Front Foot Target For 2o2o

A lot has happened in the past seven months. Not much of it was dog training, but today I came across a video from last December and I thought I would share it with you.

A year ago I was teaching Ruby to put his front feet on a target when he was entering “two on, two off” position on a dog walk. This position was originally taught on a box and then transferred to the dog walk, but it was never as solid as I would wish. If I stayed behind Ruby often couldn’t complete his task.

So I started training him to go to the end of the plank without me and to focus ahead:

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Running Contacts Madness Continues

We haven’t been training much, but Java was hitting her mat like a pro. Any distance, any place. True, we only used racing to a food bowl as a reward, but it looked awesome. Until she got back and tummy problems and it all went downhill. 😦

We didn’t do any RC training for 3 weeks. Even though Java seemed fine in the evenings I didn’t want to risk making her uncomfortable and getting that associated with training. Then after three weeks we tried again and – BAM – Java hit perhaps 50% of the time. Say whaaaaaaaat? And it wasn’t just the first session. It looked like she wasn’t even trying.

Concluding that the dog isn’t trying is a very risky thing – it could be very unfair to them if they actually WERE trying and they can’t tell you you’re wrong. So I brushed it aside. Surely she just forgot how to adjust (as weird as that seemed to me). She used to do best if we did one session every day, we’ll do that for a week and she’ll be fine.

Then I got a little lazy busy and we only did two or three sessions that week. Not much improvement.

Luckily our weekend getaway place had a perfect lawn with a perfect little slope so I could even start doing hill RC work if hits got close to 100% again.

20150502_115024Unfortunately, we had trouble on the road and arrived after dark. Next day, it rained all day, but cleared at night. I don’t know what got into me, but I decided to do our first RC training in this new place in the dark, on a slope next to the cottage, lit only by the porch lights. Java did BEAUTIFUL hits! She was excited, she was fast, covered the mat nicely with her stride and only leaped over it once. I was feeling very excited about our next training!

Next day we woke up into a sunny morning. The lawn was waiting for us. Java took food in the morning, didn’t seem nauseous, we were good to go. First try, poor speed, leaped over. Next try, leaped over. I dragged the mat further down so it was on the flat. I got some hits, but also some leaps. Disappointed.

I got Ruby out, did some sends to the mat, impulse control, threw toys for him and had a blast. He is such a fun dog to train πŸ™‚ Then I thought what the heck, this RC training is going so poorly I might as well break the rules and reward with toys even though she’s likely to look back at me IF she’s going to hit at all.

First try, great speed, but leaps over, looking back at me. Next try, hit, possibly looks back a bit while moving forward, gets toy thrown. Next try, another beautiful hit, focusing forward more. And so on, about 8 hits in 10 tries. πŸ˜€

I didn’t get it. What happened here? Food is not working anymore, but toys are? And why did food work great on Friday evening?

Here’s my sister’s theory. If a dog is nauseous, even a little, food will have a lower value, won’t it? And if this behavior of hitting the mat is mentally difficult for Java, then she will need a really good incentive to think hard. So it’s possible that on Friday evening food had a higher value because Java felt 100% OK (she was also fast, which is another indicator of both food value and how she felt). The next morning, however, food had lower value. Remember, Java’s nausea always came on in the morning. Java was slower. She didn’t try as hard. But toys were still high value and it was worth it to try hard to hit.

I don’t know if the above theory is true. It could be. Or it could just be that random breakdown of behavior that happens so often with RC. Three weeks without training can change the behavior.

Just in case I did stop training RC in the mornings for a week and got a better % of hits. Then we started some hill work*. First try was a leap, the rest were hits, and in the end she got three beautiful jackpots. πŸ˜€ Of course I got all excited about this, but the next session was on the flat with a different setup and it didn’t look half as good. I really thought that once the dog got the idea of hitting the mat and learned how to adjust stride to hit, the performance wouldn’t randomly change like it does with running the plank. Boy, was I wrong. I must be crazy to be training this. Well, at least it gives me something to complain write about, right? πŸ˜‰

* hill work: putting the mat on a gentle slope (currently much less than a dog walk). I put it in the middle of a slope, not at the bottom of the hill (my slope doesn’t have a well defined “bottom” anyway). There is no reason to leap over anything except when she wants to avoid the mat. The plan is to work up to a steeper slope (probably a bit steeper than a dog walk) and then move to a hill that will have a similar contact to ground as the dog walk so that Java will have to learn to run all the way down to hit the mat.

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Tummy Troubles

Java got a bit stiff in her back from who knows what and I gave her a 3 week pause from training while we were sorting it out with the physiotherapist. She was acting a little subdued and I thought she was in pain.

When we fixed her back it became apparent that she has another problem – she has been feeling sick in the mornings. I’m pretty sure she was feeling sick all along, I just didn’t realize it because I was focusing on her back. She only vomited once so I didn’t give it too much thought, but when the physiotherapist told me that her back was now fine and Java started to greet me on her hind legs like she used to (confirming that her back is feeling better) I started looking for other reasons.

She was refusing food in the mornings. I give my dogs most of their food by hand. They get their first bit for putting the harness on, as I have observed it makes them a bit uncomfortable (presumably because I’m leaning over them as I do it) and they do a little avoidance dance – come close and then “remember” they were thirsty or something when I prepare the harness. If I give them a piece of kibble for sticking their head through the loop that makes it a trick and these behaviors largely disappear.

Java was refusing that treat and the next few treats. If we went for a walk in the morning she didn’t look excited about it and became very slow after 20 minutes. She was wearing her “puking” face, but I was so focused on her back issues that I thought it was a sign of pain. Nope – she was feeling sick. In the evenings she was back to her happy self again, we could go for normal walks, she would be excited and eat anything.

I took her to a vet, but they couldn’t find anything. Curiously, I started feeling nauseous in the mornings around the same time as Java. Like her, I was also feeling just fine in the evening. Could we be feeling nauseous for the same reasons? Could it be tap water? Tap water is perfectly fine to drink in Ljubljana, but perhaps there were seasonal changes to it and we were a bit more sensitive than Ruby? (For years I have been getting morning nausea in spring/summer and I haven’t been able to figure out why.)

As a test we drank only bottled water for a while, but there was no change. Eventually I found a medicine that helped my stomach and cleared up nausea completely. For Java a combination of getting the last meal right before bedtime at 1 AM (yes, we are night owls πŸ˜‰ ) and eating Dorwest tabs helped prevent the worst. She didn’t have the “puke face” in the mornings and was excited to go for a walk. She often didn’t take that first treat, but at least she had a good appetite when we got back.

Even though she looked fine, when training I could see that food has lost some of it’s value. It didn’t get her as excited as before, which got us in trouble with running contacts (I’ll write about that one later).

Luckily, for the past few days she seems almost back to normal. I’ve stopped giving her Dorwest tabs and today she was asking for food throughout our morning walk. I love having my hungry Java back ❀

Poor tortured posing pups ;)

Poor tortured posing pups πŸ˜‰

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No Longer A Puppy

Trinity all grown up <3

Trinity all grown up ❀

Ruby doesn’t like puppies. You can almost hear him saying “ewww get this thing away from me, QUICK!” when a puppy is near him. Just like some people adore children while others would rather have a dentist appointment than deal with screaming little versions of humans, so it is with dogs. Java happens to like puppies, Ruby not so much.


So when my sister got Trinity the Boston Terrier puppy, Ruby was not impressed. To add insult to injury, the dwarf got most of Mateja’s attention, one of Ruby’s favorite humans. And toys! The horror! As far as Ruby was concerned, all the toys at Mateja’s place belonged to him and his friends – and Trinity was most certainly not his friend.


Recently Trinity turned 1 year old and Ruby’s attitude changed. He recognizes that she is no longer a puppy (and maybe seeing her started to predict good things just a little).

This is Ruby’s “I’m about to go crazy” face.


Let’s play, Trinity!


This is not the end of the road yet, but it looks very promising πŸ™‚




Beautiful photos by Mateja Lugarič πŸ™‚

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Then There Were Turns

Here’s where we are right now with running contacts, not training as often as we should, but still making progress. We started doing some 90 degree turns. I decided to put props at the end of the mat to make it very clear what is good vs bad execution. She can still do a “bad” turn by jumping over them, so I’m hoping that will work in my favor and they will be easier to fade. Plus, they stack πŸ™‚

Aaaaand we finally took the show outside which means we have more room to practice from different starting spots! There was some confusion with 2o2o in the beginning, but turns are helping with that πŸ˜‰ Then for a while she was quite prone to jumping over the mat, probably from the added excitement of training outside. Now she seems to be back to hitting almost 100% of the time so I can be picky about which hits I like best. That would be:

  1. two front feet
  2. a combination of front and rear feet
  3. just one front foot, but in the middle of the target

I don’t like to see just rear feet or one front foot on the edge of the target.

She is running toward a food bowl for now, but at some point I will have to replace it with static toy I think.

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No Boston Terriers Were Harmed

Trini: “Java, do you like Boston Terriers?”
Java: “Yes, but I don’t think I could eat a whole one”


The wonderful photos are by Stisnprtisn!

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Heart Dogs

I don’t know if I should be sad or if I should count myself lucky. You see, I don’t know what a “heart dog” is. People talk about it, how they got that one in a million dog, that pup with whom they formed a truly special connection.

I have a very special connection with two very special dogs. I don’t know if this means I haven’t got my “heart dog” yet or maybe I have two? All I know is that whenever someone praises one of my dogs I instantly feel the urge to praise the other one. I don’t feel like one is better than the other. They have different characters and different strengths, but I wouldn’t change one for the other. They are both very special to me in their own unique way.

Ruby has a lot of heart. He might not be a good jumper, but he LOVES agility nevertheless and puts his whole heart into playing. During a recent seminar instructor commented that Ruby was “willing to please”. I just smiled. He is not “willing to please”, but he loves agility so much that he would do anything to keep the game going πŸ™‚ The toy he gets is just a symbol of winning. The ultimate reward is to play some more.

Java is my shadow, loves hanging out with me and I never have to worry about her chasing wildlife on walks. She is just the easiest dog to live with and gives the best morning hugs, her long tail wagging wildly. She also loves agility, but there is a different vibe to it – like she’s excited, but not 100% sure what she’s so excited about πŸ™‚ Which might be because of her limited exposure to agility. It’s definitely too early to expect that she would love the game for itself like Ruby.

Java is awesome because she cares about what I think and tries to please me. Ruby is awesome because he doesn’t care what I think so if I’m having a bad day this won’t get to him and he will still have a blast training. Yin and Yang. Both very close to my heart. ❀

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We’ve Got Stride Adjustment :)

I hope you like running contacts because you might be reading a lot about them in near future. I *tried* coming up with a different topic for this blog post, I really did, but the thoughts about RC just wouldn’t go away.

We hit a very important milestone last week: Java is adjusting her stride to hit the target!!!

I suspected it before, but I couldn’t be sure because there isn’t enough space in my living room to vary the distance much. But last week I was able to train her at a bigger distance and she was hitting the same way no matter where she started. Not only there were no misses, but majority of the hits were very precise: first front paw hit the edge of the target, followed by the other three paws neatly spread out across a 30x80cm target. I’m over the moon that she adjusted her stride to give me the best possible hit. πŸ™‚

We’re training on three different targets:

  • Non slip bath mat, white, 30x75cm, very thin – gives me the best hits
  • Non slip mat for washing machine, black, 30x60cm, 1cm thick – gives good hits, but I think it might look confusing on my carpet. It’s also harder to see black feet on a black mat…
  • Dog pillow, blue, 50x70cm, 5cm thick – this one is very tempting to jump over, which is great for teaching Java a difference between good and bad tries

One of Susan Garret’s Puppy Peaks videos shows Swagger running across a low wobble board as preparation for his running contacts and now I’m thinking that it would make sense to make such a board for Java as well. I’m guessing that a dog who can confidently stride through a wobble board won’t have so many problems if the training plank will wobble a little bit. I already have a wobble board in my “dog gym” (my living room πŸ™‚ ), but its fulcrum is way too high to run through. I need something lower.

Along with working different targets it’s also time to pay more attention to turns. I like the idea of working on these from the ground up, so that the dog experiences the differences in contact hits when going straight vs when turning. We have only done a few sessions on turns so far, so it’s high time to get more serious about it.

I have to admit I’m a little unsure about what I like vs what I dislike which is why I have been avoiding them. What do I do when front feet hit the target, but one of the rear feet hits next to the target during a turn? Do I reward that? On a dog walk that rear foot would hit thin air, so I would be rewarding an impossible turn execution.

We’re training turns using a cone/pole to wrap around, so we don’t have problems with missing the target. I did try one session without a pole and Java started just skimming the target, but we soon came to an understanding that she needs to actually hit it. Still, those hits were quite high on the target and I would prefer her to cover the target well and then turn, so I went back to using a pole. Turning high on the contact might be OK on a full dog walk (haven’t decided yet), but while the target is still on the ground I see no reason to let her do it that way.

Then there is also a lurking struggle with stopping vs running. Sometimes Java decides that the training setup looks like 2o2o and offers stopping on the target, especially when the reward is in front of her, because that’s how we proofed 2o2o and she was very good at it. I can usually break her out of it by changing the setup, but it would be nice if we got to a point where I could use a static reward without confusion.

So obviously plenty of things to work on, but for now my heart is singing because Java is adjusting her stride to hit πŸ™‚ Surely everything will be easy now!

Yeah, right.

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Missing That Running Contact Feeling

When I decided to stop training running contacts, a friend (who obviously knows me better than I know myself) laughed and said I won’t be able to stay away from them for long. She was right. I love everything about running contacts… the fluidity for performance, the rush of running alongside the dog, the thrill when you see your dog run a full height dog walk for the very first time after months of training. Everything except a whippet falling off the dog walk because they were too crazy and misstepped and couldn’t hang on. That part is no fun at all.

[Just to clarify, I’m only training RC to Java, Ruby will continue to perform 2o2o as he goes crazy when I include dog walk in a sequence and I need to babysit how he runs up so he doesn’t hurt himself.]

A search for a slower performance

Many moons ago

Many moons ago

So I was thinking… what if Java wouldn’t run full speed? I’m not talking about trotting across the dog walk, but a bit less than crazy full speed running would be nice. And especially, running in a bit calmer state of mind. Could I train a slightly slower and safer dog walk performance? I heard the warning many times that if you don’t train with maximum speed then you might never get a maximum performance of that obstacle, and that would actually work in my favor here. But can I teach the dog to consistently hit the contact while NOT running full speed?

I first learned about running contacts from Silvia Trkman and her method requires that the dog runs full out. The story goes that if the dog isn’t running full-out in training, they certainly WILL in trials and then they will leap over the contact because they will either:

  • Not care about hitting the contact when they’re in such a hurry to get to the next obstacle, or
  • Won’t know HOW to hit it at that speed

Daisy Peel adapted this method so that it can be trained at lower speeds as well and it seems that she is able to train dogs to a decent level of performance without the necessity of running full tilt from the start. So that myth is busted. She trains using a Manners Minder, which for many dogs automatically results in less speed. So this method would be a natural choice for me, right?

Well, not so fast

I would also like to change another part of the method: run the dog over a plank at ever increasing heights and click when she is running nicely (without leaping) AND hitting the contact. That’s simple for the trainer (once they learn to see the footfalls), but if I had you run for 10m and click for quality of one of your footfalls, how long would it take you to realize exactly which footfall I’m clicking for and which quality earned you that click?

Take into consideration that my timing would be way off because a series of events would have to happen:

  1. I would first have to see the footfall,
  2. then I would have to decide whether it fits the criteria,
  3. then the signal to move the muscles would have to travel down to my thumb
  4. which would then press the button on the clicker.

By the time you would hear the click you would be at least one stride further down the path. The only way to have good timing is to start *predicting* whether the dog is going to hit and clicking in advance. Otherwise you’re clicking on her first step OFF the dog walk – which is just about the worst timing possible, as you don’t want the dog to focus on how to get to the ground as soon as possible.

Some dogs have nice even strides that make this prediction easier. Other dogs soon realize that you’re always late with your clicks and figure out that the click wasn’t about reaching the grass at all, but about what they did on the plank. Java doesn’t seem to belong to either of these categories. I think she believed that my clicks and verbal markers were for running on the ground, not on the plank, so it “worked” for a while, until she found a shortcut – just jump straight to the ground πŸ˜›

Well, Ruby also didn’t belong to either of those groups of dogs, I just persisted long enough that he somehow figured it out. But there has to be a better way, right?

There has to be a better way to teach that it’s all about the last 60 or 45cm of a 400cm long plank

Devorah Sperber of Art And Dog Blog got me thinking about building a Clicker Board, which is a great idea since it’s cheap and ensures perfect timing of the click. I even bought a board and a bunch of clickers to test it πŸ™‚ Unfortunately I don’t have my own dog walk to incorporate the clicker board onto, so I would have to use it on top of the club dog walk and I felt it was too bulky for whippet sensitivities.

For a while I was tinkering with building an electronic contact board which would be much slimmer. (I know I could buy a commercial version, but they seemed a wee bit expensive to me, especially when including shipment to Slovenia.) I got it partly working, but not well enough for training. Maybe some day when I get around to it πŸ™‚

Enter foot targets

There used to be a widespread belief that foot targets were an ineffective way of training RC, but these days I see more dogs with beautiful running contacts that were trained that way. Another myth busted. Of course a foot target needs to be faded in the end. Still, if it helps to bring clarity I’m all for it.

A year ago I tried Dawn Weaver’s method because her dogs seem to have a very controlled style of running the dog walk, no craziness (yay!). I am not at liberty to discuss the details of her method, but will say that her dogs have both stop and a run and her method reflects this. Unfortunately Java became quite conflicted over when she should stop and when she should run. Then she got injured in April and I had a lot of time to think.

I was crushed. I thought what’s the use in training a really really difficult behavior when the dog could get injured at any time (not necessarily during agility, but even out on a walk like Java). Even the big names of agility world take two years or longer to train all possible entries and exits to a running dog walk in all sorts of situations. Running contacts might *look* trained once they start using them in competition, but there is a lot to be done still. Wouldn’t it be wiser to just go with 2o2o like I first planned so we could finally start running agility courses?

But 7 months (April-November) was a long time to wait, and I was still curious about running contacts. I started looking at other methods that use foot targets at least in part – whatever I could find out about Susan Garrett’s, Martina Klimesova’s and Laura Chudleigh’s method. Of course, after learning about different approaches, I couldn’t just sit on it and not try it out. Watching my friends training running contacts with their young dogs might have had something to do with it as well πŸ˜›

This is probably crazy, but three weeks ago Java and I started playing with foot targets. At this point she is basically going through retraining, which is generally a very bad idea. The best way is to train ONE type of performance and stick with it. Java has done some Silvia Trkman’s method, some Dawn Weaver’s method and some stopped contacts – enough to confuse anyone πŸ™‚

Wish us luck, we’ll need it πŸ˜€

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Is Fear Really The Enemy?

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.
– Mark Twain

This post was written about two months ago, my finger was on the trigger, but I didn’t post it. The main reason is that I thought it would be misunderstood by the majority of people. But there is also an odd chance that there is someone like me out there who really should listen to their fear MORE, not less, and every single article they read is telling them to blast right past their fear, that everything is going to be all right. You know what? Popular culture is often wrong.

It took me a while because I’m dense sometimes… It took me a very long time, in fact, to realize that I should listen to myself, not to other people. Listen to my instincts, not to other people’s truth.

People say to just go ahead and do what you’re afraid of doing. Fear is bad. Do what you’re afraid of. Conquer your fear by barging right through it.

But fear is there for a reason and saying that it should be disregarded is like saying you should disregard the pain that tells you your hand has just reached into the fire. Yes, sometimes pain needs to be ignored, like when doctor takes your blood. But more often than not it is useful, and the same is true for fear. It’s a warning.

For the past few months I gave myself permission to listen to my fear. This was harder than you’d think, since I have practiced ignoring it for so long. I had to remind myself several times that it’s OK to listen to what fear had to say. And when I listened closely it usually had a valid point. There was a step I was missing. There was something else I could do. I was rushing things. I wasn’t ready. Or my dog wasn’t ready.

Sometimes what fear had to say was inconvenient. It meant I would have to change my habits, take the longer path to the goal, bend some rules, find new solutions, build new relationships, test my commitment and the limits of my health. But it was good information.

Maybe I’m the only one who didn’t know that fear needs to be heeded sometimes. Maybe it’s because I was raised to disregard my feelings or because I took the common advice “do what you’re afraid of” and applied it too literally. I don’t know. It was a stupid thing to do.

Fear is like pain. It’s only safe to ignore it once you know what it’s trying to tell you. It doesn’t have to keep you from taking action, only from taking action blindly.

So act less like this quote:

Always do what you are afraid to do.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

And more like this one:

What is needed, rather than running away or controlling or suppressing or any other resistance, is understanding fear; that means, watch it, learn about it, come directly into contact with it. We are to learn about fear, not how to escape from it.
– Jiddu Krishnamurti

Or maybe I’m the only one stupid enough to ignore fear even when it carries a useful message. If so, please disregard this post.

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So Happy :)

Cheeky girl

Cheeky girl

While we have had our usual deal of misfortune in the past month, I am very very pleased with Java’s wrist. For the first time since April she has been able to run with dogs and her wrist didn’t swell! I hope I’m not jinxing it as I write this. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if it did swell as dr. Piras explained to us that the swelling is due to the scar tissue, but it’s great to see that the DMSO and ultrasound treatments really did do something good. The wrist is wrapped of course so it looks bad… but I promise you she is doing great!

We had some snow in the beginning of January and I thought I would let Ruby and Java run together. Of course the first thing Java did was run into Ruby, so then he didn’t want to play with her.

Java does this thing on walks where she runs ahead of me, stops and turns, waiting for a recall. She has me well trained πŸ˜‰

We do a lot of recalls during walks, some because I don’t want to only do “difficult” recalls where they would have to leave something they want to come to me, some because they are about to roll in something smelly and the recall is the surest way to prevent it and some to regulate Java’s zoomies. In the beginning I didn’t want her to run full out much because I wasn’t sure what her wrist could take. Frequent recalls ensured that her zoomies were short-lived. Plus, she got some extra recall practice which she sorely needs after spending such a long time on leash.

No recalls on this video, just talking to dogs πŸ˜‰

Ruby and Java say the new blanket passed the test. I agree.

Ruby and Java say the new blanket passed the test. I agree.

Ruby and the first snow

Ruby and the first snow

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To Strive, To Seek, To Find

2015 feels like a beginning of a new era. It’s hard to say why or what will change or even if it will have anything to do with dog training. I was never a very intuitive person, preferring logic over emotions, but as the 2014 is coming to a close I can feel the energies shifting.

Sometimes I get an urge to make a video. I will hear a song and it will just play on repeat in my mind until I make a video. It happens as it’s time to go to bed and makes me stay up all night. That’s what happened two nights ago… I heard All of Me by Jon Schmidt for the first time and knew I won’t sleep much that night. A quote danced on my brain “To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield”. I googled it and found Ulysses by Lord Tennyson:

Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

(you can find the whole poem here)

It was such a perfect description of my state of mind, my wishes for myself and what I wish for all of you in 2015. Peace? Yes. Joy? Yes? Healthy dogs? Yes. Fun trainings? Yes. But above all, the spirit that will take you where you truly want to go. No excuses. No regrets. Give it your all. Happy new year, everybody!

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The Unexpected Difficulty Of Going Straight

The other day I tested sending Ruby to the backside of the jump from 2m and from various angles around the jump. He surprised me by getting most of it right. It seems I keep forgetting that he knows this stuff and then I’m surprised when he can do it πŸ˜› Actually he did everything right, but he kept curving into me before going to the jump and several times he almost ran into the wing because of it. What’s going on here?


I like to test/train stuff like this at home, far away from anything that looks like agility equipment. If I mess it up and really frustrate Ruby, this feeling of frustration won’t be attached to agility, only to my props at home (if any). Also, if I leave equipment out of the equation it helps me to analyze the situation and better understand what is going on.

So at home I took two food bowls. For the first two tries I only set one bowl 2m ahead, restrained Ruby and released with “Take it”. No problem, he went straight ahead and gobbled up the kibble. Next I set the second bowl to my left, so that it was slightly closer than the first bowl, but Ruby would have to go across my feet to get to it. The bowl ahead was full, the bowl to my left was empty. It should be an easy choice to just go straight ahead, right? Well, not for Ruby! He first started toward the bowl on the left and only after I took a step forward he changed his direction to the bowl that was directly in front. Looks like we replicated the problem πŸ™‚

Obviously curving into me and going across my legs to get a reward is a strong behavior for him if he is drawn even to an empty bowl. It has nothing to do with agility equipment, not wanting to take the backside of a jump and the like – it’s based in misunderstanding of what I expect when I release him from a restraint.

We have been playing with it a few times and it seems I have thoroughly confused his poor whippety brain. Now he’s not sure if I want him to go ahead or stay close to me, go straight or curve in. He is slow and careful.

I attribute this to being a lazy trainer. I usually train with kibble at home and only bring out the goodies if I need more excitement or if I want to differentiate between a good try and a great execution of exercise. Of course yummy goods need to be chopped up first while kibble is just grab-and-go πŸ˜‰ I think rewarding with something yummy could help here, because it would add value to going straight faster than kibble does. I’ll let you know how it turns out πŸ™‚

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…and we’re back!

My poor tortured dogs during walk in Russi

My poor tortured dogs during walk in Russi

Last week we went to Ravenna to see dr. Piras. (Thank you all for nice wishes!)

This was the longest trip I ever took with Ruby and Java – about 5.5 hours each way. They did surprisingly well, settling down and not making a peep for the whole journey. I thought we would be hearing some complaining after two hours, especially with no stops. I remember going for my first two hour drive with Ruby and how impatient he got after just one hour of driving. We stopped at a rest stop, I let him out, he discovered it was freezing outside and was very happy to go back to his crate πŸ˜› Well, there was no complaining this time. Maybe it helped that it was freezing cold in Ljubljana and they figured they would rather be in their crates than out there πŸ˜‰

By the time we got to Ravenna they had enough, though. They were so happy to be out of their crates and we even had some time to take a walk. Not so happy when they discovered we drove all that way to see a vet of all people, but they were good patients nevertheless.

We found out that Ruby’s toe that gave him the most trouble in the past has become unstable – in other words it moves around too much 😦 Apparently there is nothing we can do about it that would stabilize it for good, so it needs to be buddy wrapped with the next toe to fixate it whenever he runs – forever. I have been wrapping it since we came back and I think he is driving from the rear more than he did before. Maybe I’m just seeing things that I want to see, but it really looks to me like he’s using his rear legs better.

I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t understand Java’s diagnosis very well… By the time of our appointment I was very very tired (driving in a car is very taxing for me for some reason), I slept only 4 hours that night and I think only half of my brain was still awake at that point. I *thought* I understood what dr. Piras was saying, but by the time we got back to Ljubljana it was all a haze.

Well, after calling Piras ten times a day all week I was finally able to get him on the phone yesterday and this time I was able to process the info πŸ™‚ Here it goes: Java sprained the medial collateral ligament when she fell into the ditch and then some scar tissue formed. The ligament is doing OK. The swelling we see is a result of scar tissue pressing on the tendon sheath. The fluid in the tendon sheath is pumped up when Java runs, but because of the pressure from scar tissue doesn’t flow back down. It helps if I massage it or guide the joint through it’s range of motion.

He advised using DMSO on it, therapeutic ultrasound and to keep wrapping the wrist for a long time to help with proprioception and therefore stabilization. Just like in humans, sprains have a tendency to repeat, so it’s best to be careful… but he said she can run and even do light agility. Ahhhh… I feel so relieved that she doesn’t need a surgery or another 6 months of rest!

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Vet Time Again

Two weeks ago Java’s wrist swelled up after being trouble-free for more than four months. I guess the vet was wrong when he said that it should heal on its own in 6 weeks to 4 months. We were very patient and yet… Here we go again 😦 It makes me so sad to have to restrict Java’s freedom again even though she is a good little patient. She does very well with walks on leash, even with other whippets running around which seems to fascinate other whippet owners to no end. The only thing that really gets to her is if someone is throwing a ball to said whippets. Then she starts screaming her ALL! BALLS! ARE! MINE! song.

Last Sunday there was a Canine Sport Medicine Seminar in Croatia and Alessandro Piras, an Italian vet who works with racing Greyhounds and sport dogs of all breeds, was presenting topics on sport injuries. He came highly recommended from several friends, so I went. I brought Java with me and she was a demo dog for physical examination. Piras thinks something is up with her medial collateral ligament. Tomorrow we’re driving to Ravenna to have it checked out. Fingers crossed that he will find the real cause of Java’s swelling and that she will soon be able to run free.

I am also bringing Ruby along as I’m really curious what Piras will say about his fat toes. It bothers me that he has two fat toes next to one another on his hind foot and the knuckles rub together, irritating the skin. It doesn’t seem like it will work long-term. For those not familiar with sighthound foot injuries, a “fat toe” is a toe that has been sprained and then developed a lot of scar tissue to strengthen the joint, so now the joint is bigger than it used to be.

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Use It Or Loose It

The popular saying holds true for play skills, too. For a while as I wanted to prevent Java’s wrist from swelling I didn’t dare to play much with her. I was afraid that movements from side to side and quick turns as she’s chasing the toy would put too much stress on her wrist. The vet told us that we should be careful with that wrist for four months and during this time we almost completely stopped using toys in training, only food, which is Java’s favorite anyway.

What happened? The same thing that happens to all dogs with whom their handlers only use their very best reinforcer – Java’s love for toys diminished and so did her play skills. She was still very happy to play outside (dogs can have different rankings of reinforcers depending on location), but not so much at home. If I initiated play in the living room she would grab the toy and tug halfheartedly and hope that treats are going to appear soon.

The solution for a dog who doesn’t like to play is simple: play more! Very short and fun sessions, ending in what dog likes the most. This is what worked for Java:

  • Playing before each food training session, therefore transferring value from food to play.
  • Occasionally reward the best play with food which I don’t have on me at the beginning, so the reward is a surprise. This is not the same as teaching play as a trick. I am just following what she already enjoys (play) with what she enjoys even more (food), as a surprise. Who doesn’t like a nice surprise? πŸ™‚
  • Playing with two balls, teasing her.
  • Lots of toy chasing. This is the type of play she likes the most.
  • Restrains to a toy in which I pretend to race her. She gets VERY intense, speeds like a bullet and her turn back with the toy is just amazing. She would make a great Flyball dog.
  • She loves surprise downs and sits in the middle of Two Toy Game and she’s pretty darn good at them, too. Yes, playing becomes higher value if she has to work for the toy πŸ™‚

I don’t have many rules as we play, but I do expect her to play with which ever toy I offer even though there might be more exciting toys within her reach. This rule is important to me, because it means that she is willing to ignore distractions while playing. In this case the distraction is a better toy than I have, some other day it could be treats in the grass or another handler playing with her dog nearby.

Here is a clip in which we’re brushing up on Play With My Toy and just building up the value of toy play:

It took a few sessions for her to stop hoping that I will play with The Beaver if she carries him around long enough. Now she will drop The Beaver immediately as I reach out for the other toy, even if it’s just old fleece.

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Cause Of Failure In Dog Training

I found this quote by Bob Bailey the other day and thought it ties nicely with my last post


Photo credit: Stisnprtisn! studio

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Are Dogs Who Love To Train Born That Way?

Many people see my dogs perform tricks or see a video of them running agility and assume that they were just born that way. (My coworkers are convinced that whippets must be one of the smartest and most trainable breeds around.) That they were born loving tunnels, that they were born knowing how to focus on me and do tricks while there are a gazillion other tempting options around: other dogs and people, ground to sniff, birds to catch. They think their dogs could never do it because they are not like mine.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say “we tried agility one time, but she just didn’t like it”. Really? You tried one session and already concluded your dog doesn’t like it because she doesn’t run through tunnels when you ask her to?

Agility is something that dogs learn to love if you do it right. Sure, some dogs love obstacles from the get go, but not all of them. Most dogs start out liking some obstacles, but they only start liking the others once we build value for them. That means we find ways to make it lots of fun for the dog.

But not all humans want to do agility and that’s fine. Back to reasons why people think their dog wouldn’t like training. They say he doesn’t like to play so much or he takes the toy and runs away or he just can’t focus around other dogs or he doesn’t care about treats. Guess what? Ruby had all those problems (and then some). He loves training now.

My dogs like training so much because I take the time to observe what toys and treats they like, and what type of play. Imagine a special someone would observe your preferences for months so that they could arrange a perfect date for you, cooking the favorite meal for you, taking you to all the places and doing all the activities that you love the most… Would you be impressed? My dogs are, too.

Training in this way is not a duty for a dog, it’s a joy and a privilege. Something that they look forward to and they are disappointed when I don’t have the time to do it. I have never forced or begged my dogs to do agility. During first agility sessions my dog might work for 2 minutes and then have a break for 15 minutes or more. If they’re not interested in working, they don’t have to. Another dog will get their turn. Soon, they find out that I will not beg for their attention and that if they’re not ready when I am, they will loose the opportunity to have fun. However, if they do give me their attention, all their favorite treats, toys and games will rain from the sky and life will be AWESOME. We will go on that special date. Thus training becomes a privilege, not a chore.

Of course to prepare a perfect reward for my dog I have to do my homework before I ever show him agility equipment. I train tricks to see how he likes to learn, what treats he likes and what gets him excited during training sessions. I play with him several times per day. My favorite time to play is on a walk and just after the dog has come inside, which means that as I’m doing my homework we play at least four times per day. I teach him some toy games, such as tugging, Two Toy Game and retrieve. Now that we have some activities that my dogs loves to do with me we are ready to take that training in public, among other dogs.

I don’t start training agility until I know I have some reward that my dog will go ga-ga over. For many dogs that reward must be built through time, so the dog might start out just mildly interested in play, but as we play more and I learn to play better, it will become a better and better reward. So don’t worry if your dog isn’t already crazy about something. Just take what he likes the most and do short, fun session with it. Even treats can become more rewarding with time if used correctly.

After my homework is done we can start with agility, with no obligation for the dog to participate – but of course now they WANT to, because I know what makes them tick.

This is Aki. He likes jumps, absolutely loves the dog walk even though it’s narrow and high, but he says there is something sinister about those tunnels. And yet, from this video you would never guess it, because his owner took the time to bring out his playful side and to find the toy that is worth going through the tunnel for.

Does Aki love tunnels now? Not yet, but with patience and keeping it fun… he will πŸ™‚

This is a wonderful read as well:

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The Aftermath

Stoned Ruby

Stoned Ruby

Anesthesia is a scary thing, but luckily everything went well, everybody at the vet’s office was very nice and Ruby is now completely back (also in his mind, not just his body πŸ˜‰ ). He reminds me of this several times per night as he bumps into things with his Elizabethan collar. Thanks, Ruby. Can’t sleep? Yeah, me neither.

He was shivering this morning. I checked his gums and they seemed white to me. He was lying perfectly still. I got worried. I checked Java’s gums. They looked better than Ruby’s. Went to check Ruby’s gums again. They looked better this time. Then it dawned on me to ask him to get up. He looked at me like: “Are you sure you want me to get up? I thought I was in a stay.” Then he got up and was bright as ever, just a little cold. I put his Back on track coat on and was happy as a clam πŸ™‚

Later today I took him for his first real walk and he was happy and pulling all the time. I don’t think I was ever so happy to see him pull on leash πŸ™‚

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Family Jewels Removal Business

Hey guys, I’m sorry for not writing for so long. I hate it when that happens with blogs that I like 😦

My life has been pretty busy these past two months and it’s going to stay busy for a while… So if you don’t hear from me for another month or so it’s not because I decided to stop writing altogether, it’s just another stretch of craziness.

Speaking of which, I decided to take Ruby’s family jewels away. I don’t make this decision lightly. I know it is accepted, even highly desirable in certain parts of the world, and also among certain groups in Slovenia. But it doesn’t sit so well with me. In essence it means taking a perfectly functioning organ out of the body. It disturbs hormonal balance and makes other tissues work harder to make up for the deficit. There are some indications that neutering could be connected to behavioral and health issues.

Hiding behind the table leg on his last vet visit

Hiding behind the table leg on his last vet visit

However, in my view the pros outweigh the cons now. Ruby goes crazy when Java is in heat, so he has to spend two weeks with friends. Then when he comes back I go crazy because he looses his mind all over again even though Java is not in heat any more. This was no fun, but doable with lots of management, training control behaviors and remembering to be Zen about it. But things have changed and I won’t be able to board Ruby with a person I trust next time Java goes into heat. He is not the easiest dog to handle so there aren’t many people that I feel comfortable leaving him with. I think that in terms of his quality of life it will be best if he gets neutered so he can stay with me during those days.

So this is it. Enjoy the last intact days, my friend. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we won’t regret this!

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One Mind Dogs Seminar In Vienna

I can’t believe it’s been a month since OMD seminar with Janita Leinonen and Jaakko Suoknuuti in Vienna. While my health has held up for the duration of the trip (hurrah!), I did incur some energy debt that I had to pay back before I could resume normal activities. For a while I had to let blogging fall by the side as other things in life took priority.

So, what was new you ask?

Plenty. Since I’m new to OMD way of handling and haven’t even had the chance to try it out with my dogs before seminar (except for playing with Forced Front Cross a few months ago), a lot of it was new to me. Even the things that I already heard about got a new, deeper meaning. So yeah, lots of new stuff!

The seminar was structured as a four-hour lecture and two days of handling in the hot July sun on Monday and a cold not-so-July downpour on Tuesday. There were two courses and four groups of handlers. Each group got half a day with Janita and half with Jaakko, so each dog trained for half a day each day, and they got to train with both presenters which I think was really neat. They have slightly different styles and emphasize different things so it was interesting to listen to both perspectives.

After giving handlers time to look at the 37-obstacle course and formulate their handling strategy they went around the course obstacle by obstacle, showing the best path for the dog and discussing different handling options to get that path. Some options were discussed with a lot of detail which is so typical of OMD handling. Everything was considered: where the dog will be when the maneuver will be started, where will the handler be, where will the handler connect with the dog, how the dog will commit to the obstacle, where will the handler’s feet point, chest laser point, arms, when will the handler take off, in which direction and with what footwork.

While that’s a lot of things to keep in mind while running a course, it is exactly the level of detail that seems to suit my learning style the best. I sometimes find it hard to imitate another handler’s moves, but give me step-by-step instructions and it’s doable. The aim is to internalize these instructions so that one doesn’t have to consciously think about it any more. I think of it like dancing steps.

That is also why they all have names. For example, if instructor says to do a Double Lap Turn at some jump, that conveys a whole set of instructions:

  • Use the opposite hand and only think about getting the dog to look at your hand, not about taking the jump
  • Do not ask the dog to jump until he has committed to your hand. Look at dog’s eyes to see what he is committing to.
  • While he’s focusing on you hand, set the dog up to take the jump from 90 degree angle (if the angle will be smaller, he will turn the wrong way)
  • Release the dog to the jump and start moving in the new direction immediately

Point of Commitment

(For agility newbies, point of commitment is the point beyond which the dog will take the obstacle regardless of what the handler is doing. This frees the handler to run to the next obstacle.)

Probably the most useful thing I learned isn’t about any maneuver, it’s about commitment. I wrote several times on this blog about Ruby’s difficulty in committing to obstacles. He used to peel away from the obstacles really easily and was only truly committed to the obstacle when he was in the air – up until that point his path could change πŸ™‚

This trait in combination with speed made him very difficult to handle. He got better with time, but still nowhere as good as dogs who commit easily by nature. I was never sure if it was a handling fault (I moved away too soon) or training fault (I should have trained him to complete the obstacle in this situation, even though I moved).

Here is the OMD way: as theyΒ commit the dog to the obstacle, they watch dog’s eyes (well this part is impossible for me right now, but I think with some practice it will get easier) and as soon as he looks at the correct obstacle they consider him committed.

If the dog didn’t look at the correct obstacle at all, then this is a handling problem. On the other hand, if the dog looked at correct obstacle, but then moved away from it when handler moved away then it’s a training issue which they fix by setting reward on intended line for the dog, first so that the dog sees it and then thrown by assistant after the dog has made the correct decision. I can’t wait to try this out with Ruby!

I have already tried it with Java and it worked even a bit too well… In just three reps she was committing to that line and beyond regardless of my position πŸ˜‰ I think two reps would be enough for her as she is easy to pattern. Once I stopped doing the setup and just handled it she figured it out on the second try. What a smart girl πŸ™‚

Ruby doesn’t pattern so easily and is very motion sensitive so we’ll see how much repetition he will need to start committing that early. Oh this will be so much fun to try πŸ™‚ Not right now though as we are performing ultrasound treatments on his toe to soften the joint capsule which has become rigid after sprain. Rigid joint capsule is our current guess for what is causing him occasional pain, so hopefully when we soften it he should get better.

Connect – Commit – Cue

OMD does the connect-commit-cue sequence for every obstacle.

Connect means that the dog is able to see a side of handler’s face. Handler’s responsibility is to connect with the dog and dog’s responsibility is to perform the obstacles. This is done as the dog is completing previous obstacle (in case of jumps this is on landing). It doesn’t always mean looking the dog directly in the eye as I described above, this can also mean seeing the dog in peripheral vision, but above all dog needs to see at least a side of handler’s face, because that is what tells them to which side of the handler they should continue.

Commit means the dog has looked at the correct obstacle.

Cue means the handler moves to show where the dog is going after that obstacle, so you’re not running the course telling the dog which obstacles to take, but showing them the path they should run.

If you think about it this is very early information to the dog. It’s much earlier than I thought it would ever be possible to give info to my dogs, but that was before I knew how much commitment I should train.

What really made an impression on me was how the way dogs jumped changed when the handler started giving information earlier. Most handlers started out escorting their dogs too much, turning too slow, halting to watch their dog in the middle of a front cross and all of this resulted in not being able to get in position and not executing the next maneuver before the dog took off. As a result dog’s running and jumping looked choppy.

When they started giving the information early enough it was like watching a different dog: beautiful fast, smooth lines, and no choppy strides! Who would have thought that a few simple changes to handling would make such a difference. Simple, but not always easy, as Bob Bailey would say πŸ™‚

Theory Lecture

During the theory lecture Janita touched on many topics, from puppy training to importance of independent obstacle performance, teaching dogs to not drop bars and also how to walk the course, how to plan where we need to be on each point in order to execute correctly and more.

I liked her point on always walking the course the same way as we will run it, meaning we should not only walk the same line but also look at the same spots that we will be looking at as we run. Maybe that’s why the course always looks different when I run it vs when I walk it? Because when I’m walking it I’m not looking at my virtual dog? I think I need to video how I walk the course and compare.

We also learned how they train puppies, that they train most of the things away from agility equipment, how they train commitment etc. Janita said that their puppies train on the same difficult courses as adults do, only on low bars and broken down to short sequences. They start raising the bars at around 9 months and by 12 months the pups are jumping 55cm.

What really surprised me was that they said they only train once per week on equipment, all other training is done at home and on walks. I don’t know of any other high-profile agility competitor who would say they train on equipment so rarely.

It’s been really interesting and fun, and full of things that I want to try with Ruby and Java. I love experiences that make me want to try new stuff πŸ™‚

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On Failure

I fail. A lot. I fail while training my dogs every day in one way or another. My dogs fail, too. But the important part isn’t that we fail, the important part is how we handle it.

I taught my dogs through free shaping and games that failure is OK and nothing to worry about. If you do it wrong, you don’t get a reward, but we are still playing and you will probably get it right on the next try, so hurry up and try again!
Similarly, when my training plan fails this is nothing to worry about. It doesn’t mean I’m stupid, worthless, will never be able to train this, have a dog that cannot be trained or any other nonsense that the inner critic tries to feed me. We are still playing and my next plan will probably work better!

by mariathehedgehog335

by mariathehedgehog335

I set out to do a few Recallers games in a public place where we usually wouldn’t do them. I brought Ruby out of the car and started tugging, but I could feel his heart wasn’t in it and he even stopped to look around twice. Guess what, if the dog isn’t tugging happily in a certain place you cannot use the tug as a reward. OK, so we were left with food. He was more focused when working with that, but I still felt like I might lose him at any moment. He was on leash, so “loosing him” meant just loosing his attention, but attention, to me, is everything. Since I was fast, rewarded him often and also released often to environment, this didn’t happen, but if I were to lose intensity for a second he would be off to sniff the bushes in no time.

While this would look like a successful training to an onlooker, it was a failure to me, because we are way past the stage where I need to work for his attention (or so I thought). Failures happen and all good trainers are OK with that. They even use them to their advantage. Here are some types of failures:

1. Dog failing at the task. Perhaps failing multiple times. Perhaps not succeeding at all.
2. Reacting inappropriately to dog’s failure because of lack of training plan or lack of knowledge.
3. Inability to get dog excited about training.
4. Loosing dog to the environment (loosing focus & wandering off).

For me, the #3 – inability to get dog excited is the hardest failure to bear emotionally, followed really closely by #4 – loosing dog to environment. These used to be our biggest problems in training and while we don’t get them very often these days, they can still happen as evidenced by my experience with Ruby.

Dog training is an interesting activity. It teaches you so much about yourself, your character, your fears. It can expose your weaknesses like perfectionism, impatience, comparing yourself to others, comparing your dog to other dogs, focusing on the negative, difficulty in expressing joy and approval, worrying about what will others think, wanting to look good, anger, frustration. These were all mine if you were wondering… Some of them in the past, others I’m still struggling with. I probably forgot some, too.

I think it’s amazing that dog training is bringing all of these flaws to the surface in the context where I am motivated to work through them. Sure, it hurts when I bump against “comparing myself to others”, but by working through it I found self-love, appreciation for the journey that is mine alone, and also more love for others. What could be better than that?

I know you have your own struggles, some are with knowledge, others with mechanics and still others with internal critic like mine. You are not alone. Dog training is an unexpectedly emotional experience for most of us.

Look back at the struggles you have already overcome. Perhaps you spent months to teach your dog to play with toys. Perhaps your patience was tested by a puppy piranha. Perhaps you learned to control your frustration better. Perhaps you taught your dog “sit pretty” after 8 months of patient work. You did it!

Remember also that not everything was hard. Perhaps your puppy slept through the night from the time you brought him home. Or he loved food. Or he wasn’t afraid of traffic. Or learned Sit fast. Or you could take him with you for a coffee without much training at all. Every single thing that is easy for your dog is difficult for someone else’s dog and therefore not something that should be taken for granted. When I felt really hopeless and thought that Ruby will never be happy to work with me with other dogs present, I wrote a list of all the things that were great about him, including snuggling πŸ™‚ It helped.

Um... we were supposed to be going in the same direction!

Um… we were supposed to be going in the same direction!

This problem in front of you is just like one of those you already solved. With a little creativity and perseverance it will become one of the problems of the past. If this post reminded you of the problem you have successfully overcome, go ahead and write it in the comments so we can celebrate together πŸ™‚

PS: What do Silvia Trkman and Susan Garrett have in common? They see problems as puzzles, waiting to be solved. They replaced the feeling of frustration with curiosity and a game-on attitude. I came to believe that all great trainers do that – it’s what puts them in the right state of mind to find solutions.

Thanks Monika for Ruby’s agility photo! Those are some great memories πŸ™‚

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Our Vienna Adventure

After visiting the vet at Vienna Veterinary Faculty Java’s wrist remains a bit of a mystery. We went to do the ultrasound and as soon as the vet saw Java’s wrist she said it would be a waste of money to do it because her wrist isn’t swollen (not even a little). She did say that from X-rays I brought her it looks like it could be a tendinopathy on the flexor of the 1st toe. If there would be a persistent lameness a part would have to be severed surgically and that would solve the lameness. She would be able to run and do agility afterwards. But she isn’t lame and the only time she was limping was right after running into the ditch.

But there is also good news: I let Java run free in the park and also did some agility with her and her wrist was just fine πŸ™‚ I guess it’s also possible that it’s healed by now (it’s been four months), but I will try to keep her from sprinting for a while.

The One Mind Dogs seminar was awesome! It was information overload for me, but I didn’t mind, as long as something stays in my memory I’m happy πŸ™‚ I tried to write down as much as possible, but of course there are many things that slipped by me. I learned that Slovenian English accent is easily recognizable because so many people know Silvia Trkman’s English and apparently mine is the same (well duh – we’re from the same city). Someone even asked me if I was related to Silvia and didn’t look entirely convinced when I told him I wasn’t πŸ˜€ Though in Slovenia we sometimes joke that everyone is related to everyone else because the country is so small, so I guess in a way he was right. I just wish those genes would show up in my handling πŸ˜›

Java relaxing while other dogs run agility

Java relaxing while other dogs run agility

I loved Janita’s and Jaakko’s style of teaching. It seemed really logical and well thought through. No two people think exactly the same, so it was also interesting to listen to one and the other explain course choices and focus on slightly different things. While those who had working spots were running the course I was alternately listening in and going back to Java to keep her quiet for longer and longer periods of time. She wanted in on the action, and when she wants something she can be really loud, but with occasional treat she did really well (I used differential reinforcement of other behavior to stop her from barking and whining). The day was very hot and I didn’t want to leave her in the car even with door open, so I kept her in a shade by the course. Luckily there was water for dogs to cool in so I took her there periodically. The first time she was a little skeptic about jumping in, but afterwards she started pulling there as soon as she realized we’re heading for the water πŸ™‚

By the end of the second day Java was really fed up with just hanging around. When the official training was over I warmed her up, lowered the bars to 20cm and did short obstacle sequences on Jaakko’s course. It was very challenging for us, but apparently it’s possible to learn something by watching, because we did things we could never do before πŸ™‚ Java was barking like crazy and flying through the course. I even asked Jaakko to handle her for a sequence, and he did! He had a hard time keeping up with her because she didn’t send to obstacles as well for him as she does for me and those little 20cm jumps were not slowing her down much. That was fun to watch πŸ™‚

In short, Vienna was great. We met wonderful people, made new friends, learned a lot, my health held up, Java’s wrist was great, and we did some agility after a long time. Perfect four days!

Time for bed now. I will write more about the seminar in the next blog post.

Java calmly watching ducks at the park! Success :)

Java calmly watching ducks at the park! Success πŸ™‚

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How Much Will My Dog Remember?

A friend asked me how much do dogs remember if they only train something once per week. The reference was to our weekly agility trainings. The answer, as Facebook would say, is complicated.

First, I would like to point out the 2011 study The effect of frequency and duration of training sessions on acquisition and long-term memory in dogs. While the study was focused on how would different training schedules impact how long the dogs would retain the knowledge afterwards (the answer: once behavior was learned all groups retained it for four weeks regardless of training schedule used), the interesting point for our discussion is that not only have those Beagles that trained only once or twice per week remembered their training, they learned faster than those who trained every day.

Whoa! What are you saying here? Should I just train my dog once per week for fast learning?

Well, it depends on how you define ‘fast’ and I think it also depends on what you’re training. In the study all groups trained the same behavior. Would results differ if the behavior trained was more complex? Who knows.

BeagleRetentionStudyHere’s the graph showing how quickly each group progressed through stages of learning the task of jumping in a basket. One session = 6 repetitions.
W1 – trained once or twice weekly for 6 reps
W3 – trained once or twice weekly for 18 reps
D1 – trained daily for 6 reps
D3 – trained daily for 18 reps

Dogs that trained once or twice weekly for only 6 repetitions (W1) reached training level 7 in 10 sessions (60 repetitions) while those that trained daily for 6 repetitions (D1) reached the same level in 18 sessions (108 repetitions). Obviously the group that was only trained once or twice per week had no problems remembering their training sessions. They even learned faster! However, for group W1 those 10 sessions took 7 weeks while for group D1 their 18 sessions took less than 4 weeks. If talking about treats delivered, group W1 learned faster. If talking about how long it took, group D1 learned faster.

Another interesting tidbit from the study’s discussion: “Results of Maslovat et al. (2004) suggest that interference of an extra task might be as beneficial to acquisition in humans as extra practice on the initial task, which suggests an important effect of the intervening interval.” If this is also true for dogs it seems that we could safely practice other things during the week and they would not interfere with learning in our once-weekly sessions.

From this study it seems that if I had a dog that could eat only a handful of treats per day (or would only be interested in a few treats or whatever) and I wanted to teach him several behaviors it would be best to practice those behaviors once per week. Even if the dog would only get 6 treats per day I could train 7 behaviors simultaneously. Each behavior would take a little longer to complete, but I would maximize the number of behaviors learned over a month or two.

I would like to note one thing though: those Beagles were only learning one behavior and they were always brought to the same room with the same equipment. Dogs are very sensitive to the environment in which we teach behaviors, so for my above scenario to work I would have to practice each behavior in a different location and/or with different props.

Now back to our original question on training agility and to my very unscientific observations of what is going on. This was a laboratory experiment and the environment in which our dogs train agility is very different, so we need to take this into account. The Beagle study made sure that the experiment room looked the same during each session and there were no distractions that could interfere with learning. This is crucial when teaching a dog new things: there must either be very weak distractions present or the dog must have learned to cope with those and stay focused on the task regardless. Our agility environment is quite a bit different: we train outside, there are other dogs present, new smells each week and other distractions.

The behavior we were discussing with my friend was sending the dog through a tunnel which is in a way similar to the behavior the Beagles were training. They both work by building the value for an object – a basket in Beagle’s case or tunnel in our case. The more value the object has, the more our dog is going to gravitate toward that object. The value is built as we feed the dog on the object or reward looking at, walking toward, touching and walking on/through object. Running through a tunnel is not an intellectually difficult task (at least not until the dog needs to find an entrance from weird angles). It could be scary or uncomfortable for some dogs, so it could be emotionally difficult, but once the dog has run through the tunnel a couple of times, there is nothing intellectually difficult about it. It’s all a question of whether the dog finds it worth his while. Is running through the tunnel worth more than sniffing or visiting the classmate? That is the real question.



Value building is an interesting thing to observe. If your dog is one of those who is usually slow(ish), try to teach your dog to go to a mat and lie down using his dinner kibble. Observe the speed with which he moves. Better yet, record a video. Next day use very very good treats – dinner leftovers (lots of dogs think that people food is the best), baked liver treats, chicken gizzards cooked with asparagus (Ruby loves those), cheese – whatever your dog loves above all else. Of course the dog will already know how to go on a mat, but watch the speed. Any difference? I’m betting he was faster this time! Now this doesn’t conclusively prove anything because he could be faster simply because he already knew the behavior, but in my experience this isn’t the case. I was actually working on this exact task a few years ago using kibble for several sessions and Ruby was going through the motions, but without much enthusiasm… And then I used really good treats the next time. Wow! I wasn’t expecting such big speed difference!

Caution: do not try using better treats in the middle of a session if your dog is slow – you would only be teaching him that moping around will make you produce better treats. Instead, end the session and wait at least 10 minutes before you go and get those better treats. You don’t want the dog to learn I’m slow -> she cuts up better treats -> then we train using better treats! Score! Being slow pays off.

In the example above you can determine how much value you have built for the mat by how fast the dog approaches it. Another way to see the value is to take the mat into another room: is he still just as keen? How about if I take it outside? Now we’re testing the value of the mat against the distractions of the outside world. What is hard is not the intellectual knowing that he’s supposed to go lie on the mat (though for dogs with poorly developed generalization skills the ‘knowledge’ part will be difficult, too) – it’s the decision to say “no” to distractions and “yes” to the mat. The thing with the higher value wins.

Back to our original question. By now I hope it’s obvious we’re not really teaching the dog to run through the tunnel as much as we’re building the value for running through the tunnel. How can we build this value faster? As we have seen from example with the mat the object gets bigger value if our rewards are better. If I reward running through a tunnel with a piece of kibble the dog might decide this is not enough and sniff next time instead of running through. If I reward it with a piece of meat, it might be like putting 1 EUR into the tunnel’s bank account. Three pieces of meat + me running and praising excitedly might be an equivalent of 5 EUR. And a Two Toy Game after the tunnel might be worth 10 EUR. Each dog has their own value system.

What motivation looks like

What motivation looks like

So if my friend runs her dog through a tunnel ten times rewarding with a piece of meat she will put 10 EUR into the tunnel’s bank account (if the dog is even willing to do 10 repetitions in the row – this might not be the case with some dogs). Then I run my dog through the tunnel three times and play Two Toy Game each time. I just put 30 EUR into the tunnel’s bank account and it’s very unlikely my dog has quit on me on just 3 repetitions (plus, as you saw in the Beagle study, less repetition might actually be better).

Distractions can decrease the value you put into that tunnel, because the dog must work harder. So if my dog’s friend is near, my dog will need to use self-control to stay and work with me instead of going to play with his friend. I will not be just paying for the tunnel, I will also pay for that self-control, so from my imaginary 10 EUR only 5 EUR will go toward the tunnel (but 5 EUR will go toward self-control, so his self-control will grow stronger with time).

As all analogies, this analogy with money is not perfect or scientific or even original (I think picked it up from Susan Garrett, but then it grew in my head to explain more and more events). But I find it helps me predict dog behavior, create training plans that work, and explain what is happening to others. Not too bad for an imperfect analogy πŸ™‚

I hope I have showed you that “remembering” is not just about memory, it is also about motivation. And motivation is not about how often you practice and how many repetitions you do, it’s about how excited your dog is about rewards you give for those repetitions and about the distractions that compete for his attention.

The source of Java's motivation

The source of Java’s motivation

Thanks to Helena Mesarič and Monika Pleterski for photos!

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In Which I Give Unsolicited Advice On Dealing With Adversity And Show Java’s Rally Obedience Tricks

If I counted it right my “30 posts in 30 days” was actually “25 posts in 30 days” which was about five times more than I usually write in a month. Not too shabby. I’m glad it’s over though πŸ™‚ When I started I thought I will be writing about agility and daisies and unicorns, but then it turned out to be wrist and toe problems and witches and bad luck spells. It took a lot of strength to fight depressive thoughts. I think this was my most successful fight so far. So yay! I guess.

Here’s what helped:

  • TheObstacleIsTheWayListening to Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle Is The Way over and over again. I first listened to the audio book in the beginning of June and I thought it was pretty awesome. Then the reality of Java’s injury hit on June 15th and I found myself going back to it again and again. This is such a first-world-problem to have. No children dying, no epidemics or hunger to fight. But it’s a real problem to me and a real source of sorrow. The Obstacle Is The Way helped me get past the emotional side of it, to act and find other things to focus on. Ryan’s book talks about practical applications of stoicism and while that made me write it off at first (who wants to be stoic? Not me!), the book quickly changed my mind, especially since the stoic principles actually helped me to deal with a rough month better then I have in the past. I might read works of Marcus Aurelius or Seneca in the future. That’s how good this book is.
  • Especially with both dogs injured it’s easy to stay at home a lot and be less active, but that is such a mood killer. I tried to spend the same amount of time on my feet even when we weren’t going for long walks.
  • Helping to train Trinity was a blast and so was our little Whippet Agility group. It makes me feel connected with the sport even though I haven’t been running around equipment all month. It feels good to help others and see changes in their dogs.
  • And of course Rally Obedience! It was great to have something else to focus on, something that we could do regardless of injuries.

Yesterday we had our last Rally class and since Ruby had some mysterious tummy problems I decided not to fill him full of treats, so it was Java’s chance to shine. And shine she did. It’s obvious that she had less practice at it than Ruby and she is a bit bouncy on all exercises which makes it look a bit less like obedience and more like a flavor of Whippet Ballet, but I’ll take it πŸ™‚ She did really really well with distractions. There was a dog barking, an unknown Golden Retriever next to our path (Java didn’t even glance at her), lots of rattling of treat containers and toy squeaking (distracting, but manageable) and instructor tossing a ball into the air while she was heeling (very tempting, but she made the right choice!!!). So proud of my girl πŸ™‚

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