The right time

I was recently asked by a friend who will be getting a puppy soon…how did I know when it was the right time to introduce new skills to Tai?   The question got me thinking.    Each puppy is different and each trainer has different goals so other than a few general guidelines, there is no one answer to the question.  During the early, early days…I wanted all of Tai’s experiences with people and other dogs and puppies to be positive.  That meant introducing him to lots of friendly people which wasn’t hard but also sticking pretty much to same age puppies and avoiding adult dogs other than our own.   When he got a little older – 3 months or so, he started to meet and greet older trusted dogs and by 6 months old, he was pretty dog saavy and even the occasional cranky dog he might meet, didn’t do any harm because he had built up a solid bank of positive experiences.  It also meant gradually introducing him to potentially scary or over-stimulating things like speeding cars.  Now, we can be at a dog show, hotel or festival with tons of people and dogs and even a hot air balloon about to launch and he handles it all (mostly) with great aplomb.  But not so much with bicycles speeding close by us as  I recently found out so that is on our list to work!

When it comes to agility training, the same question applies.  When is is the right time to introduce my puppy to contact training, weave pole training, jump training, sequencing, etc?   One obvious answer is…not until the dog is mature enough to handle the stresses – both mental and physical.   So, for full height jumping or weave training…best to wait until at least 1 yr old.  But no need to wait that long to get started… there are lots of training techniques today that allow us to safely give our puppies the foundation needed for all of those skills and the best ones are centered around games we play with our puppies!

But lets back up.   What about focus, toy drive, food drive, working through distractions and just plain having the coordination to get the job done?  For example, Tai has had a great nose touch to my hand for a long, long time but needed some time to develop the skill and coordination to get all four of his big feet on a travel plank – not an issue I encountered with my shelties!  Now – at 9 months old and with some practice –  he can stand and balance on the board so it’s the right time to introduce targeting on the plank.

Part of the answer too, is the vision for the end behavior and knowing the steps to get there.  I figured out a long time ago from observing top notch dog trainers that they know what they want and in any training session, they observe and adapt to the dog they are working with to get each piece of the end behavior perfect … and they have a lot of tools in their toolbox to draw on.  That’s why they are successful with dog after dog.

Here is an example.    With my previous dogs I wasn’t able to use toys as effectively as I liked because while they would tug, I had never put the piece in place of driving to the toy, picking it up and returning immediately to me to tug.  So with Tai, I wanted this to be in place before starting some of his other skill training.  In fact, I consider this a skill as important as a sit stay.  And it’s (mostly) fun to train for both me and Tai.  Sometimes it can be a lot of work getting that tug with distractions around.  But I figure all that physical work is lending itself to maintaining my youthful figure. LOL.

Yesterday, I did Susan Salo-style straight line jump grids with Tai for the first time in about 7 weeks.  What first struck me was his increased speed and power compared to a couple of months ago.    But there are so many other things I like about his performance.  His solid sit stay, his focus forward, his skill in executing the grid even with me running along side, his send to the toy and his tugging when I caught up.   All those pieces were trained separately and took some time to put in place and it’s neat to see it all come together.  A short video clip is here: 


So, I guess the answer to the question of when is the right time depends on the dog, on the trainer and that vision thing.  After observing literally hundreds of amazingly talented dogs and handlers at the FCI World Agility Championship and the USDAA Nationals over the last month, I am motivated and inspired to achieve the best for Tai and to not be in a hurry to get there.  It will happen at the right time.

Back Home and Back on Track

Breeze and I just returned from the World Agility Championship held in Reiden, Germany.    What a fantastic experience…from cheering our teammates and friends to watching literally hundreds of amazing teams give it their best.  But most of all…stepping to the line with my little buddy Breeze was the thrill of a lifetime.   The judges tested our skills and our mettle — in the combined 2 round Small Dog Individual event, only 6 dogs were without faults.  What is that saying…the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat?  We were off course early in the first round with an otherwise lovely run.  Agony.  But our teammates did better with silver medal awarded to teammate John Nys and Rush in the Medium Dog Individual class.  Pure joy in watching that team realize their dream.

So…what about Tai?  Now that I’m back home I can get back on track with his training.  Or at least I will after getting through the jet lag and over the cold I picked up in Germany.  I was trying to spend some quality time with Tai last night and sat down for a minute, literally falling asleep sitting up.  I startled awake to find two intense border collie eyes staring at me.  What’s next, Mom?  He’s certainly ready to get back to it.

And boy…am I motivated.  Watching the large dog teams at the Worlds, was jaw dropping.  The courses required speed and tight turns and dog after dog proved their athleticism and skill.   Not to mention the handlers who were putting it all out there.  I was excited to think that Tai will run like that with me some day.

At just 9 months old, he’s an adolescent and still seems to be all legs, although I think that is an optical illusion because he is a smooth coat and his legs are white.   He weighs about 35 lbs and is around 21″ at the withers.  Their is a LOT to train and I don’t want to shortcut any of it.  Fortunately, I’m not on a time schedule.  It will happen as it happens and that is ok.  A good attitude to have as winter looms around the corner.

It’s fun to start getting serious about obstacle training…we’re starting with the table and tunnel; shaping each with toy rewards to keep up his drive.   His flatwork, jump grids and crate games are coming along nicely and we’re working through distractions more reliably.

Next week is USDAA Nationals in Louisville, KY and he’ll get lots of exposure to “life” around agility and then we’ll be back home for the foreseeable future.  Based on this unposed shot, I don’t think he wants to get left behind again!

Puppy (Dog) Days of Summer

The phrase “dog-days” of summer goes back thousands of years to Roman times.  In those ancient times, during the hottest days of their summer, Sirius, the dog star and brightest star in the constellation Canis Major was seen close to the rising sun and the association was made.  It’s been a hot, hot summer here in upstate N.Y.    Sultry, languid, humid weather has made many of us feel “dog-tired” just when we want to squeeze in all of our summer activities.

Tai has just turned 8 months old.  This puppy rarely shows signs of being tired (ever?) so I’m not sure that the term dog-tired would apply to him.   We’ve made the most of his first summer as he’s settled into our family and grown his brain and his body.

He’s gone camping…

And hiking…

And running in wide open spaces…

And swimming with friends…

And he’s found cool places to lay down with his “pack” to get a respite from the heat…

He’s settling a little bit from his puppy “busy”.  As I write this – following a long walk on another one of these all too frequent hot, hot days –  he squeezed himself into a sheltie size bed, which he gradually rolled out of and is taking a “nap” – notice the open eyes – next to my desk…a welcome first for us and sign that he’s developing a nice off switch.

During all of these outings, there are opportunities to train.  This pic shows me working both loose leash walking and “don’t bark at the baby in stroller”.

Oh…and what about agility training?  That’s coming along nicely too.  But more importantly, Tai is fitting in with our family and having a chance to be a puppy, and to enjoy his first discoveries, as we enjoy watching him grow.  Long live summer and it’s dog days but here’s also to the cooler days of fall just around the corner.

Thrilling moments

I experienced some thrilling moments with Tai today.   Not the thrill of competition – that is reserved for Breeze today and waaaay in the future for Tai.  These thrilling moments were about relationship.  You see, we go for long walks nearly every day and one of our favorite places is a series of open fields and woods that provide a good hilly workout and opportunities for the dogs to work their noses, sight and chase birds, paddle in a creek – which is actually not much more than a ditch, and sometimes make new doggie friends.

Tai has been going on these walks since he was about 8 or 9 weeks old.  I always bring treats and toys and practice recalls.  Sometimes I hide so that he has to find me and we have a party.  We practice sit stays when we turn corners as I scout ahead to see if the way is clear for 3 off leash dogs.   Sometimes, Tai and I go for walks alone.

Generally, I avoid late evening off-leash walks to reduce the chance of seeing deer but this morning we were “lucky”.  As we walked through the woods, 2 deer stepped across the path.  Tai was in the lead and saw them and took off on a run.  Honestly, if I had given it a moments thought, I probably wouldn’t have called him as it isn’t a good idea to call your dog if you think they aren’t going to come.  But, I shouted his name and amazingly he turned and spun back to me.  Big celebration.  Then a bit later, he was chasing a bird and went around a blind corner…again I called him and had a perfect recall to reward.  Yahoo!  See what  I mean about thrilling moments?  It didn’t stop there either.

One of the socialization issues we’ve been working through is that 6 month old Tai will – on first seeing people and dogs appear in the distance – alarm bark for a few moments.  This reaction to people and other dogs is reserved for situations where they seem to “come out of no where”.  He’s totally comfortable seeing people and dogs in other situations, like trials or in parks.  So, when we come upon others suddenly and assuming that I read the situation as friendly, I’ll release Breeze and Lacey to say “hi”, ask permission to let my “goofy puppy” say hello and then encourage Tai to “go see”.  He invariably settles down quickly and greets the people and dogs in a friendly manner.  I then call the dogs and we proceed on our walk.   This scenario was repeated today.  But with two big steps forward.

At one point, he saw a group of people and dogs in the distance and chose to ignore them, showing that he’s realizing it’s just no big deal.  And finally, our last encounter of the day occurred when a dog left his pack and ran across a soccer field to say hello.   Before I really knew what was happening, Tai joined Breeze and Lacey in meeting the dog halfway to say hi.   I stood still watching and Tai, after just a few seconds, turned to me and came running back, leaving all three dogs to choose to be with me.

Someday, it will be the thrill of competition that is noteworthy.   For now, I’ll take these moments as a sign that we are definitely on the right track.

The art of sleeping

This might seem like a strange topic in a blog about raising a border collie puppy.  After all, I’ve had BC owners seriously tell me they have NEVER seen their BCs sleep.   I interpret that to mean the dogs are sleeping lightly or maybe with one eye open.  They must actually sleep, right?  Tai rests well in his crate but when I’m in the room, he is watching me. There are infrequent occasions when I catch him deeply sleeping – usually in a position similar to this photo.  From one who positively marvels at the asanas obtained by my yoga instructors…I not only admire, but envy his flexibility.    When out of his crate, it’s comment worthy when he stops moving long enough to lay down and the prospect of this 6 month old puppy making the decision out of his crate to spend his time catching a few zzzz’s seems unlikely.   So, will he develop an “off switch” as an adult dog?  I think so and here’s why.

My adult shelties are active, engaging, smart little guys who are always ready for action and… they are masters of sleeping.  Anytime, anywhere.  When there is nothing else especially interesting to do, they lay down and seem to enter a place of complete peace.  Untroubled, relaxed, resting.  Modern humans, on the other hand, need to sleep for sound mental health but sometimes – or maybe even often – struggle with good sleep or enough sleep.  Being one of those modern humans, I admire my dog’s ability to sleep.

I’m reading the book “Cold” by biologist Bill Streever, “Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places”.  Based on their journals, he chronicles early polar explorers and writes “when one reads past the stoicism and heroics, the history of polar exploration becomes one long accident report mixed with one long obituary.”  Yep.  Many of the explorers kept journals and many of them didn’t survive.  There were exceptions and sleeping was a big part of the success.   Fridtjof Nansen was a Norwegian explorer who after reaching within 4 degrees of the North pole, turned south and overwintered by digging a hole in the permafrost and building a hut out of stone and bear furs.   Key to he and his companion’s survival (they even gained weight over the winter) was sleep…to a point approaching hibernation. Nansen wrote “We carried this art to a high pitch of perfection, and could sometimes put in as much as 20 hours’ sleep in the 24”.

Mammals burn fewer calories when they sleep.  This is probably why dogs are so good at sleeping.  Wolves are good sleepers too.  Winter observers on Isle Royale estimate wolves sleep 30% of the time.  And that doesn’t count what goes on at night.  Wolves, like many predators, live a feast or famine lifestyle.  When they are hunting they burn a tremendous number of calories and since food is not predictable, it is best to rest and preserve calories when they get a chance.  As Wolf biologist John A. Vucetich writes “When food is plentiful, wolves spend a substantial amount of time simply resting, because they can.  When food is scarce, wolves spend much time resting because they need to.”

So, that “off switch” that we dog owners talk about, is actually an evolutionary survival mechanism.  If like the wolves on Isle Royale, puppy Tai was walking 10 or more miles a day with a wolf pack instead of 3 or 4 miles with his human led pack, I bet even at this age he would enter a state of restful, eyes closed, slower respiration sleep when he had the chance.  The voluntary “off switch” will come along with adulthood.  I’ve got thousands of years of evolution to back me up.

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