Like It’s Your Last

At one particularly bad class, when Dahlia struggled and I was frustrated, I remember my instructor saying “What if this were your last run ever? What would you think of it?” It was a sobering thought. I was tense and angry and upset and Dahlia was stressed out and unhappy. My instructor followed up with telling us to treat every single run like it was your last one. Because you honestly don’t know when the last one might come. Life can change in an instant and your last agility run might come sooner than you expect.

dahlia-jumpFor Dahlia and I, that was November 9, 2015. I didn’t know it was going to be the last class we would take together. I always imagined the end of our time in agility classes would be something I knew was coming, a decision I made. This is it. This is the end. Then I could go to class and we could celebrate and I could cry when it was over and give her big rewards and tons of love and I would know. It wasn’t that I couldn’t see that the end was coming in the next year or two. Dahlia was nearly 10 and not structurally the best dog for agility in the first place. By 11 or 12, I knew she’d be done and so I had this whole idea in my mind of how it would go.

But things didn’t quite go the way I had intended.

I still remember that last class with Dahlia. It was a tough one. We did a 19-obstacle jumpers with weaves course with a lot of twists and turns and taking the backside of jumps. It wasn’t easy. It was the kind of course that would usually have left me feeling out of my element and left Dahlia shut down a bit. But right away that class, she seemed to be working with me, running faster and harder and with more enthusiasm than I’d seen in a long time. She stayed with me every bit of class.

dahlia-jump2At the end, after running the first half of the course and then the second half of the course, we did the entire thing as if it were a trial situation. Keep your rewards on you, but don’t reward until the end. I still remember the high of that run. Dahlia was amazing and beautiful to watch. I keep a sort of diary about my training this was what I said about that particular run: “Dahlia was damned near perfect. Really. We were working together so well as a team. She was attentive, excited, fast for her, and really just into it. We blew through the whole thing with hardly any hesitation. It felt so good to see her really rocking it and moving the way I always want her to move. She was just so into it and gave it her all. I just love this dog so much and I love working with her in agility. These last classes she and I seemed to be able to reconnect really well and we seem to be working together with amazing ease. Love my best girly!”

When the run was over and we all celebrated her amazing run, the instructor asked if we all wanted to run it again. We had the time. I declined. Dahlia had been so amazing the first time out that I didn’t want to blow it by taking her through it again.

Looking back, I don’t regret that decision at all. Yes, it would have been one more moment with my best girl, but that run, the one that turned out to be her final run, was so amazing that I can always look back on it and say Yes, we got it. In all honesty, my only regret was that I never videotaped that run.

dahlia-tableAt the time of that run, I couldn’t wait to get out there again with her. I had been working with Dahlia for over 5 years and we were finally getting ourselves together and looking like a team.

And then Dahlia was struck down with vestibular disease a month later. Our agility career came to a screeching halt. It’s been a year now since I last went to a class with my best girl. And I miss it every single day. I leave for class with Ben and feel terrible about leaving Dahlia behind.

But at least I know that the very last run of her very last class was a beautiful one that we celebrated. And I have no regrets over that last time out. That’s how I wanted her agility career to end, ultimately, with joy and excitement. And that’s how we went out. I hope your last run is filled with joy.

Thank you Dahlia for over 5 amazing years of being a team!

Thank you Dahlia for over 5 amazing years of being a team!

Online Class Review – “Foundation Weaves, Love Them and Flaunt Them”

My dog Molly hated weave poles in the game of dog agility.   Hated.  Whenever we saw them in training or competition, she blew by them as though they were invisible.   When I recalled her to me and helped her enter them, she would stress down, sniff, sneeze and shake her head – oozing stress.   And if she weaved any slower, she would be moving backwards.

I knew when I saw Julie Daniels’ “Foundation Weaves - Love Them and Flaunt Them” class on Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, that we needed to enroll.  Straight away, I liked that the class material was available for dogs at all levels.   Beginners, in-progress or retraining.  As the class progressed, this was very much true.  The teams enrolled in a working (Gold Level) spot with Julie were from all walks of their agility life and she guided every single one of them with skill.

I also liked how versatile Julie is with the equipment required.   A set of weaves is very spendy, even if you make your own.  The downside of an online classroom is that you need to have more equipment at home, or wherever you will be training.  However, Julie has a wide variety of inexpensive equipment options that teams working in this class can use.   That is a big plus for those on a tight budget!

Molly and I enrolled in a working spot and I was very upfront about our major “weave baggage”.  Not only did Molly have a dramatic stress reaction to the weave poles, so did I.  But the course material made weaves…fun!  Yes, fun!  If I haven’t made it clear yet, this class is very versatile and so are the course materials.  There are many different ways of training weave poles and Julie brings them together, blends them, adds things of her own and then helps teams choose which path will make them most successful.   I love that!   There is nothing I love more than seeing an instructor that can rise to the challenge of acknowledging that different dogs learn in different ways.

Julie brings a lot of enthusiasm and great energy to the class, she wants her students to be successful.   She loves the subject (weave poles!) and it shows in her interaction with her students!  You can’t help but feel happy about weave poles during this class!  The course was 6 weeks long and by the end of it, Molly and I had made significant progress in our attitude about weave poles as well as Molly’s general knowledge of what her job was.   I had a dog who was really loving the obstacle, for the first time in her career.  So if you want to teach weave poles, are struggling to teach weave poles, if you need to re-train weave poles, or if you are like me and hate weave poles with every ounce of your being – check out Julie’s class.  You are going to have a wonderful experience!  (Class information as well as session scheduling can be found here.)

Happy Weaver! credit - Rich Knecht Photography

Happy Weaver! credit – Rich Knecht Photography

Agility Photography Tips

agility-dobeMore often than not lately my photography focuses on dogs running agility. I still take plenty of photos of my own dog when we’re out and about, but when I’m asked to take pictures, about 99% of the time it’s for agility photos.

Disclaimer: I am not a professional photographer, just someone who loves the hobby and spends too much time thinking about it.

Disclaimer, part 2: I love taking photos of agility dogs.

Agility photography is fun, no doubt about it it. But there are plenty of challenging aspects to photographing these dogs. For one, they’re fast. Sometimes really fast. And they’re somewhat unpredictable at times. Dogs speed up. Dogs slow down. Handlers direct them to the wrong obstacle and they veer away from where you expect them to be. Unless you know the specific dog in question, you don’t know if you’re looking at a dog who is going to race through the course at Mach-10 or if the dog is going to just trot through it with a ridiculously stupid grin on her face while making everyone laugh (Dahlia, I’m looking at you). And honestly, the way they come out to the field is not always indicative of what you’re going to see. There’s a dog in our class who trots out slowly with his handler. But then when she releases him watch out! He’s one of the fast dogs I know.

So there’s a lot to think about in regards to taking photos of these crazy dogs in action. If you do it wrong, at best your photo will be a little blurry and at worst you’ll completely miss the moment. And there’s no do-overs in agility, especially in trial situations. So you have to be fast. You have to be accurate. And you have to know what you’re looking for.


Equipment
Let’s address equipment issues first. I’m going to be honest here. Agility photography without a DSLR is really really difficult. I know because I’ve been there. When I first started classes in 2010, I still had a point and shoot camera. A fancy one to be sure, but it still wasn’t a DSLR. I took a handful of pictures once and managed to get a couple that weren’t overly blurry, but still weren’t good quality. They definitely weren’t what I wanted. And they’re probably not what you want either.

So what do you want?

If you’re going to take photos outside at a fun match or a trial, any DSLR will do, really. I took my first agility photos at a trial back in 2011 using a Sony A230. It was a small, lightweight camera, and an entry-level DSLR. It’s not the best of the best, certainly, but it was more than adequate for outdoor agility photography.

SONY DSC

Not half bad for a relatively inexpensive DSLR!

However, a camera like the A230 is going to fail you if you want to take indoor agility photographs. Which is most of what I do these days.

Camera fail!

Camera fail!

A camera upgrade was definitely warranted! These days I use a Sony A580. It’s a great low-light camera and we’ll get into why that is in a little bit!

So now that you’ve got a decent camera, let’s talk lenses. Lenses can get ridiculously expensive. Anyone who is into photography learns that lesson pretty quickly. Do you need an expensive lens? Not necessarily and especially not if you’re at an outside event. The first photo I posted was taken using a Tamron 75-300mm lens, which I got for about $150 in 2011 (that lens is now discontinued, but the Tamron 70-300mm is only $165). It’s a little tougher using a cheap lens. They’re not very fast. They’re a little bit clunky. You have to get really good with timing your shots because the lens doesn’t react quickly. But it’s certainly doable. So if you have an entry-level DSLR and a cheap zoom lens, have at it!

Now, that being said, if you want to take indoor agility photos, the lenses are out there for that. In this case, you truly do want a very fast lens.

What is a fast lens? A fast lens has a large aperture (generally f/2.8 or lower), which allows a lot more light in. Why is this important? Because the more light you let into the lens, the faster your shutter speed can be. And when you’re talking dogs moving as fast as some of these agility dogs do, you need a pretty speedy shutter to freeze the moment. A “fast” lens also autofocuses fast. The problem with the Tamron lens above is that it often hunts for focus and so sometimes you just don’t catch the moment. With a faster lens, it can autofocus almost instantly, catching the moment as you see it coming.

In addition to wanting a fast lens, you’re going to want a lens with a bit of reach. There are some great fast lenses at the 28mm and 50mm range, but that’s going to generally put you far too away from the action you’ll end up seeing far more of the course and far less of the dog than you want to. Favorites of agility photographers generally are in the range of 70-200mm.

My current favorite lens for agility photography is a Minolta 135mm f/2.8. Yes, it’s a prime lens, which means any “zooming” has to be done by my feet or by cropping the photo (both of which I use quite frequently!). It’s extremely lightweight, it’s very fast, and it lets in a lot of light. And because it’s a prime, it tends to be very sharp. The other lens I use on occasion is a Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8. This lens produces some great quality pictures, but has some drawbacks. It’s extremely heavy (the lens itself weighs 2.5 pounds!) and not nearly as fast as the prime lens. It gives me a little more (and less) reach, but I find myself reaching for the Minolta far more often because the Tamron is hard to handhold for extended periods of time.

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Photo taken using the Sony A580 and Minolta 135mm f/2.8 lens. One of the rare times I got to photograph my own dog doing agility!

Ultimate suggestion for agility photography: A mid-level DSLR and a lens that goes down to f/2.8 for aperture and gives you a bit of reach.


Camera settings
Now, Dom has explained an awful lot about camera settings for dog photography here. I’d definitely suggest re-reading that if you’re unfamiliar with the terminology or want a quick refresher. On the technical camera side of things, all photography can be seen as a combination of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

These can combine in many different ways, but here’s how I see it for agility:

I need a fast shutter speed. That is Priority #1. Fast-moving dogs require a fast shutter speed. I never shoot slower than 1/500 and if I can I shoot at 1/1000 or faster. In brighter light where I can make use of it, I’m often up around 1/2000 or even higher. The faster I can go for shutter speed, the faster the dog I can capture.

To get that fast shutter speed, especially in lower light conditions it means doing two things:

(1) Lowering aperture. At indoor shoots, unless there is some ambient light from outside, I tend to shoot as wide as I can (generally f/2.8, though I have had the rare opportunity to use my 50mm f/1.7 lens in class situations). The wide-open aperture often means that photos are likely to be a little soft (which means they’re not quite as sharp when viewing the full size photo), but it’s a compromise I make to get a higher shutter speed and a photo that’s in focus. Since most people these days aren’t making huge prints of their photos, this isn’t a massive deal. But it’s something to be aware of. And as Dom points out, less of the photo will be on focus.

If you look closely, you'll notice Nia's head and front is in focus, but her back end is not. Be careful with wide-open apertures that it's not the other way around!

If you look closely, you’ll notice Nia’s head and front is in focus, but her back end is not. Be careful with wide-open apertures that it’s not the other way around!

(2) Raising ISO. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the digital processor is to light. So it seems to make sense to bump this up as high as you can go. But…(you knew that was coming, right?)…there is a caveat. The higher the ISO, the more grainy (or “noise”) there is to the photo. And some cameras simply cannot handle an ISO above 800. The “camera fail” photo above was taken at 3200. The Sony A230 is really not designed to take low-light/high-ISO photos. This was my main reason for switching to the Sony A580. While there is still some noise at higher ISOs, it is much less severe. I have shot as high as 6400 at an indoor shoot at night.

This photo was taken at night in a poorly-lit agility barn. ISO is set to 6400. Note that it's still better quality than the "camera fail" photo that was set to 3200!

This photo was taken at night in a poorly lit agility barn. ISO is set to 6400. Note that it’s still better quality than the “camera fail” photo that was set to 3200!

Ultimately, what works best is completely dependent on the lighting conditions that are present. In the agility barn during the day, I like to keep to ISO 800-1600, and at least 1/640 shutter speed. Aperture is almost always at f/2.8. That combination allows me to get a fast enough shutter speed to catch photos like this one.

Photo taken on my Sony A580 with the Minolta 135mm f/2.8 lens; ISO 800, f/2.8, 1/640

This photo from an agility foundation class was taken on my Sony A580 with the Minolta 135mm f/2.8 lens; ISO 800, f/2.8, 1/640

For outdoor agility photos? This is so dependent on the lighting conditions (which can change from one moment to the next, making outdoor photography occasionally even more challenging) that it’s hard to say. In bright sunlight, I aim for 1/1000 to 1/2000 for a shutter speed, try to stick to no higher than 200 for ISO, and bump up my aperture to sharpen the images.

Still one of my favorite agility photos of Dahlia. Taken using the 135mm f/2.8 lens, set to ISO 100, f/4.0, 1/640

Still one of my favorite agility photos of Dahlia. Taken using the 135mm f/2.8 lens, set to ISO 100, f/4.0, 1/640

 


Setting up your shots
Here are a few recommendations from my experiences in shooting agility:

(1) If this is a trial situation, be very careful of where you are. Do not sit too close and make sure that you’re not interfering with the hired photographer, if there is one. You may even want to introduce yourself to the photographer during a down time and let them know you’re just there for some practice.

(2) Watch everyone walk the course or get yourself a course map. You’ll want to pick one spot to stand and be able to catch a couple obstacles. You will not be able to get everything. So situate yourself where you can catch something toward the beginning and something toward the end. Remember that these dogs move fast. Sometimes they finish an entire course in under 25 seconds! That means you don’t have much time to think. So get yourself in there, find your spot, and stick to it!

two shots

I was sitting at the end of the A-Frame in this class (being used as distraction!), but also was able to get a clear shot to the jump.

(3) Watch the sun if you’re outside. The last thing you want to do is pick a spot and find out that the jump you wanted to photograph has the sun directly behind it.

(4) Make sure you are far enough away that you don’t interfere with the dogs on the course. The first agility trial I ever went to, I found a spot toward the end of the weaves to photograph. I was about 10 feet back from the ring so not right up against it, but still, someone came over and informed that where I sat was a huge distraction and a dog was going for their MACH (Master Agility Championship title) that day. I moved. It was the polite thing to do. Now, granted, that dog should have been able to ignore anything by that point, but they wanted to give him his best shot at finishing that all important agility title (he did) and I understood entirely.

A rare chance to take close-up shots of dogs running the weave poles. I was situated directly at the end and using only a 50mm lens. This is the kind of distraction training all dogs should be subjected to!

A rare chance to take close-up shots of dogs running the weave poles. I was situated directly at the end and using only a 50mm lens. This is the kind of distraction training all dogs should be subjected to!

(5) Use “continuous” mode shooting. I make this mistake more often than I’d like to. I take some portraits and then head off for an agility shoot and it often takes me about 30-40 photos to realize that my camera is set to the wrong mode. Most cameras have three modes for shooting: Single-shot (you press the shutter down halfway, the focus locks on that particular thing and you can move the camera to recompose your shot; handy for portraits but not for agility!), Automatic (if you lock the focus on a stationary object and it starts to move, the camera will continue to focus on it; this can be handy for agility, especially if you “track” the dog as it’s heading toward a jump); and Continuous (the camera is constantly focusing without ever locking down; definitely handy for agility). I prefer the latter only because dogs are so fast that sometimes tracking them in automatic doesn’t work as well as you might think.

(6) Don’t be afraid of using the burst mode of shooting on your camera. In the burst mode, your camera will continue to take pictures while you hold the shutter down. My camera has a few different modes for this, but I generally choose the “low” option, which allows the camera to focus between shots, but still can take up to 3 photos per second. This means that sometimes I can start taking photos just before the jump and finish just after the jump. I might get 6-10 photos in that short bit of time and one of them might be at the right moment. I don’t use this nearly as much as I did in the beginning as I’ve gotten pretty good at timing the photos based on the dog’s speed. But when it comes to a particularly fast dog or a tricky spot, I still make use of it!

Using burst mode on my camera allowed me to get these 4 photos of this dog weaving.

Using burst mode on my camera allowed me to get these 4 photos of this dog weaving.

Phew! There’s a lot to agility photography as you can see. Feel free to offer more tips in the comments. And if you’re reading this and thinking “Wow I never thought about everything that goes into that awesome photo of Fluffy I bought last year,” then go thank that photographer! They’ve put a lot of work into their craft to get that photo for you.

Just For Fun

d jump 2About a year ago, I attended a talk about planning for a brilliant career in agility. I always enjoy hearing people talk about the sport and seeing what sorts of things I can take home to my work with Dahlia. Going to these sorts of talks has often solidified things in my mind and even made me realize things I wasn’t aware of before. The first one I went to made me realize that by talking down my dog’s performance, I was creating a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy and making the whole thing very much not fun for myself. It changed the way I related to my dog and it changed the way I looked at the game we played.

This time was no different.

The instructor got on the topic of how agility should be fun. And one woman, almost annoyed at this idea, asked the all-important question: “Ok fun is fine and all that, but who is really doing this for something other than that Q?”

I raised my hand without thinking and said “Well, me.”

And that’s when it hit me.

I wasn’t just taking a break from trials. I was done trialing.

In January 2013, Dahlia and I had a disastrous trial. She was so stressed out that she simply didn’t move off the start line. I had to hook her up and take her out on leash. It happened twice at the same trial and so I scratched her from the rest of it and went home.

It turned out to not be a one-time thing.

We went to other trials with similar results. She would be fine in class, happy even, but then we’d go to a trial and she’d shut down completely. I got the questions, of course. Why is your dog like that? What’s wrong with her? I imagined the looks, the heads shaking, the Is that dog even trained? What did she do to cause that to happen?

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This is a real t-shirt I wear.

I’m sure no one was thinking anything of the sort, but the thoughts were in my mind regardless. Which made me more stressed. Which made my dog more stressed. Which led to a complete break-down in communication.

The trial stress started to invade classes. By the time July of that year rolled around, Dahlia was having the same issues at class as she had been having at trials. We struggled to get her to pay attention to me, struggled to do even the simplest of things. Two jumps in a row? She couldn’t handle it.

I almost threw in the towel, but instead my instructor suggested taking a break from trials to focus on Dahlia’s stress-related issues. So we did that, taking one jump out to a quiet place in the park and rebuilding her confidence in a low-stress environment.

By the time October rolled around, I had a completely different dog. Her speed was increasing, her focus had increased, she was excited and happy and moving. We were doing Excellent and Masters levels courses in class and while we weren’t the best dogs in class (not by far!) we were holding our own.

d jump

I vowed to take her back to a trial in April..

And then didn’t.

I vowed to take her back that following October.

And then didn’t.

The following April rolled around and still I didn’t take her to a trial.

And that’s when I finally realized it. We weren’t taking classes to prep for our next trial. We were just doing it because it was fun.

When you’re involved in dog sports, you hear from a lot of people that it’s supposed to be fun. That if you’re not having fun you’re doing it wrong. That it has to be fun for the dog. The reality is that going to trials was not fun for Dahlia and I. She was unreliable at trials, sometimes moving with great speed and excitement but often shutting down completely. I got stressed at trials, which contributed to the problem. I would wake the morning of a trial with a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach and I dreaded walking to that line when I was there. What should have been a fun hobby was very much not fun for me or for Dahlia.

Could I have forced the issue? Taken her to trial after trial to try to get her used to the atmosphere, paid money to do a jump or two and throw a party? Certainly. But why?

We were having fun without the trials and Q’s and ribbons.

d jump 3And that’s not something a lot of people are taught when they step into agility classes. You can do agility just for fun. You can do it because it increases your dog’s confidence. You can do it because it strengthens your bond with your dog. You can do it because it’s a whole heck of a lot of fun.

That’s become my measure for a good class: Did my dog have fun? If not, assess what went wrong and try to get back to its being fun. If she did, then carry on. We go each and every week and we work our tails off and we come out smiling.

For me, that’s a greater reward than any Q or ribbon ever could be.

Class Clown to Champion – Molly’s Agility Story

My pitbull Molly and I started our agility trialing journey in February 2013.  I was going to write a post on this blog about that.  About my very first agility trial with my very first agility dog.  That post probably would have been, “Molly ran circles around me, the judge probably needs rotator cuff repair surgery for all of the faults that he had overwork his shoulders to signal, and all of my classmate’s dogs behaved normally and got qualifying rounds.  The end.”  I was supposed to write a post about our second agility trial but that post probably would have been, “Molly NQ’d all eight runs, made another judge eligible for rotator cuff repair surgery, helped me understand that “contact fly off” was more than just a term I had heard, and all of my classmate’s dogs behaved normally and got qualifying rounds.”

From the very beginning, Molly and I were behind other teams at our experience level.  Woefully, painfully, embarrassingly behind.  I knew two things: it was surely all my fault and Molly was a maniac.  After all, I adopted Molly from a shelter that she landed in first as a stray at only 2 months old, and then adopted and returned back to the shelter in only one week for being “too much.”  In agility class, Molly humped me and nipped my arms for the crimes of confusing or frustrating her.  Molly was not a dog who was going to make a green, inept handler look good.  There are dogs like that, and I have watched plenty of them.  But that was not Molly.  Molly was a fast running dog, she needed a handler who could work and think even faster.  I was not that handler.  Molly was moderately reactive.  She could be around other dogs in many situations, but at agility trials she fluttered over and under threshold throughout the day and the result was usually a stressed up dog and our time in the ring suffered for it.  We had so many problems.  It felt like we had every problem.  “Too Much”, indeed.

credit – pooch smooch photography.

Continue reading

I have found my joy, and his name is Steve.

Years ago, when Steve was young and completely insane and I was new to agility and new to the special kind of insanity that is Border Collies, I had a trainer completely steal my joy. The club where I took obedience and rally also ran an agility program, and the instructors were some pretty accomplished people– multiple championship titles, Nationals, even someone who has been to Worlds. It was natural that I would just start off my agility journey there.

Very bad plan. Very bad. They begin with what they call Foundations, which is exactly the skills that it should be, but the problem is they have six young, green dogs all trying to

Big air Steve

Big air Steve

work, usually offleash, at the same time. Steve, young and overly excited about anything and everything that moved tasked with rear-foot-targeting a small board OVER AND OVER AND OVER again… well… let’s just say that didn’t keep him very occupied.

I did a lot of mat work with him. I did a lot of control unleashed games with him. But what it came down to was that there was no way for me to keep this dog under threshold far enough for him to learn much of anything with the class set up the way it was.

And none of the instructors either could understand that or were able to honor that and help me work around it.

We finally made it out of Foundations after several sessions and moved into Beginner 1. This class involved stringing several jumps together, maybe in a big circle. Stever dropped probably 85% of the jumps. So they found me special jumping instruction. She was going to teach my dog how to jump.

Never did anyone address that my dog was so over threshold that his brain was gone and the only thing his body wanted to do was GO AS FAST AS POSSIBLE.

I left class crying week after week.

I was taken out of the class and set aside and told to work on my relationship problems with my dog.

My heart broke. I got this dog to play agility with him, and I had failed completely before I ever got started.

They missed it. They missed it completely. The problem was not my dog, not at all. It was not me. I was doing everything I knew how to do.

The problem was the setting. The problem was instructors who just didn’t get it. Nowhere along the line did anybody suggest a different class, or private lessons. That was what he needed. No one said anything about thresholds.

Steve masters a different kind of teeter totter

Steve masters a different kind of teeter totter

I quit. I left class crying yet again and I never went back.

Finally after some encouragement from friends, I switched to another training club. I went to meet the instructor to see if my dog was broken. He wasn’t. He ran beautifully alone in her training building. What?

So we joined her classes. One dog in the ring at a time, for the most part. The rest of the dogs crated either in the building or out of it, depending on the dog.

And yeah, he was high at first. WOOHOO AGILITY! He crashed a lot of jumps. But as he learned the game, as he learned the environment, he started to settle.

And we made progress. I stopped crying. My dog learned. I learned.

Somehow, I had an agility dog.

We’re nothing amazing. I don’t like to trial, so he has a couple CPE titles and a couple legs in USDAA Performance 1 Gamblers (and I think 1 in Standard).

Here’s his first USDAA Gamblers run ever. (fast forward to about 50 seconds in)

Now most of the agility we do is on our own, just playing around in the training building, running whatever course is leftover from classes. I like it. He likes it. It works.

Recently I’ve put him back in Rally Obedience classes again. I love the instructor. I love the sport. Steve is a smartypants who pretty much knows all the exercises (he has one Rally Excellent leg, and I just haven’t managed to get out of bed to make it to another trial). But it’s good for him to go brain, and it’s good for me to go play with him in public.

And play we do. Sometimes, our play gets caught on camera, like it did before class last week. We were just warming up, fooling around, getting ready for class. The instructors husband caught us on film.

 

 

(and before anyone says it, yes, he forges terribly and no, I don’t care)

And what do you know, my old agility instructor, the one who broke my heart and stole my joy? She saw it and she commented on the “long way” that Steve and I have come and that it was “impressive”. And that would feel good if it were coming from somebody else, coming from someone who supported us and believed in us from the beginning. But she is somebody that we worked hard *despite* of, somebody that broke us down instead of lifting us up.

Steve and I? We didn’t need to work on our relationship. We have that in spades and we always have. We just needed somebody who understood what we needed to help that relationship shine in a particular environment.

I am so lucky to have this amazing dog in my life, and I am so very very grateful to have found people who would build us up, who would work through the hard stuff, who would sing his praises and help me toward achieving what I wanted with him.

That is what everyone trying to train a dog deserves, whether you’re just trying to learn basic manners in a beginner obedience class or you’re trying to learn a complicated game like agility. Respect. Honoring of your special relationship with your dog. Encouragement. Knowledgeable advice appropriate to your situation. We are not all cookie-cutters. We all deserve to be treated and taught as individuals.

Continuing Education – Capturing mistakes on video

I am very new to the sport of agility (like, 2012 new.)  So when I saw that the topic for today’s blogging event was “Continuing Education” I thought, “My education is nowhere near to being complete, let alone moving into the phase of “continuing!”  I also thought over the many ways that an agility enthusiast can pursue learning our sport: classes both live and online, books, videos, seminars, workshops.  Team Unruly writer Michelle wrote a great post last February about Continuing Education through seminars.  (Go check it out!)

But for somebody so green as myself, I would have to say that a lot of my education comes straight from watching my three dogs.  Over the last three years I have learned all about “it is never the dog’s fault” and how true those words are.  If my honest dog does something, or does not do something, I respect them as the mirror of my own errors.  It took me a while to learn to think this way, every time, but it is the truth.  I like to maximize the “lessons” that my dogs have to teach me, so for me a very important tool in my education is to video my training sessions and runs at trials.

A lot of people don’t like to video themselves, the reasons are numerous. It can be tricky to wrangle in a helper to take videos for you, or to set up a device to capture your training sessions.  It adds additional work to our training session structure to set up the camera and have it positioned correctly.  Knowing that we are being video’d can make us feel additional pressure, even if there is not another person present to run the camera.  And quite honestly, it can be humbling and embarrassing to watch ourselves make mistakes.  It is not a whole lot of fun to see ourselves messing up an agility sequence or confusing our dogs, so maybe we prefer to not capture that on video.

I am a person who constantly asks “Why did that happen?”.  That train of thought can spiral into obsession and over thinking (I cannot help myself!), so having a video of exactly what did happen is very helpful to me.  If I feel like a training session was unsuccessful, reviewing a video can teach me Why.  I can watch everything that I do, I can watch my dog respond to my actions, I can better review the quality of the behaviors that I am training.  There are many times that I am making subtle mistakes that I truly do not remember making.  Having a video allows me to become aware of those mistakes.  It allows me to pinpoint specific weak areas.  It teaches me how to better structure my training sessions, moving forward.

Capturing my runs at a trial on video are just as valuable.  My own stress and excitement jacks up at a trial and clouds my memory, and my reactive girl Molly can become very high on the environment.  We are quite a pair and my biggest mistakes at trials can come from overhandling Molly.  I was not even aware that I was doing this until I started to consistently get my runs on video.  I started to watch myself panic, overhandle and stress her out.  If I video what I am doing out there at an agility trial, and I can pick out the same mistakes over and over again and be honest about myself with that information, I can learn and improve.  When I walk a course I am far more mindful to identify the areas where I might overhandle Molly, so that when we are actually running the course I am less likely to fall into the trap of doing so.

“Eventually people will realize that mistakes are meant for learning, not repeating.”

I don’t think there is a more constant way to learn from our own mistakes than to be able to watch them in all of their glory.  To be able to see what we are doing with our dogs and not just recall it whisper-down-the-lane style form memory.  And if we do not understand what exactly went wrong, we can take a bite of humble pie and show it to somebody with more experience who can help us learn.  Agility moves so quickly.  I say things that I don’t remember saying, (“Did I really say tunnel and not jump?!”), I move my hands and body in a way I do not remember (“Did I really overhandle there?!”) but a video helps me to be aware of these things and move towards being a better partner to my dog in the future.

[Check out other great blog posts on the topic of Continuing Education here at the Dog Blog Action Day page!]

Working Like a Dog – Agility Trials Don’t Run Themselves!

Recently a post cropped up on one of the agility Facebook groups that I am a part of regarding a most popular unpopular topic: volunteering at agility trials.  And how to get more volunteers.  In 2011 the Very Popular Agility Blog, Agility Nerd, organized a group blogging event on the topic of trial volunteering – and there were many participants.  There are a Lot of Feelings! about trial volunteering.

Agility is a whole lot of fun.  It is also heavy. (seriously, have you ever moved an A-frame?)  Agility requires a lot of organization.  It requires a lot of work.  It takes a lot of time and people to keep an agility trial moving smoothly.  And somebody has to do it.  A lot of sombodies.

In the realm of agility competitor tenure, I have a whole year and a half of trialing experience.  (So, not a whole lot!)  At my first trial there was a frazzled looking woman begging in a hoarse voice for workers.  It is a scene I have witnessed at every single agility trial that I have gone to since.  This person is the ‘volunteer coordinator’ and it is her job to round up competitors to volunteer to be part of the agility trial machine.  The day of that first trial I was a clueless newbie, but I volunteered to work as “ring crew” because hey, those bars aren’t going to set themselves.  It took me one day to realize a few things: that February trial was in a barn and it was cold but the ring crew chair out in the dusty sidelines of that ring had a propane heater next to it – it was officially the warmest seat in the house.  It was also a front row seat to the action – I was able to be up close and personal to watch experienced competitors and how they chose to handle sequences.  It was a learning experience for me.  It was the beginning of my passion for volunteering.  In fact, now I am that frazzled woman with the hoarse voice begging people to work – I am a volunteer coordinator.

What does it take to keep an agility trial running smoothly?
The list of jobs at an agility trial is more extensive than I ever realized.  No – the hosting club cannot do it all.  The trial committee is comprised of a small handful of very busy individuals who are trying to keep everything afloat and get the results out in a timely fashion – somebody else is going to have to set the bars in the ring.

Chief Course Builder and Course Builders take those course maps that we receive and make them come alive.  They move all of the heavy equipment around, they assemble the contact equipment, they make sure everything matches up to the map.  They create the playground!
The Gate Steward is an excuse to be loud and bossy!  The trial run order is posted on a board mounted on a stand outside of the ring entrance.  The gate steward makes sure that the competitors and their dogs are entering the ring in a timely manner, as well as shouting out for the next two to three dogs to be ready and close to the ring.
The Scribe is in charge of recording faults signaled by the judge and for writing the course time down on the score sheet.  The Scribe has to watch and listen to the judge for these faults, or for points called during game classes.  This is no job for the daydreamers!
Timer does just that – they time the runs!  Depending on what club is hosting the trial, the timer could be using a stopwatch (yikes!), or more commonly an electronic timing device will be used.  The timer must focus on the run and the equipment, and make sure that nothing malfunctions – if it does they need to restart or adjust the timer so that the team in the ring receives an accurate time.
Leash Runner spends the entire class walking leashes from the entrance end of the ring (where the competitor will remove it from the dog and drop it or fling it behind them…) and moving those leashes to the exit end of the ring so that it is waiting to be put back onto the dog after his run.
Score Runner spends the entire class accepting score sheets from the scribe, and bringing them to the score table so that they can be recorded into the results.
Ring Crew involves sitting in a chair out in the ring and: fixing displaced bars, “fluffing” the chute (or collapsed tunnel.), changing: jump, tire, and Aframe heights.  There are single bar jumps and then there are more complicated “double”, “triple”, and “viaduct” jumps.  There is the broad jump, a series of flat boards laying on the ground.  Sometimes there are electronic timing devices on either side of the start and finish obstacles, and depending on what variety they are – these devices need to be adjusted to match the jump height as well.  All of the adjustments of these obstacles fall onto the ring crew.

Things get a little hairy when it comes to filling all of these positions because the fact is: Agility trials cannot run without volunteers, but nobody can force people to volunteer.  Trials are literally halted in their tracks if the key positions are not filled.  This is perceived by some as bullying competitors into volunteering, but the truth of halting a trial in need of volunteers is that: somebody has to do it, “the show cannot go on” until there is proper support in the ring.  Turning over the ring or changing a jump height can take two or three times as long without enough workers.  And while that does not seem like a big deal, the wasted time adds up.  Trials lacking in volunteers can easily run hours longer than trials that are properly “staffed.”  This sounds like an absurd “old wives tale” created by evil volunteer coordinators to coerce errant competitors into volunteering at a trial, but it is absolutely true!

I have seen hosting clubs offer any of the following to volunteers: free meals, free drinks or coffee, free candy or other food, coupons for reduction in future trial entries and raffle tickets for cool dog gear.  I am in the “you had me at free coffee” camp, but I know many others are not so easily persuaded.

There are many reasons that people do not like to volunteer at agility trials and I have never known it to be “laziness”:

Somebody was mean to me when I volunteered.
This happens.  A lot more than it should.  A new competitor offers to volunteer and they are thrown in over their head with a job that needs to be filled, but that nobody bothers to explain to them.  And then when the ring is running and they make a mistake, somebody snaps at them and hurts their feelings.  If you are a new competitor and you volunteer, thank you.  So much.  If you are a volunteer coordinator, please try very hard to not dump new volunteers in over their head.  It is important.  And if you are a seasoned competitor and you feel frustrated with somebody who isn’t doing their ring job perfectly, take a deep breath and bite your tongue.  Nothing disgusts me more than a competitor being mean to a volunteer.  There is no excuse for it.  Nobody comes to an agility show to be belittled for doing a job they have volunteered to do for free.  Be nice to each other.  Take time to explain agility jobs.  Nothing in the ring is terribly difficult, but some jobs take a little more time and understanding of the sport to master than others.

I paid a lot for my entry fees, I should not need to volunteer.
This seems like a valid reason!  Agility is an expensive hobby.  We spend a lot of money on training classes, equipment, education, trial gear and our entry fees.  It all adds up to a sum that we might like to pretend doesn’t exist and it is hard to understand why we should have to go to a trial and not just relax and enjoy ourselves and our dogs.  After all, it is our weekend, our hobby, our fun – not our job!  The cold hard fact is: this is the reality of this sport.  Our trials need staffing, and lots of it.  Some dog sports don’t need quite so many hands on deck, but if you are going to go to agility trials, there is a lot of work that needs to be done.  That is not going to change.  Your entry fees do not support buying workers for agility trials – if that happened, entry fees would simply go up.  And nobody wants that!

I have done my time.
I don’t have a great grasp on this reason, since I am a fairly new competitor.  But truly, I can respect it.  If you are 10 plus years into agility trialing, and have spent those years working your tail off at trial after trial, it is understandable to feel like the new blood should shoulder a heavier work load.  Many older competitors are not physically able to do a high demand job like leash running or ring crew.  But…the job still needs to be done.  New competitors need seasoned pros to show them the ropes.  Please, if you only pick up the timer for one short class or jump height a day, it is such a huge help.  And all of your hard work in years past was much appreciated, and is unfortunately still needed as you continue to compete.

I just want to relax in between runs.
This goes hand in hand with my second ‘reason’.  And I get it.  I love to read books and hang out with my dogs, and the gaping amount of time that I wait in between agility runs is nice to catch up on my reading.  But again.  Our sport needs workers.  Period.  This is the way things are.  So please, work a class or two per day – everything and anything is an enormous help.  It might mean that somebody gets to have the only break that they might get during the entire trial to enjoy lunch and sitting down with their dog.

 

There may well be many many more reasons, but these are the reasons that so often reach my ears.  I personally love to volunteer at trials.  I love to have a front row seat on the action, it makes my day go faster, it helps me to understand the sport better and it helps me make friends with my fellow competitors.  We are a team with our dog in the ring, but we are a team with our fellow competitors when it comes to making an agility trial run smoothly – like it or not.  Some may not love volunteering as much as I do, but somebody must do this work.  A lot of somebodies.  Imagine if you walked into the ring late because nobody reminded you that your dog was next on the line, and the course was not set up according to the course map, all of the bars were the wrong height, nobody moved your leash to the exit gate, nobody recorded your score or time.  Really, imagine that.  Volunteers do all of these things for you.  Please, help to return the favor.  Our sport needs you.

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!