the entrance of the second tunnel, another one of her tendencies at the time. Forget pinwheels! She would hesitate before each and every jump.

Here is a course we did in class in May of this year. Notice the difference. 17 obstacles and that wasn’t even the hard part! The beginning consisted of some crazy handling maneuvers that required a bit of a serpentine into a rear cross with the dog taking both jumps 3 and 4 from the same side.  The sequence of 8-9-10 required a front cross and a strange turn that sent the dog wrapping tight around 10 before moving on (and then getting them to commit to jump 11 so that you could front cross before 12!). We struggled with this. I won’t even pretend otherwise. And I remember feeling a bit out of my element while out there. But we did it. It was messy and not perfect, but most importantly we did it. A year ago that would not have been possible. So even though we struggled with it, the fact that we could even contemplate doing it was a huge thing.

I enjoy comparisons like this because it reminds me that this really is a journey and that we’ve traveled along from where we were before. We’re not at our final destination (we never will be), but we’re constantly moving forward. It reminds me that the journey is the important part of all of this.

agility342. Assessments. I also keep track of what happens at trials so I can compare those notes to what happens at class. Being able to see it all written out in black and white gives me a chance to see what is consistently going wrong (both at trials and at class) and allows me to try to fix the issue. For instance, back a year or so ago, we realized that Dahlia wouldn’t take the A-Frame or Dog Walk in a trial situation. That gave us a chance to work on more confidence and more distractions on her contacts.  We also know that Dahlia shuts down a bit at trials. She doesn’t have nearly the verve and excitement she does in class, so we’re working on that one as well. Having specific notes as to why you didn’t Q each time allows you to see if there’s a pattern causing them. Is your dog always taking an off course jump or tunnel? Then maybe your handling is not clear enough or maybe the dog hasn’t been taught to turn properly at a cross. Is your dog taking off to sniff? Then maybe he/she finds the trial atmosphere stressful and you need to work on stress issues. Does your dog like to go greet the ring crew? Then more distraction training is needed! On the flip side, if your dog has several Q’s in a row, seeing what happened to cause those can help you continue doing what you’re doing right! If you don’t write these things down, will you remember them from one week to the next? I’m not sure I would. And so having them there to re-read and find the patterns, both positive and negative, is very important to me.

3. Memories. This one is a little bit sad. But someday my best girl is not going to be here. She’s going to be nothing more than memories and so instead of saying “Yeah I used to do agility with my girl” and allowing those memories, the triumphs and the frustrating moments, to fade I have them all written out with complete clarity. The courses we did, the trials we went to, the moments of triumph and failure. I can relive all those wonderful moments with my girl sometime down the line. It’s like keeping a diary. Sometimes it’s wonderful to look back, even if it is bittersweet.

dahlia34. Future dog’s training. Dahlia will not be the only dog I train in agility. I plan to get another rescue dog sometime down the line and do agility with that dog too. I hope to even have a yard at that time so I can do some training at home! But having all those struggles outlined with Dahlia, including what we did to help her through certain things, will really help when I run into stumbling blocks with Future Dog. Yes, I’ll have an instructor (hopefully the same one I have now, unless we have to move from the area), but when I’m working on things at home it’s nice to know I can go back and look at suggestions that were made for issues Dahlia was having to see if I can find anything to help me work with Future Dog.

Do you keep training logs? What reasons do you have for keeping them or even not keeping them? Come share your thoughts in the comments!

Continuing Education for Dog People

agility8I never could have imagined back when I first started training in agility that I would become the sort of student who would end up taking multiple classes and seminars both with my regular instructor and others.  I started it for fun and somewhere along the line decided I wanted Dahlia and I to be as good a team as we possibly could be.

We’ve taken weekly (and sometimes bi-weekly) classes at the same awesome training place since we began in 2010.  The classes are fantastic and we’ve certainly learned a lot.  But there’s a minor problem with classes: they’re fairly short.  While each student gets their allotted time with the instructor, it still amounts to only about 10-20 minutes at most of the instructor specifically working with you and your dog.  Yes, you learn a lot from watching the other students and their dogs and the mistakes they make, but nothing helps more than having the instructor specifically telling you what to do to improve your performance.

At first I wasn’t all that interested in taking seminars.  They can be expensive.  They’re time intensive (sometimes 4-5 hours, sometimes all day).  And the idea just never really crossed my mind.  But my instructor suggested I try one out and so I did.

The first seminar I learned to release Dahlia from her start line stay a little bit differently from most other people.  Most dogs are raring to go off the start line.  Dahlia is a little less confident and a little more mellow.  So instead of putting her in her stay, walking away, then standing there and releasing her, I walk briskly away, start to jog and release her while I’m moving.  She sees me moving, wants to chase, and takes off with a lot more pep!

The second seminar I did, which was with my regular instructor, I learned about keeping proper connection with my dog and how that can influence her speed and drive.  I remember going home and writing of the experience and saying this: One minor little change and BOOM I had a dog who looked like a real agility dog.  It was a minor change, certainly, but it took us several times through various sequences for the instructor to latch onto the problem we were having and to fix it.

The third seminar I did I learned about getting Dahlia really hyped up and ready to go.  I walked out there with a handful of treats for the first course we did and simply put Dahlia in her stay and ran off to do the sequence.  She did it, but she was fairly slow about the whole thing.  She was in a low arousal state, which is not really conducive to working.  The instructor had us come out again and get her excited and tugging.  Each student had enough time to really work their dog up and get them ready. This was my description of Dahlia’s second time through: This time Dahlia was FAR more up…eyes bright, tail up, eyes focused on me. When we took off it was like someone had lit a firecracker up her ass. She was MOVING.  I’ve used this in every class since that seminar.  At trials, she won’t tug (usually), but I used treats and movement tricks (like standing on her hind legs, running after me, spinning, etc.) to get her up and moving.

The fourth seminar I did, I started to figure out how to trust Dahlia more and have begun to stop babysitting obstacles.  Let me show you what “babysitting obstacles” really means.  Here’s Dahlia and I at a trial in November.

Can you see how I hesitate and before each jump?  I wait for her to get close and actually start to jump before moving away.  What does this mean?  Well, it means we got a Q.  But it also means we were incredibly slow (36 seconds) and Dahlia wasn’t totally sure what I wanted from her.  There were a few times (coming out of both tunnels, especially) where I should have kept back closer to her, run with her, and indicated the jumps as I kept going.  But I slowed down and raised my upper body, which indicated collection (and turning!), which was confusing.

Compare that to this video, showing two clips of us at the last seminar we went to.

See how I’m not hesitating?  See how she’s less confused, especially when coming out of tunnels to take the next jump?  That’s the seminar talking.

Each and every seminar we’ve taken has pushed us forward by leaps and bounds.  This is not because my instructor is anything but awesome and amazing.  This is because at each seminar, you get a chance to really focus on the problems you’re having and fix them.  Right there.  That send to the jump from the dog walk?  We did that several times, each time rewarding Dahlia for going out away from me and taking it and eventually worked our way to my turning and running when she committed to it.  What you see in the video is the end product of several minutes of intense work on just one thing.

Were we perfect there?  Obviously not!  But it helped move us forward and we’ve been able to carry those lessons with us into our weekly lessons with our regular instructor.  It’s completely changed how I run her in class and, I hope, will completely change how I run her at trials in the future.

Every dog sport has their seminars.  This is not an agility-only phenomenon (in fact, every sport I know has their seminars!).  There are seminars for obedience, rally, herding, tracking, you name it.  If you’re involved in a dog sport and are getting serious about it, I cannot recommend going to seminars enough.  Those moments of complete focus on you and your dog will push you to try new things and help to sort out the problems you’ve been having.  They will make you a better team.  That much I can guarantee!

So tell us readers, have you ever been to a seminar?  What was your experience like?  Come share your stories and your questions in the comments!


The Journey to the Level 1 Title

dahlia-crateI started taking agility class in the summer of 2010.  I can’t really say what it was that made me finally bite the bullet and do it.  The idea sat in the back of my mind for over a year before I got up the nerve to contact a place about trying it out.

Once I did finally sign up and started taking classes, I thought it might be something fun I’d do for a little while until we had learned a few things and I felt done with it.  I made it perfectly clear to the instructor that I was just there for fun, that I was not interested in going to a trial, in competing, in ribbons or getting qualifying scores.   She was perfectly fine with that, but always worked with Dahlia and I no differently than her other students.  She talked frequently of when we went to our first trial, not if we ever went.  And I just let it roll off my back.  Dahlia and I were not going to any trials.  I was satisfied with letting her run in class.

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What makes a good agility instructor?

class1When I started my agility training, I really had almost no idea what to look for in a trainer.  The only thing I knew I wanted at that time was someone who was into positive reinforcement.  I couldn’t have told you when I set out to find a trainer what made a good trainer and what didn’t.

My first experience was with a local school that required me to sign up for their Intermediate Obedience class before they would allow me into their agility classes.  They wanted to meet us and see what we could do (this despite having passed the CGC test which should have told them what we could do!).  I signed up for the class and made it through one class and about ten minutes of the next before hightailing it out the door.  The class was all about prong collars and choke chains and making sure you dominated your dog.  No thanks!

I continued my search and stumbled on a place about a half hour away from me.  The instructor’s biography began “If the dog can a have positive experience, then you will have positive results” and specifically said they do not allow any sort of “corrective type” training.  This seemed far more up my alley and I didn’t really think further than that before signing up for my first foundations class there.  It’s been over two years and I’m still training there, so obviously I liked it!

Now that I’ve been training for this long and now that I’m facing down the possibility that we may have to move sometime in the next couple years (my partner just graduated with his doctorate and is beginning the job search), I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is I want in a trainer.  Or, perhaps more specifically, what it is I like about my current trainer that I’d like to have again in the future.

So here’s my list of 10 things that I think make a good agility trainer.


My instructor’s Vizsla, Tugger

1. A willingness to work with dogs of all breeds.  My current trainer almost has a MACH (Master Agility Championship title in AKC) on her Siberian Husky (she would have that MACH if her dog hadn’t gotten injured and had to have an ACL repair surgery).  A Siberian Husky. She also trains an Hungarian Vizsla and recently got a Border Collie.  The dogs in her classes range from focused Border Collies to Corgis who run off at a moment’s notice to follow their noses to adorable little puffball Havaneses.  Seeing her approach each dog as an individual and her ability to work with them no matter what their level has been inspiring.


Rudy the Havanese

2. Open to working with dogs of various drive/energy levels.  When I first found my instructor’s web page I checked out the form you could submit to tell her you were interested in classes there.  In the middle of the form there was a little drop-down menu that said “My dog has…high drive, medium drive, low drive.”  My impression of agility was always that it was all about the fast, drivey dogs.  Meanwhile I had Dahlia, Miss Low Drive herself.  Seeing that an instructor was willing to work with lower drive dogs immediately piqued my interest and made me much more likely to fill out that form.  Since starting there I’ve seen my instructor adjust her training to fit each and every dog, no matter how fast or slow the dog is.


Tor the Australian Shepherd

3. Knowledge.  This one goes without saying.  I want someone who is constantly learning, who is exploring new ways to do things, who watches videos and takes seminars with other trainers.  I want someone who has many tools in her toolbox and can pull different ones out at a moment’s notice.  When Dahlia and I were struggling with weaves with her on my right, my instructor came over and worked us through yet another method for getting it done.  It wasn’t one I would have thought of and yet it worked brilliantly.  I won’t pretend Dahlia is ace at weaving on my right, but she’s about 75% better than she was a month ago.


Indy the Black Labrador Retriever

4. Sense of humor.  Agility is supposed to be fun!  And as I have the world’s most ridiculous agility dog, I want someone who can laugh along with me at her antics.  When she jumps on the tunnel instead of going through it, I want to hear laughter, not curses.  My favorite teachers all through school were the ones who had a good sense of humor.  I retained much more of the information and had a much better time in those classes. I use humor a lot in my own teaching (music, not dogs!) and my students tell me all the time how much fun they have in my class.  Considering most come into my class thinking Classical music is awful, it makes me proud to know I’ve made the subject enjoyable.  Make it fun and the students will keep coming back for more!


Dahlia at her second agility trial
Photo by Chris Tipton

5. Knows when to push you out of your comfort zone. I started agility classes with no intention of trialing. I was adamant on that from the first class on.  I was just doing it for fun.  I didn’t have a “real” agility dog. And then last September my instructor recommended that I go to a trial.  Because she thought we’d have fun.  Because she thought we were actually ready for it.  She didn’t push.  She just suggested and planted the idea in my head.  I went.  I had fun.  We even got a qualifying score and a pretty ribbon.  And more than that, I was hooked.  She knew I just needed that little push to go there and try it.


Q the Belgian Tervuren

6. Knows how to set you and your dog up for success.  I remember one particular class that we did brilliantly in.  The courses seemed easy and we were all feeling elated at how we did.  Our instructor said “Sometimes we all need a warm and fuzzy.”  And I realized she had done that on purpose.  We had recently been doing some really challenging things in class, taking us and our dogs out of their comfort zone and while we were  having some degree of success with it, we were all getting a little discouraged as we had to go back and redo things several times.  Having that one class with more straightforward courses that we could be successful at left us all feeling better about how we were progressing.  We were ready for the next class’s challenges and stepped it up a notch!


Remy the Yellow Labrador Retriever

7. Knows it’s not all about the Qs or the ribbons. Our instructor sees trials as assessments. Yes getting the qualifying score or the pretty ribbon is nice (and I won’t deny that at all!), but we’ve had long discussions at class (and at an “Agility Anonymous” meeting) about how to view trials.  If you put in the work, if you relax and have fun, if you just get out there to see what you have the Q’s will come.


Guinness the mixed breed

8. Open to communication. I cannot count the times I’ve e-mailed my instructor and asked questions about our training techniques, about trials, about frustrations I’m having.  She is always willing to listen and offer advice.  Sometimes I’ve done online training with her (and so paid her for that advice!) and sometimes it was just a freebie.  She’s never let an e-mail go unanswered and has always given great suggestions and advice.


Blaze the Golden Retriever

9. Builds a good foundation. I still remember my early agility classes and feeling a bit disappointed that we weren’t immediately running little sequences and going over jumps and through tunnels and all that fun stuff.  Instead, we focused on good foundation training before getting to the “real” stuff.  Looking back I wouldn’t have it any other way.  All of that set up an excellent launching point and I feel like because we had that strong foundation, Dahlia is safe and confident on the equipment.  Each class naturally progressed to the next and that was all because we had a strong foundation to build upon.


Ace the Dalmatian

10. Uses the time in class wisely. For me, a good instructor knows that some weeks they’re going to have to spend much more time with one student than others, but that in other weeks it will be other students having challenges.  I remember one person complaining that she got out there, ran her course, was perfect and didn’t get a lot of attention that class.  But in other classes that same dog was unfocused and scattered and the instructor spent more time with her than other students.  I think a wise teacher knows that the balance in each class will not be perfect, that she will not spend exactly 10 minutes with each student because each student has different needs.  That same wise teacher also knows that it will balance out over time and if she needs to, she’ll make sure it balances out by offering somewhat more challenging things to a higher level student or ask for more perfection from that particular student.

And bonus!!  You didn’t think I could really leave this with just 10, did you?


Lacey the German Shepherd

11. Has a large variety of classes. This is a sort of special case and I realize that finding this sort of arrangement again is not likely.  My current instructor teaches classes a few nights a week and often on weekends when there aren’t trials going on.  She doesn’t offer just beginning, intermediate, and advanced classes.  She has classes specific to things her students need to work on, like contact and weaves, or TTP (turns, timing, and positions), or speeding up your dog (need for speed!).  She offers mini-classes and “happy hour” classes where we can come and work on specific things we need to tackle.  It means that the classes are small (sometimes only 3 or 4 students, but usually no more than 6 or 7) and everyone in the class is at a fairly similar level.  It means no one is left behind and if you need to step back into a class to brush up on something they’re always there for you to jump into.  I’ve loved this arrangement of classes.  It’s given me so much to do and I’ve been able to break things down into their various parts to combine together in the handling classes.

Where I currently train is wonderful.  I hope to find another place like it if we ever have to move.

Agility: Not just for high energy dogs

sleepy4I used to watch agility trials on TV back when I had cable.  Back when I had time to relax on a weekend morning and watch stuff on the “boob tube.”  Basically, back before I had a dog.  Before I even imagined I would have a dog.  It was sort of a pipe dream of mine to do agility with the dog I would have someday.

And then I got a dog!  A Border Collie/Golden Retriever mix.  A dog who would surely be suited for agility.  But as it turned out, she looked more like this than this.

So I put off the dream.  For two years whenever anyone would say “I thought you wanted to do agility” I would say “Have you seen my dog?”  She was a slow, deliberate girl far more interested in getting belly rubs than running and jumping.  Her idea of a good walk was a stroll in the park where she could sniff everything, not a run around the neighborhood so she could burn off energy.

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