Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Wait, isn’t this supposed to be a blog about dog training?

Noodle Unleashed

So what is with all these posts about races and running?

To me, my two loves of dog agility and outdoor sports have a lot of similarities.  First and foremost, both are a lot of fun.  They provide us with opportunities to get outdoors, keep busy, spend time with friends, dogs and each other.  Beyond that though, both teach one about setting goals, developing and sticking to plans, remaining committed, challenging oneself, learning new things, and staying focused.  They teach you about the importance of consistency and criteria.  And every step on the path, every little achievement, is highly rewarding when it is well-earned.

After this weekend’s race, we were discussing why this season has gone better for us than past seasons, and why we are finally seeing improvement.  I came up with two theories:

1) I believe I was more consistent in following my training plan this year.  I started my plan early in the spring and stuck to it with very few exceptions.  This involved setting priorities and making some smaller sacrifices in giving up things that were less important in the long run.

2)  I think in the past I started going longer before I put in the basework to go faster.  Long slow distance runs are great, and if you do a lot of them you can run very long distances.  Slowly.  I enjoyed the challenge of longer-course races, but no matter how many miles I was putting in, my speed didn’t change.  This year, I stuck to sprint distance tris, and tortured myself with hill and speed interval workouts and tempo runs, and I finally think I’m starting to see a payoff.

It occurred to me that these two things – consistency and doing the correct foundation work – are also important elements of dog training, and ones that I have been really trying to adhere to better as I raise my next performance dog, Cadence. 

I confess, consistency and sticking to criteria are my Achilles’ heel of dog training.  I think they are for a lot of us, and may be what sets truly great animal trainers apart.  I have my definite weaknesses.  For example, my love for watching Cadence run full out and playing with the other dogs is probably part of the reason I also struggle in recalling him away from dogs – the act of running with the pack is highly reinforcing to him.

I know this is where I falter in many of my day-to-day training misadventures, but I am proud of one thing where I have been quite consistent with Cade.  When I brought him home, I vowed to only raise and train him with positive methods.  I have never been a “correction trainer", but with our first two dogs I can’t say I never used any aversives either.  I am proud that Cadence has not once received a collar correction, has never worn any type of choke or prong collar, has never been sprayed with a water bottle, or received any of the other types of punishment that even many “positive” trainers sometimes fall back on.  OK, I will admit that my voice tone has probably at times been less than patient and perhaps a bit louder than normal volume when asking him to please stop barking in his crate.  I don’t think he finds that particularly punishing though, and Manners Minder has proved much more effective in stopping that behavior.

Then there is groundwork.  While I do struggle with impatience, I have been committed to giving Cadence the foundation training he needs and to taking my time with him before rushing into agility.

I learned that lesson the long way.  Our first dog, Jade, showed incredible promise for agility.  He is probably our best natural athlete and has incredible drive.  As soon as he knew the obstacles, I rushed to enter him in competition.  We were able to qualify and move through the levels with several manic, barely-under-control runs.  Until one trial when his uncontrolled pace caused him to slip on the dogwalk and then, later that weekend, crash into the barrel part of a chute.  He was never the same in a trial after that.  He was not seriously injured, was not afraid of the obstacles afterwards, and would happily play agility in class, at home, or at fun matches, but found competition to be too stressful.  So at his still-young age, I retired what could have been a champion dog had I known better.

Our second dog, Tristan, was bought as a puppy.  He was incredibly biddable with a strong desire to work.  We hit the ground running, and began training young.  He competed in his first flyball tournament on the weekend of his first birthday – the absolute earliest he was eligible to race (a regulation that I have grown to think is ridiculously too young, by the way).  He also went lame that very weekend.  Within the next year, he would have two major knee surgeries.  Our brilliant, eager worker has had a lifetime struggle with injury, and I will forever wonder if it was due to the early pounding on his body.  It may not be – it may have been genes and poor structure or bad luck – but I have become extremely conservative in what exercise I think is appropriate for puppies now.

Because of these lessons, Cade and I have spent our first year together working on fundamentals.  Playing crate games, working on body awareness, doing Susan Salo’s puppy exercises, working nose targets on flat contact trainers, and doing shadow handling exercises.  Only this spring, after he was a year old, did I start gradually introducing him to regular height jumps, higher contact equipment, and started weave pole training at about 15-16 months.  Perhaps he would have been fine regardless, but I am pleased that he has grown into a very sound, strong, healthy dog.

After taking a few agility classes with Cadence, some of our training challenges also became more evident.  Even for a Border Collie, he is drawn to motion to a remarkable degree.  Anything that moves provides a big distraction, and he becomes easily frustrated when he can’t chase.  I discovered quickly that as long as we were running together, my movement could allow him to focus on the task at hand, but if there was a fast dog in the neighboring ring, or if we were waiting our turn to go, I could lose his attention in a heartbeat.

I want to do things right with him.  I don’t want to have to have all the ring gates closed when he runs at a trial, and I don’t want to stand with him barking incessantly in line.  So, agility class is on hold right now as we take a Control Unleashed class.

Honestly, I was a bit self-conscious about taking a CU class.  I think unfortunately it has the image of being for reactive, aggressive, out of control dogs when in fact that is not who it is designed for at all.  Noodle is not any of those things, but he needs to be able to concentrate in the presence of distractions and we needed the opportunity to work on that.  I was happy to find that the class we joined was made up with handlers in the same boat as us – a freestyle competitor whose gregarious lab likes to visit the ring crew during a performance, an obedience prospect who needs a little more attention in the ring, etc. 

So, yeah, CU isn’t as glamorous or exciting as an agility class.  But it is the foundation he needs if he is going to be the agility dog that I know he can be.  And it is going amazingly well.  His focus is improving greatly, and I have high hopes for our eventual return to agility class, and ultimately competition.

Consistency and groundwork are the themes for us right now.  And patience.  And remembering the reward of doing something right will be worth the effort.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Hell Freezes Over, Apparently

Because I brought this home on Saturday:


minibus profile

From a running race, of all things.

After about 14 years of running, completing two marathons, numerous 5Ks and multisport races, and going through who-knows-how-many pairs of running shoes, I still have been hesitant to really consider myself a runner.  When Lowell first got me interested in running with him, I did it mostly for fitness and for the challenge of conquering something that I initially found very difficult.  And unpleasant.  I began to enter 5Ks here and there, just to feel the accomplishment of completing them.  Eventually, since I wasn’t going particularly fast, I became more interested in going long, and trained for and ran (slowly) the Honolulu marathon in 2003 and the Detroit marathon in 2004.  After Detroit, I lost interest in straight running races for a while, and for several years have only entered multisport events such as triathlons or adventure races. 

Though I enjoyed running, I often found it frustrating.  I felt like no matter how I trained, I was not getting any faster.  I considered it my weakest leg of a tri, and developed a strategy to lay it all out on the bike, my strongest event, and then just hope I built enough of a lead that I could hold people off on the run.

In August, Lowell - whose true love is trail running - signed up for the Flower Power 5 mile race at the Run Woodstock event.  I wasn’t sure yet if I would have any triathlons in September, and wasn’t ready to coast into the off season quite yet, so decided I would sign up as well.  Just for fun.

The tri season had gone surprisingly well for me, especially after having had a year away from them last year.  I placed in two of my four races, and was one away from the podium at another.  In reviewing results, I started to see an odd trend.  When looking at time rankings by swim, bike, and run splits, I noticed that I was now performing better at the run and my swim was the relatively weakest event.   My run pace at the tris was equal to those of my best 5K times ever.  Maybe I was getting a little better? 

I went to the trail race excited to do something different.  Since it wasn’t really “my sport,” I felt less pressure.  I had no expectation of placing and I just decided I would do my best and not stress out about it.

As the 150 racers were being lined up by expected pace, I kissed Lowell good-bye and wished him good luck as he moved to the front of the pack, where he belonged.  I then tried to figure where I should seed myself.  Trail race paces tend to be quite a bit slower than road race pace, due to the uneven, loose terrain and, often, killer hills.  I really didn’t know what to expect.  I settled into the group in sort of back-of-the-middle and waited for the race to start.

I quickly began to be annoyed with the conversations I was hearing around me.  Two women introduced themselves to each other, then started sharing their low expectations for their performances:

“I should probably move back.  I should be near the end.”

“I think the ten-minute pace is just up there a bit.  Where is the 13-plus minute pace?  No way I will be going ten minute miles”

“Yeah, I’m not going to be doing this fast at all.  I’ll be back there walking it.”

I have heard of some top agility competitors who choose to listen to headphones during course walk-throughs to avoid hearing the negative chatter of their competitors – complaints about how hard the judge made the course, about how they know their dog can’t hit that weave pole entry, etc.   This negativity does not help one visualize, or achieve, a successful performance.  I knew I wasn’t setting grand expectations for myself in this race, but I wasn’t about to set low ones either.  I moved forward to seed myself higher in the pack.

The race started, and I felt good taking off.  The pack remained quite tight for the first couple miles, and I would often find myself closing in on the heels of someone going at a decent clip for me.  I would be tempted to hang in behind them for a bit and pace off of them, but then decided that I didn’t want to limit myself by assuming that my best pace would be equal to that person’s best pace.  Maybe I could go faster.  If they passed me again immediately, oh well.  So I decided on a strategy of passing every person that I closed in on.  By probably mile three I was largely alone, and enjoying the solitude of running my best through the woods, listening to the sandhill cranes in the distance, and eventually really hoping that next clearing of trees I could spot was not another wetland, but in fact the finish line.

Coming in four minutes ahead of my goal time, I crossed the finish line, grabbed water and a cookie, and flopped next to the bonfire with Lowell for a few minutes.  I marveled at how quickly my brain could go from, in the initial pain of the final push, thinking “I am not doing that again” to, after catching my breath, looking at other competitor’s event t-shirts and thinking “Maybe that race would be fun to do next year.” 

Lowell had run a great race, and knew he had a good chance of placing well in his age group.  Finally results were posted, and we confirmed that he had won his age group and come in sixth place overall.  I casually went to check my time, and was stunned to see my name in first place of fifteen women in my age group.  My immediate reaction was to declare that clearly there was a mistake, and looked to see if there was another earlier page that had been cut off.  But, nope.  I had officially won myself a toy VW mini-bus.

I never would have guessed that I would have taken first in a running race in a million years.  But this year has been an interesting journey in taking risks, and not subscribing to self-imposed limitations, both in my dog training, and in my racing.  It has been a surprising year, and who knows where it will go next.


Monday, September 20, 2010

Summer’s End

This weekend marked both our last outdoor agility trial of the season, and the last open water triathlon in Michigan this year.  It made for a busy weekend, trying to get in our final chances for summer fun before the daylight and weather change push us inside, or to other outdoor activities, until next year.

On Saturday, we entered Maebe and Django in their first USDAA-sanctioned agility trial at Pontiac Lake Recreation Area.  Django was entered in just three runs during the day, but Maebe was entered in seven(!) classes, as they were offering both tournament and titling classes that day.  We hadn’t actually registered for all the classes, but were put on a Pairs team anyway, so we went along with it.

USDAA was a fun new experience, if a bit hectic.  We enjoyed the high level of competition, seeing some elite dog/handler teams, and having the chance to really push and challenge ourselves.  On the other hand, agility trials are often busy enough when you are only entered in three to five classes in one ring.  You have to make sure you have time to review and walk your courses, warm-up your dog, run, cool the dog down, let the non-competing dogs out to stretch, work a class or two, etc.  With Maebe in all the classes and in both rings, we were kept busy trying to monitor all the action and figure out where to be when.

The trial seemed to be running long, and by late afternoon, Lowell and I finally got to sit down together for half a second, and realized we were both about ready to drop, and were both getting anxious about getting home in time to prepare for tomorrow’s triathlon.  So, we did something we almost never do and scratched from the last two runs of the day.  Django only ran one Standard course (which he did nicely but with one dropped bar),  but I knew he’d be just as glad to get home to kitties and his Jolly Ball.  Maebe ran nicely, but was jumping 22 inches for the first time in competition (she jumps 16 in every other venue).  By her fourth run, I thought her jumping style was getting sloppy and she seemed to be tiring.  We decided that though we’d had fun and enjoyed the day with the dogs and friends, the best use of our time at that point was to head home, pack for the tri, walk the non-competing dogs, and get some rest. 

Back at home, we pulled crates out of the van, loaded up race bikes, and packed our transition bags with our wetsuits, water bottles, bike and running shoes, and other gear.  After a nice moonlit walk with Tristan and Cade, we got to bed early, hoping we’d feel well-rested by the time the 4:45 AM alarm went off.

I woke up feeling pretty decent physically, but dragging mentally.  From the weather map, it looked like we could expect rain and 60-degree temps throughout the race, and I had visions of shivering my way all the way to the finish line.  But, as we began our drive to Stony Creek and the sun started to creep up, the morning proved to actually be a nice one.

We checked in at the race, set up our transition areas, and then familiarized ourselves with the course layout.  Looking out from the beach house over the swim course, I was quickly reminded why all the effort is worth it:

stony creek beachMy dad came down to the park to watch the race, so after slipping into our wetsuits, we visited with him for a few minutes before it was my wave’s turn to enter the water.  Even with a wetsuit, 65-degree water is COLD.  Once I caught my breath and acclimated though, the swim went great.  Probably the easiest tri swim I’ve ever had – didn’t get kicked, punched, smacked, or elbowed once, and was able to sight straight lines between each buoy.  I was out of the water before I knew it.

The bike portion was fun for me as always.  It was made more exciting when about a quarter of the way in, I was passed by a woman in my age group.  This was the first woman to pass me on the bike leg at any tri this year, and I wasn’t going to stand for it long, so overtook her again quickly.  I held the lead again until about halfway, where we had another back-and-forth, but this time I pulled well away from her. 

The bike course was on local roads and was open to traffic, and about 5K out from the finish, a group of us got stopped at an intersection for a few seconds as a car was turning.  Shortly afterwards, my rival passed again.  For a second I felt disheartened and figured I was running out of steam to hold her off.  Then I remembered the delay at the intersection, realized that was why she caught me, and decided that I was ending this season with my record intact – that no woman was going to pass me on the bike leg.  I pulled ahead and held it this time.

She and one other woman passed me pretty shortly into the run, but after that I held any other women off.  After the initial “brick” feeling caused by the bike-to-run transition wore off in my legs and feet, I felt pretty good and ran strong to the finish, having fun the whole way. 

I ended up finishing just off the podium – fourth in my age group.  I was 14 of 77 women overall, a finish that I was quite proud of.  My 5K run time was as good as my best 5K straight time ever, even after a tough bike. 

So now we transition to a few trail races, orienteering meets, hikes, and mountain bike rides through the changing leaves, and indoor agility for the next several months.  It felt like a great opportunity this weekend though to get those last events in, and when we collapsed into bed early Sunday night, we were exhausted but content that we had made the most of summer.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Ren Fest

This weekend was the pet fair at the Michigan Renaissance Festival.  We often try to attend the festival, but haven’t been there for a few years.  This year, Dog Scouts was invited to have a booth as part of the pet fair, and we volunteered to help. 

Maebe ren fest We were assigned to a three-hour shift on Saturday afternoon with Cadence and Maebe helping us meet and greet the public.  I always like the chance to help out with an organization I believe in and was looking forward to it, yet had some anxiety as the date approached.  Of the four of us who were attending, Maebe is the only true extrovert.  The rest of us (Lowell, Cadence, and myself) certainly play nice with others and have reasonable social skills – none of us bite or are fear-reactive or anything ;-) - but we don’t often seek out interaction from strangers either.

Ren Fest also has its share of crowds – both people and animals – and lots of odd costumes, loud noises, weird sights, etc.  Maebe is pretty unflappable, and I was confident that Cade wouldn’t lose it or anything, but I was a little concerned that he might zone out mentally with too much stimulation.

dogs ren fest Happy to say, both dogs made me very proud.  They interacted politely and happily with a ton of people of all ages.  Cadence especially seems quite fond of young boys, something that I have observed a few times since he was a young puppy.  I was also pleased to see that he continues to have a very nice natural greeting behavior.  He doesn’t rush up to people, but when it is clear they want to pet him, he approaches and nicely sits next to them for chest scratches, and even nudges their hand should they stop.  I started to use the opportunity to get the greeting on a “go say hi” cue.

I admit we aren’t the best fundraisers.  Many DSA members have trained their dog to panhandle – meaning that they will retrieve a dollar from a stranger and deposit it in a bucket.  Django did this nicely in his panhandling days, but he seems to not enjoy these type of events any more so we let him stay at home.  Lowell worked with Maebe over the course of the day, and by the end of the afternoon she panhandled her first dollar.  I was able to shape Cade to put his mouth on the dollar, so I imagine by next time we will have some better fund-raising skills.  The bigger problem probably lay in our own discomfort in asking for donations but I think I have thought up a good spiel for next time that I will be comfortable with.  Still we brought in a few bucks and made a few sales.

Perhaps more importantly though, we were able to spread the DSA mission a bit, discussing the importance of responsible dog ownership and positive training methods.  We met some people who seemed very interested in the DSA activities and mentioned looking into camp, local troops, or just checking out the website for training help.  We had very nice conversations with a lot of pet owners, and it was nice, especially on the heels of a week filled with run-ins with people who give dog owners a bad name, to be reminded that there are a lot of good pet parents out there as well. 

It is also nice to be able to appreciate our dogs and their accomplishments and strengths.  Every week and every month, I write out my training goals for the days ahead, and the list of the behaviors I want to train or strengthen continues to grow and grow.  I also know a lot of people (mostly through DSA) who are exceptional trainers and whose dogs have an impressive array of talents.  It is easy to measure ourselves constantly against our desired goals or other people’s successes and to feel perpetually inadequate as a trainer, always striving for better.  It was nice to step back and view our dogs from the perspective of the normal pet-owning public and realize that we have raised some good little dog citizens.  Instead of just thinking about where I want my dogs to be, I was reminded to at the same time enjoy the process and to be pleased with the accomplishments we’ve made.

me and Cade ren fest

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Why We Love Dogs, Reason #598

For no real reason in particular, I have had a bit of a storm cloud over my head on and off this week (which I am grateful to say is pretty atypical for me).  It probably started on Monday morning’s run, which was interrupted with a fairly startling experience when three totally unattended, not-terribly-friendly, off-leash dogs cornered Lowell, Cadence and I in our favorite park.  A few moments later, a very unapologetic owner sauntered up the trail behind them, pretty unconcerned with the whole thing, though she did start screaming at them all when we asked her – through gritted teeth - to please get her dogs back.  Brilliant dog training.  The good news is that no one was hurt, there were no altercations other than one dog making some nasty sounds and charging at us, and Cade handled it all calmly.  I did step on him though when one of the dogs tripped me as we tried to move away.  I felt awful about that though he is no worse for wear. 

Off to a rough start of the week, little things just started to build up.  I’ve had a sore throat.  My neck has been stiff for two weeks now for no apparent reason (though I blame the cats who try to steal my pillow from me at night, causing me to wake up all contorted).  I had to skip Tuesday’s run because I couldn’t imagine doing a hill interval workout in 90 degree weather.  I got stung by a yellow jacket or something.  Really minor annoyances, but by Wednesday I was doing a pretty good job pouting and feeling sorry for myself.

Last night I got home after an evening of running errands and was in full self-pity mode.  I took each of the dogs outside to go to the bathroom, and after everyone else was in, found myself in the yard with just Cadence.  I decided to play a little hide and seek game with him, sneaking off behind the shed and calling him to come find me.  Then we grabbed a toy and had a fun, quick play session of tug and fetch – him all growly and play-bowing with his mischievous glint in his eye, and me cracking up and forgetting about the week’s inconveniences.  Only took him about 30 seconds to cheer me up.

I’m in a much better mood this morning.  Thanks, Noodle. 

cade and me trailer In other good news, Tristan is not limping anymore and is able to go on his daily walks again, Maebe’s eye ulcer is completely healed, and Django’s 24-hour bout of extreme gastric upset seems to have cleared up.  Now if the cats would just stay off my pillow, maybe my neck would improve also!