Sunday, November 18, 2012

Preparing for Jump Work

Pongu has finished his RL1, so next year we'll start competing in Level 2 (and, hopefully, Level 3) Rally. This means he's going to have to do some jumps, and that in turn means I need to start laying some foundations so he can do those jumps safely.

The main reason we don't do agility -- even though it looks like a ton of fun and is by far the biggest dog sport around these parts -- is because Pongu is not physically capable of doing something that strenuous. He has lousy structure: he's bowlegged and pigeon-toed and both his left front foot and right rear foot are problematic (the former because of an old injury caused or at least exacerbated by his original owner; the latter is a mystery ailment, although these days it seems to be the one that bothers him more). After years of work, he's got reasonable coordination and hind-end awareness, but he'll never have the grace or durability needed to do agility safely.

Also, he's terrified by the obstacles. All of them.

So we do Rally, because APDT Rally is a lot more forgiving of dogs' physical limitations. And we play a little bit in freestyle, because you can tailor your routine to encompass only those moves your dog can do comfortably. (There are a couple of required elements for competition routines, but they're minimal and not particularly demanding -- just some basic heels and turns -- and, anyway, we're not currently competing in freestyle.) Up until now, we've had no need to learn jumps, because there just weren't any.

Now that Pongu's past the no-jump level in Rally, that plan has changed. APDT Rally doesn't have a lot of jump exercises (there's only one in Level 2 Rally, and I think two or three in Level 3), and they're nowhere near as frequent or difficult as the ones in agility, so I think Pongu can manage them... but to make sure he can do it safely, jump work is officially on our training to-do list.

It'll be a while before we get to the actual jumps, though. For now, we're doing some foundation exercises intended to improve his footwork and body awareness before actually starting any jumps.

The less formal of these exercises is going up the stairs backwards, which was just a little game that Pongu figured out in about three days. He grasped the basic idea almost immediately, as he already knew how to walk backwards on cue, so it was just a matter of transferring that concept to stairs. In the beginning, it was a little clumsy...

...but his skill level improved quickly.

(In this clip I have Crookytail sitting on the stairs to act as a sort of roadblock and force Pongu to target a smaller area on the stairs. Crookytail does not do the backwards stairs thing. He does, however, make a most excellent roadblock.)

We also started doing a Real Exercise, i.e., cavaletti. This concept is stolen wholesale from horse training; cavaletti are used to teach horses how to pace themselves and take jumps. They are also used to train dogs in a very similar fashion.

We started with some makeshift poles (really just our one bar jump, disassembled) lying flat on the floor. I used a sendaway-to-mat and recall to get the dogs moving, and laid out the yoga mat to guide them over the poles instead of around them.

Once they were both comfortable with skipping over the poles on the ground, I raided our recycle bin for empty Coke cans and crushed them down to hold the poles about half an inch off the floor.

I also started varying the arrangements of the poles (as best I could within the obviously small confines of our condo) so that instead of always being in a straight line, there were some curves and angles between the poles as well.

At this point both dogs started slowing up a bit and hesitating about going over the poles (mainly because those Coke cans make quite a racket when one of the dogs misses and knocks a pole), so we'll spend a couple of days drilling at this level before moving on to low jumps. Once they're comfortable and even happy about playing the cavaletti game, we'll proceed to the next step. For now, the goal is to build confidence and comfort at this level.

Tonight I'll build some low jumps using the super glamorous and high-tech combination of empty dog food cans, nails, a bag of concrete powder, and some PVC pipes. Aw yeah. It's gonna look so cool.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Sydney Goes Home

Two weeks ago, Sydney went home.

I packed her tiny suitcase with some food and treats, a favorite toy (really her second-favorite, as the #1 toy was too disgusting to leave the house), her medical records, and a copy of Patricia McConnell's booklet Love Has No Age Limit.

Then I took her on one last tour of South Philly to say farewell to the city and make sure she was thoroughly exercised before her seven-hour car ride to upstate New York.

And then she met her new people, and did the happy foster dog snuggle thing, and never looked back. The last I saw of Sydney, she was trotting off happily between her new people, tail wagging in a joyous blur.

Her adopters have been keeping me updated on her progress. She settled in well, promptly made friends with all three resident dogs, and has daily adventures investigating the woods around her new home. She's a happy dog and they're a happy family, and so the story ends well.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Rally Nerves and Successes

After our double-NQ disaster on October 14, I was determined that we'd do better at the next trial on October 28.

The raised signs had proved particularly troublesome for Pongu, as he'd never seen such things before and was frightened by the eye-level signs, so I made up some fake Scary Signs and drilled Dog Mob around those things until they could both comfortably ignore the signs indoors.

After a couple of days, when they could ignore the signs in their usual training area, I moved the signs outside and constructed a pop-up mini Rally course in the alley behind our condo. Bonus: a nearby restaurant had an enormous vent that sometimes blew into that alley, creating a second distraction that duplicated the noisy fan which had also thrown Pongu off at the October 14 trial.

It turned out to be an enormous hassle to get that thing set up, and even at half past midnight (the hour when I took the above picture) there were people wandering through my fake Rally course constantly, so we didn't use it that often. I think it helped, though, and it didn't take too long for Pongu to get used to the raised signs in this context as well. (Crookytail, of course, was never bothered by them at all. Not much rattles a Crookydog, other than SEPTA buses.)

In addition to prepping the dogs, I had to prepare myself. My own ring nerves were a much bigger problem than Pongu's had been -- he was willing to work through his issues, but I hadn't been willing to struggle through mine. So, in preparation for this round, I downloaded a couple of super catchy songs into my iPod and just put them on repeat, running them through my head over and over to block out all other thoughts.

I also tried to convince myself that "it's just for fun, these scores are meaningless, it's not about the numbers" but hahaaaa like that ever works. Please. You put any possibility of an honors ranking in front of a lifelong azn overachiever, she's gonna gun for that score. Fortunately, Pongu feels the same way (or at least appears to do so enough that I can impose my interpretations on him and not feel like a liar), and as long as I've got one nerd dog who's willing to share my nerd goals, it doesn't matter if the other dog wants to take a more laid-back approach.

So off we went to our trial! Crookytail still didn't have a reliable left pivot and Pongu was-and-is generally unreliable in scary new environments populated by scary new people, but whatever, it was as good as it was gonna get in the time we had.

Both dogs were entered in two runs apiece. My goal was for Pongu to earn two Qs with 190 points or higher on each run (which would enable him to earn a Level 1 Award of Excellence) and for Crookytail to just have a good time and not get too stressed out. Crooky hates competitions anyway -- he doesn't do well under pressure and he thinks it's dumb that he can't play with all the other dogs -- so I wanted him to just hang in there and hopefully not pee on any signs.

As it turned out, this venue didn't have any raised signs -- they were resting on the floor the same way they do in our regular class -- so all that scary-signs prepwork was for nothing. Oh well. Better to be over-prepared than under.

Dog Mob did very well. I'm proud of them both.

Pongu was a little shaky and distracted by over-vigilance, as he is wont to be in new environments, so we lost some points on repeated cues (3x each run) and on the first run I also dropped a treat, which cost us another 3 points and taught me a valuable lesson about the need to have big, easily grasped treats in my pocket when I'm all fumble-fingered with nerves.

Crookytail was... Crookytail. He popped up on every one of his Sits, which cost 1 point each time and was commented upon by both judges, but was nevertheless an improvement over his dropping into constant unwanted Downs (he didn't do that once!), and he did a lot of lagging and sign-sniffing during the Heeling portions of each exercise. APDT Rally has an extremely generous definition of "Heel position," so that didn't cost us too much... but honestly, it should have. At best, what Crooky was doing might count as "loose-leash walking on the left," but I wouldn't consider it anything close to an actual Heel for about half of each run, and I feel like grading it the same as a proper Heel devalues the performances of the teams who did do close, correct Heels. So even though the lax grading benefited my dog, I would have preferred a stricter definition that put more importance on proper performance of the exercise.

I feel pretty much the same way about Crooky's crookedy Fronts and diagonal Downs. He did the exercises on the first prompts, and that's all that counts... but they were really out of position. These are just minor nitpicks, though, and it feels ungrateful to even mention them.

Because the important thing is that Dog Mob did really, really well. Pongu didn't melt down; by the end he even seemed to be having fun. He earned his RL1 title with an Award of Excellence and took second place in his final run of the day. Crookytail held up nicely in the trial environment (he did get a little stressed and dispirited that he couldn't play with the other dogs, and by the end of the day he was wilted on the ground in complete exhaustion), picked up two Qs, and even earned third place in his second run. (Technically he only tied for third place, and there should have been a runoff to determine the actual placement, but since the other team had left a little early to outrace Hurricane Sandy, Crookytail "won" by default. Hooray!)

So there we are! All our goals met or exceeded, and even a couple of placement ribbons to take home! TRIUMPH!!

Dog Mob's next trial, which will also be their last for the year, is in early December. There's only one run at this trial, so Crooky has one chance to pick up an extra Q and earn his RL1 before the year ends.

If he makes it, great. If not, no big deal. There'll be more trials next year, and we'll be going to them. Because Pongu, at least, is not stopping at his RL1.