Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Agility Blog Action Day: Volunteering At Trials

As someone who blogs about dog agility fairly often, I was recently invited to participate in a “Blog Action Day,” where bloggers all are asked to share their thoughts on a designated topic.

IMG_1004 The topic I was invited to write about today was volunteering at agility trials.  There has been much discussion on various agility lists lately about volunteerism at trials – how to encourage it, how to make it rewarding, why people choose to volunteer or not, whether participants should be required to help out, etc.  Trials couldn’t be held without the hard work of lots of volunteers, so it is an important topic for anyone who wants to be able to continue to come out and play with their dogs weekend after weekend.

We generally volunteer at the trials that we go to.  It often offers the best seat in the house to watch the action, and most local clubs offer nice incentives for helping.  However, as I reflected on volunteering at trials over the years, I was able to identify experiences that have impacted my volunteerism habits, both for better and for worse.  While my experiences have been largely fun and rewarding, I can identify some that haven’t been. 

I started to think about how clubs can create positive experiences for volunteers, to encourage participation and ensure that people will continue to sign up to help.  I realized that a lot of the principles that we use when training dogs with positive reinforcement actually apply in this scenario as well:

1) Set One Up For Success

When we train a dog a new behavior, we want to increase the likelihood that the dog will get it correct. We don’t place them in front of a set of weave poles and hope they figure it out – we use 2x2s, channel weaves, weave-a-matics, guide wires, etc. depending on our method of choice.  This increases the chances that the dog will be successful, earn reinforcement, and want to keep working.

Likewise, clubs could help newcomers understand what the volunteer tasks are and what is involved.  People don’t like to make mistakes, be embarrassed, or accidentally interfere with someone’s run.  Having information available that briefly describes the position, and offering a quick training or Q&A for prospective volunteers at the beginning of the day could help people feel better about signing up for a position that they might not have felt comfortable doing beforehand.

2)  Have Clear Criteria

Agility is always most successful in the long run, and less frustrating for the dog and handler, if we are clear in our criteria from the beginning, whether we want a two-on/two-off contact position, want them to hold their start line stay until a verbal release, etc.  When expectations aren’t clear at the onset, dogs can get stressed and frustrated, especially if a handler gets unfairly upset with him/her for violating rules that were not made clear.

Likewise, I always prefer to know beforehand what the preferences are for the task I will be volunteering for.  Is there a specific height that the lower bar should be set at for each jump height?  Are leash runners expected to walk around the outside of the ring gating, or can they cut through the inside?  Is there a chair or platform that the leashes are meant to be placed on?  If there is a detail to the job that is important, make sure the volunteers understand beforehand rather than correcting mid-field, because as we all know . . .

3)  Punishment Stops Behavior

My first experience volunteering at a trial was not a rewarding one.  The club was calling for someone to help as Timer, so I stepped up, with the caveat that I had not done it before.  I was shown how to work the stopwatch (the days before electronic timing systems) and that was it.  I sat down in the timer’s chair, and after a few runs was admonished that the chair was not lined up well with the start line, and that I should have moved it, and could not possibly have gotten accurate times on the first dogs.  This was not a detail I would have thought of as a first-time worker – in fact, I think I assumed I couldn’t move my chair.  Then, an exhibitor didn’t hear my whistle  indicating she should start her closing in a Gamblers class, and I was yelled at by the scribe and the exhibitor for my inappropriate whistling technique (I’m sure her barking Aussie had nothing to do with it . . .).  I switched to bar setting, and was given conflicting information about where to set the lower bar, then scolded by the alternate parties in turn for not doing it correctly.  My memories of the experience are of being told constantly that I was not doing anything right, and I didn’t volunteer again for a few trials.  To this day, I still won’t volunteer to time.  But, thankfully . . .

4)  Reinforcement Builds Behavior

Happily, the vast majority of my experiences volunteering have not been like that overwhelming first day.  And clubs now are doing a great job of rewarding volunteerism with worker raffles, food, dog toys, etc.  Trust me - when I am packing all the crates, ground mats, sun shades, dog treats, tug toys, leashes, dog beds, water bowls, rain gear, footwear, tent, video camera, log books, chairs, etc. that I bring to a typical summer trial, the knowledge that I can just enjoy a workers’ lunch rather than packing a cooler and having one more thing to tote along – that is incentive enough for me.

5)  Put the Time In Up Front

Anyone who hasn’t put in the time to proof things such as start line stays knows that it is far easier to work on fundamental skills early on than have to always compensate or manage later on because you haven’t developed the skill set you wish your dog had.

Not too long ago, a club was asking for someone to scribe.  I have never scribed (more fallout from my early corrections at that first trial), but after this many years I figured I could learn another skill.  I offered to do it if someone could just quickly show me what was involved since I hadn’t scribed before.  Instead, I was told to go trade places with someone who was bar-setting who already knew how to scribe.  It was all the same to me, but ultimately, had someone taken 30 seconds to walk me through the scribe sheet, they would probably have one more willing scribe volunteer today.

6)  Finally, Don’t Blame the Dog/Volunteer!

If we are honest with ourselves, we know that the mistakes made on course are not our dogs’ faults.  It is our bad timing, our mis-step on the course, or something missing in the training foundation we’ve provided.

Likewise, it isn’t the volunteers’ responsibility to know every dog in the trial’s name on sight and to be able to intuitively know when you’ve changed your running order.  It isn’t their fault if your Border Collie barks incessantly at you when you are running and you miss the timer’s whistle. 

Even if it is their fault – take a deep breath and relax.  The fate of the world is not hinging upon whether or not you Q.  I’ve NQ’ed due to people’s errors, and I’ve also been given Q’s.  Usually, if you politely raise the issue, judges and clubs are more than willing to try to make it up to you somehow if they can.

Have fun with your dogs and each other at your trials.  Remember that all animals learn the same way and try to incorporate the principles of positive reinforcement both when you train your canine partner and when you work with your volunteers and agility clubs.  And volunteer – it is a great way to meet people who may become close friends, and it is truly the best seat in the house!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

CPE Nationals Trip 2011: Porcupine Mountains

IMG_1030 The last leg of our summer Nationals trip took us from Minnesota back up the the Michigan UP for a stop in the Porcupine Mountains.  We arrived at our campsite, right on the shore of Lake Superior, by noon on Monday, had a quick lunch, and headed out for a hike at Lake of the Clouds, a picturesque lake tucked in the midst of pines as far as the eye can see.

P1030480 Michigan is a big state, and the Porcupines are almost as far up there as you can get, but they are well worth the drive.  From a short walk from the parking area, you are treated to an amazing view of rolling hills, old growth forest, and a serene lake.  We took in the view, then hiked down to the lake itself.  Eventually we climbed back up and hiked along the Escarpment trail, which offered many more spectacular views.

IMG_1064 Back at the campsite, we all hiked along the rocky Superior shore for a while, reminding me of days playing on rocks along the Lake Huron beaches as a kid.  Cadence played with the waves as they broke against the rocks. 


IMG_1037 At many points during these hikes in particular, we wondered what was going on in the minds of our canine friends.  Do they appreciate aesthetics?  Nature?  They certainly seemed to.  On the vistas of the Porcupines, they all would seem to gaze out over the cliffs.  Cadence would even put his feet up on the stone guard walls for a better view.  Later on, they perched on the rocks and gazed out across the water peacefully and calmly.  We couldn’t help but get the sense that they were as awestruck by this landscape as we were.

IMG_1091 We woke to a beautiful sunrise, and headed back across Michigan towards home.  We were very satisfied with our decision this year to vacation in our home state, which is filled with more natural beauty than I think most southeast-Michiganders realize.  Definitely a memorable trip, but as always there is no place like home, and we were happy at the end of the day to have the entire fur family back together again in our favorite place of all.

Monday, June 20, 2011

CPE Nationals Trip 2011: Lake Elmo, MN

From Munising, MI, we made our way across the Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin, and arrived in Lake Elmo by early morning Thursday.  We set up camp, visited with friends, walked the dogs, and prepared for three fun days of agility at the CPE National event.

The trial was a blast.  All the rings were outdoors on grass this year, which Django loves, and the weather was pretty much perfect for a dog event.  While it rained overnight a couple evenings, the days stayed dry, and a bit overcast for most of it.  Temps were in the 60’s.  While for some people this might seem somewhat cool, the dogs loved it.

IMG_0993 We had three runs each day, two games classes and a standard run.  Django, at about nine years old, ran great for me in every run.  He came in to the ring every time motivated and focused, ran with speed and enthusiasm, and followed my handling cues very well.  Our runs were by and large some of the fastest and smoothest we’ve had, and he was up and happy the entire time.

On Friday, Django closed out the day with a Full House course, and ran agility at a speed I’ve never seen him run before.  I was stunned, as were Lowell and our friends watching on the sidelines.  I ran at an all-out sprint to keep up with him, and he ended up earning second place!

We had one off course in a Wildcard run when he missed a weave entry and in my effort to re-start them, pulled him in to a tunnel behind me.  His Standard courses were all run very nice, but I think he has decided never to hit a dogwalk down contact again in competition.  And, honestly, I am trying to decide if I care.  Initially, Django was never trained with any clear contact performance criteria.  He just was always moving cautiously and slowly enough on them that he almost always hit the yellow.  In the last year or so, we have been working a lot on drive and confidence, and he has picked up speed considerably.  But, that has also meant that now he is all-too-often launching off his contacts.  I have tried this spring to re-train them, but haven’t translated this into competition successfully yet.  After all the work we have done with motivation, there is no way I would walk him off a course and risk shutting him down when he misses the contact.  Plus, he is about nine years old, and although he is in great health with no sign of slowing down, I can’t guarantee how long he will run agility.  So, for now I am not setting goals beyond have fun and try to push ourselves to run fast and smooth and clean.  If Standard Q’s aren’t in our future anymore, I think I’m fine with that.  I’m having the most fun running him that I’ve ever had, and I think the feeling is mutual. 

IMG_0996 Maebe and Lowell had amazingly fast runs all weekend, as usual.  She took first place in Jumpers, even with a spill coming out of a wet tunnel.  Unfortunately, she was having a bit of a bar-knocking weekend, otherwise I’m sure they would have taken home several more blue ribbons.  They had fun and had some great runs other than the occasional bar down though, which is what really mattered.

We had some non-agility successes over the weekend also.  Therapy Dogs International had evaluators on-site during the trial, and were offering testing if you wanted to certify your dog to do therapy work.  The TDI test basically consists of the AKC Canine Good Citizen requirements (basic obedience and manners with other people and animals).  It also includes a few other components which really test the temperament of the dog as well.  Dogs need to be OK with loud noises, novel sights, people using wheelchairs or other assistive devices, and they need to be friendly and accepting of other adults and children.

IMG_1010 Cadence has always done well when I’ve taken him to public events for Dog Scouts.  I’ve thought of TDI testing him at some point, so decided this weekend to give it a try.  Lowell decided to test Maebe as well, so Saturday we signed up for a couple test slots.

As far as testing sites go, I think this was a pretty challenging one.  We did most of the testing in a pavilion set back from, but within view of the four agility rings, and they had to be able to walk through the crowd closer to ringside.  The pavilion itself was in a grassy field that was being mowed right as Cadence and Maebe began testing.  When Cade was doing his sit/stay and recall, the riding mower was cruising along right next to the pavilion, providing considerable distraction.  Nonetheless, both he and Maebe did great, and passed the evaluation.  Once all the remaining paperwork is complete, we are excited to start looking for volunteer opportunities with them.

IMG_1017 Finally on Sunday evening after awards, we prepared for the return leg of our journey, all of us tired but proud of the many accomplishments of the weekend.

Friday, June 17, 2011

CPE Nationals Trip 2011: Munising, MI

P1030461We spent the past week taking our annual summer vacation/road trip to compete in CPE Agility Nationals.  This year they were being held in Lake Elmo, Minnesota.  The last few years we have tried to visit a couple National Parks during these trips, but this year we decided to have a vacation in our home state of Michigan.  By taking a slightly longer route to Minnesota, we were able to travel through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and visit several beautiful attractions up there on both legs of the trip.  It ended up being one of our favorite and most memorable vacations to date.

cade sandy point With Django, Maebe, and Cadence in tow, we spent the first two nights in Munising, MI, home of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.  On our first afternoon, we hiked some of the few dog-friendly areas on the mainland (most of the lakeshore trails are closed to dogs).   Still, we were able to visit a waterfall, and hike along a quiet, remote beach at Sandy Point.   Cadence as always was fascinated by the water, and had a great time splashing at the waves on Lake Superior. P1030464

The next morning, we took a short ferry trip over to Grand Island, and hiked about five miles with the dogs.  They again had the chance to wade in Superior and to catch glimpses of the Pictured Rock cliffs across the bay.

IMG_0956 We returned to the mainland by lunch time, and decided to look into renting a pontoon boat for the afternoon so to better see the cliffs from the water.  Superior was smooth as glass, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  We checked weather from the dock before we left – predictions remained absolutely beautiful, and there wasn’t a blip of rain on the radar anywhere in the UP. 

IMG_0970 Lowell drove us out along the lakeshore, where we had amazing views of the cliffs and beaches.  Everything was perfect, and the dogs were having a great time lounging around the pontoon.  After an hour we reached Spray Falls, where we had been told by the rental company we needed to turn around.  As we steered the boat back towards Munising, we suddenly felt a shift in the wind and things began to suddenly change.

The smooth waters of Lake Superior were growing increasingly choppy.  The breeze was now cool, and ominous clouds were gathering.  The dogs became nervous.  As we began to be bounced around more, I started to gather the dogs on leash to hold them near the center of the boat, and experienced one of the worst 30 seconds of my life when I suddenly couldn’t locate Django on the boat.  I was scanning the lake and screaming for him, when he suddenly emerged from an under-seat storage compartment that had come unzipped.  Clever guy had found a very tiny safe spot for himself to hide in, and gave me the scare of my life. 

We began to hear claps of thunder.  Lightning was striking ahead of us.  Waves broke over the boat and drenched all of us with water that was still less than 50 degrees in temperature.  When the hail started, it just felt like adding insult to injury.  The boat rocked violently.  With just sheer cliffs alongside us, there was nowhere to pull in and get off the water at the height of it.  I have spent a lot of time in boats and on water in my life, and am a strong swimmer, but I can say I’ve never been more scared in my life. 

We fought our way back to shore during what seemed like an eternity but was probably a bit over an hour.  At the dock, the staff looked at us, dripping wet and shivering, and perplexedly asked if we’d been rained on.  The severe storms that were sweeping along the lakeshore cliffs had not caused even a drop of rain at the inner part of the bay.

IMG_0877 We decided our new policy is to not rent boats when the neighboring business charters guided glass-bottom boat tours of shipwrecks in the bay.  Perhaps not a good sign.

In hindsight though, we had an amazing view of a spectacular lakeshore, and have a great story to tell.  We experienced first-hand the extreme and sudden changes that Lake Superior is famous for, so I guess we got the full Superior experience.  The dogs probably won’t want to get back on a pontoon boat any time soon, but they were great troopers during the whole ordeal.  When things got bad, they curled around me and laid still, just quietly waiting it all out though I know they were scared as well.

The rest of the day passed quietly.  We drove a bit farther up the shore on the mainland in the evening, and walked along the beach at our campground.  Our experience of Pictured Rocks was amazing, and we hope to return, though next time we will stick to the commercial guided tour of the cliffs in the really BIG boat!