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.

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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.

Do’s and Don’ts for getting a sport dog from a shelter

It’s no secret that we here at TU are big fans of shelter dogs as both potential sport partners and awesome pets. We’ve written several posts on the subject before: here’s Ten Reasons Why Your Next Sport Dog Should Be a Rescue, and here’s Jen’s post on how rescues and shelters should go about marketing dogs for sport homes.  Michelle has also talked about going in with a plan when you’re going to adopt from a shelter.  However, it occurred to me recently that while we’ve always encouraged shelter adoption, we’ve never actually given any practical advice on how to go into a shelter and come out with an awesome sport dog.  We’re going to correct that right now with a short list of do’s and don’ts for people who are looking to adopt their next sport dog.

Don’t lead by saying you’re looking for a dog to do agility* with.

*or your sport of choice

Here’s the thing: most dog people don’t do dog sports. It’s easy to forget this if your weekends are wrapped up in trials and training and classes, but truly: dog sports are a niche thing. You’d be surprised how many dog owners have never even heard of dog sports. As a shelter worker myself, I will tell you that shelter workers are no exception: even when they are familiar with, say, agility, they may not have enough specialized knowledge to know what makes a good sport partner. When you say “I’m looking for an agility dog”, what your average shelter worker may hear is “I’m looking for a super high-energy dog”. If you’ve spent much time in shelters, you probably know that most shelters are chock-full of super energetic teenage dogs who have a surplus of anxiety and a surfeit of manners: these are the dogs who are surrendered because the owner “just doesn’t have enough time to meet their needs.” If you come in asking for an agility dog, you will often be introduced to a dog who is bouncing off the walls with shelter stress and pent-up energy. Captain Wall Bouncer might be a terrific sport partner; however, it is also possible that he’s just an anxious dog who had a bad start and who is going to need a ton of remedial work before you can even think about, say, developing toy drive or handler focus.

Do go in with specific criteria in mind.

A better approach than saying, “I want a [sport] dog” is to tell the shelter worker who’s helping you that you do dog sports, and you’re looking for a dog who has [x] qualities. This means, by the way, that you should have a sense of what qualities you’re looking for before you go in!  What you’re looking for will depend on several things, most notably what specific sports you play; if you’re looking for a nosework dog, you might go in looking for a dog who likes to work independently and is into find-it games, but if you’re looking for an obedience dog, you might be more interested in a dog with a lot of handler focus.  Your list of criteria will be specific to you, the sports you play, and your lifestyle!  However, there are also some basic qualities you can look for that can help set you and your future dog up for success in sports: when I polled the TU members in preparation for this post, here are some of the criteria we came up with:

  • Confidence: is the dog comfortable in new environments? How do they do when presented with new distractions and challenges?
  • Biddablity/handler focus: is the dog interested in you (in the absence of treats and toys)? If you engage them in basic training or play, are they interested in engaging back?
  • Structure: there are a lot of good books and websites that will help you get a sense of how to evaluate a dog’s physical structure. Here’s a post on Susan Garrett’s blog that will give you some preliminary pointers.  For me, I tend to look a lot at shoulder and rear angulation, gait and topline, but everyone’s got a different list of things that matter to them.
  • Drives (food, play, hunt, toy): you won’t get a perfect picture of this in a shelter setting, but if you’ve got some time to play with the dog you’re interested in, you should be able to get some sense of how they respond to food, toys, find it games, tag and so forth.  The shelter workers can give you good input here: remember, they’ve known the dog for longer than you have, and they can probably tell you if he’s generally into toys, treats, etc.
  • Ability to recover: if the dog is startled or if something happens that she doesn’t expect, does she bounce back quickly or does she stress about it for a while?

Don’t go in looking for dogs of a specific breed

When I’m looking for dogs, I’m personally much more interested in temperament and personality than breed. That said, I know there are a lot of people who like particular breeds and breed mixes and specifically seek them out when they’re looking for dogs: to each their own! However, thinking about breed can actually get in your way if you’re looking for your perfect sport dog at a shelter.  If you’ve spent any time at all in shelters or browsing Petfinder, you probably have figured out that a) most (though certainly not all) shelter dogs are mixes and b) the stated breed on the Petfinder listing or kennel card is usually just somebody’s best guess. Some shelters are better at guessing than others; that said, I have worked at several pretty great shelters, and still, I can tell you that in my experience, breed designation usually goes down something like this:

Scene: Several shelter workers stand around squinting at a random medium-sized brown dog who’s just come in.

Shelter worker #1:  He’s got kind of a …. Labby-looking head, right?

Shelter worker #2: Sure, why not?

Shelter worker #3: He’s kinda short, though. Let’s say Lab-dachshund mix.

Shelter worker #2: Sure, why not? [*writes it down]

If you go to a shelter, you will usually see a ton of dogs listed as lab mixes, shepherd mixes or pit mixes: the National Canine Research Council did a study that indicated that these are the most commonly designated mixes across shelters in the US.  However, the NCRC also did a bunch of blood-based DNA testing to see how accurate those breed guesses are, and whoops, not so much: it turns out that on average, they are only right about 18-20% of the time.  Here are some interesting posters the NCRC put out after that study was released: they show dogs who were identified as lab, shepherd or pit mixes and what the DNA testing indicated they actually were. [Note: these files are PDFs]

Lab
Shepherd
Pit bull

[Side note: my shelter has these posters hanging up all over the place, and we are still like, “Yup, looks like a pit mix to me!” when new dogs come in. Sigh.]

Anyway, the point of all that is this: if you go into a shelter and you say, “I am looking for a border collie or border collie mix” instead of saying “I am looking for a dog with [x] qualities”, the shelter worker is not going to think “OK, this person is looking for an intelligent dog with herding instinct who is handler focused and good at teamwork”.  The shelter worker is, instead, going to start making a list of every black and white dog in the shelter, and you are going to see a bunch of black and white dogs rather than a bunch of dogs who have the characteristics you want.  If you say, “I am looking for a dog with [x] qualities”, the shelter worker may bring you a border collie; they may also, however, bring you some awesome little non-black and white muttsky who has all of the characteristics you’re looking for and who you never would have seen if you’d asked to only see border collies.

Do bring toys and treats along when you’re meeting dogs

Bringing along toys and treats is a great way to test if the dog you’re looking at is biddable and wants to engage with you. If you’re a person who uses tug toys a lot in training, it will be useful to bring a tug along to see if the dog wants to play with you; it’s not a perfect metric, as some dogs are too stressed by the shelter environment to play, but if a dog gets excited about the tug right off the bat, that’s something to put in the plus column. Same thing with treats: lots of times, if you have good, tasty/smelly treats, you can do some basic luring and shaping with the dogs you’re looking at, and that can give you some good information about the way the dog learns and how motivated she is by treats. Note–bring the good stuff along: if you bring some dehydrated liver or some string cheese, you’re probably going to have better luck than if you use the stale Milk Bones that the shelter has sitting around.

Here’s a caveat, though: before you bust out your toys and treats, ask the shelter workers if a) the dog is a resource guarder [some extremely sweet dogs get verrrrrry intense about new toys, and this can really be exacerbated in a shelter environment] and b) if the dog has any food intolerances [nobody will be very pleased with you if you feed a dog a treat and later on they come down with hives]. Better to be safe than sorry!

Do try playing/working with the dog in as many contexts as you can.

Shelters have different policies on how potential adopters are allowed to interact with their dogs, but by all means, try to interact with them in as many different contexts as possible.  Take them into a quiet side room if one is available; take them on a walk; play with them in a fenced yard; interact with them near other dogs; walk them through a people-filled lobby and see how they do.  The shelter I work in right now is very liberal about the things potential adopters can do with our dogs: they can go on car rides, they can go on outings and hikes, they can do sleepovers, etc. Other shelters I’ve worked in have let potential adopters ‘check out’ a dog for a few hours and take them on a hike.  Find out all the things the shelter is willing to let you do, and then try to do all of them! Knowledge is power: the more information you have on how your potential dog acts in new situations, the better you’ll be able to determine if the dog is the right fit for you.

Any other do’s and don’ts you would like to add? Do so in the comments!

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.

Ten Reasons Why Your Next Sport Dog Should Be A Rescue

group post by Kelsey, Michelle, Rebecca and Sarah

This is a post directed at sport people: we’re talking people who tried out dog sports at some point for fun, got bitten by the bug and are now thinking about their next dog(s) with sports in mind (we’re talking to you because we are you: please see our most recent puppy post for confirmation!) This is also a post where we’re going to encourage you to consider adopting a rescue* to be your next sport dog. But before we get to the post, we want to make sure a few things are clear:

*When we say ‘rescue’, we’re using it as a catch-all term for dogs who are adopted from a shelter or private rescue, dogs who are found stray and some dogs who are privately rehomed [i.e. you got your dog from the mean, dog-hating guy who lives down the street]. We’re NOT talking about the  “I Consider Him A Rescue” types, who annoy us.

1) We’re not anti-breeder or anti-purebred/purpose-bred dogs here. One of our members is a fantastic AmStaff breeder (Merissa, of Gekko Staffs), another member has breeding ambitions down the road, and several of our members do conformation and are involved heavily in the world of their breed.  Our own dogs are both purpose-bred and rescued: some of us have both. We know that there are tons of cool things about getting a dog who has been carefully and deliberately bred, and this post is not here to knock those dogs or the people producing them. This is simply to remind you that there are also tons of cool things about rescue dogs, and to make a case that they should be considered with the same seriousness as a purpose-bred puppy.

2) We’re not going to spend a lot of time dwelling on the sad plight of shelter dogs in this post, because you’re a smart person and you already know that.  Yes, we wish that every dog had a home. No, we’re not going to tell you you should adopt a dog because you feel guilty about the situation of shelter dogs. No SPCA/Sarah McLaughlin/sad pictures here. We want you to adopt a rescue dog because you think that dog is amazing and can go head to head with any dog you could buy.

3) We are big competitive jerks pragmatists who enjoy winning, too. We’re not making a ‘The Best Q Is a Res-Q’ claim here. We like ribbons, we’re ambitious, we want to play at a high level. We think you can do that with a rescue dog (just ask TU’s Katie, whose dog Luce (aka ARCHX Siren’s Eleusinian Mystery CD CD-H RA RL3 RLV RL2X RL1X CGC TT) was the first American Pit Bull Terrier to ever be ranked nationally in APDT Rally.  Just ask Wallace.)

So bearing all that in mind, here are ten reasons why we think your next sport dog should be a rescue.

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Raising Bean: Five months. Building the baby flyball dog.

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Growing up herdy.

Time is flying and Puppy Bean is turning into, well, a dog. He turned five months old on Thursday. He has all his big boy teeth. He’s in the process of swapping out his puppy fuzz for an adult coat.

Some people like to raise their puppies without a lot of training. Some people start working heavily with their puppies from the day they come home. I was very enthusiastic with my first Border Collie Steve’s training, but haven’t been nearly so hardcore with Bean. It’s not that we don’t do stuff, it’s just our focus has been a bit different. Less sit/down/stay/come and more things like building drive for toys, building thoughtfulness around toys, developing body awareness, and learning how to learn. We do perch work where he puts his front paws up on something and is rewarded for moving his back feet around (the goal being to have him turn in circles). We work on shaping behaviors like having him put all four feet in a box. We do a lot of hand-targeting, and we’re starting to work on targeting things with his hind feet.

First and foremost, I got Bean to be a flyball dog, and a lot of what we’ve done has been geared toward that.

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Iliopsoas strain: the hind limb lameness you may not know about.

20120120 High flying Steve

Athletic dog is athletic.

Steve has always been a hard-hitting, heavy-duty athletic kind of dog. When he came up lame a few years ago, my heart dropped into my stomach. I had been through two knee surgeries with Luce already, and I knew how little fun that was. Looking at Steve, I was pretty sure it wasn’t a knee problem, but in we went to the vet. He agreed it was not Steve’s knee, it was higher in the leg. I immediately panicked that he had hip dysplasia, but on xray, his hips looked lovely (and indeed, OFA rated them as “good”). He was diagnosed with a generic “soft tissue injury” and prescribed rest and Rimadyl. I rested him as best I could (good luck with that) and then tried allowing him to start being active again. He wasn’t any better. I made him an appointment with a specialist.

It took her about two seconds to diagnose him with an iliopsoas muscle strain. I had never heard of this! My regular vet had never heard of this either. But there was no question at all for someone who was familiar with the injury and looking for it. She gently pressed on his muscle; he whipped his head around and gave her the stink eye. When she extended his hind leg and rotated it inward, he squirmed and fought her. That was where he hurt. There was no question.

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Flyball: The Kegger of dog sports

Photo by Jim Geiser Photography

Love it or hate it, flyball is one of the loudest and most unruly dog sports out there. On the surface, it’s very simple: four dogs run a relay race in which they run down a lane over four jumps, trigger the box to release a ball, catch that ball, and run back over the four jumps. Fastest team wins. Easy peasy, right? That’s what I thought, too, and why I never had much of an interest in it until I got Steve.

I didn’t intend to play flyball when I bought Steve. He came from someone who plays a lot of flyball, but my interests were in agility and obedience. When he was maybe six months old, she emailed me and invited me to a flyball tournament. She wanted to see how he was turning out and she thought he should see flyball. And she thought that I should see flyball because I would appreciate it more if I actually experienced it.

He was insane for it. Instantly. Running dogs! Barking! Balls! Tugs! What is not to love?

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