Monday, February 28, 2011

A Little Practice for Our Upcoming USDAA Trial

Belle and I are entered in a USDAA trial next weekend, so I've been studying USDAA video and course maps for the last few days in order to prepare for the course challenges we will be facing.

While analyzing runs, I came to the realization that moving my foot to indicate a change of direction just before Belle enters a tunnel or takes a jump gives her a lot more information than just using my arms and upper body.  I also came to the realization that often when I send Belle into a tunnel, by the time I am decelerating and indicating a change of direction she is already in the tunnel and unable to see me.

Here's our video footage from today's practice:

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Motion Cue Testing

I'm in the process of going through all of the articles I've saved from Clean Run.  This morning I was began re-reading the series "It's Your Turn!" by Sandy Rogers which appeared in 2010.  The first article is about using acceleration and deceleration as handling cues.  Since we once again have snow on the ground, I decided to set up a very simple sequence to test the Aussies' understanding of these cues.  The basic set-up is shown on the right.  (Because of the snow, I did not use jump bars.  If you decide to try this exercise and your dog is knocking the bars, lower them or remove them completely until he understands what you are asking for.  Then reintroduce the bars at a lower height.  If your dog is performing as you want and keeping the bars up, raise them back to full height 2-4" at a time.)

Before I started with the course though, I spent a little time working on the dogs' understanding of the cue when we were just running along on the flat.  Namely, if we are running side by side and I slow to a stop, I want my dog to turn into me and come back toward me.  For example, if Belle is running on my left side and I slow and stop, I want her to turn toward me (which means she will be turning right) and come back to me to receive a reward from my left hand.  Belle got it pretty quickly; Dusty was far more interested in eating snow; Libby wanted to run and bark.

Ms Rogers advises waiting for the correct response, but since it was relatively cold out, I resorted to holding out a hand for a touch for the first couple of times for Belle.  With Dusty and Libby, I had to move backward to get the their attention.  However, I did make sure to not use a verbal to get their attention, since the object of this exercise is training the dog to recognize a physical cue.

Next I used one jump to practice the deceleration cue.  (I didn't practice the acceleration cue because the dogs all understand that one.) 

After working the one jump exercise with the dogs on my right and my left, I tried the exercise using two jumps as shown with the dark circles.  (With both exercises, start with your dog .)

Finally, for the big test.  Would the dogs understand the deceleration cue when it was given before a tunnel?  First I ran the light circle course continuing to run fast as the dog entered the tunnel. Then I ran the dark course, giving a verbal tunnel command and slowing as my dog was a stride or so from the tunnel entrance.  It worked like a charm with Belle and Libby.  Dusty chose to argue about going into the tunnel, something he frequently gives me flak about.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Straight Lines

Two or three years ago, I attended a evening seminar given by Dana Pike.  The most valuable lesson I came away with was how to train my dog to run a straight line.  Here is the exercise Dana showed us:

Set up a tunnel and the first three jumps as shown on the left.  (The jumps are spaced 15-20 feet apart.)  Send your dog into the curved tunnel and start running as indicated by the line.  His job is to take the two jumps in his path and catch up with you.  Don't forget to reward him handsomely for a job well done.  Once your dog understands the game, add two or three more jumps one at a time, and repeat the exercise.

Now we're going to make the exercise a little more difficult.  Slide the second and fourth jumps about six inches out of line with the other three jumps as shown in the second figure.  Run the exercise.  If your dog still understands his job, wonderful.  If he doesn't, try off-setting jumps two and four by only three inches.  Once your dog is taking the jumps and catching up to you, you will want to send him to the tunnel from further back as indicated in the middle figure so you can beat him to at least the fourth jump.

When you run be sure not to look back at your dog.  If necessary, have someone watch while you train so you know your dog is taking the jumps.  Your job is to pick your arms up and run to the finish line.  Looking back at your dog delivers mixed signals to him.  According to Stuart Mah, looking at your dog is a signal for handler focus and collection; looking at the obstacles is a signal for your dog to be in obstacle focus and extension.  This is most definitely a training exercise in obstacle focus.

Once you dog is comfortable with the jumps being off-set at six inches, start angling the jumps.  Then gradually introduce more off-set and a greater amount of angling.

Once you dog understands the exercise, you can try handling it from the other side of the red line I have included in the course at the far right.  If you run along the red line, I can just about guarantee you that your dog will not make it down the line of jumps.  Remember:  The Line is not your friend.  It isn't there to show you where to run; it's there to show you where you may not go.

If you are using wingless jumps, make sure there is an inch of two of overlap from one jump to the next.  If you are using jumps with wings, I'd work toward having my dog understand the exercise with the wing of the proceeding jump in line with the wing of the next jump.  Be sure the jumps are spaced far enough apart that your dog can run a fairly straight line when they are off-set from each other.

I have found this to be an invaluable skill with Belle.  I can turn my back on her and run as fast as I am able and be confident that she will take the obstacles in her path when they are arranged more or less in a straight line.  In addition to using this skill to drive for the finish line whenever possible, sometimes I can use it to allow me to get to places I might not otherwise be able to get to in order to handle more complicated sequences.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Turning vs. Straight Ahead

I originally wrote this article in 2005, and I am choosing to leave it written in the present tense.  I deleted much of the description of my handling of the different sequences and made a few minor editing changes from the original. RK

My second agility dog is a small (18.5 inch) Australian Shepherd who made her trial debut in October, 2004.  I quickly discovered that a straight line of obstacles builds enough speed in my young girl that is difficult to get her to turn if there is an off-course obstacle that will allow her to continue on that straight line.

My agility area is somewhat limited (60 x 70) and it is impossible to set up a complete NADAC course with enough distance between obstacles to encourage Libby to develop the speed she runs with in a trial setting.  I came up with the course below which employs only six jumps and two tunnels and utilizes as little as 30 x 50 feet.

My goals were:

  1. Teach Libby the obvious obstacle is not the next obstacle when Mom is indicating a change of direction.
  1. Make a course that could be simplified enough and interesting enough that we could do a little doggy NASCAR to build speed which would enable us to work on communication at trial speeds.
  1. To sharpen my ability to communicate change of direction so that Libby would have sufficient information in time to take the next obstacle in a sequence.  This course turned out to be really good for this because I could position myself  as Libby went into a tunnel and concentrate on where she ended up when she failed to pick up my signal.  (See Course 4.)
  1. To increase the distance from which Libby can read my signals – This entails both improving my timing and her awareness of increasingly subtle signals.
I first pattern trained Libby to run the outside loop in both directions at top speed as shown at the side.  This helped us work on increasing speed and having a good time.  To us humans, this looks like a circle, for the dog it is basically a straight line since the curves come in at the tunnels and there are no changes of direction.  To keep this a game, I would call Libby randomly to play tug or chase her favorite toy, a soccer ball.

Then I introduced the pinwheel and serpentine options:

I used a curved tunnel to build speed before hitting the pinwheel.  If your partner is new to pinwheels and has tendency to build up to warp drive, you could start at 4 or 5 instead and move back your start back to 3, then 2, then 1, as your dog gets the idea of a pinwheel.

In working this pattern, I had to go into the pocket of the pinwheel at first, but my aim was to be able to stay on the tunnel side of the first and third jumps of the pinwheel for both the pinwheel and the 11 thru 13 progression.

After doing the pinwheel in both directions, there are a multitude of options, two of which are shown.  After taking tunnel 11, either of the jumps labeled 12 could be selected to vary the course. 

Try working the serpentine from both sides.  Strive to get from the serpentine to #12 as efficiently and quickly as you can.

Here is another variation that allows you to test your team's skills on a fast serpentine.

Here are a few more sequences that I used with this set-up. 

In this sequence, the dog/handler team has the opportunity to run a three-jump slice sequence and a tunnel-jump-tunnel slice, as well as the pinwheel.

How many ways can you think of to handle the change of sides called for between 7 thru 9?  You can spice this one up by picking a different jump 13 each time you run.

In this exercise, we use the pinwheel at 8, 9, 10.  Coming out of tunnel 11, there is an option of the three-jump slice (12 thru 14) or a quick run thru another tunnel (the black 13).

A 13-obstacle that offers the chance to build some speed before doing a serpentine followed by a pinwheel and a 180.  As your team’s speed increases on this course, you’ll know that your dog truly understands that the next obstacle is not always the obvious one.

Here are two final variations for you to play with.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Another Milestone

I'm proud to announce that Belle and I reached another milestone at this weekend's QCDC NADAC Trial.  On Sunday, we completed Belle's second NATCH with a qualifying run in Chances.  The NATCH bar we received is particularly special since it was signed by Sharon Nelson when she was here in October.

I put my all into almost every run.  I was getting tired and punchy by the last run on Sunday, Hoopers, and although it was a qualifying run, it was not pretty and it was not smooth.  However, the Q was all that really mattered since that was the last Q we needed for Champs.

During the last week, I've been working on getting Belle to respond with a loud bark to "Are you ready?"  I had tried giving her a bark command at the start line in the past, but wasn't very effective in getting her excited.  Asking a question to elicit a bark seems to be more exciting.  Maybe that's because "bark" is such a harsh-sounding word, and by using a question instead, you can vary the tone and energy of your bark cue.

Increasing my ground speed seemed to get Belle's little motor running--especially the running lead outs.  I made some handling mistakes--pulling when I should have pushed, pushing when I should have pulled.  The worst bobble we had was on Saturday's jumpers course.  Belle sliced over a jump I was layering and almost got stepped on.  I'm not quite sure what caused her to come over that jump, but I hope nothing like that ever happens again since one or both of us could get hurt.

When I let Belle out this morning with the others, I came to the realization that there is a definite limit to how much faster Belle can run a course if I depend on my own speed to motivate her.  Handler energy is not just a matter of how fast you can run, it is also a function of how much of yourself you put into a run.  I feel like I can truly say I put in a 100% effort into all of our runs except for the last one on Sunday.  Even when I wasn't running physically, I was running and pushing mentally.

One last brag.  Sunday, David and Dusty went 4 for 6, which is huge.  Additionally, their Chances run was one of those runs of a lifetime.  At least it was for me.  I hope David felt the same.  I'm really sorry we didn't capture it on video so that we could enjoy it again and again.

Just a Little Inspiration

I'm waiting for all my video footage to upload before finishing my post about this weekend's trial.  I found this video of Morgan, the first Great Dane to earn a NATCH while I was looking at some of the footage that has finished uploading.  I was so impressed with her enthusiasm.  Then I expanded the comment section and found she was also the first Great Dane to earn a MACH and a the first to earn a MAD!!!!

The NADAC Agility Trial Champion title award goes to Morgan "Danger" Powers, an 11 year old Great Dane. She's been competing in NADAC for 8 years and still running strong! Morgan earned her NATCH on July 11, 2010 in Golden, Colorado at the Mountain Dog Sports Agility trial under judge Patty LeRoy from Canada. (Morgan was also the first Great Dane to earn the AKC's MACH title and USDAA's MAD title!)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Thursday Night JWW Practice

I had a chance to try handling with more energy last night on a JWW course set up at the QCDC.  One big problem I have when walking a course is figuring out where I'm going to be in relationship to my dog.  More often than not, I underestimate my ability to get ahead of Belle.  This was definitely the case last night.  I never dreamed I would be able to put in the two front crosses so easily.  I found myself having to wait for Belle at the tunnel entrance, so I probably should have only lead out to a spot about four or five feet from the second jump and done a front cross between #2 and #3.  I also found myself marking time at the weave exit.  The next time I ran, I ran closer to Belle on the two jumps before the weaves and moved toward the tire instead of toward the last weave pole.  Better, but I wish I would have tried taking fast little shuffle steps like one handler did.  (I can never remember to keep my steps small if I'm moving quickly.)

Here's the video of Belle's first run.  I jumped her at 16" to give another 16" handler with two dogs a chance to breathe between runs.

I taped a 20" team that often places at AKC trials and analyzed the video to see if I could find any handling tips.  I didn't really see the handler do anything much differently than I did except for the end where he put in a front cross on the take off side of the penultimate jump instead of relying upon a pull from the landing side as I did.  I broke the course down into four sections and found that Belle lost about two seconds on the BC from the triple to the jump after the tunnel.  She lost only about a half of second on the remainder of the course. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Championship Goals

I'm really not much for setting goals down on paper, either in my life or in agility.  I tend to just wing it.  Perhaps not the most efficient way to live, but that's how I do it.  However, since the NADAC Championships are less than eight months away, I decided this might be a good time to really commit myself to a few things that will improve my ability to run a course.

I suppose the factor that weighs most heavily upon my ability to handle is my weight.  I have been almost 50 pounds overweight for more years than I care to think about.  I started keeping track three weeks ago, hoping to give myself a 10-pound weight loss for my birthday.  That's not looking too likely at this point, but I am hoping to soldier on and lose 30 pounds by October.

I want to be able to run a half mile in five minutes.  Not world class time, but if I can do that easily, than the longer courses of Championships shouldn't leave me gasping for oxygen.

Put more energy into my runs with Belle.  I can be pretty laid back out on the course, cranking my energy level up a few notches may be just what Belle needs to run a wee smidgen fast.  And a wee smidge is all she really needs to be really competitive.

As far as my goals for Belle, other than getting her to run with a little more abandon, I would like to help her eliminate her stress scratching at the startline.  I've been working for almost a year on this.  I've tried asking her to bark, and she usually complies, but it is often a rather subdued bark.

At home, I work on getting Belle to line up on my right and left sides and then move a little forward or backward so she has to realign herself.  She plays this game with excitement at home, but when I try to get her to do it in the ring, I get a halfhearted response.  Last night, it dawned on me that at home we never play this game with a leash on.  Duh!  This morning, I made sure to remove her regular collar and put on her agility lead so she realizes she is free to give the same energetic responses on lead.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Extreme Hoopers Practice

Last night, we went to the Quad Cities to play Extreme Hoopers.  Here's the first course we ran:

#7 to #8 is a very crucial section.  My plan was to go no further than 5 or 6 o'clock and send Belle and Dusty to #8.  It worked with Belle; it didn't work for Dusty--I just didn't show enough motion in the direction of #8 to let Dusty know he would be turning away from me upon exiting the circle.  David ran close to the circle to get Dusty to #8 and is able to sprint back to the other side of the circle and direct Dusty to #10 with an off-arm and a verbal.  Micky ran along the circle until she gets to about 5 o'clock.  At that point she moves laterally away from the circle and is able to signal the turn, send Dusty to #8 and run a relatively short line to be in place to handle #10.

Here's a rough course map of the second course we ran.

The hardest part of this course was getting the turn from #3 to #4.  The dog had to be in relative collection and prepared to turn as he entered the circle.

My first run with Belle demonstrates that it is possible to be too laid back in your handling.  The turn to #5 is not that difficult provided the dog sees the #5 hoop.  Since I didn't go beyond the circle on our first run, Belle doesn't even realize there is a hoop #5.  I stepped up my energy level for the second run and as a result, I went far enough beyond the circle for Belle to see #5 as an option.  David doesn't really go as far to the side as I do, but because he makes a bigger movement toward the left wall, Dusty easily picks up the cue to turn left toward #5. 

Lastly, David set up two tunnels and an outer arc of hoops, and we used the circle for handling practice.  With this variation, the handler stays in the circle and directs the dog in and out and to the two tunnels.  As an extra test of distance, there is the arc of hoops on the backside of the tunnel closest to the camera.  Notice how quietly and smoothly Dusty is moving during the final seconds of this exercise.

After watching the video of Micky and David running Dusty, I can see where there is plenty of room for me to put more energy into my handling.  Perhaps that's what's missing in my effort to achieve more speed with Belle.  We have a NADAC trial coming up this weekend, and I will do my best to break the DRI barrier of 1.00 with Belle.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Chances Are - Part Two

This was a Chances course we ran on Sunday, August 28, 2010, at the Quad Cities Dog Center.  Don Cuda was the judge.
The opening is pretty straightforward and getting your dog to the #6 tunnel is a piece of cake provided, 1) your dog is comfortable moving away from you, and 2) you pace yourself and don't have to stop moving toward the back wall as your dog exits the #3 tunnel because you've come to the distance line.  Running with your dog or just taking a short lead out, will help you with the second consideration.

The next challenge comes when you have to send your dog away from you to the #11 tunnel.  Your dog has to be confident enough to keep going, and you have to pace yourself so that you don't have to abruptly stop and do a balancing act on the distance line.  Flailing your arms while you try to avoid stepping over the line brings your dog into handler focus big time.  

Given the way the distance line is set, you probably will have to stop before your dog reaches the tunnel.  In addition to working with Belle so that she became comfortable working further and further away from me, I also found it useful to train her to move away from me with a big arm motion and relatively little or no forward body motion.  It really helped to increase her willingness to drive away from me, and it also comes in handy when I mess up and find I have run out of real estate in Chances.

In the video, you will see that I made an effort to move back from the line while Belle was in the #11 tunnel, but I quickly ran out of real estate when she exited.  I relied on the big arm and a wide stance to put pressure on her line and get her to the correct jump.  Look at the course map way and notice how the distance line is angling from #11-#13.  You'd have to back up all the way to the 82-85 foot line while your dog is in the tunnel if you want to continue moving toward the back wall while your dog is going from the tunnel to #12.  Even then if you move too quickly, you may find yourself up against the distance line.

The final challenge is the dogwalk/tunnel discrimination.  I always find it much easier to pressure my dog to the outer obstacle.  Some people can achieve the inner obstacle with just a shoulder pull.  Me and mine, not so much.  I opted to face the back wall and bring Belle into sharp handler focus while I moved backwards toward the front of the ring.

What absolutely will not work in this situation is turning toward or looking in the direction of the left wall, as this puts pressure on the dog to move away from you.  An independent dogwalk is not an absolute necessity since the distance line comes in to the end of the dogwalk, but it certainly can't hurt.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Chances Are - Part One

For most of us, Chances is the most difficult class to qualify in.  I thought I would share my strategy from some of the Chances courses Belle and I have run.

First, some general handling guidelines:
1.  Walk the path your dog will be running.  Doing this will enable you to spot potential problem areas.
2.  The line is there to show you where you cannot go if you wish to qualify.  It is not there to show you where to run.  Always try to stay far enough away from the line that you can move toward your dog to support his path.
3.  Know where you plan to run so you don't have to look down in order to make sure you don't accidentally cross the line. 

Okay, now for an actual course. 

In order to be successful on this particular Chances course, your dog must have certain skills or no amount of good handling will be sufficient to Q.  Your dog must have an independent dogwalk.  If you want TOTO, your dog must be willing to move away from you after stopping for the contact.  Your dog has to have independent weaves.  Lastly, you dog must be willing to turn away from you when he is running with you to accomplish the turn from #6 to #7.

Specific handling considerations for this course include:  1. Leaving yourself enough room to push toward the #3 jump when you release your dog from his TOTO.  2. Being far enough from the line that you can turn your dog from #6 to #7.  3. Getting your dog from #8 to #9.  (I relied strongly on a verbal for this.)  4. Turning him into the tunnel.  Being able to accomplish the turn into the tunnel is dependent upon being far enough from the line so that you can step in and do a "rear cross."  5. If you find yourself up against the line after doing this "rear cross," move away from the line while your dog is in the tunnel so you can put pressure on his line for the final three jumps.

08/28/2010 - Quad City Dog Center. Judge: Don Cuda. We've been working on distance all week in hopes of someday being able to get a 15 point bonus run. Unfortunately, one of the things we worked on was taking a straight run of jumps to a tunnel. I really didn't think we had much of a chance to get the turn away from the tunnel to the third jump, but fortunately, Belle knows left. Doesn't know right, but most definitely understands left :-)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

So Happy to Be Able Get Out and Practice

After being housebound by snow for several days, I was able to drive to the QCDC in Davenport for a little practice.  The course chosen was designed by Rob Kripaitis.  I really didn't think I'd enjoy running this course since it contains six turns where the dog has is forced to by-pass the plane of the obstacle he is to take next:  teeter to panel jump, triple to table, wingless jump to dogwalk, #12 jump to chute, #14 to tire, and tire to weaves.  However, I think that I managed to run this course pretty smoothly with Belle and not jerk her around.  The most obvious place where I could have improved my handling was from jump #10 to the dogwalk.  I failed to decelerate before #10 and the turn from #10 to the dogwalk was really wide.

When I walked this course, I realized that there was no way I was going to beat Belle to the #18 tunnel exit and avoid the off-course to the panel if I ran with the A-frame on my left.  I decided to use our distance skills and stay as far away as possible from the weave poles and do a front cross between #17 and #18.  Belle picked up a real head of steam once she exited the weaves, and despite the fact that I ran as fast as I could, I felt lucky to get in a blind cross at that point.  Even though I fell behind while she was running through the tunnel, Belle followed my verbal and kept running straight ahead to the finish.

On one of our other runs, I tried a rear cross, and although it worked, Belle hesitated upon exiting the tunnel and looked at me for direction.  One thing I forgot to try was blind crossing or front crossing the weave pole exit and running with #17 on my right.  Several people tried this and it worked out pretty well as long as their dogs would drive on without them for the final two jumps.  I didn't think I could run fast enough for this to be successful for us, but you never know if you don't try.

I also messed around handling the dogwalk on my right.  After the A-frame, I slowed down drastically while sending Belle over #10.  Then I pulled her back to the dogwalk.  Then I was able to rear cross #12 and #14.  However, I found that plan to be less than ideal since it cause Belle to turn too abruptly and she did some slipping.

On the first run, several dogs had way too much momentum going after the triple and were unable to stay on the table.  On subsequent runs, several handlers (including me) took the jump after the dogwalk for granted and failed to support their dog's path.