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.

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