Thursday, December 31, 2009

Balancing multiple sports

I was going back through some of the comments on the blog this week, and I reread a comment from Lora asking I how balance training multiple dog sports. I thought going into the new year, it was a good topic for a blog post.

First, I think everyone needs to figure out what their personal dog training goals are. Some people just want to enjoy time with their dog. I commented recently to a friend as we watched another local competitor run his dog that he needed to be thinking about a new puppy since his dog was starting to show her age. My friend turned to me and said, "With him, it's not about doing agility, it's about doing agility with this dog." Wow, what an insightful comment.

Do you just want to do agility and excel in it? Do you love a particular breed of dog, and you want to do dog sports with that breed? Maybe you have family obligations and you can only attend local trials. Think not only about your dog and your life, but what are your resources (time, money, access to training, access to trials, ability to travel to trials, etc.)?

I think everyone needs to have a realistic goal for their dogs and their lives. Dog training should be about the Journey and not just about the titles and the trophies (but that's another post that I did back in August!). So I think the discussion about doing multiple dog sports or doing multiple venues of one sport needs to start with your goals and resources.

For me, dog training is about the accomplishment of working with a canine partner to achieve as high a level of training as possible. If someone holds out a goal in front of me and thinks my dog and I can do it, I'll go for it.

Here's a couple of examples from my situation. Ian is mildly reactive and people-shy, but he showed incredible performance abilities as a puppy. We tried conformation when he was very young, and he learned growling at judges made them go away (to his credit he really didn't know what he did the first time he growled at a judge, but it worked so he repeated it).

Since conformation wasn't my favorite sport, it didn't break my heart to end that part of his career. I knew he'd also never be an obedience dog, because to earn a CD he had to do a stand for exam where the judge goes over him. So Ian became an agility dog. I chose this puppy because of his performance abilities; and while we had several rocky periods, I knew he had the ability to be an excellent performance dog. His agility career speaks for itself, and when rally came along (another non-judge intrusive sport), he again proved his abilities. So for Ian, I considered his limitations, and we selected sports he would excel in - and he excelled to the highest levels.

Devon has been a completely different story. I originally got her to do agility and obedience; I wanted a MACH UDX Golden. Gayle asked me to put a JH on her, and I agreed. I figured what the heck I'd learn something new and it wouldn't take too long. I found an excellent pro trainer willing to give me private lessons, Mitch White. At our first lesson when Devon was 5 months old, Mitch was throwing a duck for her and she was retrieving it back to him like a big dog. Mitch said, "Devon you go tell you Mommy you want to be a MASTER Hunter, not a Junior Hunter!" That day a dream was born and a new sport was added to our list.

When Devon passed her tracking certification test at 8 months of age, she indicated a 48-hour old cross track. Steve Ripley told me what she had done, then asked me how far I wanted to take tracking with this dog. When I said I was thinking of getting a Champion Tracker, he said he would help me get there. That day another dream was born and another sport was added to our list.

And I love Devon so much, I jumped at the chance to get Page and work both girls in multiple sports. So now I have two amazing girls, and I have high level goals in four sports. Although I enjoy other venues of agility (USDAA, CPE), my goals are too broad based to do multiple venues of one sport. Because AKC offers me high level titles in all four of my sports, it has become my venue of choice.

I learned several years ago that achieving high level titles means foundation, foundation, foundation. So in the girls' early weeks they were started with foundation for every sport. At about 5 months, I began concentrating in areas depending on the season. Spring, Summer and fall have been about field work and tracking since those sports are outdoor sports, and late fall and winter have been about obedience and agility since I can do those sports inside.

The other thing to keep in mind when balancing multiple sports is that as you begin to train the tough, meaty content of the higher levels of each sport, other sports must take a backseat. It's impossible to train advanced levels in all sports without something slipping.

This year was a good example of that for Devon. In the spring her VST tracking looked really good. We worked hard on tracking from late February into early June, and I began to think about VST tests in late fall. But in late June I began a serious push with advanced field work to get Devon ready for her Senior Hunter tests in September. By August, Devon's tracking fell apart and she lost confidence.

I was frustrated, but I knew the problem was our focus on field work and training at high levels in both sports. As difficult as it was at the time (and I appreciate Janet and Steve Ripley forcing the issue), I decided to back off the tracking and push through on the field work. Devon was much closer to the SH in the fall than the VST. It was the right decision, because now that we've gotten through the SH and given her a break, her tracking looks much better.

And going into 2010, I'm faced with another difficult decision: getting the VST title or pushing on to the Master Hunter. The jump between Senior and Master is a lot less than Junior to Senior, and most dogs earn their Master Hunter fairly quickly after their Senior. However, pushing on to Master would leave Devon's tracking in limbo for at least another year, and I'm not sure I want it to stagnate that long.

The other factor in my decision making is Page. She isn't mature enough to handle Junior Hunter tests yet, but she is working VST very well right now. So it's looking like in 2010, field work will take a back seat to VST training (and that's a preview for another post on goal setting!)

When you are working multiple sports and getting into the higher levels, something has to give. You cannot maintain many sports and push the dog in all of them when the difficulty increases. For me that has meant less time spent on sports I really enjoy (agility) and pushing off other sports until later that my instructors would rather not see me do (obedience).

But in the end it all comes back to the Journey. And on my current Journey, I have two amazing girls, and I'm enjoying every bit of training we're doing.

Page's agility foundation training

It is winter, and we've had snow on the ground for more than a week. My equipment is inside in pieces being stored, and it's been too cold to work VST. So, one of my winter projects is to work on Page's agility foundation.

When thinking about Page's training, I have reflected on my other dogs' training. I think I'm good at teaching my dogs handling and jumping. This is due to my foundation in the sport of agility through Linda Mecklenburg's Awesome Paws system that I learned through seminars and camps as I was beginning the sport. It was solidified through years of classes at Wild Weavers of Ohio and with private lessons with Jennifer Crank of Incredipaws.

After struggling to communicate weave poles to Devon, I found the 2x2 weave pole training method. I took Susan Garrett up on the challenge of 12 poles in 12 days, and Devon was weaving 12 poles in 9 days. She was right! This was an incredible way to teach weaving to a dog, and I will use it for training weaves in the future.

But so far I haven't been happy with the way I've trained my dogs' contacts. So my goal for Page was to have amazing contacts (as well as the handling, jumping and weave pole skills my other dogs have).

I knew I wanted a 2 on 2 off contact for the dogwalk and teeter. I like the results from the nose touch method, so I taught a nose touch to Page. But something wasn't translating in my brain until Lise Pratt (Page's co-breeder and owner of Suffolk Nassau Agile Paws) and I talked and she pointed me to a series of articles in Clean Run's October, November and December issues. These articles made it all click!

The series "Training a Two-on, Two-Off Contact" by Rachel Saunders put the nose touch and the 2 on, 2 off together for me. Rachel says in the introduction she had a nagging issue with the nose touch, and I did too. Her issue was why teach the a nose touch when you would eventually fade it. And while I see her point, the nose touch does give the dog something to do at the end of the board and it keeps the dog's head straight.

But my nagging issue came with transitioning a nose touch to a 2 on, 2 off. I couldn't figure out how the dog was supposed to figure out what they did with their nose translated into their feet on the board. And Rachel helped me out by saying she teaches the 2 on, 2 off and then adds back the nose touch. Yippee! That was what I needed to hear!

Page and I are now off and running on teaching her contact performance. (BTW, I already know how to proof her contacts because I have Rachel's Bridging the Gap dvd which I also like a lot!) He's a video clip on Page's 2 on, 2 off work. I'm at the stage where I need to take it on the road, which I was start doing Saturday. I also want her driving to the position on the travel board with me being in various positions. But so far I'm really happy with what I have.

I'm also doing a lot of plank work with Page. I took several articles written by Tracy Sklenar in Dog Sport Magazine on building a confident dogwalk and teeter and I've been working through the suggestions I found.

One of the big "ah-ha" things I've found is getting the dogs comfortable on the boards. Devon and Page both have outstanding proprioception (thanks in large part to Gaylan's puppy raising system). Even so, Page is the first dog that I've done this much plank confidence work with, and I love the results. Hoping on and off and turning around on low boards has given Page confidence on them. And when she has slipped off, it wasn't a big deal. She jumped back on!

I'm now working the up side of the board to a table. You can see the turns and the hop on/hop off we do, plus the racing up and down the boards. This is one of my aluminum dogwalk boards and it moves and makes a lot of noise since it's not braced below, and Page has no issues with it. I'll continue to work entrances from various angles on this higher board (I've already worked entrances on a board to a lower table and she did fine).

Finally, I've worked on the teeter. Also in the Clean Run October and November issues are two good articles on teeter training by Jen Pinder. I've used the two table method in class to teach the teeter, and I liked it. These articles update the method, and they dove tailed nicely with the 2 on, 2 off articles because both authors train the contacts the same.

What I did do differently is work the Bang Game first, before I had the 2 on, 2 off performance. Because the Bang Game was so unsuccessful with Devon, you can imagine my apprehension at teaching Page. I know this is the best way to teach the dogs; and I know Page is a completely different individual than Devon. But I was a little tense the first time I asked Page to do this game.

Page was fine with the Bang Game. The first few times she pushed the board down, my aluminum teeter made quite a racket. Page's ears flattened against her head, but that was the only sign of stress she gave and she jumped right back on the teeter again! Below is a clip from our last training session on the Bang Game. At the beginning of the clip, you see a very naughty Devon escape from the expen when I asked for Page. This is funny because I know Devon isn't really volunteering to bang down the teeter!

The next steps for Page are doing the 2 on, 2 off on the end of the teeter and then starting with the progression of the two tables.

Page is actually progressing more quickly through the contact work than I expected. She is also working on some recalls to heel and recalls to heel through standards in the various positions for the Awesome Paws Handling System. She's learning collection out of tunnels (and boy does she blast through tunnels). And she's learning control and stays with tug games.

I'll end this post by telling a story that shows how much Page loves to work. When I trained in the building yesterday, I worked Devon first. Page hates to wait her turn, and it's good for her. When I was finished working Devon and getting ready to step up Page's session, I realized I forgot the video camera.

So I let Page out of the expen, we left the building and we headed back across the yard. We got all the way back to the deck and I was opening the back door when Page realized we were going inside. She got a horrified look on her face, turn and bolted off the deck and raced across the back yard. She didn't stop until she was in front of the door to the building, and then she turned back to me with this crushed look on her face as if to say, "But MOM! You FORGOT to work ME!! I didn't get MY TURN!!"

Page would not come back to the house for anything but continued to stand at the door to the building waiting (I swear she was stamping a paw she was so irritated). I went inside and got the camera and came back out to work her. She was so happy that we were going back out to the building. What a work ethic!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A veteran, a STAR Puppy and the one in between

This post is about what happened on November 8, 2009. This post does violate Sarah's "compulsion of order," but it was an eventful day, so I wanted to post it.

The Veteran
Our day started with the White River Golden Retriever Club's annual Veteran's Day. This is a day where we honor our veteran dogs (those over 8 years of age). I was so happy Connor could participate again this year because there are so few events totally focused on him.

Connor thoroughly enjoyed himself. He thought the wealth of donuts should be shared (and Susie shared a whole donut with him).

Thanks to the organizers (Susie, Pat and Carolyn) we had some fun games! We had a scavenger hunt, which would not be complete without looking in the outhouse for one of your items. We didn't find one there, but we did find a stuffed toy riding a Harley in the barn! And have you ever looked at the ingredients for Worcestershire Sauce?

Following the scavenger hunt was another popular game, the scurry. Connor thought this was an outstanding game that ended way too early (30 seconds). Too little time, and too many toys for him to pick up and carry back across the line! Devon even got in the act for that one, too. However, my Senior Hunter was too overwhelmed by bumpers AND stuffed toys to retrieve, she couldn't choose!

The final game was a relay race where the dogs had to stop at four stations and do everything a good multi-purpose Golden should do: conformation (they had to stop and "stack"), agility (they had to jump a low jump), obedience (they had to do three sits), and field work (they had to carry a bumper). Connor's never been in the conformation ring, but he knows how to stand. And I can't recall him ever retrieving a bumper, but he was game to carry one just the same!

Connor also spent some quality time on my lap. He hasn't done this in years! It must have been all those games that wore him out ... that and all the donuts he ate!

After a wonderful pitch-in dinner (for the humans and not the dogs), we ended the fun with our Parade of Veterans. Each dog was announced and came forward to get a treat, a pretty ribbon and cheers from the audience. The dog's accomplishments were read and they performed any tricks they knew.

I recognized Connor for not only his accomplishments in the agility, obedience and rally ring, but also for the one thing he has taught every dog that has come into our household after him: how to eat poop. And now you know the family secret: NO KISSES FROM CONNOR!

The day ended with the group shot of all our Veterans. You see that our Golden Retriever club is all inclusive and boasts members with Flat Coats, Labs and Rotties!

The S.T.A.R. Puppy
We left the party a little early, because I needed to head north to the Greater Lafayette Kennel Club for Page's S.T.A.R. Puppy test. Page took a course in the summer from the S.T.A.R. Puppy/CGC Evaluator which qualified her to take the S.T.A.R. Puppy test.

S.T.A.R. Puppy Program is a relatively new program from AKC. The program focuses on teaching new puppy owners to Socialize their puppies, Train their puppies, give their puppies regular Activity and be Responsible for their puppies.

The test is composed of nine Pre-Canine Good Citizen behaviors:

1. Allows petting by a person other than the owner.
2. Allows the owner to handle and give a brief exam of ears and feet.
3. Walks on a leash.
4. Walks by other people.
5. Sits on command.
6. Downs on command.
7. Comes to owner from 5 ft. when name is called.
8. Reacts appropriately when distractions are presented 15 ft. away.
9. Stays on a leash with another person while owner walks 10 steps away and returns.

Although everyone else was confident in Page's positive outcome, I took a wait and see approach. Even though she had just passed her TDX the weekend before, Page isn't known for her self-control; she's more of a "let's get going" type of girl. However, she held it together and did a lovely job during this test (even though she spent the morning in the van while Connor was having fun).

The kennel club did a wonderful job with the test, providing us with a star-shaped cookie treats and a special S.T.A.R. Puppy collar tag with Page's name on it and showing she "graduated" in the class of 2009. We ended by having our photo taken!

The one in between
So now you are wondering about Devon's day. Well, she was tolerant of Connor's special time. She did get to come out and play one game. However, when we got to the kennel club and PAGE got to go inside, that was a little too much for Devon. Page was getting to have fun, and Devon was just sure she was missing out on something special since we were at the kennel club (and give her credit, she was right).

Devon has a very bad habit of pulling things into her crate and shredding them when she's displeased. She doesn't eat what she tears up, she just shreds things to make a point. When she was 10 months old, I had to buy a woman a new coat at an agility trial. I have done a good job of creating a "dead zone" around Devon's crate in the SUV, but on this day we were in the van ... and my blue pullover was too close to Devon's crate. When Page and I returned to the van, a large portion of the back of my pullover was laying in pieces in the bottom of Devon's crate.

It's a good thing for Devon my mother is a miracle worker. She managed to piece together the jacket and replace most of the back with a coordinating fleece panel. I've actually had several compliments on my jacket since it's been repaired ... although I don't plan on leaving things too close to Devon in the future!

Winter tracking

Just a quick note about winter tracking. I don't track dogs below 20 degrees, because I don't think it's safe. But tracking in snow does help the dog. Even if you're out in the back yard, you will see dogs stick their noses down into footprints and sniff. I love this photo of Tess, Devon's littermate. This was taken on a walk, but she's in classic tracking posture and her nose is right in those footprints!

Another advantage to tracking in snow, is you see what other tracks have been through your own. Ever wonder what you dog looks like when it comes upon a deer trail? Look for deer tracks and put in your track right through them. You can really see your cross tracks and see how the dog works them.

One thing to be cautious of is the salt used on parking lots. It can burn dogs feet, so have the dog wear boots or take a wet wipe and clean the dogs feet as soon as they're in your car.

Don't let a little snow run your goals for spring tracking tests! Layer up and go have some fun!

How I start a dog tracking

This post is for Layla's mom and many others who ask how I start training a dog to track. There are many ways to start a dog tracking. Older school trackers don't use food. Many people start with a scent circle or scent pad. Some use food in their footsteps.

Personally, I don't really think the magic to a good tracking dog is in the method you use to start. Your goal is to use a method that clearly communicates to your dog that he/she follows the aged scent of the person on the start article. So, how does your dog learn other sports? What really rewards them? Some dogs don't learn with food, only toys. Some dogs need lots of food rewards to get through their learning process and others need very little food to put the pieces together.

The magic of tracking lies in the dog trainer at the end of the line. Dog training is all about communicating/teaching your dog something when you and the dog don't speak the same language. And two things make tracking uniquely challenging to train: 1) you are asking your dog to use a skill they have that far exceeds our own; and 2) you are asking the dog to lead the way through the test.

We as humans can really only guess at how our dogs really do scent work. We have a good idea on how they use scent based on how the dog works a track. And watching is the best way to learn how your dog works scenting. If the track goes along the top of the hill, what does the dog do? If the track goes down a hill, what happens? If the wind is blowing, what happens? Be a student of your dog and you will learn by their behavior how they work scent.

Tracking is one of the few dog venues where the dog leads. You don't know where the track is at a test (it is "blind"), so you must rely completely on the dog to get you from the start flag to the final glove. Since my very young dogs are tracking, I've had a lot of people say to me, "Oh I'll do tracking when my dog is older because it's an easier sport on their body."

Yes, tracking is not as physically demanding as agility; it is an endurance sport versus a sprint sport. But I always have a word of reminder for folks who take older obedience and agility-trained dogs out to start tracking. Our older dogs have always worked at the direction of their handler. But tracking requires the dog to lead and the handler to follow. Many older, well-titled dogs struggle with green handlers because the dog is looking for the handler to guide them.

Quite frankly, this is why Ian doesn't have a tracking title yet. Ian really enjoys tracking, and he learned straight lines very quickly. He had a ball out there, wagging his tail and bouncing and barking. However, when I started turns, everything fell apart. Ian would lose the scent and then come back to my side and happily look up at me wagging his tail saying, "Ok, that was fun. Now I have no idea what to do, so can you help me?"

So with that background, I will now answer the question. Personally, I start with food on a regular track. I prefer a low value food reward (I use kibble/dog food), so that it's easy to fade as the dog learns the game. I start with a 35 yard track. I put the start article at the flag and then step off on the track in a normal stride. After I plant my third step, I lift my heel from my second step and drop a piece of kibble right into the footprint of my second step. In this manner, I put kibble in every other footstep for the first 10 yards; every third footstep for the next 10 yards and every fourth footstep for the final 10 yards. Then I put no kibble for 5 yards, but I put a jackpot of kibble in the end article.

I like to drop one piece of kibble into the footstep itself, because I want the dog to have it's nose in the footstep/scent when it's rewarded. I spread the rewards apart to pull the dog down the track. I want the jackpot in the end article (not on top or below the article), because I don't want the dog to self reward. Eventually I want to transfer the value of the reward to the article itself and away from the food.

I may run two of these 35 yard tracks in one session. The next day I will follow up with very similar tracks, but with kibble starting every three steps instead of every two steps. My goal is to eliminate the food as quickly as possible. So I stretch out the spacing between kibble drops very quickly to every 5 yards, then every 10 yards then every 20 yards and eliminate them except in articles.

You as the dog trainer must read your dog to see when there is too much food and it becomes a distraction, or when your dog doesn't really get the game and needs the food help. If the dog is tracking along and then does a 180 and comes back to a food drop, that's a big clue you need to eliminate your food drops or spread them farther apart. If the dog is completely shutting down and wandering off, you may need a higher value food or put the spacing closer.

And now I return to where I started: the most important part of teaching your dog to track is not how many pieces of kibble are on the track. The most important part is that you teach your dog to pull you down the track. I start my dog on a 6 foot leash. If my dog is nose down on the track in my footsteps, I walk behind her. The instant my dog goes off that track, I stop. I hold my ground until the dog's nose drops back onto the track and then I move forward.

And here's another very valuable tracking tip: keep your mouth shut. At the very beginning, if my dog is tracking I may quietly say "good track" or "good dog." However, when my dog goes off the track, I simply stop and wait them out. I let the dog figure out his/her own problems; so I let the dog figure out how to get back on the track where the food reward is without verbal help from me.

A dog investigating off the track is normal. They are problem solving. They are figuring out where the track/scent is and where it is not. You aid this problem solving by not going with them when they are off the track. I cannot stress this step enough. One of the biggest mistakes I see most people make in tracking is to continue to walk forward when their dog is off the track.

When my dog is confident on short tracks without food, I'll transfer to a 20 ft. line with 10 ft. marked on it. I won't get more than 10 ft. behind her until she is very confident on much longer tracks. I will probably leave her on this 20 ft. line while I teach turns and slowly allow the dog more distance on the line as she gets more confident. Once they are confident on turns and I'm moving out to the end of the 20 ft. line, I'll transition to my 40 ft. line and work 20 ft. behind the dog. This is the same line I use in tests.

Once my dog is working confidently on short tracks with turns, I'll age the tracks up to 2 hours in 20-30 minute increments. I will not add any length to the track while I'm aging; I teach one component at a time. When the dog can do 2 hours, I will then start "ping ponging" the age of my training tracks between 45 minutes and 2 hours. This is the typical range for a TD test track, so I want my dog working randomly in this range.

Finally, I work length of track. When I feel I have a well-trained dog, I'll ask for help from others to lay me blind tracks. After successfully running three blind tracks, I'll call a judge and set a certification time.

How long will all this take? It all depends on the dog and the handler. Devon was my first certified dog. It took us 5 months to get from start to certification. However, Page ran a 2.5 hour old blind track (the first time she tracked someone other than me) at 16 weeks, just 7 weeks after I brought her home. Page certified easily at 19 weeks. I believe Devon and Page are equally talented tracking dogs; the difference in the time frame had everything to do with my education in tracking. I know a lot more than I did 3 years ago!

Preparing for TDX tests

This post is for Anney in Florida and Judy here in Indianapolis and several others who have asked me how I train for the TDX test. As I said when Page passed her TDX, I think training for the TDX is the most enjoyable tracking training. The dog has a full understanding of the game, and in my case with both my girls, they were up for challenges. They enjoy working out new scenting problems, and I love watching them work and learning how they problem solve.

However, the TDX test itself grueling. It’s long (800-1,000 yards). It’s mentally exhausting to have your mind focused for that long a period of time (both of my girls took between 25-30 minutes to complete their tests). And on both Devon and Page’s passing tracks, we had a challenging problem to work out that took about 10 minutes alone.

You also can’t rule out the mental “downer” watching dog after dog fail TDX tests. Devon failed her first test, when four of six passed that day (an usually high pass rate). Luckily she drew the first of four tracks the day she passed; she was the only pass that day. Page was the third track, and we watched one dog fail on the first turn and the second dog suck into the cross tracks on the second leg. Not an encouraging start.

And finally the test is physically exhausting, with long walks up and down hills, through trees and occasionally over obstacles. I nearly fell on my face going down hill in the woods on Page’s track, and I’ve been a tracklayer at a TDX test where a judge hit the ground following a dog.

Since I enjoy the training so much, but don’t cherish the test, I want to make sure my dogs are very well prepared when I send in that $100-110 entry fee – especially for a test that has less than a 20% pass rate! The best advice I’ve received for being prepared (credit goes to Steve Ripley for this) is to successfully “pass” a full, blind track three times before you enter a test.

Passing a full, blind track doesn’t necessarily mean finding a judge to lay it. Find someone else to lay you a test track and put in cross tracks. Most seasoned trackers will be wiling to help you get ready for a test. As I’ve said before, this sport is full of people willing to give back to new trackers, even if you have to drive a couple of hours to find them.

When I train for TDX, I train my concepts in parts (or puzzle pieces and the credit here goes to Cathy Hawkins of Camp Jigsaw). I don't run full length tracks all the time; I work 400-550 yard tracks most of the time. The first thing I do is teach age on TD-type tracks. Once I get the dog up past 3 hours, I rarely drop them below that mark. After the dog passes a TD, he/she will never run a track less than 3 hours in a test, and cross tracks are newer than 3 hours. I don’t want to fear age, so I’ll run tracks up to 6 hours just so I know my dog can do it. When I’m training, I’ll routinely run tracks between 3-4.5 hours old.

Next I start working obstacles and tracking concepts. One track will be about woods, so we'll work woods obstacles three times on a 400-550 yard track. The next track might be about changes in cover so we'll do that several times. If you re-read my August 16 post about TDX training in woods, you will see a list of things to prepare for when training woods. This is my philosophy for all types of TDX training (changes of cover, other obstacles, etc.).

The track here is a good example of a woods training track. Page ran this track 5 days before her TDX test. It was 470 yards long and aged 3 hours and 15 minutes. It was in an area where she tracked well. The blue line is Page’s track. The yellow lines are well worn “roads” where hay wagons pulled kids on hay rides through the fields up to the end of October. While the wagon path wasn’t a true obstacle, it was a good challenge with lots of extra scent.

The white markers show how I was presenting training on woods that day. If you look at the track, you will see that I hit four of the seven things on the list for training woods in that one track:

  • Tracking toward the woods and going straight in
  • Tracking toward the woods and making a turn (not entering woods)
  • Tracking toward the woods on a diagonal and entering on an angle (and I gave Page a turn right before the diagonal woods entrance)
  • Making no turn at all and going straight through a woods

You will notice I also gave Page two other challenges. First, I took her straight through a woods line just to the left of a vegetative break in the tree line. Devon had this on one of her TDX test tracks, and then she angled out of the woods onto the path. It really made me question as a handler if she was correct, but I trusted her and she was right on the track.

Second, I gave Page a vegetative path between two sets of woods. Again, sometimes you are in the woods and sometimes you are on the grass next to the woods. The dog needs to learn how to follow the track and not go where it might be more comfortable to track (on a path and not in the woods beside the path).

While I’m concentrating on training obstacles, I work in areas that are full of other types of scent, like deer and dogs and humans. This teaches the dog to start to ignore cross tracks or contaminated tracks on their own. Again, when you run marked tracks (and all my training tracks are marked) you know where the track is, so you let them work the cross tracks but not go down them. This teaches the dog to rule out tracks that aren't what they are supposed to be working.

When I’m ready to actually work purposeful cross tracks, I lay my own. At first I lay them immediately before I run the track. Then I work backwards in 15-30 minute increments so they are of "legal" age related to the track (cross tracks go in 1.5 hours after the track is laid). My dogs have never been confused by me laying my own cross tracks. The dog is told by the start article who they are tracking and how old the track is. Quite frankly after learning to ignore all the other cross tracks (deer, squirrels, raccoon, etc.), I usually only train human cross tracks 3-4 times and the dog gets the concept.

Finally I work on length. By laying shorter tracks, I can usually track about 3 times a week. When I start working on length of track, I drop back to 2 tracks a week. I don't work length often, and I never work it the week or two before a test. Remember the beginning of this post: a TDX test is a grueling test for dog and handler, so you want the dog to be very fresh the week of a test. In tracking, you aren’t going to teach the dog anything new the week of a test.

When you run full length tracks, you are looking for your dog to a) have the stamina to go the distance and continue to work, and b) what changes in their tracking behavior as they tire. Also, most dogs hit a wall around 600 yards, and they must push through that wall. Keep this in mind as you are working length and put articles/rewards after this distance. You can also make the track "easier" after 600 yards the first time or two you run a long track to reward the dog for working past that distance.

In working length, I learned that Page is less precise the longer she tracks. She's a precision footstep tracker, but with length and fatigue she starts overshooting turns. I needed to learn this and watch for her to indicate the turn was behind us and trust her. Knowing that Page overshoots turns with fatigue allowed us to recover from an overshot turn on our TDX test that likely would have sunk other teams.

Janet and Steve Ripley have a saying that every time we go out to track, the dogs are putting experiences in their mental Rolodex. At a test the dog will come upon a scenting challenge and flip through that mental Rolodex and compare it to what they’ve done in the past and then react. I really like this analogy, and it’s our job as “coach of the team” to give our dogs as many experiences as we can to prepare them for the test.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

December field training update

I want to take time to post about our field training this month. Yes, it’s December, and it’s been really, really cold. But training doesn’t stop in the winter; it just changes (and hopefully gets shorter in duration)!

In early December, five of us took our dogs to Gamekeepers Retrievers for a day and half of training. It was good timing, even though it was very cold (I don’t remember feeling my toes most of the two days; I have since bought insulated boots!). I gave Devon time off from field training since mid-October when she passed the WCX for the second time. She was fresh and ready to go after time off, and I needed guidance on how we should move forward for Master.

In Page’s case, I was on the fence about her training, and I wanted Mitch’s advice. Page had been a solid worker and breezed through her force fetch. But when she hit 7 months, she started having “puppy brain farts” when it came to field. Her tracking training held up, but when we worked field she acted at times like she’d never had any training and was just a puppy out for a play session.

I was at the point of doing pile work, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to push thru the pressure of pile work with her at this time. I wasn’t sure Page was mature enough to handle it; and if she wasn’t ready due to maturity, I didn’t want to push through it and have residuals later in her training. So because I wasn’t sure what direction to go, I also gave her time off from field during October and November.

In talking through this with Mitch before we started our lesson, he said (as I expected) he thought she just needed her “driver’s license taken away,” but that he would look at what she was doing and Page went on the list for pile work. We worked a pile at 40-50 yards. Page looked more solid than she had in October. But after about 4 bumpers, Page started doing a little of the head flicking and playing with the bumper I’d seen before.

Mitch gave interesting advice: “Stop praising her. Make your commands almost robotic.” I did, and instantly her work ethic got better. I saw immediate results, and I knew the dog training behind the advice: Page didn’t need my praise because retrieving was enough of a reward.

It wasn’t until the drive back to the hotel, that I processed the training session and it solidified in my mind. I always do the my best thinking about our training sessions after I leave when I can sit back and analyze what I’ve been told.

Page in field is like a high-drive Border Collie in agility. You know the ones who are wicked fast and higher than a kite wanting to do the job. The most successful handlers of these dogs are the most quiet, laid back people you ever met. They have to be. The minute one of these handlers starts to panic and emotionally ramp up, the dog’s energy and drive goes through the ceiling and the run is usually a train wreck! But the handlers who quietly and methodically drive their dogs through the course are the most successful.

So, the advice Mitch gave me makes total sense. Page is rewarded by the work. The minute I start my happy praise voice, she gets revved up and starts being goofy, flipping her head and the bumper around and acting silly and sloppy in her work. She doesn’t need my praise and it’s actually more distracting to her. If I calmly and methodically work her through the drills, she works very well.

The only other thing to work on with Page is going back to the force fetch table with real ducks. She wasn’t confident picking up the ducks like she is the bumpers. This was something I realized back in late-September/early October. It shouldn’t take too much time to revisit. And after that is complete, we’ll finish Page’s pile work this winter

As for Devon, she started angle back casting. We did a split cast drill, which she handled beautifully and even worked discipline casting on this drill. We also worked a poison bird drill, which she also did very well. The hardest part of this drill was when Mitch actually used ducks as the poison birds. Devon broke for the poison bird the very first time, but Mitch was fast and knocked it out of her mouth with a verbal correction. After this correction, even though she really wanted the poison bird, Devon had been convinced she should listen to mom and not get it until told to!

Getting There, A Retriever Trainers Symposium

On December 19, I went to a one-day symposium given my Mitch at Canine Sports in Vermillion, Ohio. This was a wonderful day of learning about Senior and Master Hunter tests. Mitch did a great job of describing the tests and the rules, as well as what we could expect at these tests.

In going through the requirements for the tests and various examples of tests, it hit home why I needed to work certain drills in preparing for Senior and Master. Devon and I were ready for Senior this fall, but there were several drills we didn’t do that would have helped her and I need to do for Page. Specifically, I need to work lining drills around and past gun stations. This is a weakness for Devon, since she’s so friendly she thinks the gunners need at least a smile and sometimes a wag. Running blinds between and near gunning stations during Master will be tough for Devon without this foundation.

I also got a better understanding of teaching marking concepts. I am blessed with extremely good marking dogs. But I can give them an advantage by actually training the concepts. Mitch did a great job of outlining these concepts and talking about how to teach them to the dogs and then move them to the field environment.

The reason I like Mitch’s program is the amount of teaching he does. This teaching of foundation elements is parallel to the way I train agility, obedience and tracking. For example, many field trainers throw the dogs into the field and run set ups with various types of marks. They work the dogs in these situations until they think the dog “gets it” and then they test. A parallel to this type of training would be working a whole obedience exercise from start to finish or just running courses in agility. There is a time and place for doing this, but it’s during the “proofing” or “testing” phase of your training, not the teaching phase.

In the teaching phase of training, you break down the exercises into their component parts. This is obvious in obedience exercises and agility. And moving it to field, you can start teaching marking concepts on short grass with obvious gunners (even dressed in white) and shorter distances. Once the dog learns these concepts you can add hidden gunners and then field type factors for the “proofing” and “testing” phase.

I really appreciate the Gamekeeper’s program because it teaches first and then tests. It recognizes the dog’s ability to problems solve and appreciates that the dog is a responsible member of the team. You as the handler may be the coach of the team, but your dog has responsibilities as the key player on the team. And when you are both well trained, you step to the line as a team to be tested.

Page’s training at agility trials

Devon had a whirlwind of agility trials in November and the first weekend of December, and Page came along for some fun. When Devon was Page’s age, I was working on Ian’s MACH and finishing Connor and Ian’s RAE titles. Most of our weekends were spent at agility or rally trials, and Devon learned she got “her turn” working obedience in the crating areas and near the rings.

But for Page’s early months, we’ve been working on Devon’s Senior Hunter and Page’s tracking titles. Page hasn’t spent time in the distracting environments of agility trials. So, I was looking forward to these weekends to see how Page would do at the long days of a trial.

The first surprise for me is that both girls handled mesh crates without a problem. Our first two trials were local, so I took the van and had metal crates available if the girls decided to throw fits and eat their way out of the mesh crates. Happily, the girls were contented, even Devon who has always thrown royal fits when I took Ian out for his runs. The only problem I had with her was dumping her water bucket. On day two I got creative with Velcro cable ties and fixed that problem! I’m now much happier lugging around mesh crates for the show site and hotel versus metal crates!

The next surprise was how good Page was at the agility trials. Long days in the crate, periodic trips out to potty and train, and then more long hours in the crate didn’t bother her. This girl is a trooper! Of course, after the first two 3-day weekends, she needed to burn lots of energy on Monday!

And finally, Page’s training mostly held up, which I hoped would be the case. Page went through the skills she knew well and gave me lots of attention when I had high value treats (well, pretty much any food treat is high value for Page). One thing I learned was that I couldn’t keep her out too long, or her attention would fade and she would want to “play” with every dog she could see.

Page’s first reaction when she wants to “play” with a dog is to launch herself at them front feet first. Most adult dogs aren’t amused, and many puppies are overwhelmed. Using short sessions out and getting her close to the activity when she was fresh and eager for cookies worked best. As she was out longer, I actually faded the distractions since she was getting tired of the “tricks” and the treats.

I was most pleased that she offered a nose touch on the steps at the Merrillville trial. This was a skill she hadn’t worked on much at the time, so the fact she was able to sustain it in a very distracting environment made me quite happy.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Isaiah 9: 1-7 (New International Version, emphasis mine)

To Us a Child Is Born

1 Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan-

2 The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.

3 You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as men rejoice
when dividing the plunder.

4 For as in the day of Midian's defeat,
you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.

5 Every warrior's boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.

6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

7 Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David's throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Wordless Wednesday: There are BIRDS outside!

I came upstairs last week to see Devon (left) and Page very intent on what was outside the second-story window. A flock of 150 starlings had landed just outside the window, and my two "bird dogs" were pretty focused!

You can also see that Page is catching up with (and passing) her big sister is size! As far as I'm concerned, she can stop growing now.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Page's first snow

Today Page got to experience her first snow. We got about 1.25 inches of wet snow, and I was surprised when I looked out this morning (the forecasters blew it and only called for a light dusting). I opened the back door, and as I suspected Page went blasting out into the snow without missing a beat.

Page was quite curious about it, and she got the zoomies. She stayed out longer than any of the other dogs today playing in the snow. She also learned from watching Connor that you can eat the snow. Since she likes ice cubes (as does Connor), this was great fun.

Unfortunately the fun was over by this afternoon, and the snow was gone. I think we'll be seeing more of the white stuff, so Page will continue to enjoy it this winter, I'm sure!

I took these video clips very early this morning. The girls very similar, so for reference Devon is darker and has less tail feathering than her little sister Page. Oh, and Connor makes an appearance, too. He's the cream colored Golden that blends into the snow. He announces his presence by barking in the first video. Enjoy!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Greater Lafayette Kennel Club Agility Trial

Whew! This 2-day trial ended a busy week for us, which included two days of field training in Ohio on Thursday and Friday (more on that to come). The girls and I got back Friday evening to unpack the SUV of field training and cold weather gear and reload it for an agility trial.

I was thankful to only be running Excellent JWW, which was the second class of the day. I didn't have to get up early! But I am a member of this club, so I had some duties to accomplish when I got to the trial site each morning.

Saturday Excellent JWW
Devon ran a flawless course; she did everything I asked of her ... including when I cued the first tunnel about 2 steps too early, causing her to go into the wrong entrance. I knew it when it happened; while I gave her a call and rotated my shoulders, I didn't try too hard to call her off of it. She was searching for direction and I gave it to her and she committed.

According to the judge and AKC it was an NQ, but it was my fault, so I celebrated a perfect run with my girl. She doesn't care about ribbons or qualifying scores! I got a lot of compliments on her last line of jumping. I cued extension and boy did she read it!

Sunday Excellent JWW
Today's course was shorter but more technical. I love technical courses when I ran them with Ian. I'm still not as sure with my handling of my baby dog, so I didn't jump up and down for joy at the challenge our judge presented us today.

But I planned my run and stuck to my plan. Front crosses to pull speed and give good direction. There was another dratted tunnel where we had to pull to the far end. I was determined to cue this one correctly!

This was a lovely run! Even though I can pick it apart (which I will), it was still a clean run and Devon's first AXJ leg! Yippee!!

Now for the critique! Both days Devon showed startline stress by scratching, and she was slow off the startline. On Saturday's run she recovered nicely. Today Devon was distracted on course and wanted to disconnect several places during the run; I worked hard to keep her connected. I wonder if the disconnection was stress due to the more technical course that required lots of side changes. I'll have to keep track of this in the future.

I wonder if the scratching/stress at the startline was simply four weekends in a row of trials. I was exhausted, and I'm sure Devon was too. Plus we had two days of field training outside the two days before the trial this weekend.

Devon's course time was fast on Saturday, running 4.49 yards per second (YPS). Today's shorter more technical course dropped Devon's speed a little to 4.04 YPS. She's still well above where she was this summer, and she's looking confident.

I was thrilled about Devon's weaves this weekend; they were lovely! She was a little slower than she has been, but after last weekend's struggles that's to be expected. I know these weaves are 22 inches, and I know she does well on 24 inch weaves. Since last weekend's weaves were 20 inches, and that answers the weave question for Devon. Last weekend wasn't Devon's lack of skill at weaving; it was her lack of experience on various weave spacing.

Finally, I think we're all looking forward to taking the next 6 weeks off from trialing. We have a seminar to attend in a couple of weeks, but other than that we'll be sticking close to home and training. We've had a busy fall beginning with 5 weekends of hunt tests, then lots of tracking and tracking tests followed by 4 weekends of agility trials. It's time for a rest!

And Devon also did me a huge favor by listening to my request and reading the calendar. Devon was due in season Dec. 1 by the calendar. I asked her to wait until Dec. 7 so we could get through these trials, then she could come in and be out before our next set of trials. She's not in yet, but I'm certain she will be shortly! What a good girl she is!