One of the things I love best about the sport of flyball is that you’ll see all different types, breeds, and mixes of dogs in the lanes. I’ve seen everything from Afghan to Shar Pei to Miniature Dachsund to Labrador Retriever. But Border Collies always seem to make up a large portion of the population at any tournament, and there’s no mystery why– these dogs are fast, focused, willing, and frequently ball-crazy.
Which usually makes training them easy. There are always exceptions, but it almost seemed like my two trained knew how to play flyball coming out of the womb. (I guess there is something to be said for selective breeding?)
This, however, is not a Border Collie:
Ham is a big fan of the victory lap. WOOHOO I HAVE MY BALL AND YOU CAN’T CATCH ME!!!!
But we’re working on it.
Right now we’re taking a beginner flyball class and making huge strides toward putting all the pieces together. When we teach flyball, we do so in three different parts. One part is the jumps and retrieving, one part is the box turn, and then after that has all been put together, you add distraction, other dogs, and passing.
I taught Steve a box turn in about a week. Bean didn’t take much longer. I think it took me less than a month to teach Bean flyball, beginning to end, and he rarely ever makes a mistake.
Hambone is not such a quick study.
Here is a video from the middle of March.
In this, Ham is pretty much the same as a flyball-bred dog. He loves his ball. He loves food. He was very timid at first (it took me a long time to convince him that it was ok to step on a flat board on the ground), but once he got the idea, he got the idea and he knows he’ll be highly rewarded for it.
The difference is, once he gets his reward, especially if it’s a ball, he’s very very happy to go make up his own games. Victory laps with a ball in his mouth? Way more fun than anything I have to offer.
My Border Collies have found tugging to be very intrinsically rewarding. Hambone? Has no interest. I try to get him to come back to a tug that is a velcro pouch made of real fur with food inside, but that is only moderately interesting. This is by far our biggest challenge.
The second thing we are working on in the video is retrieving a ball and coming back to me over jumps. This works on a few things– leaving the mama, retrieving, turning and coming back over the jumps, and drive back to the handler.
Again, Ham’s focus is all over the place. He is super aware of everything else going on in the room. And he is also concerned that it might be more interesting than what he’s currently doing. He has no qualms about leaving his game to check something else out.
So different from my BCs, and a real struggle for me. I think if I could run him all by himself in a bubble, I could get him in the lanes pretty quickly. But that’s not what the game is- he needs to be able to run with other dogs in his lane as well as a dog in the other lane. This is going to be HARD.
Here is a second video that includes clips from two classes several weeks later.
At the very end of the video, we tried adding a tennis ball to the turn by sticking it to some velcro. Clearly, Ham did not get it. He turned nicely, but couldn’t grasp what the ball was doing there.
At home later that evening, I started him working on this skill on our own hit-it board, but I dropped the angle back down to almost flat. He was able to figure out how to incorporate grabbing the ball into his turn at this lower level, and we were quickly able to raise it back up to steep with him still getting his ball.
There is also some nice work on jumps and retrieving, and drive back to the handler.
In this last video, we’ve skipped over a couple of steps to Ham’s first real box turns including him triggering the box and catching the ball. We’ve been messing around with what kind of ball he likes the best. Tennis balls are just a little too big for his mouth, so he’s playing with small squishy balls here. Regular size balls and small balls are all acceptable in NAFA flyball, as are squishy foam balls, semi-squishy practice tennis balls, and rubber chuck-it balls.
Flyball is a much more fun and complex sport to train than it looks from the outside. I never expected to enjoy it this much but it is so neat to see my little brown squirrel dog putting things together and making visible progress from session to session. Sometimes things just click, sometimes they don’t, but I think he’s going to be a nice-running little dog (10″ jumps, I think) when we gets the whole game figured out.
My little brown dog? He notices. He likes getting his ball, but he doesn’t have that drive to come back for a reward, and it’s just… different. Hard. Frustrating. It feels so out of control.
But it’s an excellent opportunity for me to learn how to become a better trainer. I picked my little Hambone for a lot of reasons– he has excellent ears, he needed a home– but mostly because I wanted a small dog to run as a flyball height dog. The height of the smallest dog sets the height of the jumps that the team runs over. No height dog? You’re running 14″ jumps. Which are freaking BIG.
Six years ago, we headed out to a rest stop on the NYS Thruway to pick up our new dog. I had met her on a transport in April and just fell in love with her. I knew right away she was the right dog for us. The rescue agreed we’d be a good home for her and so on May 17, 2008, we met up with a transport coming in our direction to pick her up.
The woman who ran the rescue told us that afternoon she had left Dahlia loose in her house and Dahlia, seeing the opportunity this presented, decided to help herself to the butter. She climbed right up on the table and ate the entire stick. She was found licking up the last of it and promptly removed from the table.
When she gave Dahlia to us she told us what had happened and told us that she was “a little bit farty.” She did not lie. We spent most of the trip home with the windows rolled down and our noses plugged up. Yes folks, we were warned that our dog was a butter thief.
Despite that rather inauspicious beginning, we still love our silly girl.
This year, Dahlia presents you with the top 20 things that she’s learned in her sixth year with us.
2. That sometimes the wait really is worth it.
3. That looking beautiful is hard work.
4. That when another dog snarks at me, the best thing to do is back off, not try to teach them a lesson by coming at them with mad teeth.
5. That you all have dirty minds. That is a Kong Safestix.
6. That I actually can swim, even if I prefer to keep my feet on the ground.
7. That the best thing to do on a hot summer day is to lie in the shade.
8. That exploring is better with friends.
9. That you can go around the bushes but it’s much more fun to go through them.
10. That playing with dogs who are a lot like you is tons of fun.
11. That a relaxed day of agility in the park is the best.
12. That fountains are meant for drinking.
13. That not all grass tastes good.
14. That old cemeteries are great fun for exploring.
15. That I can catch snowflakes on my tongue!
Dahlia would like me to pause here and point out that “catching snowflakes” is not exactly the same thing as “Mommy threw a bunch of snow at my head.”
16. That monochromatic dogs are the best!
Dahlia would again like me to pause and point out that she doesn’t actually know what “monochromatic” means, but if it means “dogs who like beef” she’s all up on that one.
17. That barking is fun and exciting!
18. That sometimes I look awesome and majestic when taking off from a sit.
And sometimes I look utterly ridiculous.
19. That sunning yourself on the rocks is a good way to enjoy the start of spring.
20. That the only sticks worth fetching are the really big ones.
She may be frustrating at times. She may be a butter thief. But she’s my best girl and I couldn’t imagine life without her. Happy Gotcha day to the best darned dog I could ever have!
This is the story of My Dog Pongu.
Pongu is my first dog. I found him as a 16-week-old puppy in a local city shelter, where he had been brought by a landlady after her tenant, a college kid who wasn’t supposed to have any pets in the property, moved out and left a little puppy in his empty room. Pongu was alone in there for two days before the landlady heard him crying and took him to the shelter.
I wasn’t looking for a puppy when I went to the shelter that day. We had just bought a condo and moved into the neighborhood, and the painters who were supposed to be working on the place cancelled unexpectedly, so I found myself with a free afternoon and thought I’d go to the shelter to practice doing Sue Sternberg’s evaluation protocol. I had read a lot of books on how to choose a dog for adoption, but being a complete newbie to the world of dogs, I didn’t have the first clue what any of this stuff was actually supposed to look like in real life. So I figured: I’ll just go to the shelter and practice the protocol with whatever dogs they happen to have there, and maybe then I’ll be marginally better at this later.
This particular shelter doesn’t generally have a ton of dogs. On that day, it was just Pongu and a handful of small fluffy dogs of the Shih-Tzu/Maltese persuasion. I skipped right over the little fluffies and went to Pongu’s cage. His kennel card said “German Shepherd/Doberman mix,” and I — so infinitely ignorant! — thought “hey, I like both of those breeds. Those are smart, strong, courageous breeds. This’ll be great!”
haaaaaaaa *whoo, lemme take a breath* aaaaaaaaaaa
I didn’t adopt him right away. For one thing, Pongu didn’t have pointy ears, and in my head I had always imagined that my future dog would have pointy ears. More importantly, even I, Supremely Clueless Newb that I was, could see that this puppy was shy. He stayed in the back of his cage, paralyzed with terror, while the other dogs barked and jumped in excitement around him. He was a statue of fear when I took him out to the concrete-floored yard for introductions. I don’t know if he even blinked that whole first visit. And I knew from the books that this was, in some vague theoretical sense, not a good sign.
But I didn’t know what that meant. And I couldn’t get that terrified little puppy face out of my head. So when Pongu was still there a couple of days later, and the shelter staff told me no one had expressed any interest in adopting him, I took the little guy home. August 13, 2010 was the day I signed the papers and the puppy named “Bandit” officially became Pongu the Insane.
That was when I began to learn what it actually means to live with a fearful dog.
There is a paragraph from Kelsey’s post “Normal Ain’t Easy” that hit me like a lightning bolt the first time I read it, so perfectly did it capture my experience with Pongu. This is the quote: “She was the wrong dog for a first-time owner; I know that now. From the start, Lucy was an Issue Dog. She did, however, have the good fortune to wind up with an owner who was both deeply stubborn and blithely unaware of how deep her problems really went.”
That was how it was for us, too. Pongu was not a dog who should have gone to a first-time owner. But, looking back on it now, I don’t think anybody but a first-time owner would have taken him. A wiser and more experienced person would have seen the warning signs and stayed away.
But I wasn’t, and I didn’t. So I wound up with a fearful dog.
Pongu could not cope with the world. Maybe in a quieter, rural environment it wouldn’t have been so hard for him; maybe if his early life hadn’t been full of deprivation and neglect/abuse, his issues wouldn’t have been so severe. But our condo was in the heart of a major city and his first few months of life sucked and all of these things compounded what was already a crap hand dealt to him by genetics.
He had OCD. He would self-mutilate by chewing holes in his legs, feet, and tail. He had separation anxiety, and (not too surprising, given how he landed in the shelter) the sight of us packing our bags for an extended trip would send him into a fit of absolute screaming panic.
Above all else was his generalized fear. Everything was a terror to him. Everything. Buses, strangers, flapping awnings, honking taxis, plastic bags, imaginary radioactive spider monsters that existed only in his hallucinating doggy brain. And all of it immediately sent him into total meltdown.
The first time I took Pongu to a groomer, he evacuated his anal glands and was so stressed out that he had explosive, blood-streaked diarrhea as soon as he got out of the salon. Our whole walk home was a 20-minute continuous bolting episode that did not end until Pongu was safely back inside.
The first time I took him to a puppy class, he panicked, bolted from the room, and had diarrhea for two days after he got home. We didn’t go back. The second time I took him to a puppy class (taught by an excellent positive reinforcement trainer), he spent the entire six-week session hiding behind a barrier, shaking and shivering and drooling uncontrollably. His black fur turned gray with dandruff and his paws left sweat prints all over the matting. While the other students practiced loose-leash walking and Stays under distraction, Pongu practiced calming down enough that he could finally take little pieces of grilled chicken behind his barrier at the back of the room. By the end of the six weeks, we’d gotten that far… and to this day, I am so incredibly impressed and grateful that our trainer helped us achieve that much. Seriously, Philly peeps: Opportunity Barks. They are awesome.
I read everything I could about helping fearful dogs cope with the world. We worked with Leslie McDevitt in person, faithfully practiced Dr. Overall’s Relaxation Protocol, and used Prozac and Xanax to help Pongu get into a headspace where he could start to learn alternative ways of coping with all the things that distressed him so badly. We played around with training tricks because it kept Pongu engaged and happy, and it was something he could do in the comfort of our home without having to venture into the big scary outdoors.
From there, we got into dog sports because I had read in a book that doing sports could improve a fearful dog’s confidence. Initially we started in canine musical freestyle, but while Pongu showed a decent amount of promise in that sport, my dancing skills could best be described as “headless chicken stumbles into electrical wires.” So we switched to Rally Obedience, where my total lack of choreography and coordination skills was less immediately fatal to our prospects.
And Pongu did okay. Better than okay, sometimes. For all his problems and phobias, he is a smart dog, and from the beginning he loved to work. Together we began to bumble down the long road to the competition ring, neither of us altogether sure what we were doing.
In August 2012, we debuted in APDT Rally. I was so nervous before our first run that I had trouble sleeping for two weeks ahead of time and couldn’t see straight on the start line. Pongu was not a whole lot calmer. Both of us look like zombies in the video of that run; the ring nerves are so cringe-inducingly palpable that even today I cannot watch the whole thing in one sitting. At the end, when the audience applauds, Pongu flinches and startles visibly in fright.
But he did it. Pongu earned a Q with a decent first-timer’s score of 196 out of a possible 210 points.
That showed me he could be marginally functional in the ring, and once I knew he could do that, then I was hellbent on taking my little scaredybutt dog just as far as he could go. Two months later, Pongu finished his APDT Rally Level 1 title with an Award of Excellence for high scores. Four months after that, he got his Level 2 title with another Award of Excellence, although now the title certificates said World Cynosport Rally, since the organization had been sold to USDAA. Two months after that, Pongu earned his first combined championship title, the ARCH. And in September 2013, just over one year after we stood on the start line for the very first time, he finished his Level 3 title with a third, final Award of Excellence.
Getting there was not easy, and it was not quick. Living with a fearful dog is hard enough. Competing with a fearful dog opens a whole new universe of challenges beyond that.
A great competition dog is smart, driven, athletic, physically sound, and confident. The importance of confidence cannot be overstated. Fear erodes every aspect of competitive performance: it slows your dog, it derails his focus, it causes him to flinch away from touching scary dumbbells or approaching scary jumps. It makes him break Stays to flee toward you for comfort when some little noise startles him in the ring. It causes him to veer out of position while Heeling and it causes him to miss cues while focused on those merciless radioactive spider ghosts again.
Trialing with a dog like this is hard. It’s demoralizing. But you cannot punish fear. Not if you want your dog to ever be able to function in that ring again, instead of coming to view it as a Thunderdome of terror. All you can do is swallow your frustration, be encouraging and supportive, train harder and try again. And again. And again.
In 2013, Pongu and I racked up 55 NQs in the World Cynosport Rally ring. Two of those NQs were my fault (missed a sign, touched my dog). The other 53, every last one of them, happened because Pongu was afraid.
We pushed past it. I took our little PVC practice jump out to the park and drilled every day. When that wasn’t good enough, I bought a bigger practice jump that looked more like the actual trial jumps, then drilled with that every day, until Pongu was happy and confident and dead certain he could nail that stupid jump from any angle, any distance, no problem. We worked on straight Fronts (when Pongu wanted to spin out sideways to keep an eye on monsters creeping up behind him) and focused Heeling (when Pongu wanted to stay alert to ambushes) and moving Downs (when Pongu was completely convinced that this would only enable bogeymen to jump him while he was vulnerable).
I swallowed infinite frustrations. I ate hundreds of dollars in entry fees on NQ after NQ. It actually became sort of perversely hilarious how many NQs we racked up on our way to that white whale of a Level 3 title. Pongu would score beautifully in one run, then we’d get 7 or 8 consecutive NQs, then another beautiful run, then another 13 or 14 NQs. The final tally was somewhere in the neighborhood of 21 to 23 NQs to get the three Qs we needed. Sometimes, when I wasn’t driving, I’d bring a bottle of vodka-spiked juice to our trials so I could drink on the sidelines. It was spectacular.
I stuck with it out of bullheaded stubbornness and a determination that if my dog could do it, then by god he would do it, because I am not a person who accepts failure as an answer. As long as Pongu’s performances were on an upward trajectory, and his confidence seemed to be improving over time, then I would stick with it and brute force NQ to infinity if that’s what we had to do.
Something funny started to happen amidst all those NQs. Pongu started to be less fearful. He came off his medications. His OCD and self-mutilation diminished. As he racked up ribbons and letters and title certificates, his confidence began to blossom. I know it’s anthropomorphizing like crazy, but I fully believe this: Pongu discovered he could win.
So he did.
He earned his ARCHX and his ARCHEX and then, one day before his fourth birthday, the ARCHMX: the APDT Rally Master Championship, the final and most difficult title that exists in World Cynosport Rally. In order to obtain this title, your dog must have earned all the previous championships already, then earn ten sets of triple Qs in Levels 1, 2, and 3 with scores of 195 or better out of a possible 210.
Very few dogs go that far in the sport. Almost exactly 20 months to the day after his very first Level 1 run, Pongu became the 25th mixed-breed dog ever in the history of the world, and the 168th dog overall, to earn the ARCHMX.
While we were chasing the ARCHMX, the national rankings came out for 2013. And it turned out that my fearful little pound puppy, Pongu the Insane, was the number one dog worldwide in his competitive division. In his first full year of competition in any sport ever, he became the number ten dog in the U.S. over all divisions of World Cynosport Rally.
Not only that, but in January 2014 we started trialing in AKC Rally, and Pongu blew through the courses like they were nothing. He would have finished his Novice title with all first-place finishes if not for my handler errors on his first run; even with me screwing him up, his scores were 93, 98, 100. His Rally Advanced scores would have been three straight 97s if not, again, for handler errors on my end knocking one of those scores down to a dead-last 77. (Poor Pongu. He keeps getting tanked by the incompetent at the other end of the leash.) He earned his Novice title in CDSP obedience with all three scores above 190 (out of a possible perfect 200) and all three placements in the ribbons.
My crazy little fearful shelter puppy — my dog who could not walk down half a block without panicking and pooping himself, who could not choke down a treat outside, who bolted in abject terror from an empty soda can rattling down the street — that dog, on his final qualifying run in AKC Rally Advanced A, recovered like the champ he is from the working dog charging out of the ring at him and exchanging snarks and growls. Less than a minute after their ringside spat, Pongu turned in a clean run, off leash with no cookies in a strange venue he’d never seen before in his life, to earn a first-place score of 97 and a nifty title rosette.
I’m proud of that. I am as proud of that recovery, and that run, as I am of anything else we’ve accomplished together. On that day, my fearful dog did something that would have been hard for any dog, and he did it well.
I don’t know what the future holds for us. Pongu is still a fearful dog. He will always be a fearful dog. His confidence has improved by leaps and bounds from where it was in the beginning, but he still flinches from unexpected sounds and movements, he still panics in unfamiliar environments, and he’ll never be a dog I can board or even leave with friends on vacation. His competition career remains limited in many respects because his psyche is so fragile.
But he has a career. Pongu has been more successful than I could ever have imagined when our journey together began, and with any luck, we are far from its end. He’s only four. We still have, I hope, many years left together.
Today he is ARCHMX TDCH Pongu the Insane, CD-C, RA, RL1X5, RL2X4, RL3X2. My special little monster, my crazypants wigglyhead, my number-one dog that I love more than anything in the world. My first partner to walk alongside down this strange and wonderful road.
My Dog Pongu.
Maybe you’ve heard of all of these things, maybe you haven’t. Regardless, I wanted to share a few dog related things that I am really enjoying lately, and maybe you might enjoy them, too!
[Official Disclaimer! Everything in this post is here 100% because I love it and not because I was asked to promote it.]
Pawz Rubber Dog Boots [starting at $12.00]
I have gotten more than a few texts this past winter from friends whose dogs have cut their paw pads on ice and they want to know how to keep the injury covered and away from their dog’s prying tongue. Putting an old sock onto a dog’s foot works…until they move. My dogs have had more minor paw pad injuries than I would have liked, and I appreciated when Katie recommended these to me a few years ago. They keep the injury clean and covered and they stay on. I keep a package of these things in the house at all times (and they have saved me from having to enforce the dreaded “Cone of Shame”).
Where to Get? The Pawz website has vendor information and I have seen them carried at Petcos.
3M Poster Strips [12 pack around $3!]
I bought these strips a while ago to hang up Halloween decorations and shoved the half used package into a desk drawer. I recently unearthed them while doing a desk clean out, looked at my untidy pile of agility ribbons and wondered if the strips were strong enough to hold a rosette ribbon on the wall. They are! (though for some of the heavier ribbons, two or three strips were needed.) These strips are my absolute new favorite way to display my girl’s ribbons because they are non damaging, strong and the whole process took about three seconds. What’s not to love?
Where to get? These little treasures are pretty easy-find, check out Target or Walmart.
Elite Field 3-Door Soft Dog Crate [starting at $39.99]
A not uncommon conversation at agility classes is soft crates. Where is yours from? Is it easy to set up? Sturdy? Price? I have two soft crates from Elite Field that I could not be more happy with. They are very lightweight have three doors (one on the top, side and front of the crate.), the zippers are sturdy, and the set up is simple (two spring loaded support bars on either side, latch them together and you’re done!). These crates come with a little mat and a very handy carrying case. There are about four or five sizes to choose from, and four different colors. I use these crates all of the time at classes, trials and even if I am going away for the weekend or a few days and need a crate or two along.
Where to Get? Amazon and Ebay both sell these soft crates, just run a search for “Elite FIeld Soft Crates”.
Dogs of Dreamtime: A Story About Second Chances and the Power of Love by Karen Shanley. [$12.24]
This book was published in 2005 and I have no idea where I originally heard about it from, or how I filed it onto my “to read list” and later bought it used from Amazon.com. It then sat on my bookshelf for another year. I picked it up to read recently and devoured it in less than 24 hours. I read it so fast and loved it so much that I will probably re-read it very soon. This book was well a well written and honest account of the author’s experience with three different dogs and the many things that she learned from those dogs and the love that she shared with them. I appreciate books where an author learns about and embraces positive training and truly does all in their power to do right by their dogs, no matter how difficult those decisions may be or how hard they have to work. (Also, there is agility in this book. SOLD!)
Where to Get? Amazon sells this book both used and new. What are you waiting for??
Tug Away Sheep Skin Reward Pouch [$15.95]
Motivating Perri has been a juggling act from the start, but the day that this toy landed in my hands all of that changed. The little pouch can be filled with treats, the inside can be wiped clean if the treats are messy, the velcro closing the pouch is sturdy with easy open tabs and the handle makes using the pouch as a tug toy simple (and really really fun!) Where Perri was so-so about regular tug toys and unreliably motivated by tennis balls, this pouch is a guaranteed high value reward for her to pounce and play with when we train together.
Where to get? You can visit the Tug Away website directly, or the Clean Run Store carries more than a few of their products. I have to admit that the dual coyote and bunny fur reward pouch is next on my shopping list!
I originally picked the hula hoop up in order to make a fake agility tire for Molly and Perri, but it has not even made it into construction yet! We have fallen into playing endless shaping games with it, a sort of variation on 101 Things to Do With A Box. (which we love!) Only it is…101 things to do with a hula hoop – an easily stored change of object scenery. Playing with the hula hoop is just really fun with all of my dogs, they race through it (or over it, if I lift it up) and all are competing to get to the treats I throw. (Don’t worry, everyone gets something!) Hula hoop games are really my go-to warm up exercise for Perri, it gets her tail wagging and mind ready to work on more purpose based type training.
Things we like to do with the hoop: Get all four paws into hoop, walk through hoop, nose touch hoop, jump through hoop, back into flat hoop, sit in hoop, down in hoop, sit pretty in hoop! The imagination is pretty much the limit here!
Where to get? I thought it would be difficult to find a Hula Hoop during winter time, but it wasn’t. Walmart, Target, the local dollar store are all good places to find these!
Ruff Guide to the United States by BringFido.com [$19.93]
BringFido.com has long been known as an online resource for travelling with your dog. Whether you want to just go out to eat with Fluffy, go on a day trip or stay overnight – BringFido.com has a searchable database for helping you find dog friendly businesses and accomodations. On May 6th their new book, the “Ruff Guide to the United States” releases for purchase – and as you can see from the cover – it features 365 places to vacation with your dog. The book is organized by state, features lovely photos of dogs enjoying vacation with their best human friends, and each place to visit offers a recommendation of options for staying overnight.
And the best part of this book? Ein is representing the Appalachian Trail in Maryland! I am tickled to have my little red trail dog gazing out over a scenic overlook on the AT and now printed in an actual book. Check it out! This book makes an adorable gift for your travel loving friends.
Where to Get? The book releases from Amazon.com on May 6th!