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!

The Information Zone

Photo Mar 11, 10 36 11 PM (1)

Photo by Dianne Spring

A day or two after a weekend trial and once I’ve gained a little perspective,  I like to review my videos and extract the “learning” from the weekend.   This past weekend’s review has me thinking about time and space.  As handlers and competitors we think a lot about time.  We want the cleanest lines on course, the most efficient jumping, and the speediest contacts and weaves to get the fastest times from our dogs.   If we lose a class by half a second, we might agonize over where we lost time on course – a wide turn, an extra stride, etc.  We also think a lot about being “timely”.  Like the three bears story, we want to give information to our dog — not too early, not to late, but at just the right time.

Embedded in that notion of being timely is both a  “WHEN”, and a  “WHERE”.  I think of this as the “information zone” .  The information zone is the space between the obstacles where the dog receives cues from his handler as to where he is going next.   It has two components – a time and a place; a when and a where.  For a cue to be “timely”, the dog has to receive (and understand) the information given by the handler while he’s in that physical space between obstacles so that he can prepare for what is next.   In a jumping sequence it’s well before the dog takes off for the jump because once he is air-borne, physics takes over and there is little he can do to change where he lands.

The information zone is about the WHEN and WHERE for the DOG.  The WHERE of  the HANDLER matters to the extent that the handler’s position on course gives information to the dogs about where he is going next.  But what matters much more is WHEN the dog gets the information relative to his WHERE.  So, we can be ahead of our dogs, lateral from our dogs or behind our dogs as long as the dog is getting the information when he needs it.

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in learning to handle my powerful, long-strided boy, Tai, is appreciating how quickly the “information zone” can come and go.  Where little Breeze will put in 2 strides, Tai will put in one stride.  Where Breeze puts in an extended one stride, Tai put in a shortened stride or even a bounce.

Here is an analysis of a sequence from this past weekend.  The video marks the “information zones” between obstacles and what handling cues are used to direct Tai through the sequence.  I hope this helps get my point across and encourages you to look at your own video with these concepts in mind.    Enjoy and happy training!

AKC Nationals – Watching our sport grow

a2043796I just returned from the AKC National Championships with Breeze and I have to give huge kudos to the AKC for putting on another great event.  And kudos to the judges for GREAT courses.   From the Warm-up run to the Finals, the course challenges gave competitors lots to think about and held out multiple options for success.  It made for interesting running as well as watching.

Among the highlights for Breeze and I were the T2B run where he finished 6th out of 222 dogs.  We would have moved up a placement or two, if I had been willing to rip him off the teeter, like so many handlers did.  But I felt like that wasn’t a good tactical move so early in the weekend!    I was too conservative in Rd 1 JWW of the Nationals Championship…clean, but not a great placement.  Then, we had a smokin’ Rd 2 except for when I put him off course in a tricky part of the course.  Still, I felt proud of the run because it was a tough course and the rest of it was perfect and surely would have been in the top 6 or so!  And I learned a valuable lesson (again) about being more precise about where I will be versus my dog at any spot on course.  Then we put it all together in Rd 3, with a pretty perfect run and a 3rd place finish.   That placement put us in the Challenger Rd where Breeze and I had a great opening but after Breeze entered the weave poles he slipped on the packed dirt around pole 3 and lost his footing.  I think he would have recovered if I had just kept going, but I slowed up and he came out.  Bummer, bummer.    The rest of the run was good but I know probably not good enough to have won the class.  Congrats to Barb Davis and her awesome dog Sketcher, who went on to become the 2013 NAC for the 12″ class. Still, I was so proud of Breeze, who at 9 yrs. old still gives me so much.  This was Breeze’s 5th AKC Nationals.  At those events, we have made Finals 3 times and Challenger Rd the other 2 times, with many, many placements in classes along the way.  Here are Breeze’s T2B and 3rd place run in Rd 3 Hybrid Round. (Photo by Great Dane Photos)

For me, one of the highlights of this year’s event was watching the 26” height class, since I KNOW that Tai and I will be there next year.  Wow, Wow, Wow.  There is so much talent among dogs and handlers in this height class.  It was inspiring and motivating and scary all at the same time.  The athleticism of the dogs is astounding and the teamwork between dogs and handlers left me awestruck.  To run clean on those courses was something to witness; but for those who won or placed in classes, it meant setting perfect lines throughout the course while the dogs just powered through.  And it made me wonder…certainly training and handling are huge factors BUT how much is the individual dog’s raw talent and athleticism contributing to the win?  How much is perfect understanding of handler cues?  Surely, these big dogs –  who spend very little time on the ground – much be absolutely sure of where they are going at each moment, in order to both produce the cleanest lines and use all their power and speed.

This seems to be a time in our sport of dog agility, where handlers are seeking new ways of handling, experimenting with handling cues that will produce the tightest turns and the perfect number of strides throughout the course.  Ketschker (sp?) turns and blind crosses abounded at this event.  Sometimes these maneuvers produced perfection, sometimes not so much.  But I guess you can say that about any handling cue.   It’s all about the understanding the dog has at that split second where he needs information about where he is going next.  No questions, just power and speed.

That’s why consistency makes so much sense to me.  In the “language” , I use with my dogs, if I am running hard, I want my dog to run hard too; if I decelerate– even just a bit, I want my dog to understand that we are turning.  If I decelerate to a stop – even for a split second, I want my dog to know that a big turn is coming.  If I’m doing a side change, I want my dog to have no doubt about which way we are turning.  It’s a series of split second bits of information given by me to my dog and his pure understanding of the cues that will hopefully produce the power, speed and accuracy.

I’m confident that my dogs do understand these cues…so, you will not see me experimenting with “K” turns anytime soon.  But it’s fun to watch other handlers get it done a different way!

As for blind crosses, some of what I saw this weekend has me thinking.  I saw blind crosses used after the A-frame (Rd 2 and Challenger) and tunnels (Challenger) that produced the needed side change while keeping the dog in full extension – that is, while dogs were going straight or making a very slight turn — and allowing the handler to get ahead in a critical part of the course.   On the other hand, I’ve watched enough at Nationals and other places, to be suspicious of  blind crosses where the dog is turning significantly on jumps –I can see how the dogs might lose their understanding of shoulder rotation and question what side to come to as their handler rotates her body.  I’m having fun watching and trying to figure out what cues the dogs are reading.  I’m sure there is a bit of that puzzle I haven’t figured out yet.  And for me – who, so far, can execute FC’s without risking knee injury – I see no need to make my dogs think that much.

It’s exciting to see our sport advance and inspiring to watch such great teams pull it all together.  Now, if only the snow and ice would leave, I could start my spring training!

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