Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Most Important Ingredient Of Work Ethic

The reason some people say that sighthounds are difficult to train is that many lack work ethic of working breeds like Malinois, German Shepherd and Border Collie. Have you ever heard people say this:

  • She will complete the exercises, but very slowly.
  • He just checks out in class and starts sniffing around.
  • I need to switch up exercises all the time to keep him from getting bored.
  • He gets slower and slower during exercise.
  • She likes to play with toys, but will only work for food.
  • I can’t use toys in training. When she manages to steal one from me she zooms around and plays keep away with it.
  • Whippets hate repetition.

These can all be signs of weak work ethic (though some could have other causes, too). I agree, such a dog is difficult to train, but luckily work ethic can be improved.

Of course at this point you can only imagine what exactly “good work ethic” means to me. You probably have some ideas, but you’re not sure. Guess what, neither are our dogs. Our sighthounds have no idea what kind of engagement we want from them – we need to train it. For me this means:

  • Dog knows when I want his full attention and for duration of that time he works with all his heart (the single most important ingredient. Get this and everything else will get much easier).
  • He works reasonably fast the whole time, not just in the beginning.
  • He joyfully disregards distractions like other dogs, females in heat, food on the ground, other people etc
  • He thinks repetitions are good – they mean more possibility to earn rewards!
  • He will work for reward of my choice (within reason). Meaning, if he otherwise likes to play with toys he will not refuse a toy just because I’m carrying food and vice versa – will take food as a reward even if I’m holding his favorite frisbee.
  • When he wins a toy or I throw it for him he will come back to engage with me. He prefers working/playing with me to running around with his toy.

Ruby had none of the above as a teenager. He has all of them now, but they are like any other skill – for best results I need to keep them fresh in his mind. We play many games – too many to describe in a single blog post. So for today let’s focus on how you teach the most important ingredient – working with all his heart throughout the whole session.

Can you make your dog work with all his heart for a few seconds? Maybe that’s when you bring out a special toy or special treats? Maybe before you put the dinner bowl down? Before you let him run with his friends? Maybe in the evening, in the morning? When you come home from work? Experiment with different rewards and times of day.

How long do you think he will keep working with all his heart? Ten seconds? A minute? If it’s just ten seconds then this is how long your sessions should be, or even a little less. End the session before he starts to loose enthusiasm. But how? I can’t get anything done in 9 seconds!

If you have the very best reward for your dog, you’re animated and happy during training session and you’re working at a place with little to no distractions then likely this time is closer to 1 minute (or more). So check your rewards, attitude and training environment.

Here’s why I want you to end the session while the dog is still excited: imagine your dog is taking snapshots during training sessions and especially at the end of training sessions. If the dog has been trained past the point of loosing enthusiasm then his snapshots look like this: Excited! This is fun. OK, a little boring. (Next session) This is fun. OK, a little boring. (Next session) This is fun. OK, a little boring. VERY boring can we please stop?
My dogs snapshots look like this: Excited! (Next session) Excited! (Next session) Excited! (Next session) OMG I’m so excited! This is the best thing ever!!!

Since I always cut off the session while the dog is still excited these are the only memories he has. So of course he thinks training is super fun, how could he think otherwise? Because of this built up enthusiasm he will be able to work longer and longer with same speed and engagement. He will also be far less likely to notice distractions if he is so excited about training and about my rewards.

Of course in the real world things still happen. Not every session is the best session. Or we sign up for a class and our instructor wants us to train longer than we know would be best. When I took Java to puppy class we spent equal amounts of time working, playing and resting (I cued her to sniff around or scooped her in my arms). We probably worked and played 1-3 minutes at a time and I was stopping the sessions way before Java showed any signs of loosing enthusiasm. The instructor suggested that we should work longer so that Java would develop capacity for longer working sessions (well she DID have the capacity to work longer, I just didn’t want to use it).

I told her I saw no need to work longer. Dogs learn fastest when we work in short sessions and for that reason I plan to work in short sessions her entire life. Also agility run is only 30 seconds long – no fear that she would loose concentration because our sessions were too short! But the biggest reason was that I knew Java was taking snapshots of our training. I wanted her to have as many great, exciting, fun snapshots as possible. And I wasn’t about to change that just because we were in a puppy class. It was especially important to me that she has great memories of training around other puppies. That she remembers me being much more fun than any puppy instead of remembering that it was so much fun when she managed to run away from me to play with her classmate… all because I would be too boring to keep her attention on me.

Java will now work for as long as you want even though we never worked on extending the duration of training sessions. This is just a logical extension of enthusiasm she has for work. As they say, time flies when you’re having fun 🙂

Here’s an example of one of our more exciting training sessions. Java is working for her dinner kibble, but she’s VERY excited because I put it in a bowl and she knows I could be sending her to it at any time. Actually she’s a bit TOO excited because her movements are erratic, but we will work through this and eventually she will be able to heel nicely even around dinner bowl. Who said heeling was boring?

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Enjoy The Ride

Like I mentioned in one of my previous posts there are many great things happening right now and I think it would be unfair and ungrateful if I would only focus on troubles when so much awesomeness surrounds me.

Making a plan

Making a plan

A while ago a friend asked me if I have any plans to teach agility since it’s such a big part of my life. “Nooooo” I said, “I have more fun training my own dogs. Teaching people to train their dogs is very different from training dogs myself and I doubt I would get as much joy from teaching people as I do from training dogs.”

Executing the plan!

Executing the plan!

Then we had a Whippet Agility Day and I knew it would be fun to watch other whippets figure out this agility thing, but it was even better than I anticipated! Out of that introduction a mini whippet agility class was born. We meet once a week and enjoy every second of it.



I love seeing that they are a bit more engaged with their handlers, a bit more excited and a bit more focused every time. I love seeing handlers getting more coordinated with how they start a session, deliver rewards and end the session. Of course it helps tremendously that they are doing their homework and teaching their whippets my silly little games that we’ll need in class. Our lessons would go much slower without that. It’s fun to see them transition from a “good dog” mindset to agility mindset. Sometimes the rules seem to be reversed (What? You want my dog to pull?), but they’re catching on real quick and so are the whippets. Who would have thought that teaching people to train their dogs could be so rewarding?

Weaves: easiest. obstacle.ever

Weaves: easiest. obstacle.ever

And oh it doesn’t end here. Helena was very kind to let us ride her horse Karma on Saturday. I haven’t been on a horse in years and even back then I only had a few lessons (15 hours maybe?) before my health prevented me from continuing. Saturday was like a dream of a life long lost… I told Helena that I developed a mild apprehension of horses, but for some reason I felt perfectly safe on Karma, like I would know her for a long time. I trusted her. Teja (the instructor) told me that I would remember how to ride once I got up there, but I didn’t really believe her… until I stopped thinking about it, caught Karma’s rhythm and suddenly trotting felt good again. And the best part is my body is still working! Sure I was sore for days, but none of the feeling-like-life-force-was-drained-from-me crap. I bounced right back. Yay!

Tadeja riding a horse for the first time and doing great!

Tadeja riding a horse for the first time and doing great!

In a private conversation with Karma

In a private conversation with Karma

Batman Ears was watching my every move :)

Batman Ears was watching my every move 🙂

What about Ruby’s limping episode? I took him to our PT and she confirmed my first instinct: the toe that got sprained last year is acting up again. But you have to squeeze it just right to get the pain response, which explains why I was unable to reproduce it and why the vet I took him to on Monday didn’t find anything, either.

Life… weird and wonderful, exhilarating and exasperating, magnificent and scary and beautiful… but certainly not boring 😉

Thanks Helena for letting me use your photos!

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Thoughts On Injuries

You probably read the post on how I warm up my dogs for agility these days. It wasn’t meant to be a “How-to” guide for others, but still I feel I need to say something since both of my dogs are injured right now. Both got injured as a result of an accident during a walk and as you can probably guess… I don’t specifically warm up my dogs for walks. I would say both were quite warmed up before it happened as a natural byproduct of walking, but one can’t run into a wall at great speed and expect not to get hurt. 😦

I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. Only let them run on perfectly manicured lawns with no holes, no ditches, no trees to run into? Ruby has managed to get hurt on walks more times than I can count. Slipping on wet leaves, landing in a hole, twisting a leg while landing,… He is such a crazy boy. Even at five years old he still runs zoomies like a puppy. He doesn’t need a toy or a buddy to do that… just him and the wind. He was doing zoomies just before that unfortunate landing over a stream.

If I had a more safety-oriented value system maybe I would leash him whenever we’re by a stream since he loves jumping over them so much. And then I would leash him whenever there is a steep hill in the woods because he’s almost guaranteed to get zoomies on such hills. And on tight paths. And over logs and branches. And in freshly ploughed fields. Pretty much everywhere where it’s a challenge to run.

And maybe a day will come when I will. I don’t know. How much protection is enough? How much is too much? I know I won’t let them run in an unknown field again… I wouldn’t let Java run there had I known there was a ditch in the middle… But what the eyes can’t see the brain thinks it’s not there. Looks can be deceiving sometimes.

It’s ironic that injuries are such a big part of my experience since normally I would never, ever want to think about what lies beneath the skin. I don’t want to imagine that beneath the soft fur there are bones and tendons and muscles and blood. It makes me feel sick when I look at anatomy pictures… I hurt when I read of injuries and invasive procedures. I have to make myself look at them. I don’t know why on Earth I need this in my experience, but it must be good for something. I have to believe it’s good for something or I will just give up.

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Good Or Bad?

So I took Ruby to the vet today. And of course he wasn’t limping, nothing was swollen, nothing hurt. I explain to the vet how he twisted his toe (I was still sure he did something to that toe he sprained last year) and he checks it and says nah… it’s not the toe. It’s not the wrist. Or the elbow. Or the shoulder. Nothing frigging hurts! The vet thought that perhaps Ruby landed weird and felt pain, but didn’t actually hurt anything. His suggestion was to just resume with activities as normal and if something hurts him check the whole leg right on the spot.

I’ll admit I’m a bit skittish about this plan… something definitely DID hurt when he jumped that stream, so I talked to our PT as well. I’m keeping him on leash this week. Next week I’ll let him run and see what happens.

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You’ve Got To Be Kidding Me!

There’s a ton of good stuff going on right now, but there’s just one thing that’s on my mind. Ruby jumped over a stream and twisted a toe. 😦 Just like that. He jumped over that stream hundreds of times before, but today something went wrong. Maybe there was a rock where he landed, maybe he tangled it as he took off, maybe he misjudged the landing, who knows… It’s the toe that he sprained last year, so it’s possible that he just jammed it… He’s not limping now so hopefully it’s not too bad. I’m taking him to the vet for X-rays tomorrow.

Java took over in Ruby’s Rally Obedience class today as I don’t want him to walk on that toe and she was rocking it.

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Preventing Injuries And Java’s Wrist

I always thought it was weird how much emphasis was put on warming up before agility competitions compared to little emphasis on warming up before training, so I’m glad that Daisy Peel decided to address this subject in her latest podcast. Let me be blunt: I think the reason why people tend to warm up their dog in competition and not in training or classes is that it’s less convenient to do it in training. It may mean that we miss out on watching the other team run or we can’t hear the instructor or we can’t chat with friends. Ever since Ruby injured his shoulder in 2011 I started to pay close attention to warming him up before every training and in the process started paying more attention to how my fellow competitors warmed up their dogs. Sadly what I saw with majority was no or close to no warm up…

But this post is not about what other people do or what they should be doing. Honestly, I think we don’t know for sure how well we can prevent injuries with a proper warm up, at least not without doing a study. And of course there are other things at play here – what condition the dog is in, not just muscles but also tendons, how flexible he is, how well he’s trained to handle different situations on course and even his character. Some dogs throw their body around more than others. We can never 100% prevent injuries – accidents happen and even a well conditioned body with a good warm up can sometimes fail. But we can do everything in our power to avoid the known causes.

Here’s what I do:

Agility on rocks

Agility on rocks

  • Before training we take at least a 10-minute walk. If I only plan to do one short session (for example, last time we did just weave entrances on open weaves) I plan our walk so that we train in the middle of our daily walk. We are very lucky that we are able to train at a club where this is easy to do.
  • Since we started Bobbie’s K9 Conditioning class we also do a warm up routine consisting of tricks that warm up the joints and short sprints. This takes another 10 minutes or so. Total: 20min of warm up. I am not so careful with warming myself up… I need to add that in.
  • If we’ll be running a course we do a few warm-up jumps or wraps.
  • Then we train for about five minutes. If I’m only training one dog, we keep walking around until next exercise (about 10min), so our trainings are essentially walk – agility – walk – agility – walk. If I’m training both then I walk with both of them for a short while before putting one in the crate and training with the other one. This way they get to walk before being put into crate and after they get out of the crate.
  • After the training we do a few tricks for cool down and take a 15 to 30-minute walk, because as muscles cool down they tend to shorten and keeping the dog moving helps prevent that.

In the evening I check the muscles and warm up those muscle groups that seem harder than usual by applying a heat pack for 20 minutes. Ruby always gets a heat pack on his shoulders even though he hasn’t had any problems with them since rehabilitation, but I rather stay on the safe side.

Java at Savica falls

Java at Savica falls

Part of injury prevention is keeping the muscles strong and flexible. I try to walk them 1hr every day now that I’m feeling better and I’m hoping to get that up to 1.5hr per day in a month or two. Every other day we do some strength training and some stretching away from agility. This is new to our regime since starting Bobbie’s class. I used to be very uncomfortable with stretching my dogs because I was afraid I would stretch them in a wrong position or too far, but I’m getting used to it. Ideally I would also like to do some massage or TTouch work each week, but this isn’t really happening at the moment.

What about Java’s wrist?
With all this good stuff, how did Java sprain her wrist? I have been racking my brain on this one. I just couldn’t believe that she would sprain a wrist and wouldn’t limp or show other signs of pain like licking. I know toe injuries can be silent like that, but wrist sprains usually result in lameness.

Finally I remembered that one week prior to that coursing training Java was running with a Galga Espanol (and beating her! She was flying!). They were running big circles in wide open field… or so I thought. I didn’t know that there was a gutter in the middle of the field, the sides of it covered with grass. Galga jumped over it, but Java crashed into that gutter at full speed 😦 My heart stopped. I ran over there, got Java out of the gutter and she stood still for a while. When she started moving she was limping on front foot, but luckily nothing was broken. We were 2km away from the car so I couldn’t carry her all the way. After a while she was limping less and by the time we got to the car her gait was normal.

Yay, we're recovering!

Yay, we’re recovering!

She stayed sound all week and even after coursing she wasn’t limping, only her wrist swelled up. I asked our physiotherapist if this accident could be the real cause of injury to her wrist and coursing only aggravated it to the point of swelling. She said yes. Java is actually really lucky that she only had some transient swelling, not a broken leg from crashing into gutter.

Java is doing really well with her rehabilitation plan. She was wearing a hard wrist wrap last week, but this week we replaced it with a soft one as her wrist hasn’t swelled in three weeks. We were going for 1hr walks and did some strength building/stabilization exercises this entire time so she didn’t loose too much muscle mass. This week she got to run around on Flexi lead, too. 🙂 If everything goes well I will be able to let her run freely for short periods of time next week. She will be wearing the soft wrist wrap, of course.

All in all I think we have good reasons to be optimistic. Java’s wrist is on the mend, Ruby is sound and doing well, and I found a health regime that allows me to be active again and take my dogs for long walks. 🙂

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Happy 5th Birthday, Ruby!

Oh time flies, doesn’t it? I love how you tell me that you would like to sleep in the bedroom and how you snuggle under the covers as I watch movies. I love how you seem to understand so much of what I say even though you don’t agree with much of it. I love how crazy you are about agility even though I often don’t dare to run fast because I know you would run even faster and I’m afraid you wouldn’t be able to handle your body over obstacles. I still get an adrenaline rush every time I run with you. I love how you lure Java away with a toy so that you can have a few moments alone with me. I love how you keep checking on me during walks. You are perfect in so many ways. ❤ Please stay sound and happy!

Photo by Stisnprtisn!

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Competition – What Is It Good For?

Here’s some background music for you.

There has been an interesting development over the past few months: I don’t miss competitions. I feel no desire to go and no pressing urge to complete Java’s training so she could compete (not that she could train right now anyway). I always preferred training over competition, but this is new for me.

Don’t misunderstand me, I am all for competitive agility and I am especially happy every time I see a whippet do a good job in competition, but I don’t feel the need to go out and prove anything to myself like I used to. Not because I would have such mad skillz, but because right now, for the first time since I’ve been bitten by agility bug I am quite content enjoying agility in private or with friends. I like it that if I screw up I can just go back and redo the sequence, feeling no pressure about it.

There’s just one thing. Continue reading

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Why I Still Like To End Sessions On A Good Note

Silvia Trkman said many great things in her latest blog post on why we don’t always need to end sessions on a good note (seriously, you should read it), but I do have some reservations.

I think ending on a good note has its advantages even for those trainers who use only dog-friendly techniques and make training really fun for the dog. From human psychology we know that how the session ends can have a big impact on how we’ll remember it – if it ends on a good note we tend to remember the whole session more favorably than a session that went well, but ended with a disappointment. I have no proof, but I’m pretty sure dogs are the same. This would mean that too many sessions ending on a bad note would have a negative impact on how your dog feels about training.

As Denise Fenzi wrote in a blog post (this is part of an excellent series of posts on behavior chains): when we train we don’t just train behaviors, we also train a Conditioned Emotional Response (CER) to the trainer and training itself. If the dog is excited during trainings over time their CER to training will be excitement and if the dog is usually bored or frustrated during training their CER will also reflect this. So if by keeping training sessions exciting we built a great CER then by ending on a bad note repeatedly the CER could shift from excitement toward something less.

It also depends a lot on dog’s character and life experience. Just like the same event like loosing a job can impact two people in a different way, one searching for a new job with optimism while the other one wallows in depression, so the same event (ending a session on a bad note) can prompt some dogs to try even harder next time while it can deflate others.

With Ruby who loves to work and believes that if something went wrong it was all my fault, I can end a session when things go wrong and it’s no problem. I don’t think he learns anything from it, we just quit, I think of a new approach and next time he’s no worse for the wear. With Java, who also loves to work, but believes that everything that goes wrong is her fault, I try not to show her that things went south. After all, if she can’t get it right that’s my fault, not hers. I messed up by making the task too difficult for her. After too many unsuccessful repetitions I find something that we can do successfully, we do that and end the session – i.e. we end on a good note.

Maybe a part of the reason why Silvia sees this situation differently than me is in our personalities. When things go wrong she seems to get curious (from what I was able to observe) while I get frustrated. Java can sense my frustration, so I need to candy coat it with good stuff (making success easy) so she won’t think she did something wrong. Ruby on the other hand doesn’t care if I’m frustrated or not, he is sure it was my fault anyway 😉

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Wrist Wrap

Java_BohinjJava got her wrist wrap today! Wait… What? What wrist wrap? Why?

Well, at first I thought it was a bee sting. After the coursing training several weeks back Java’s right wrist swelled up. It didn’t hurt her when I palpated it (and she’s not the kind of dog that hides the pain) and it went away after couple of hours. Bee stings happen. Ruby had a few already and didn’t seem to be in pain after the initial sting wore off. This looked quite similar. Still, the location of swelling was suspicious… Continue reading

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