Monday, May 31, 2010

Observing a VST test

Since one of my goals this year is to get Devon and Page test-ready for VST, I thought I should go watch a VST test to see what I was getting myself into. In mid-April, I went to Chicago to watch the Moraine Tracking Club's VST test at Lincolnshire. I even got to see one dog pass!

This is a wonderful tracking club, full of great and helpful people. The grounds at Lincolnshire are perfect; what a lovely office park they have to test in. Judges Ted Hoesel and Beth Walker plotted interesting tracks, and I was able to walk behind all 8 participants that day.

I think my greatest observation from the test is that thanks to training with Steve Ripley, we are on the right track (no pun intended) with our training. We're working on the things the dogs will be tested on, specifically transitions and "moment of truth" or MOT turns. I will always be grateful for the opportunity to learn from Steve and from all the tracking teams he's followed in his years of judging.

I got to see some great handling and some really bad handling at this test. It reinforced to me how important it is to trust your dog and how to be patient while the dog is working out scenting problems. Handler Allison Bently who passed that day with her GSD Meghan was the perfect example of patience and trust. After working out a MOT turn, Meghan cut the corner of the next turn when she spotted her plastic article in a parking lot. Meghan came up on the article from the south, but the leg ran east-west with the track going east to Allison's right.

After picking up the article, watering and rescenting, Meghan continued north in the direction she traveled to find the article; it was also the direction Allison was facing. However, after 15 ft. Meghan's head lifted, she circled, and she correctly identified the track to Allison's right and tracked off in that direction, 90 degrees from where Allison was facing and from the path they had taken to the article. The gallery knew this was correct, but Allison was running a blind track. When Meghan showed Allison tracking posture, Allison immediate turned and followed her dog across the parking lot and eventually through two more turns to the final article.

Following your dog in a different direction after picking up an article has got to be a hard decision. And in this case, Allison correctly chose to trust her dog and their team was rewarded with the coveted "Champion Tracker" title. Those decisions are easier to make when you know how to read your dog and you have had lots of tracking "mileage" under your belt.

Equally as educational but monumentally frustrating was following another team where the handler failed mightily in his job to read his dog. It was the team's first VST test, and this amazing Golden Retriever made the first leg of this track look easy. I learned from club members and seasoned trackers, that the leg full of transitions in front of a large building with the wind coming off the pond was extremely difficult. After turning at the side of the building, the dog didn't hesitate to track straight into the middle of a parking lot.

Even to me, it was clear when the dog indicated loss of scent and wanted to make a right MOT turn. The dog indicated this turn several times and the gallery became hopeful we'd see another pass that day. However, our hopes were dashed as the handler forced the dog forward ignoring more than a dozen indications of a right hard surface turn.

The ever patient judges allowed this team to work left and eventually the dog brought the handler back to the very same spot and again indicated the right MOT turn. This time the handler took it and our hopes soared. However, when dog and handler reached a grassy island and the dog indicated a left turn on the island, the handler again ignored his dog. Eventually the confused handler circled back around to the right and ended up on the previous leg (even walking right past the judges going in the wrong direction) and again pushed his dog past the MOT turn the dog had worked so hard to accomplish. That is when they heard the whistle.

As a member of the gallery, I got to witness first hand how frustrating it must be to be a VST judge. After seeing more than a dozen indications of that turn from the dog, I lost count how many times that dog told his handler where the track went, only to have the handler think he knew better. No matter how much you think you know, you must over-ride your brain and follow your dog. The dog has the nose and knows where the track is. Your job is to recognize when the dog is on the track and when he/she isn't.

Finally, I got to see several MOT turns on actual test tracks. I now have a better understanding of these turns and how they can be used. According to the AKC's Tracking Regulations, a MOT is defined as:
At least one (1) moment of truth 90-degree turn will be in an area devoid of
vegetation and will be plotted to allow at least thirty (30) yards before crossing
or returning to a vegetated surface.
I had always envisioned MOTs as turns in the middle of a parking lot or non-vegetated area and no vegetation within 30 yards in any direction. While that is an example of an MOT, I also got to see other examples which were turns that were devoid of vegetation, at least 30 yards from vegetation in many directions and could not be successfully accomplished by fringing the scent on vegetation.

Here is an example of two MOTs. Turn 2 is what I would typically think of as an MOT. However, Turn 1 is also an MOT. There is an island close to one leg before the turn; but the turn could not be successfully done with the dog working any vegetation and the track did not cross vegetation for more than 30 yards. Seeing turns like this gives me even more ideas for working MOT as we train.

Our trip to Lincolnshire was educational and worth the time we took. It encouraged me that our training is going in the right direction. And it gave me real life examples of how important it is to read your dog and trust your dog while tracking.

Page's training update

EEeeekkkk! Where does time go to these days? I cannot believe it's been three weeks since my last post. Now to update Page's training.

Page -- agility
Page continues to shock and amaze me in agility. She learns incrementally from one lesson to the next. Weaves are a great example. I started training weave using the 2x2 method (I'll never use another method to train weaves). Page learned very quickly moving to 4 straight up poles. Then we trained at the kennel club one day, and I walked by the weave poles and Page dove in them and did 10 continuous poles on her own. Shocked, I asked her for the poles and she weaved all 12.

A week later at our lesson with Jenn at Incredipaws, she worked easily on two sets of 6 poles being rewarded in between the sets. Within a couple of days she was weaving all 12 poles. Here is a video of her last set of 6 poles before working 12:

I love her form in this video, and she looks even better today.

Our lesson with Jenn was great. Jenn started us with one jump to check on our foundation from the ground up, and we progressed to sequence 10 obstacles. I had already identified a few things to work on before the lesson, and I was very pleased that Jenn didn't find anything else I missed.

In addition to weave poles, I needed to work on Page's A frame contact. Over the winter I wasn't able to work that on a low A frame like I had her dogwalk and teeter contact performance. Once my equipment was outside, I was always forgetting to ask someone to help me lower the A frame. So I'd just work Page on the bottom of the A frame, wrapping her into her 2o2o performance.

A week after our lesson with Jenn, we were working at the kennel club when Page kept "asking" to do the A frame. She'd look at it and take a couple of steps to it, and then she'd look up at me like, "can I please??" Finally I said, "OK go do it." She ran to the A frame and I expected her to fly off the middle of the downside like she'd done before. Instead, she ran all the way down the A frame and straight off. I was so surprised she didn't fly off, but she still didn't do what I wanted so I just stood there and didn't react. Page looked at me and it was as if you could literally see the light bulb go off over her head and she said, "OH! Wait a minute!" She turned and wrapped herself back up on the A frame and gave me a perfect 2o2o with a chin touch and then looked back over her shoulder at me with a big smile on her face as if to say, "THAT'S what I was supposed to do, wasn't it!" Wow, talk about problem solving! From that time on, she has been sticking her A frame contact regularly.

The final thing we needed to work on was the rear cross on the flat. This is a tricky one for Page, and it continues to be a work in progress. The other thing that makes the rear cross on the flat tough for Page is how much she prefers her right lead. It makes turning right easier for her and turning left more difficult.

So with all her foundation under her belt, Page was ready to being sequencing. She started classing 8-weeks earlier than I expected. She's easily handling the challenges presented in her first two weeks of class, and I'm learning more things we need to work on as we go.

Page's latest list of homework includes reinforcing startline stays and contact performances. Page loves agility and she's quite fast. She's getting pushy on startlines and contacts. I haven't had a dog like this since Reece, but over the years I've sat on the sidelines and watched many good handlers let their contact and startline performances go for the sake of the almighty Q. Now that I'm the handler with the pushy dog, I can see how easy it is to let that criteria go when your dog is so fast. It's going to take a lot of willpower to make Page honest and hold her positions through proofing, but it's something I need to do for long-term success (versus the short-term rewards of early Qs).

Our other area of homework is becoming a team, which will be an ongoing process. I'm already pleased that Page does read my body language and motion. She is beginning to understand to take the obstacle in front of her, but she's not solely obstacle focused. Getting forward motion out of her isn't hard, but I can tell reading lateral motion will be a work in progress for some time.

In all, I'm very pleased with Page's agility training. She's easily 3 months ahead of my earliest predictions for her. Now it's up to me to keep working on handling drills and consistent criteria for startlines and contacts.

Page -- field
Page's field training has been intense during the spring. She has done lots and lots of pile work to build her worth ethic and deliver to hand. It's paid off! She now enjoys pile work, thinking it's fun. When she ran into trouble with large bumpers, she only worked large bumpers. She did pile work through heavy cover and changes of cover. She did pile work through lots of decoys. And she did pile work with ducks.

After a visit to Mitch's in late April, we did pile work on water. Page handled this very easily. In training she still wants to drop the bumper or duck at the edge of the water to shake off and then she'll come in to heel and deliver to hand. I've been working on this with a "hold" command and meeting her at the water's edge, but attrition hasn't totally fixed this. It's something we'll continue to work on.

Page is ready for transition, and I have sent her to more than one bucket once. Her lining is fantastic. However, with hunt tests coming up, I'm going to hold her where she is and not throw anything new at her. Page's water set ups looked great this month, and she lines her marks regardless of what is in her way. I'm pleased with her courage and marking ability.

Friday, May 7, 2010

What have we been up to? Training, of course!

One of the reasons I haven't been blogging is that the weather finally broke in early March, and we've been able to get outside and train! So where are we?

Devon -- agility
Devon has been doing really well in agility. I'm pleased with her class work, and she's doing some great lateral distance work. Last year I started quick releasing her contacts and now I've been letting her run them. In her effort to be perfect, Devon's performance was very slow with a 2 on 2 off contact. I tried a couple of tricks to speed her up but nothing seemed to work well.

About a month ago, Devon started consistently missing her A frame contact. I worked on several ways to cue it, and about 2 weeks ago found something that worked. Yes, I have a dependent contact that probably won't hold up 100% of the time; but Devon isn't a super speedy dog so I can get there to cue it. Ian had dependent contacts, and it while not ideal it worked out just fine. I've been working on various approaches, as well as pushes, pulls, front crosses and rear crosses off the A frame, and I'm pretty happy with it so far.

Last week I had a private lesson with Jenn Crank at Incredipaws. Most of the lesson was spent on Page's foundation, but I wanted Jenn to see Devon's contacts and other work. In one sequence calling for a 180 with a jump to tunnel, I pulled Devon off the jump. I had done this sequence earlier and done it perfectly. I didn't react and kept going, which Jenn complimented me on since it was my fault and I didn't let Devon know anything was wrong.

I love training with Jenn and wish I could do it more often, because she pushes me to think through why something happened and explain it. I had rotated my shoulders, so three of my cues said go forward and jump and three of my cues said turn. With a 50/50 choice, Devon got to decide and she came with me like a good little girl.

If I have a handling issue with Devon it's usually something like pulling her off a jump. I had been thinking that I wasn't stepping forward enough to cue the jump, but now I'm going to be more aware of my body position. That last run at Gem City were I pulled her off a jump was a very similar situation and I bet I rotated my shoulders too soon.

The other thing we worked on with Devon was a Forward Moving Front Cross (FMFC). I do a lot of these, but after my lesson I realized why I'm usually late with them, as in the Sunday run at this trial. I'm not getting my outside arm up quick enough to give early information.

Finally, Devon's big nemesis is the teeter. This issue has been lingering since last fall, and I've changed up my strategy since I'm determined to tackle this problem. Devon's teeter issue is the only thing holding her back from pursuing her MACH, and it's a goal I want for both of us.

I'm now working with a series of boards, each with a progressively larger dowel rod under it (1 inch, 1.5 inch, and 2 inch). I've worked Devon steadily on these boards, asking her to bang them down and then hop on them. I use high value treats and only do enough to go through 12 of these little treats.

My goal is to get Devon comfortable in understanding she controls the movement on a small board that is not the teeter but acts like it. She's up to the 1.5 inch dowel and ready to move to the 2 inch dowel board. I'm going to take it on the road tomorrow and see if her performance holds up. It did when there were people present the other night to watch her performance.

Devon's confidence must be getting better, because she's now running to the teeter in class even though I'm working very far away from it. She also ran to the teeter in my agility yard this week, too. She gets on a full-sized teeter very confidently, but then only goes to the tipping point. You can tell she has an inner battle of wanting to go over, but not quite being ready.

After she's done a few days on the 2 inch board and is confident, I'll be ready to drop the real teeter all the way to the ground and get her playing on it. I picked up a great tip from Jenn that seems so obvious, but it wasn't what I was doing. When I went for the lesson, Page refused the teeter. Something had happened the last time she went over a teeter and she was hesitant. We lowered the teeter a little and then had Page play the bang game. This worked great and she was up and over it again in no time.

What hit home for me when I was working Page was when Jenn said I didn't need to reward the ends so much because the middle was where she didn't want to be; I should be rewarding only behaviors offered in the middle. Aaaah Ha! She was right, and I'm sure I'm doing too much of this with Devon. This week as I'm paying close attention to the exact criteria I want and rewarding that, Devon has made much better progress.

Devon -- obedience
We've been doing a lot of obedience work this winter and spring. I put Devon in one obedience trial in early April, but she wasn't ready. She would have scored a respectable 191.5 if she had not gone down with 10 seconds left in the sit. However, I know she can do so much better, and she needs more proofing to be confident.

So we've started some occasional parking lot and sidewalk heeling sessions. The first time we did heeling on a quiet sidewalk, it threw Devon for a loop. She had no idea she should be heeling and giving me complete focused attention every time I asked for it! Within a week with only three sessions of this type of work, Devon's heeling improved incrementally. She is such an amazing dog when I finally figure out how to communicate to her!

I'm also working through all the open exercises and starting to demand more perfection with them, as well as teaching utility exercises. This is giving Devon more variety in her obedience training instead of concentrating strictly on heeling. I'm not too worried about pressing for Devon's CD this year. We have so much on our plate, that it's hard to get everything done. So we'll just plow ahead and maybe check out some Wild Card classes this fall or in early 2011.

Devon -- field
Devon's field training was going well, until we went to Mitch's last week, and we put her on some big dog blinds. I had been working Devon on discipline casting and lining drills and sight blinds with factors. They were all going really well.

But then we went to Mitch's and put her on some Master level cold blinds. She wasn't ready, which was fine. But she didn't handle the pressure well and she wanted to leave the field. That was bad. On day 2 when we worked water, she confirmed this was a weakness I already knew about and again wanted to give up and come in.

Mitch reassured me none of this was bad; we just had our work cut out for us. I need to revisit over into the water and swim-by. I worked some water sight blinds this week, and she was 80% successful, with only one battle on an angle entry blind which I won.

Like obedience, I don't plan on doing any hunt tests with Devon this year except for entering one or two WCXs when I enter Page in a WC. I plan to spend this year refining her skills and setting us up for a focus on field work next year.

Devon's first MXJ leg

Really? It's been almost 2 months since I've posted to the blog? Wow, time flies.

Even though it's been a couple of months ago, I want to get the video up of Devon's first MXJ leg. It was at the Gem City Agility trial in Lewisburg, Ohio, on Friday, February 26. I was working in the other ring when I saw them walking my course. Unfortunately when I asked if someone else could take over, none of the people in the area knew how to scribe. Great! I scribed the last dog standing up and then raced to the other ring.

The judge was starting to fire folks out of the ring but she said those with conflicts and workers to continue to walk. I wasn't too worried even though I had not checked in, because I figured they would leave Devon in her "A" running order at the end of the 20 inch class since I'd just moved up. Imagine my surprise as I walked out of the ring past the first dog coming on line to check in and realize we were up in 8 dogs!

I should have just moved Devon down and taken a breather. That would have been the sane thing to do. But I didn't stop and think. I ran outside, switched my shoes, grabbed Devon from the car, pottied her and in we went. By the time I was in the door, we were next in the course. I had a second to review the course and then we were on the line. I had my back to the ring crew and heard a timer box say, "GO" but it was so quiet I thought it was for the other ring. Then I could practically hear crickets chirping. I turned to see the judge shrug and raise her arms as if to say, "Hey, I'd really like to judge you if you'd ever get off the startline." At that point what little composure I had was gone!

Devon bolted off the startline and I knew there was no way I'd get in that front cross I had planned after the second jump. It was onto Plan B, and I really didn't have a Plan B. Actually, Plan B was all rear crosses, and remembering the course when I was on the opposite side of jumps than when I walked it. Thinking fast and running hard, we pulled out a clean run for Devon's first MXJ leg and first 8 MACH points!

While this was a fast and furious run I'll remember forever, it did show me two things that have given me a lot to thing about. Devon nailed this course with rear crosses. She was driving forward and moving fast with me out of her way. I had to do that last front cross near the end of the course because I knew I wouldn't remember the course if I couldn't get it in. Devon noticeably pulled up and slowed down after that front cross.

I have always known Devon runs faster when I'm rear crossing and out of her way, and Friday's course showed it. I wanted to try something similar the next day. But on Saturday, I didn't like the flow of the JWW course. It seemed awkward for me. I was determined to rear cross, and the course called for it.

I don't think Devon really liked this course either. Before the video starts, I actually pulled her off a jump so we didn't Q this run. I felt it was slow and sluggish, but when I checked her time, we were still more than 5 seconds under SCT. Not a fast run, but not bad.

After looking at this run and seeing how Devon noticeably slowed toward the end of the run on a rear cross, I think the key with her is staying out of her way. She doesn't like me jammed up with her on jumps. I will have to work on driving with motion and being out of her way.

I also think a very short warm up time is also a key with Devon. On Saturday we had a much longer wait at the gate, and she was a different dog going into the ring. While I like to be prepared, Devon doesn't need a lot of time to think about her job; she just needs to go do it.