Ch. Kabree Mad About You RA

September 29, 2009 Comments off
Image by neilfein via Flickr

I’ve been offline for almost a week, camping and trialing at the annual Wine Country Circuit at Sampson State Park in Romulus, NY. After a couple of false starts earlier this summer – shows I’d entered but was too fatigued to compete in – Madison finally got her chance to shine in Rally Advanced. And shine she did, earning her RA with a 3rd and a 4th place and qualifying four straight times. In the rain.

Rain and M. don’t get along. My princess doesn’t like to get her pretty spotted toes wet. Apparently, it really doesn’t rain in California (where she was born) or Virginia (where she lived with her other ‘mom’ Lisa Ross before she moved to central NY.) M. will eagerly race to the back door and stop in her tracks when she discovers rain on the other side. She will refuse to enter a tunnel that has a puddle in the entrance. She walks on the sidewalk when the grass is wet. After a miserable FAST run in a deluge at the CNY Sheltie Club trials in early August, I promised her that she would never have to run in a downpour.

But Sunday, it wasn’t pouring. The grass was wet, and there was some spitting intermittent rain, but these are facts of life here in central New York. There was no hint of a deluge. M. moved in a happy heel position from the car to the rings, bouncing and forging most of the way. Hmm. Okay. I told the little girl to stand up, step up and heel. And for most of that full-of-sits Rally Advanced course, she did — she even sat in heel position and dropped (twice.) On the last three signs, M. made me work for every sit (even the judge noticed her dirty looks!) Finally we got through the course, and my little princess worked the whole way ’round.

FAST was less successful — Friday, her push-to-the-right had disappedared. Saturday, pushes to the right were working, but I stepped on the piece of tangled fly-away plastic tape that was serving as the bonus line. Still, each of M’s five FAST runs has been a bigr improvement over the previous run. She’s running less like a green dog and more like a focused agility dog. So on we go — and hopefully, we’ll add a FAST leg or two in the next couple months.

Meanwhile, my princess has decided to heel – beautifully. When the girl puts it together, she puts it together with flair — flip finishes, hand touches, and a constantly wagging english cocker tail. Now that she has her RA, we’ll spend a few more shows in Rally Advanced working on precision and accuracy before I move her up to Rally Excellent.

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Categories: Agility, Rally

Backyard agility

September 17, 2009 Comments off
A Border Collie negotiating weave poles.
Image via Wikipedia

M. and I are running in FAST next week at the Wine Country Circuit in Romulus NY. So to our regular practices (we’re also in Rally Advanced A) I’ve been adding some simple backyard agility practices.

I was inspired by a tweet from @agilitynerd who linked to some of his backyard practice sessions.

Agility Nerd’s blog is one of my favorite practice resources. For M., I broke the practices into two sections: 1) left-side weaves to threadle to right-side weaves, and 2)
selected jumps to alternate sides of the tunnel. Then I had her run the full practice as left-side weaves / jump / near-tunnel entrance / circle round to jump / threadle / right-side weaves.

She’s nailing her entrances, so fingers crossed…and more practice…for a successful pair of FAST runs.

Backyard agility doesn’t need a lot of equipment. My tunnel and some of my jumps are from Pac ‘n Go and I supplement them with jumps and cavalletti from Max200. My weave poles are plain electric fence post rods from Tractor Supply Co. My entire setup fits into a low deck box, and can be assembled and taken down in five minutes.

Train on!

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Categories: Agility, equipment Tags:

From the training bag…

September 7, 2009 Comments off

I don’t usually write about products when I write about dogs (although a day at February 2009’s Global Pet Expo certainly gave me lots of material!) But today, I’m in my training bag, and I thought I’d share a little happiness and a little dismay.

First, the dismay — I noticed yesterday and confirmed today that the last of my old-style Flexi(R) 3-5 leashes is beginning to lose its zing when called on to retract. The spring inside is finally wearing out after 10 years of longeing various breeds from 80-lb. Gordon Setters to 22-lb. English Cockers. Well, just go buy another! you say. Ah, would that I could.

A Flexi(R) 3-5 is from the old med-heavy duty group of leads that Flexi(R) made in the mid-80s. The 3-5 is 16 feet long, a combination of 18″ of ‘belt’ attached to approximately 15 feet of retractable cord, and was rated (like its cousin the 3-8) for dogs about 77 lbs. In truth, it was probably not quite enough leash for Reuben at 80 lbs., but it did work fine for him when he was on his Halti(R). And that size served me very well for Taryn (mix, 32 lbs.); the English Springer Spaniels Jazz (45 lbs.), Muni (40 lbs.) and Nola (35 lbs.); my first Gordon Bard (65 lbs. soaking wet); and of course 32 lb. Casey and 22 lb. M. the English Cockers. The 16-footer was less bulky and easier to carry on walks than its 26-ft. cousin the 3-8, but I had a few of them, too.

Unfortunately, and likely due to issues where the leash was overworked or used inappropriately, Flexi(R) no longer makes the combination belt/cord series of leashes rated for anything over 44 lbs. (their Comfort and Classic 1 and 2 series leashes.) These leashes look small, they look like you really shouldn’t put them on a big or even a medium-sized dog. I have a Classic 2-5 (16 ft.) and a Classic 2-8 (26 ft.) While they work okay for one small dog that doesn’t get over-exuberant, they don’t work for my favorite Flexi(R) lead application — walking two dogs with one handle. I’ve tried. The Classic 2-5 felt over-matched, even when the load was trained Casey on the retractable end, and more-or-less trained M. on the static 10 ft. slip leash attached to the handle with a climbing carabiner.

So today, I’m off to a local pet supply store to examine this new, improved, all-tape Classic 3-5 up close. I don’t like the idea of a retractable ‘tape’ instead of a cord…it looks heavier and bulkier than the mostly-cord 3-5s of the 80s and 90s. But maybe it’s worth a look. We shall see how it performs after my product testers Casey and M. have a few morning romps in wet grass. More on this leash ‘improvement’ later…

And meanwhile, I’d like to give a shout-out to the folks who thought up and produced SwheatScoop Natural Wheat Litter, which is scoopable and now comes in a multi-cat version. I needed cat litter this week, and had a coupon I’d picked up at the NY State Fair, so I decided to give SwheatScoop a try in Churro’s litter box.

Churro is a formerly outdoors-living used-to-be barn cat who moved in with me last November. He is a little species-challenged — he acts a LOT like a dog. He lives, as all my new and rescue cats do, in a crate, but unlike the others he hasn’t made a lot of progress at being un-crated and unsupervised (he still thinks vertical blinds are fun to climb.) So when I’m not home, he spends the day in a former dog crate, and he’s got a litter box inside. He comes to his name and to my whistle, does hand-touches and head bumps on commands, goes into his crate on command. He travels with me to dog shows and goes camping right along with the dogs. But a cat litter box in a small condo or my 5×10 ft. Sunspot, a vintage tiny trailer, can be really overpowering.

On the first day I converted the litter box to two-thirds SwheatScoop(R), one-third scoopable clay litter, I noticed an immediate reduction in litter box odor. Since I scoop once a day and change his box completely every three or four days, he was in a completely SwheatScoop(R) litter box within four days, and has now been on SwheatScoop(R) for over a week.

After more than a week, litter box odor is almost non-existent. Or, at least, I don’t notice that I have a litter box the second I open my front door. The litter clumps nicely and doesn’t track much (or any more than clumping clay litter). When Churro decides to play with his stuffed toys and litter ends up all over his crate, it doesn’t melt into any moisture and stick relentlessly to the crate floor — I can sweep up the scattered litter with a small dustpan/broom. Sometimes Churro gets bored and decides to play in his water dish; the SwheatScoop(R) absorbs the water and doesn’t melt into a gluey blob like the clay stuff does. I’m a convert; it’s a couple bucks more than the store-brand clumping clay litters, but the odor control and ease of clean-up make it totally worth the price.

A couple cautions:

  1. Do not flush this litter. Cat feces can contain parasites that shouldn’t go into water supplies.
  2. Keep your SwheatScoop(R) in tamper-proof containers. English cockers have little to no discrimination about what is food and what isn’t; Casey went after the box and tried to eat it. Rodents will also try to eat it, drawn to the clean wheat smell. I transferred mine to an old (plastic) clumping clay litter container.

Now, I’m going out for a second box.

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Never say ‘never…’

September 6, 2009 Comments off
Image by smussyolay via Flickr

I will NEVER use (fill in the blank.)

I will NEVER do (fill in the blank.)

I will NEVER say (fill in the blank.)

Go ahead, admit it. If you’re like most dog trainers, you’ve probably thought to yourself or said out loud at least one of those ‘I will NEVER’ statements. Maybe all of them.

But here’s the thing — every dog, every owner, every training issue or course question is unique. Train enough dogs, run enough courses, handle enough challenges and sooner or later, ‘never’ will start to seem a little unreasonable. ‘Never’ will turn into ‘well, maybe just this once.’ Something that always responds to X will simply not work in that situation or will stop working, and you’ll have to re-group. This is what dog training is — it’s a growth and evaluative process. You have to keep challenging yourself, or you won’t bring your dog to his full potential as your companion. You have to keep challenging your dog, or eventually he’ll decide no mas. Dog training in many ways is just like Covey’s 7 Habits of Successful People: you have to continually sharpen the saw to stay at your best and to keep your dog there, too.

So, if you think they’re some aspect of dog training that you’ll never do, say or use, think again. Take the time to learn about them, practice them hands-on before you toss them out of your toolbox. You’ll never know until you try them whether you might need them someday.

Every dog is unique; the things he shares with other dogs you’ve trained before will strike you but the things that make that dog unique will be what you remember more quickly.

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Categories: Training Tags:

Casey goes walkabout!

August 23, 2009 2 comments

Getting the old man outdoors first thing in the morning is a challenge. Often it’s a mad rush, hoping I’ll beat his full bladder to emptying without riling it up too much in the race to the grass just outside the back door.

Casey on the hill, 2006

Casey on the hill, 2006

I gear up, and stuff my pockets with poop baggies and treats. Then I collar Casey while he’s still crated, hold his crate door closed as I open M’s crate, and with the spotted princess on my hip I encourage the old man to race me to the back door. Nature and habit and my whistle can usually keep his eyes on the prize–as long as no detours captivate him in the 25 feet between his crate and the yard.

On days when I’ve slept in, I’ll skip his e-collar and let the dogs out of crates armed with my home-rigged Flexi(TM), the one with the climbing carabiner and slip lead attached to the handle. The rig lets me walk two dogs on one leash ‘handle.’ I scoop M. out of her upper crate, open Casey’s crate door and incite the mad dash. Outside, Casey immediately finds a spot to pee, and M. sits while I drop the slip lead over her head. Then I snap the Flexi to Casey’s collar as he’s irrigating the first post of the patio fence. Have you ever watched an old dog pee first thing in the morning? I’ve usually got plenty of time to catch up.

This morning, as I slipped the lead over M’s head (no challenge to get the princess to wait patiently when the grass is wet!), Casey followed his nose past his usual stopping point and decided to go walkabout, relieving himself along the way. He’s 14+, but he can stil move faster than I move first thing in the morning. Before I could get to him, he’d made it down the grass to the last townhouse in our row and was busy play-bowing with Wils, my neighbor’s 3 y.o. golden retriever. Dementia in dogs — every day is full of brand new friends. Casey was playing with Wils as if he’d just met his new BFF.

At 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning, loudly calling “CASEY!” to get his attention wasn’t an option — all of my neighbors’ windows were wide open. Besides, I have to be pretty loud and practically on top of him to make any kind of vocal impression on my hard-of-hearing viejo. At least Wils has always been a quiet dog, and he was happily occupying the old man without making a sound. With Wils to distract him and keep him close by, I was able to get close enough to Casey to remind him that we were walking TOGETHER, thank you. I clipped him to the Flexi(TM) and we continued our walk as if I was actually organizing the course.

Casey wouldn’t have gone walkabout if he’d been wearing his e-collar. Unfortunately, it was still in the car from our trip to the park the day before Even though he’s grown up on an e-collar, I can’t rely on his training to keep him under walking control now that dementia plays into our days. Our Sunday morning walk snafu reminded me how versatile a properly used e-collar can be in a dog trainer’s toolbox, and how many options it opens to a dog throughout his life.

Now and then on Twitter I have a repeat of a discussion I’ve had a thousand times since the mid-80s — the discussion I call ‘The Collar Chronicles.’ Pinch or prong collars and e-collars have always been the evil-doers in these conversations; lately, even the poor slip collar (aka, the dreaded ‘choke’ collar) is also in the evil-doer equipment classification. When I’m asked why I choose to use all three of these tools, I’m often tempted to repeat what professional trainer and kennel owner Joel Prouty once said to me about using an e-collar: I use [it] because dog training shouldn’t be so hard that no one does it.

Maybe I should just take Joel’s direct approach, because I’ll be the first to admit that I’m all about saving time in dog training. Note: ‘saving time’ doesn’t and shouldn’t equal ‘cutting corners.’ You still have to cover all of the bases, and solid training over a lifetime relies on strong foundations. But the right equipment can save time by making or helping your communication with the dog more direct.

Many people still call them ‘shock collars.’ My pet peeve? It’s a remote training collar, people! Remote training collars can and do encompass several kinds of feedback, including vibration, tones, odor/sprays – and yes, an electric shock. I use Innotek FS-25A e-collars, which provide 7 stimulation levels (yes, those are the shocks) and a tone-only option.

This collar won’t deliver continuous stimulation; it has an automatic cut-out after ten seconds, so if pressed and held, stimulation (or tone) will stop after 10 seconds. The collar is waterproof, rechargeable, and has an approximate range of 250 yards. It’s my workhorse e-collar; I’ve owned five of them since 1994. Casey has one which he’s had for 10 years. M. has one, which I purchased two years ago. Each collar has its own transmitter.

In practice, the stimulation level on an FS-25A set to 1 or 2 is the equivalent of flicking your fingernail against your palm. Yes, I’ve tried it on myself – I test every collar on every setting before I put it into service, and test it daily prior to use, on my palm, and yes, I know exactly how it feels. The collar can also be set on tone + stimulation where the tone sounds, with a few seconds delay before the stimulation. Tone, delay, vibration and stimulation options make an e-collar as versatile as my voice, allowing me to communicate with my dog at a distance, in situations where I can’t make any noise, or with a dog who, like Casey, is being slowly compromised by the issues that afflict senior dogs.

Casey’s can still reliably hear certain whistle tones, although sound at a distance is lost to him. In bright or dim light, his eyes sometimes don’t tell him everything he needs to know. Mix in the complications of dementia: disorientation and confusion. All combine to make it harder for me to keep him safe when he’s further than a couple feet from me. Still, keeping a leash on a 14+ y.0. dog who is partially sense- and sensibility-impaired but otherwise active doesn’t give him all of the physical stimulation he’s used to taking on his own. His legs and nose still work just fine – and the more regular exercise he can get, the healthier I can keep him. So as often as I can, I give him the opportunity to free-exercise off-leash in a safe environment.

I live on eight acres I share with 100 neighbors. Across a low-traffic road that borders the property is another six acres of softball fields and playground. For 11 years, Casey’s had the run of this place. I don’t want to steal that activity from him as long as he still has the physical capacity to enjoy it–but none of the property around me is fenced – so my job is to keep it safe for him to enjoy.

When Casey’s senses and sensibility first began failing, I switched him to a 10′ slip lead attached to the handle of my 16′ Flexi(TM), the same lead set-up I use to exercise a crate-rest dog. I reinforced with treats every time he responded to a whistle, or checked in with me during a walk. It was a stop-gap solution, and in regular everyday use it’s a miserable failure–on bad days Casey can’t seem to remember how to de-tangle his old legs. We both end up frustrated – him at being tangled, me at trying to keep him tangle-free. He does better on the Flexi-portion of my homemade two-dog leash, but it’s still not enough exercise on the days he’s feeling up to a run.

Enter his e-collar, set to tone. At first I was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to hear the tone or that it would startle his slightly addled old-dog brains. I really didn’t need to worry; the foundation of e-collar training from the time he was an adolescent dog kicked in as soon as he understood the tone. I collared him before putting him on the 16-ft. Flexi, and again treated him every time he responded to my whistle, or checked back in with me spontaneously, or when ‘reminded’ to find me by the tone of the e-collar. I’ve set it to tone + delay on a very low stimulation level (1), so that he will feel a vibration after the tone if he doesn’t look for me right away. And at least once every week, I take him ‘back to kindergarten’ — collared and on the Flexi — so that I can ‘remind’ him how important it is for him to stay in touch and stay tuned in to me when we’re walking. Since he’s been e-collar and whistle-trained from puppyhood, I’m relying on behaviors which have been back-chained for years. Reinforcing those foundation behaviors now allows me to continue give the old man some freedom in safe situations.

It’s so much more than a ‘shock collar.’ But as a trainer, you do have to accept your own limitations before you can admit an e-collar’s possibilities for communication.

Or, you can ignore an e-collar’s communication possibilities, and find yourself trying to out-run an old dog at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning, slipping in wet Crocs on wetter grass, and trying to manage a reluctant princess on the other lead as she whines about getting her feet wet. Like Joel said so long ago, dog training shouldn’t be that hard — and if the way that is also easier preserves for mi viejo some of the freedom he’s enjoyed his whole life, I’ll take that ‘easy’ route. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get Casey’s e-collar out of the car and onto the charger…

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Categories: Old dogs, Training

Weaves — On. Her. Own.

August 21, 2009 Comments off

When I remember to let my little spotted princess process and think… I get spontaneous weaves. 😉

This morning, on the damp grass that gives her the wet toes she hates so much, Miss M. did four poles from a right side send. On one signal. At the end of the poles, after a click and a treat and while waiting for some more input from me, she decided to re-weave her four poles.

On. Her. Own.

Back at the entrance where she’d have to weave on the right, she wrote her own story again, offering a set of clean and continuous weaves, and then turned expectantly to me for the click and treat she assumed was coming.

On. Her. Own.

M’s capacity to process a skill when she’s given a couple days off from practicing that skill continues to amaze me. Now if I could just remember to keep tapping into that ‘quiet’ processing time so that we get back to 12 weaves, from the left or right, on one signal!

Categories: Agility, Training

Freedom to fail, keys to confidence…

August 20, 2009 Comments off

I’ve been having a great discussion on Twitter over the last couple days about whether the option to fail should be removed from training sessions. What began as comments and a question to @barrie and @DoggieZen evolved into a discussion that asked me to articulate why I believe that it’s important for both dogs and people to learn how to fail.

Now, just to be clear–in some situations I believe that the dog shouild be shown that improvisation is NOT acceptable, and dogs should be prevented from failing in ways or situations in which the dog could hurt himself. For instance, if I was snakeproofing a dog, an experiment on the expected behavior could be fatal. Potentially dangerous situations are not the occasions to cultivate a dog thinking outside the box.

However, most of the time, in most learning, it’s valuable to the learning process that both dog and human learn to problem-solve and try — even when their attempts don’t always produce the result desired. There can be no enthusiastic attempt to problem-solve and brainstorm and offer behaviors in a situation where the dog is afraid of or unused to trying, experimenting with behaviors that have worked before and might work again.

A trainer who uses operant conditioning depends on a subject’s willingness to try…along with prompts in the right direction that may ‘help’ the subject discover an experiment. But if the subject or dog is a lump that won’t put a foot forward on his own time, then it’s difficult to find anything to reinforce, and even harder to figure out how to shape things into the behaviors you want to see.

Madison didn’t come with the desire to willingly improvise. Bold and confident to a fault, she is nevertheless hard-wired to certain behaviors. She has a 30 minute stand (thank you, breed ring!) She will cuddle for hours. Her first behavior if near your face is to lick and kiss. She learns faster by routine than by improvisation (although we’re working on her improv skills.) But just try shaping any behavior in a dog who will stand in perfect stack, looking at you adoringly for a half-hour. Even when prompted to a new behavior for which she’s then reinforced, it takes many repetitions to show her that offering that behavior spontaneously MIGHT be a good thing! She is not afraid to fail, but she doesn’t understand how to try.

With unconfident dogs, it’s critical to teach them that it’s not wrong to fail — just ineffective. If the unconfident dog only succeeds, he has no meaningful barometer for life after a simple attempt at a task doesn’t work, and is more likely to fall apart because he hasn’t learned that experiments can be rewarding. With hyperconfident dogs, teaching them that it’s not wrong to fail, but it IS ineffective is one of the only ways to focus them to offer behavior you want to reinforce.

How do you approach failures at behaviors in your dog training? Does your dog understand that failures aren’t wrong (only ineffective), or is your dog afraid to fail, worried about failing, and /or afraid to try new things just in case they are the ‘wrong’ choices? How do you work around that?

Categories: Training