That’s my girl!

Just last October, Jayda was leaving the ring and hiding in tunnels. The other weekend at Skyline’s trial she showed everyone the wonderful dog *I* know she can be! She got it together and kept it together all weekend – 8 out of 8 QUALIFYING runs, eighty points, 6 1st-places, THREE new titles!

Jayda and a big heap o' ribbons

So the lovely Ms. Jayda (aka the Q-Bot or the Big Black Q Machine) adds her NADAC Novice Jumpers, Outstanding Novice Chances and Outstanding Novice Agility to her growing collection of letters :). I’m also seeing gradual improvement in her speed at every trial, which is encouraging.

Is she over her fears? Hardly – getting her from the car to the ring and back can be a challenge. Two of her worst phobias are unfamiliar, open areas … and parking lots! But she seems to have learned that the ring itself is a “safe” place. In there, it is just the two of us, the obstacles she knows and the game she likes to play.

A few things I want to share with anyone in a similar situation – these seem to be working for us:

  • Jayda is NEVER “wrong” at a trial - if she takes a wrong course I just act like that’s what we were supposed to do and keep going.

  • If she gets distracted, I don’t stand rooted in one spot calling her – I get right in her face and help her refocus.

    This goes against the prevailing attitude in agility that “its the dog’s job to come back to you”. I think standing and waiting for the dog to re-engage is fine, IF the dog left to willfully pursue their own agenda (and even then, all too often it reinforces the behavior, especially if the handler subsequently removes the dog from the course). But if Jayda disengages, she doesn’t “need to learn her job” – she’s stressed, she needs my help and I give it to her. Go to her, get right in her face if necessary, anything to get her out of her own head and back on track.

  • I am SINCERELY happy for her successes, no matter how small…and I TELL her so – dogs know when you’re not sincere. Instead of a mechanical stream of “good girl, good girl”, I talk to her a LOT while she’s running and praise every little thing. Heck – I AM happy when she gets it right! She also gets lots of treats right after she runs (her favorite part of the trial :)!)

  • I don’t “micromanage” her – If I run her cautiously I’ll just slow her down and we won’t make time. I’d rather risk mistakes and keep her momentum. She’s teaching ME to “just go for it” better than my fast dogs ever have!

Summer reading …

Its been a while since I read a really GOOD dog training book … lots of “so-so”, but haven’t read anything I really loved …

Until the other week, when I picked up a copy of Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt. Leslie is an agility competitor, behaviorist and contributing author for Clean Run magazine. She’s a student of animal behavior icon Karen Overall and the book is endorsed by some noteable people in the field, including some of my favorites like Sue Sternberg and Patricia McConnell.

Jayda reading Control UnleashedControl Unleashed, which expands on Leslie’s class by the same name, is entertaining and well written with dozens of innovative, scientifically-sound exercises aimed at creating confidence and focus in dogs who are reactive, lose control or shut down due to various environmental stressors and their own inability to relax. They are presented in a logical progression that you can use at home or in a class setting.

For example, one of the techniques presented is a game called “look at that” – where instead of reinforcing a stressed/reactive dog for focus on the handler, she reinforces them for glancing at the source of their anxiety. For example, she clicks dogs who are reactive to strange dogs by clicking them for looking at other dogs.

Doesn’t make sense you say? Well, actually it does, because in teaching them that it’s OK to look, you reduce the uneasiness and insecurity that causes the behavior AND you GET their attention because the dog is also being patterned to glance at the other dog then WILLINGLY turn their focus back to the handler.

This exercise in particular brought a smile of recognition to my face – I can tell you first hand this approach really works!

Stressed out SheltieYears ago, my sheltie Tiffy was the poster child for “reactive dog”, flying off the handle at virtually every change in her environment, from people and dogs to cars passing by. I was grass-green at the time and at first tried addressing it with “obedience” and “corrections” – which of course didn’t work, as they both were just “band-aids” to suppress the behavior without addressing the cause.

When she was 6 years old, Tiffy injured her neck in a freak household accident, from which she eventually recovered about 75% of her mobility but I was told never to use a collar on her again. So my collar corrections went out the window… and my reactive little shark came back.

Glad she was alive but desperate for a way to deal with her outbursts, I read a couple of articles about clicker training and turned up a few others about this behavior-modification process called desensitization. Clicker training was relatively new at the time, there were no internet lists or local mentors to work with, but I didn’t have anything to lose so I decided to give it a try.

My very first clicker-training experiment was clicking and treating Tiffy every time a car passed by the house. I started behind my house where she was barely aware of the cars, gradually moving closer to the street as she learned to cope. By the time I had worked my way to the end of the driveway, I had a dog who would look at a passing car and immediately whip her head back to me to see if it was good enough for a cookie. This took all of about a month to teach, the results lasted the rest of her 15.5 years.

That crazy dog and that silly game made me a clicker convert.

Just one example of the good stuff in this book. If your dog has stress issues or you deal with clients dogs who do … forget that – if you have a DOG, Control Unleashed is a must read!

Four paws up!

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Jumping styles

I love looking at pictures to see how different dogs use their bodies in agility, especially when they jump. Styles can vary so much even within the same breed.

This was my beautiful Sally (1991-2006). Sally used to tuck her rear feet up very tightly behind her. She sometimes tucked her carpals on takeoff and she usually kept her head low.

Sally jumping

If she was feeling especially happy the head came up a bit and the front paws stretched out, but those back feet were always right up under her tail (as you can see in the photo below). She was light as a feather on her feet, and so pretty to watch!

Sally - triple

Bryce has a more moderate rear tuck. He always carries his head high which makes him land rather heavily on his front, and he never, ever, EVER, bends his wrists – it’s just not “manly” :)! He also jumps somewhat flatter. No matter what the jump height there’s rarely much air between him and the top bar – he’s efficient.

Bryce jumping

Jayda jumps with her head low. Not only are her carpals always tucked, I’ve noticed they’re often CROSSED besides! And she doesn’t tuck up her legs in the rear, just lifts them as high as she has to. She has such long “landing gear”, maybe its too much of a bother to fold and unfold it completely? I wouldn’t call her a “pretty” jumper, but she gets the job done. She’s also very “green”, so it will be interesting to see if her style changes with experience.

Jayda jumping

All 3 of these dogs are (and were) VERY clean jumpers who rarely, if ever, take down a bar, so it seems to be mostly a case of finding what works for you and using it!

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“The Cooties”

No, not the kind that hop and crawl (modern parasite control products work wonders on THOSE :) ). I’m talking about the other kind. Those imaginary “cooties” lurking on strange objects, infesting new situations and sometimes making scary sounds besides. The ones only your dog can see.

Whether just a puppy phase or a more “hard-wired” problem, most people with a herding breed have had to deal with this at one time or another. Herding breeds are supposed to notice things that are different – however some individuals take this trait a little too far.

Jayda is one of those. She’s not my first.

So several months ago I set out on a campaign to teach her that weird new things were GOOD things. Several times a week I made a point to “introduce” her to something “odd” and heavily reinforce “brave” (approach) behaviors. This ongoing program has really helped her a lot, and I thought I’d share a couple of tips.

Oooh – look what I found!

When introducing a timid dog to something scary, I focus on the object, not the dog. Focusing on the dog’s behavior just adds performance anxiety to the mix and slows down the process. Instead, I interact with the object itself – “Look what I found! Ooh – this is really NI-I-ICE!!”. Assuming you have a relationship with the dog, they will pick up on your interest and become at least a little intrigued.

Little baby steps …

I start by reinforcing for the smallest approach behavior – a step is good, but sometimes I’ll settle for a leaning body or even an ear. Never drag the dog to the scary thing, let them find their own comfort zone. I use a clicker, but it’s not necessary – you can verbally mark the behavior too. I slip the dog treats, still focusing on the object the entire time.

Closer and closer

Gradually, I up my criteria – only reinforcing progress. Big breakthroughs, like actually TOUCHING the object, earn a jackpot.

If movement is part of the problem, start reinforcing approaches to the stationary object, then gradually add motion to the picture.

No “Scaredy-cat stretches”

That’s what I call that position where the dog stretches their nose out while keeping their hind feet as fa-a-a-r away as possible! It shows conflict – they’re approaching but at the same time keeping their options open for a hasty exit. I quickly drop reinforcement for this and only reward “normal”, upright body posture.

If you can teach your dog to hit things with a paw, it’s almost impossible for them to do the 2 postures at once. I wouldn’t initially ask for this behavior, but it works well when a basically “solid” dog occasionally spooks about something.

Put it on cue

Once the dog has been through this sequence on several different things, put it on cue. I use “Check it out!”. To Jayda that means: “Yes this is different – food WILL be served.”

The whole process gets faster each time you do it. The first time it may take 15 minutes or even longer, once they’ve learned the game it will usually be only a matter of seconds.

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