My New Pink Jump

So, I’m writing a blog about a newly purchased pink jump? Yes, I am. Because it’s pretty? No. Because it’s new? No. Because I needed another wingless jump? Definitely no. I’m writing about my new pink jump because it represents an approach that Jason Selk, author of “10-Minute Toughness” calls a “relentless solution focus”.  

Here is the history. Tai has a great education in jumping and is a lovely jumper. Ok, so sometimes he knocks a bar. Nearly always that is due to late information from his handler (that would be me). On the other hand, if he knows where he is going, he makes good decisions about what to do on the ground prior to takeoff. By that I mean he puts in an appropriate number and length of stride to both execute the current jump and prepare for what is coming next while moving very fast!

That is where the pink jump comes in…based on my record keeping and videos, I noticed a trend. Sometimes but not always Tai was knocking a pink wingless jump like that shown in the picture. Coming out of a tunnel or collapsed chute, just after a panel jump; after a release from the table, times where he had to quickly pick up the new line. But it was a different kind of knocked bar…not the late handler, slightly mis-timed information information kind that causes a rear leg to drop.  Rather the video reveals an early or late takeoff on approach to the pink wingless; or unnecessary stride before the pink wingless jump that affected the striding on the following jump.

Why would that be? I’m speculating here but I think it has to do with dog vision.  For a dog, the pink jump is harder to see than a white wingless. Colors in the red and green spectrum look brownish yellow to a dog. Magenta look gray.  So, whether the pink jump is set on a dirt floor as seen in the photo or on grass or turf, it may not stand out as much as a white jump.   Under poor lighting conditions, it’s probably worse.  The legs and the bar are white and should stand out, but what part of the jump has Tai learned to use — the bar or the uprights? Don’t know.

All of Tai’s jumping education has been using white jumps. Not really deliberate, but simply because most of my jumps are homemade and I bought the PVC at Home Depot. So, his experience with this type of colored jump is limited to trials.

Getting back to “solution focus”. At a recent trial, where Tai struggled a bit with these pink jumps a couple of times — not necessarily knocking a bar – but looking less comfortable than usual, I asked myself….What is one thing I could do to make this better? Natural answer…Purchase a pink jump and give him more experience with it! It’s too soon to know whether that will totally fix the problem, but it can’t hurt!

The more general theme here is the value of record keeping, identifying weaknesses and developing solutions.  What is one thing I can do to make this better?  What is another thing I can do?  And so on.  No time for whining…just get on it! 

Happy record keeping!

 

You can view a short article on dog vision here:

  • http://www4.uwsp.edu/psych/dog/la/davis2.htm

Looking back to plan forward

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Tai at Cynosport Games
Photo by Great Dane Photos

I just completed a useful exercise…looking back over the year and planning for next.  That’s right… I did my once or twice a year goal setting/review exercise.  I know goal setting can seem like a daunting task.  Entire books are written on the topic and if you have never done it before, it can be easy to get caught up in jargon and hard to know where to start. But it helps enormously to write down what you want to accomplish and how you will get there.  This is definitely an area where roughly right is good enough and way better than getting tied up in knots about being perfect.

Here is what I did to review the year and set goals for 2014.  The examples here relate to Tai.  I do the exercise separately for each competing dog.

I sat down at my computer and made a list of “Things I learned in 2013”. I wrote them in whatever order they occurred to me and once I focused, the exercise took less than 30 minutes.  The list includes handling insights and improved skills.  This is the “looking back” phase.  Here are a few examples of what I wrote:

  • Tai has a huge stride and needs information that matches that striding.  His information zone is way different than Breeze’s.  He’s on the ground for a relatively short time. He needs information while he is still on the ground!*
  •  I am more comfortable with his speed now.  I can judge more accurately when he will commit to an obstacle and where I will be when that happens*
  •  I am more comfortable with the distance I can get from him – ahead and laterally, allowing me to get into position for next cues*
  •  I’ve learned not to rush my cues.  Let him finish one thing before I cue the next.*
  • Tai has much improved serp and threadle understanding*

As I did the exercise, I also kept a separate list of “work in progress” items.  Here are some examples:

  • Execution of multiple cues in quick succession
  • Response to my decel on a 270 when off course option presents itself.
  • Weave entries – straight-on with speed

I then compared that list to my written goals for 2013 (I actually do have such a document :-)) and marked the items that matched up against my goals. Not surprisingly, they matched up very well!  My 2013 goals for Tai were divided into 4 PRODUCT goals (outcome oriented) and 5 PROCESS goals (how I would achieve those outcomes).  As an example, one of my PRODUCT goals was

  • Handling: I know where I will be relative to Tai at any point on course.  I use that information to plan my handling and improve timing – thinking instinctively about his where and my when.

And here are the three process goals (out of 5 total) that related to that product goal:

  • Work jumping drills (double box, alphabet drills) and grids 1x per week.   Add spreads to my grids; work my handling around spreads.  Work fast tight lines (serps) with me ahead.
  • Work challenging handling sequences incorporating international challenges with/without contacts.  Work toward mastery.
  • Train carefully…good handling at home translates to trials –>  Focused. Confident. Relaxed.

I hope you have noticed that my examples of outcomes (goals) do not include winning or qualifying in competition.  There is nothing wrong with including those kinds of product goals but for the year 2013, Tai and I were such a young team that I wanted to focus on teamwork and skills as my outcome focused goals.  We actually did achieve some good success along the way – qualifying for the 2013 USDAA Mid-Atlantic Regional and Cynosport Games.  And we did reasonably well at those events, even winning a Team class at the Cynosport Games and making the Grand Prix finals.  That is a direct result of putting in the work as defined by my process goals.

But, we did NOT qualify for the 2014 AKC Nationals.  This wasn’t a written goal at the beginning of the year but “would have been nice”.  And it is disappointing that I won’t be able to play with Tai at an event a mere 5 hrs from home.  (I will be there with Breeze!).  But this unrealized goal presents a good time to point out that our agility goals are set within our larger life that includes family, friends, relationships, our other dogs, and other areas of interest.  Our goals need to take into account priorities in those parts of our lives.  We need to consciously decide how much we are willing to sacrifice to achieve a single goal.  So, in my case, for a variety of reasons – my European Open adventure with Breeze, my daughter’s wedding, an injury I incurred in late summer, my USDAA goals with Tai, — all meant no AKC trialing for 4 months.  Combined with a poor qualifying rate early in the year, and other family fun stuff, I found myself in early October facing an uphill battle to get Tai qualified for AKC Nationals.  To do so, would have meant an all-out assault in trialing following USDAA Nationals.  I took a long hard look, thought about what that would mean for agility vs home-life balance and gave it up.  The right decision for me.

One more thing….the dreaded Record keeping.  Now here I’m not talking about writing down every statistic associated with every run.  I’m talking about bringing a learning and solution focus to results in competition and training.  Keep it simple…I simply list our trial results (Q or not) along with any errors.  The areas needing improvement pop out.  Then I apply a solution focus…what is the one thing can I do to make that better?  That helps inform my next training sessions or simply gets added to my list of handling reminders.  Keep it simple and roughly right will get you most of the way there.  An improvement for me would be to do the same record keeping for my training sessions.

So, what about goals for 2014?  The reflection of where we have just come from in the context of my ultimate goal, made it easy to develop my “Tai” goals for 2014. They are written down and printed out in my training journal…ultimate goal, product goals and process goals. I’m comfortable with how they will guide me as we continue on our journey together!

If you want to read about goal setting, the books I like the best are “10-Minute Toughness” by Jason Selk and “With Winning in Mind” by Lanny Bassham.  Have fun and remember roughly right can be good enough!

 

A cue is a cue in any language

Photo by Joel Basa

Photo by Joel Basa

For me, this is an interesting time in our sport of dog agility.  In North America, we commonly talk about “handling systems”, with Awesome Paws (Linda Mecklenberg) and Greg Derrett systems of handling, being the most common.  Essentially, these are languages that we teach our dogs – a system of communication based on motion (chase me!) along with arm, foot and verbal signals.  In  foundation training, we teach our dogs if I do this, you do that.  Or:

One cue = one response (behavior)

The discrete nature and clarity of those signals – how they hang together as a language –  is what gets a fast and consistent response from the dog.  If one signal looks like another to the dog, then he has to guess what is required, introducing wide turns, additional strides, bars or off courses.

Lately, some handlers are adopting altogether new systems or languages, like the One Mind system from Finland.  It’s fun to watch the videos to puzzle out what cues the dogs are reading from the handlers.  It is like “listening” to a foreign language because my agility brain is conditioned to the more traditional North American handling systems.  I have trouble watching the dog, because I’m fascinated by the handlers motions.  So, I’ll watch and watch again to parse out what cues the dog is reading to make its way through some darn complicated sequences.  I think I’m starting to get it!

Here is my concern.   Our dogs are not mind readers – although that would be nice, it would take all the fun out of it :-).  If a handler picks up a handling maneuver from another system and plops it into their existing set of cues, it had better be a discrete cue – one that doesn’t look like another cue.  And that cue needs to be taught to the dog.  Or trouble will ensue.  If one time, I want my dog to respond to my shoulder rotation and the next time, I want my dog to completely ignore my shoulders and drive behind me, how is that clear to the dog?  Maybe the response I got was what I wanted that time, but the next time, the dog may make the wrong choice.  Please don’t blame the dog!  Instead, think about the cues you are using and the response you want from each of those cues.  If you want to adopt “fancy moves” you see in other handling systems, think hard about whether that new move is going to create a grey area for your dog.  Or,  make the investment to learn the system from the foundation up, understand the discrete cues and how the combination of cues in that system gets the dog around the course.  That way, the move will no longer be “fancy” but just part of the language you use with your dog.

In each of the systems I mentioned above (and others), I can point to successful handlers.  So, I’m not making any judgements of one over another.  My set of cues are based on the Greg Derrett handling system.  Here is my personal short list of cues for my dogs:

  • I run, you run – on the line I have set…do not cross behind me or in front of me.
  • I stop, you stop – if I decelerate, get ready for a turn
  • I turn, you turn – Follow my shoulders, if I head in this direction, toward the next obstacle, follow me.   My position means we are going that way!
  • If I change sides – either a Front cross or a rear cross, drive to the new side presented.

For these cues to work well, from puppy-hood onward, I build a ton of reinforcement for obstacles, teach jumping, contact and weave skills and reward heavily for coming to my side (reinforcement zone).  In executing those cues, I stay connected with the dog,  use the arm and leg closest to the dog for directions and face the way the dog is going until it is fully committed to the obstacle.  How I combine those cues gets my dogs around the course.  If we make a mistake, I ask myself…did I mistime the cue?  Was I in poor position?  Or do I need to strengthen my dogs understanding of the cue?  It’s that simple and at the same time, it gives me endless enjoyment as I refine my understanding of how to combine the cues and my dog’s response to get the most efficient lines on course. 

So, have fun with your dog and think about the cues you give on course!  Here is a short video I recently posted from an Anthony Clarke seminar where I was doing just that.   It was a lot of fun and GREAT to have some coaching for a change.  Excellent coaching at that!

Is your dog getting what he wants?

100_3604- tai at windowLately, I’ve been thinking about Motivation and Rewards and whether our dogs are getting what they want.  So, what makes our dogs – or us humans – motivated to engage in an activity? I don’t mean that we just do it, but that we develop a passion for it, so that dog or human approaches the activity with joy and enthusiasm.  Well, the answer must be that we get something we want so that we want to do it again and again.  On the human side of the equation, we enjoy building a working and playful relationship with our dog.  We enjoy the process of teaching our dog’s new skills, motivating the dog to want to do this sport with us and striving to be successful dog trainers.  We are proud of our dog’s skills, and may enjoy the admiration of others, the titles, the ribbons, etc.  We enjoy the challenge of sorting out the handling strategies and execution to master courses or the act of competing itself….the game of agility.  Maybe it’s the social aspects of the sport.  Everyone’s list would be a little different, if not in content, in priority.  Since this is a totally optional activity for most or all of us, we must be getting things we value from the act of training and competing with our dogs that makes it worth all the sacrifices in terms of time, money and lost opportunity to do other things

Now, lets pose the same questions for our dogs.  What motivates them to want to do agility with us?  Same answer.   A history of receiving something they want for the effort put in.  Call it a reward or a reinforcer for the behavior offered… but to build enthusiasm and passion, the reward must have great value for the dog. Every dog will be a little different!  Some love the chase factor, some love to tug, some like to win the tug from us, some get excited over food, some love to retrieve balls, splash in or run down a jet of water, wrestle with us, some love a vigorous body rub, some like soft petting, a happy voice, or all of the above!

Our job is to figure out what our dog finds rewarding and under what circumstances.  Evaluate but don’t judge.  Your dog is as unique as you are.  Find out what he loves and use those rewards to create a history of action-reaction (behavior – reward) that motivates your dog to want to do more.  A virtuous cycle.  Just because your friend’s dog is a tugging fiend,  don’t try to reward your dog with tug if he doesn’t like to tug (yet).  Instead use a reward your dog loves now and work on building a reward system for your dog that includes toys/tugging play separately, which of course, is a very useful tool to have in agility.

Rewards as an Event

I listened to a great interview with Michael Ellis recently on the Bad Dog Agility site. Michael works dogs in Schutzhund. The topic of the podcast was tugging and was full of great information including a discussion of dog’s preferences around tugging, illustrating the point that even dogs who love to tug have particular preferences that should be respected and used to create a reward that is right for that dog.  I also loved the way he described rewarding the dog as an Event…whatever the reward.  For example, not simply rewarding the dog for the correct behavior by placing a treat in front of the dog’s mouth but making the delivery of the reward something more meaningful with chase and praise as the food is delivered.  Or instead of one prolonged tugging session, execute a series of tug-release-tug.   Then the delivery of the reward becomes an Event –  more interactive, building the relationship between handler and dog.  It reminds me of how I made up a “Let’s chase the squirrel” game with my Sheltie Lacey. Chasing squirrels was her FAVORITE thing to do, and our yard was full of them. So, I would ask her to sit, get in “game-on” position and ask her “do ya think there are any squirrels out there?” Then release her and we would run together from tree to tree and look up for squirrels with her barking and running.  After the game was established, I would use the anticipation of that reward event as motivation for her agility performance in training, with the goal of building speed say – across the dogwalk;  and would even sometimes lead out in competition, crouching in game-on position, saying “ooh, do you think there are any squirrels out there?”, just before releasing her.

Here is the link to the interview with Michael Ellis… definitely worth the listen.

 http://baddogagility.com/episode-39-interview-with-michael-ellis-on-tugging-part-1/

So, give some thought to what your unique dog finds reinforcing, use ways to make the delivery of the reward interactive – an Event! — and your training sessions will not only be more fun but will serve to motivate your dog to want to do more!

Tim(ing) and Patience

Breeze at EOWhat an amazing agility spring and summer Breeze and I have had.  It started with intense preparation for International Team Tryouts, held in May and culminated in the 2013 European Open in July.  Held in Belgium, nearly 800 competitors from all over Europe and elsewhere indulged their passion for our sport.  I loved the whole experience. From the preparation  – studying courses and trying out new skills – to Tryouts  – always one of my favorite weekends of the year;  to team practice in California, to the trip to Europe.  What could be better than traveling with my best buddy Breeze and spending time with 30+ teammates,  coaches, supporters and 750 other competitors for a week of agility immersion?   Oh, and how about the little stopover in Paris with travel partners Denise, Kim and Brian.  With our three gorgeous sable shelties, we got a lot of attention!

Facing the challenges put before us, was fun and motivating.  Along the way, my  admiration for Breeze grows and grows.  My teammate for many years, we were in sync, trusted each others signals and could operate on a natural “feel”.  Not that we were perfect – no one was, by the way–but we conquered most of the challenges put before us.

 Here is a highlight video of our experience.  Enjoy!

Now it’s time to switch gears….give more attention to the young boy, Tai.  Over time, and with patience, we are building that trust and timing thing.  Time is a funny thing.  Time is relentless, it marches forward through days, weeks, seasons and years…without permission or possibility of control.

Timing on the other hand is ...the choice, judgment, or control of when (and where) something should be done.

This is what I’m patiently learning with Tai, as we develop our teamwork.  Patience is the key word here.  I’m patiently waiting for that feel thing to kick in, when I’ll know more often where I’ll be relative to my long-strided boy and when he’ll need the information.

 “Patience is waiting…not passively waiting. That is laziness.  But to keep going when the going is hard and slow.  That is patience.” — LeoTolstoy

That perfect timing is not coming fast.  and why does it have to be perfect you might ask?  Well, Tai has speed and he has power which I love but leaves little room for error.  Here are some video clips to illustrate the point.

And another reason for patience is recovering from my recent injury – shin splits – an overuse injury, from trying to rush the process, I am now forced to wait for my body to heal.  But this pause is giving me time to work independent contacts and weaves, revisit jump grids and even write a blog post!  Happy training!

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