Monthly Archives: January 2013

Chipping Away



When they asked Michelangelo how he made his statue of David he is reported to have said, “It is easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.”

Thanks to Ruby I view dog training in a similar way that Michelangelo viewed sculpting, which is quite fitting because his registered name is Karstia Michelangelo.

The way I see it the puppy doesn’t come to me as a blank slate. It has preferences, passions and potential which shape what kind of dog it is capable of becoming. My task is to downplay all the traits that don’t look like “David” and emphasize and nurture those that do. Perhaps Michelangelo saw the whole David when he looked at that block of marble for the first time, but my guess is he didn’t. My guess is that he discovered David layer by layer. In this process I only see a little bit ahead at any time, but that’s enough. As I work though that layer another one will present itself, more beautiful than the one before.

Just a tiny bit crazy at the moment

Just a tiny bit crazy at the moment

Of course this also means that I don’t have a big detailed plan of what Java will need to know by when (even though I am quite a fan of big detailed plans myself). I want to work with whatever she’s got in each moment and try to preserve as much craziness as possible. If I had to choose between Java weaving slowly but surely or her sprinting right past the weaves because she would be so excited to be on agility course, I would choose the later. I don’t think I will have to make that choice, though 🙂

She is not an overall crazy puppy, but there are a few things that get her overly excited. She has a fondness for grabbing my clothing if I tease her with a toy just a little too much for her taste. My desired outcome is even more intensity, but less biting of inappropriate items 😉

Are you calling ME crazy?

Are you calling ME crazy?

For me it is more important that Java gets excited, even a bit crazy, than that she does everything correctly. I value excitement more than that she finds the correct agility obstacle. I value craziness more than obedience. I only ask that she will stay safe (as much as that is possible at whippet speeds), the rest we can figure out with time.

Of course, when it comes to recall I want obedience, but that is a different story 🙂

EDIT: Please also read Chipping Away Explained

Once again thanks to Mateja for the photos on this blog post. They are beautiful! I’ve got more to share, but they will have to wait for another time.

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How I Fell In Love With Agility – Bonus Chapter

By now I was already in love with agility, so technically speaking this post is not part of the series, but I thought it would be good to document the rest of Ruby’s story. So here it goes…

We didn’t do just running contacts for those eight months of course (though it often felt like that). Once in a blue moon we also did a sequence or two, some Cik&Cap training and weaves. Ruby started loving agility more than anything else and developed a strong working ethic. He happily repeated exercises over and over to the point that it was hard to tell when we did too much.

Whenever we arrived at agility club he was shaking with excitement. Sometimes we had to burn this adrenaline with other exercises before doing any dogwalks because he was shaking so much that he would fall off. There was a period when he was absolutely unable to think around equipment, but since if he didn’t think he didn’t get to play, he eventually learned to think while overaroused. Or at least pretend he was thinking.

We had a great connection on agility field, but not so much during normal life. I decided it’s time to do something about his unreliable recall and signed him up for Susan Garrett’s Recallers course. We were working diligently and started getting some really good results. And then an accident happened. The boyfriend took Ruby for a walk and let him loose even though we supposedly agreed to keep him leashed. (Well, I suspected that he is letting him off leash, but had no way of proving it until that day.)

Ruby chased another dog and ran right into the oncoming car, then slid between front tires and his harness got stuck underneath the car. Luckily the driver saw him and was breaking, so the impact was not so great and since he got stuck he couldn’t run away in panic. He only required a few stitches on his forehead, but was in shock for two days. Afterwards he didn’t seem to remember that he was hit by a car, because he wasn’t afraid of them. Instead, he became suspicious of many, many things, but particularly afraid of dogs, presumably because that’s what he last remembered before getting hit.

This is the story of our recall:

Next few months were dedicated to getting Ruby comfortable around other dogs again. Like most things with Ruby this was quite challenging in everyday life, but easy near agility equipment, so we were able to continue training. This is one of our trainings just before the first trial. A very raw video, with mistakes and all and no music, so you can hear Ruby barking when he’s running 🙂 Skip to 0:37 (there’s RC training in the beginning). Video ends with another session of RC because he had problems with DW-tunnel combinations.

I signed us up for our first trial in August 2011, not because we were ready, but because I couldn’t wait any longer 🙂 It’s a good thing that this was a two-day trial so we got to run 4 times, otherwise all I would remember from that first competition would be Ruby clinging to me and running past jumps.

When our 4th run came around we had to go to the startline right past a spectator relaxing in the grass. Ruby usually alarm barked at people lying on the ground (well, who wouldn’t find THAT suspicious? 🙂 ) and I was thinking this run he is going to be even more clingy than on the previous runs or perhaps unable to run altogether. Well, he did break the startline, but then he was running like crazy!

That fall we went to a few more trials, me trying to shake my trial nerves and Ruby developing confidence to take obstacles away from me. However two times after comming back home from a trial he looked unsound for a few minutes, so I set out to investigate what was the matter. The two orthopeadists I took him to couldn’t agree on which shoulder was the tender one, but they both thought the issue might be bicipital tenosynovitis while a physiotherapist thought it was due to muscle tension.

I gave him two months of complete rest with some physiotherapy sessions and a gradual return to exercise. However, this second part was easier said than done. Ruby’s fears from the car accident came back with a vengeance. Without lots of exercise to release his tension he could not cope with walks and without coping with walks he could not get his exercise. He would freak out at normal sights, like a bag on the floor, a family enjoying nature or seeing our car from an unexpected angle. Not to mention dogs, though we were mostly able to avoid those. The BAT method from Grisha Steward helped a lot, but our progress was slow.

As soon as we progressed to the point where I could let him run free in a fenced area we started doing short agility exercises. It’s amazing how with even a little agility his problems started resolving much faster (and no, playing without equipment doesn’t have the same effect). Soon I was able to do it with other dogs present and then dogs on walks weren’t such a huge problem anymore.

I was determined to build up his fitness gradually and to not do any real agility until I would be confident that his shoulders can take it. Seven months after our ordeal started, when I was just about ready to let him do some agility, he badly bruised a shoulder while fetching a ball. After that healed we did a couple of easy agility trainings (no jumping or weaving) and then he slipped while running in the woods, pulling a muscle. Small injuries like this continued for the rest of 2012, most recently a sprained toe (and torn webbing) that just cannot seem to get well. He has been confined to leashed walks and at times complete rest since October. 😦

Here’s to the end of 2012 and to beginning of 2013, hopefully an injury-free year for my brindle boy!

Previous post: How I Fell In Love With Agility – Part 3

This is the last post from the “How I Fell In Love With Agility” series. Ruby finally started running agility courses again in September 2013: Agility Ruby

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How I Fell In Love With Agility – Part 3

As luck would have it Silvia Trkman opened LoLaBu Land 40km away and we signed up for Agility Foundations class. It was only scheduled once every two weeks, but I figured that’s fine, we’ll take it slow.

Even though we have improved by leaps and bounds since discovering frisbees we still had a few itty bitty problems:
– Couldn’t work off leash around other dogs (unless playing frisbee)
– Doing more than one behavior per reward was really hard (sequencing, anyone?)
– No access to agility equipment (except once every 14 days at LoLaBuLand)
– No access to a fenced-in area

I initially taught Cik&Cap to Ruby as direction of circling around a chair in the living room and even under the best conditions he was painfully slow. When I first used frisbees with Ciks and Caps and he went at a canter instead of a trot I thought he was lightning fast! It’s a good thing I was too excited to notice that in reality he was still quite slow.

Wheee! Cantering around boxes is so much faster than walking around chairs in the living room!

I thought every new thing he did was awesome. He did a figure eight? Wow! He went through a tunnel? Unbelievable! He did a Cik and THEN went through the tunnel? He’s a genius!
And weave poles: “It’s so magical! I just put a frisbee 1m after the channel, hold Ruby and say Where’s the frisbee?, then release him. Easy-peasy :)”

Oh, it took so little to make me happy those days 🙂

Every time I drove back from LoLaBu Land my heart was swelling with pride of my brindle boy who used to think that other dogs were the bestest thing ever invented and now found this agility gig more interesting than dogs. There were no fences at LoLaBu Land at the time so he was free to visit other dogs or go explore the countryside if he chose to.

One time he saw a cat and chased it into neighbour’s barn. Silvia’s comment was “And there goes Ruby…” He came back as soon as he made sure that the cat was secure and comfortable in its hiding spot 😛
But most of the time he chose to stick with me. Me! How did I ever get this lucky?

So with all that awesomeness I decided I could teach Ruby a running dog walk. Because that’s the logical thing to do when you’re a novice trainer with no throwing skills and a dog who most of the time acts like he never saw a clicker outdoors. And has no concept of training at full speed. And who still goes to check out other dogs while training. Which would be fine if you had a place to train with no other dogs present, but you don’t. And no access to equipment either.

I wasn’t really sure if whippets could be taught running contacts using Silvia’s method. Their running style looks a lot different from that of border collies and as far as I knew no whippet has been successfully taught with Silvia’s RC method. I knew of two whippets, Pan and Boing! who had running contacts, but were taught using a collection of methods, and Boing! was switched to stopped contacts eventually. Again, being the optimist that she is, Silvia didn’t try to dissuade me from trying.

I bought a plank, sand-painted it and couldn’t even wait until the paint was dry before testing it out. I took it to a small park between apartment buildings, with people, dogs, birds and occasional cat wandering around. Although Ruby had a lot of problems staying focused there, it proved to be a great environment because he practiced choosing playing with me over distractions many, many times over. I could always tell when one of the neighbour’s bitches were in heat because Ruby would get all brainless again, but with time he learned to work though those scents as well. (Fast forward a year later: he chose to leave a bitch in heat to play agility with me! Happydance!)

On the video above is our setup in a small park between apartment buildings.

The beginning videos of running contacts training are so painful to watch it hurts my eyes. I made every possible mistake in setting Ruby up. He was slow, bouncy and looked at me instead of focusing ahead. He avoided the plank if at all possible. I clicked him for jumping off the plank. I spent at least a month teaching poor fellow how to bounce on that plank before I found a way that made him run. I’m sure by then Silvia wasn’t feeling so optimistic anymore 🙂

Me? I was hooked. I thought that with just another training session or two I could get him to run consistently. Well, it took more than that, but I always had the feeling that success was just a session or two away. I recruited help from a second instructor (Daša Zakotnik) because I couldn’t see where Ruby’s paws hit and in the process gained access to dog walk and a fenced training area.

I thought I learned patience and perseverance during Ruby’s first year, but I had to upgrade it to 2.0 for running contacts. Still, after 8 long months we finally did it! When Ruby ran over the full-height dog walk for the first time – that was the most exhilarating feeling in the world. I was thinking about where to set him up when he ran over the dog walk all on his own and hit the contact. It was like magic 🙂

Previous post: How I Fell In Love With Agility – Part 2
Next post: How I Fell In Love With Agility – Bonus Chapter

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How I Fell In Love With Agility – Part 2

When Ruby turned eight months old I made this lofty goal: “to be able to work with him on loose leash with dogs 50m away, with ground to sniff, holes to dig, and birds to catch”. I didn’t write “off leash” – I could not imagine how I could motivate him enough to stay with me off leash when there were other dogs mere 50m away!

Over the winter we worked on building his desire to play with me outside and testing lots of little protocols, devised to keep him focused on me for short periods of time. He was intact and hitting the peak of adolescence so on some days he was brilliant, but most of the time he seemed to live in a sort of “brainless” state.

Jumping in cold sea in the winter

Jumping in cold sea in the winter

After one particularly embarrassing afternoon I wrote in my diary “It might be that Ruby is a really difficult dog. In that case I will learn a lot and it will make me a better trainer. Or perhaps I’m a really bad trainer. In that case I will also learn a lot and it will make me a better trainer.”
He spent more time in the air than on the ground

He spent more time in the air than on the ground

And two months later: “I am panicking. I’m thinking I don’t know how to train my dog and how could I get such a crazy dog to train. Doesn’t life KNOW I’m a novice at this?!” But I kept reading books, asking on forums and tweaking training protocols and Ruby kept getting better.

Around that time I discovered SHAgility group (can’t write that name without smiling :)) and agility sighthound blogs: One-Eyed Agility Supporter & Microfriend (crazy name, Penny!), Dog Blog! and Never Say Never Greyhounds where I got my weekly fix of sighthound awesomeness. Reading Clean Run and blogs made me feel like this agility thing could some day become a reality for us as well.
I pestered Frankie with my questions and she gave me some very useful pointers on keeping Ruby motivated, particularly when doing more than three repetitions in a row, which was a big problem for us.

Spring came and we were nowhere ready to join Agility class so we took a Disc Dog class to practice working around other dogs. Ruby was on 20m leash attached to a bungee attached to his harness, but I still felt uneasy when I threw that first frisbee. There was no need. Ruby was so hyped up from watching us practice throws earlier that he didn’t care about other dogs. All he could think about was how to hunt down a frisbee. It turned out that he was a natural talent… I, however, was not. 😀

In just a few sessions I got a frisbee maniac. I even took him to a 4fun match where he was being his usual obnoxious self until I pulled out that first frisbee. It was like someone turned a lightbulb on in his head – we didn’t come to play with dogs, we came to play with FRISBEES! Yeah, baby!

Catching a frisbee - click to enlarge!

Catching a frisbee – click to enlarge!

That summer as I was looking back at a year spent with Ruby I wrote in diary “We both had to work hard to build this relationship, because we didn’t have a natural affinity for each other. But a year later I am really grateful for him, for all that he is and for all that he will still become. I wouldn’t exchange him for any other puppy, no matter how obedient and bright. He taught me a lot more than a calmer & naturally obedient pup would. Now he is mine and I am his, without a question.”

We were finally ready for some agility!

To be continued… (and of course some more photos 🙂 )

Frolicking with pine cones

Frolicking with pine cones

He ran and ran and ran... all by himself

He ran and ran and ran… all by himself

Frisbee maniac

Frisbee maniac

All photos were taken by Mateja

Previous post: How I Fell In Love With Agility – Part 1
Next post: How I Fell In Love With Agility – Part 3

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How I Fell In Love With Agility – Part 1

Penny wrote a great post on the same topic. Penny, this one is for you 🙂

Holding 6 week old Ruby... ecstatic!

Holding 6 week old Ruby… ecstatic!

When I got Ruby I was not thinking of getting involved in any sports, dog or human. I was recovering from burnout and spent most of my day gathering the energy to get up, but somehow getting my first puppy at that time seemed like a smart idea. Whippets were supposed to be mellow fellows with modest exercise requirements and the boyfriend promised to help out as well.

I was looking forward to training the little guy, I’ve been waiting for this opportunity since my childhood. When researching the breed I found a piece of internet wisdom that went something like this: The good news is that whippets are the most trainable of the sighthounds. The bad news is that sighthounds are not very trainable. Ummm, ok, I better get educated then!

I promptly went to Amazon and bought Jane Killion’s book When Pigs Fly: Training Success With Impossible Dogs. Then I looked for a puppy school that would have experience with “impossible dogs” and found Silvia Trkman. The first thing I read about her is that she went to agility world championships with her samoyed Aiken. I was beyond impressed! Agility looked waaaaay harder than obedience, and she did it with an “impossible breed”! I sent her an email asking if she has a spot left in her upcoming puppy class and in her optimistic style she wrote back that yes, we can join the group and that whippets are quick learners who love to work if they see work as a game. Well, I’m sure that after Aiken every dog seems easy to Silvia 😛

So we got this 8-week brindle pup and for the first three days he would not be still for even a second unless he was sleeping and even that was not for long. On the fourth evening he lay down on the sofa for the first time and we were wondering if he’s all right… he was too quiet so we were worried he got ill. As it turned out puppies are not supposed to run around every waking second, but we didn’t know that.


He didn’t care much for kibble, and would only eat it at home and only if really hungry. I tried feeding him all his food during training, but he wouldn’t even show that he heard the clicker if all I had was kibble. With time and since he never got food in his bowl he decided he could try working for kibble that was scented with salami over night. But if he got even a small amount of “good stuff” that day then kibble was not worth his time. And even if the conditions were perfect so he took the kibble he was not a fan of repetition. He would perform a behavior three times (and get rewarded each time), then just wander away looking for something else to do.

Cuteness that was Ruby

Cuteness that was Ruby

When we showed up for the first puppy class Ruby almost strangled himself on the leash from trying to get to other puppies. In the beginning I spent most of the time just standing on his leash, ignoring his whining and attempts to get other puppies to play and rewarding any and all attention he had to offer. It took us eight visits before he was able to focus on me more than on other dogs. But he was crazy about his bottle on the string and would play enthusiastically, so there was some hope for us.

Somehow I managed to teach Ruby some tricks and Silvia was very kind in making me feel like we were making fantastic progress. However, when not on school grounds Ruby could not focus at all. When Silvia asked us what we would like to do when the puppy class ends I sheepishly answered I would like to try agility. I reckoned she would be the only person who wouldn’t call me crazy if I said that out loud.

To be continued… (and some puppy photos for the end)

Pretending to be a good boy

Pretending to be a good boy



Puppy school: he was not always focused, but that boy could heel!

Puppy school: he was not always focused, but that boy could heel!

All photos were taken by Mateja

Next post: How I Fell In Love With Agility – Part 2

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Looking Back on 2012

2012 was a tough year. I knew Ruby’s first years have trained me in patience and perseverance, but I had no idea that my newfound skills would be used in this way. The 2012 was a year of injuries for Ruby. For the first half of the year his shoulder, then after he got back in form he had several silly injuries such as slipping on a branch and straining a muscle. And lastly a sprained toe and split webbing, which we’re still dealing with. Well, the good news of the year is that his shoulder seems to have healed very well and is doing great.

After every period of rest we increased activity very gradually so we only got to play agility a handful of times last year, but boy did we have fun when we did! His speed and enthusiasm always suprise me after we haven’t done agility for a while. I seem to forget just how fast he is and my reaction times get very poor 🙂 Ruby gets pumped up with adrenaline just watching other people walk the course. There is no doubt in his mind that he belongs there, running through tunnels, over jumps and dog walks…

In late spring of 2012 I started thinking about getting a second dog. I would have waited another year or two if it wasn’t for Ruby’s shoulder, but shoulder injuries are tricky and I wasn’t sure if he will be able to play agility again. I also wanted to focus on training another dog to stop obsessing so much about Ruby’s health.

I started looking for a border collie, because I wanted
a) a dog with suitable build for agility
b) a puppy who I will be able to trust off leash pretty soon
c) a dog who will not team up with Ruby for chasing rabbit and deer

I found planned mating that I liked. I talked to the breeder about visiting parents and made travel arrangements, reserved a hotel etc. And then I got myself a whippet puppy! Ha!

Even though it made perfect sense rationally to get a BC my heart wasn’t cooperating with my mind. When I stumbled upon a litter of whippets with all the health checks I wanted to see (but thought I would never find a breeder who would do them) and with a sire that competes in A3 (what are the odds???) I took that as a sign. I immediately looked up his videos and his enthusiasm for agility was obvious. Java’s pedigree

So even though I never met the parents and all I knew about them I found through email with their owners, I flew to Finland one August evening to pick up my Black Magic. She truly is a wonderful whippet. Always ready to work, willing to please, confident, loves people and has a nice, stable temperament with a dash of craziness. She is 6 months old and loving our agility games.

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