Sunday, November 17, 2013

Versatile K9 Rally Trial 11/16

Another trial, another mixed bag. That seems to be our theme this fall.

In my quest to finish Pongu's ARCHEX title this year, I entered just about every November and December trial I could find within a three-hour driving range of Philadelphia. Among them was the Versatile K9 trial up in Andover, New Jersey, which I entered even though historically Pongu has done worse at this venue than any other we've tried so far.

To be fair, we only trialed here once before: back in March, when a different club held a triple trial at that venue. I entered Pongu in three Level 1 runs and three Level 2 runs (we weren't doing Level 3 at that point), and it... well, it didn't go too well.

On that day, Pongu had a total meltdown. He didn't like the ceiling fans, he didn't like the heating system, he didn't like the creaks from the walls. He didn't like anything. We Q'ed in one Level 1 run and one Level 2, and everything else was an NQ. We even NQ'ed in Level 1 because Pongu completely froze and panicked on the course.

I finally just scratched him and went home before attempting our last run. That is the only trial where I've scratched a run because Pongu's stress levels spiked so high that even I, dedicated practitioner of the Brute Force NQ technique, had to acknowledge that my dog was not going to learn anything good from being allowed to fail in the ring. (I've scratched us from Level 3 a couple of times because I got over-optimistic when really we had no business trying to run Level 3, but that's not remotely the same thing.)

So it was with some apprehension that I signed up to do another trial at that venue. Pongu's craziness aside, it's actually quite a nice venue -- the hosting clubs have always been super nice and well organized, and I've never had the smallest complaint on that front -- but it is a single-ring facility, so double trials can stretch into long days, and the drive there involves prolonged stretches on single-lane highways where it seems like I inevitably get trapped behind the world's slowest little old lady driver.

But we made it, and we proceeded to do... not real well, overall. It was still a small venue with creaky walls and horses outside and, at this time of year, gunshots echoing through the distance. (Also, for some reason, there were a ton of ticks crawling around. Pongu picked up three ticks just walking on leash through the potty areas.)

Despite his increased confidence over the past few months, Pongu was still pretty anxious here. He broke his Stay on the first Level 1 bonus exercise, costing us those ten points, and was generally a mess. Lots of double cues when he froze up and didn't hear my first prompts, lots of bumps during heeling where he tried to crowd into me for reassurance, and then a slightly higher-than-usual number of our usual persistent little errors like crooked Sits. He whined and squeaked and flinched through all his runs, right through the end of the day.

But he took all his jumps -- the Send-By Jump, the Recall Over Jump, and even that pesky dreaded Off-Set Jump -- and he held the Stays that would have caused us NQs instead of just point losses, and we ended the day with six Qs out of six entered runs.

The scores weren't pretty. 197, 199, 199, 202, 203, 204. Only two placements: a fifth place in Level 2 and a third place in Level 3.

Still, it was a 100% Q rate in a venue that had been prohibitively difficult for him in the past, doing exercises that had also been prohibitively difficult in the past. I'm willing to count that as a success.

Plus: ponies! Barely visible in the background here (it's the brown blur through the fence boards), but still.

It was a very long day, but we finished it two QQs closer to ARCHEX, and with the knowledge that Pongu has it in him to pick up triple-Q legs even in the venue that was the very hardest one for him this year. That'll come in handy next year, I hope.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Fear and Failure

While writing that last post, I got to thinking about failure.

I know that I'm going to fail in the ring occasionally. It always sucks to lose, and it sucks exponentially more to lose like we did last weekend. But I know right at the outset that it's something we're going to have to accept, because the nature of trialing with a genetically fearful dog is that you will lose ALL THE TIME.

No matter how much you practice, how good your dog is at home, or how many fun matches and show-and-goes you do, you will fail. Your dog will get scared or stressed and melt down. There's nothing you can do about it but make fun of yourself, give your dog a cookie for trying (because trying counts! Trying counts for a lot!), and go home to practice some more and hopefully do better next time.

Keeping Pongu out of competition until he's "more comfortable" isn't a viable approach (although we've had a couple of instructors who recommended it) because I've learned that the only way this dog gets more comfortable is by being exposed to those environments again and again, and being asked to work in them again and again. He needs that history of success to build his confidence.

So we fail. A lot.

Our road to every achievement we've ever gotten in dog sports has been littered with a huge proportion of NQs and crappy scores in relation to our Qs and good scores. Again: we racked up 22 NQs in Level 3A alone before we got the 3 Qs needed for that title. We've gotten well over 50 total NQs this year. When I say we fail a lot, I mean A LOT.

That's okay (I can say now, after nursing an awful lot of pride bruises over the past 14 months). What matters is not the fact of failure, but how you handle it. Eventually, over the long haul, if you are patient and encouraging and willing to cheer your dog through enough failures, you succeed. Your dog will learn that nothing terrible happens when he freezes up or panics, and that great things happen when he overcomes his fear and works.

And that builds his confidence. He's more willing to keep trying, because he thinks that he can't lose -- he can only win.

For a fearful dog, in my opinion, that is a crucial lesson. It needs to be taught early and often: you will always try, because there is no reason to be afraid of failure.

I don't care (much) if Pongu NQs. I do care, very much, that he goes into the ring and tries. That's what I count as a win. And he knows it, so he's willing to go in there and work to the very best of his ability. Sometimes that gets us a good score and a nice placement, and other times it doesn't -- but because he keeps trying, and keeps being rewarded for trying, the former is true (and true under circumstances that would have been unimaginable a year ago) more often than the latter.

Anyway, the reason I was thinking about this yesterday was because I think one of the reasons I've gravitated so strongly toward force-free training methods is because I have a dog whose success depends on failing X number of times and being given constant encouragement to "fail upward" each time.

Sometimes I wonder what my perspective would be like if I didn't have this near-certainty of failure to look forward to (and back upon). I know that there's no point getting mad at Pongu for being overcome by terror, and I also know that's the only reason he ever screws up, so therefore the only reasonable response to his NQs is to be supportive and encouraging. And since we've been doing this for a while, I can also look back and see that being supportive and encouraging really works for my dog.

I can't punish my dog for being afraid. He's not being disobedient or defiant or "giving me the finger." He's doing the best he can, always. And because the ring is already such a terrifying environment for him, it's incumbent upon me to make the work as enjoyable and inherently rewarding as possible -- which means using lots and lots of R+ training techniques to build up its value in his mind.

I suspect the same is true for an awful lot of dogs whose owners don't see it, though, because their symptoms aren't as severe. When your dog breaks down because he's a shivering, tail-tucked, panicky wreck, everyone can see that he's failing out of fear. But when the symptoms are a little subtler -- maybe just a slightly glassy stare, a distracted loss of eye contact, and a suggestion of a fear grimace that could be mistaken for a "smile" -- then I wonder if the handlers always catch it, or see it for what it is.

And I wonder if they're afraid of failure because they haven't had to deal with it as often, and if their increased attempts to regain "control" reflect that fear.

I'm not afraid of failure anymore. Maybe I'm lucky that we've gone through so much of it this year, early in our shared dog sport career, before Pongu or I had a history of success to worry about losing.

For us, failure is the precursor to success, not the first sign of its loss. It means we're on the way to gaining control, not losing it. And it's nothing at all to fear.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

On Dropping Out

A couple of weeks ago, I dropped out of the competition obedience class I was so ambivalent about.

In part, I dropped out because the logistics were too hard to finagle. Fighting rush hour traffic across the entire length of Philadelphia meant leaving work at 3 pm in order to make a 5 pm class, and even then I was always a few minutes late, which made the beginning of each session a minor exercise in embarrassment.

The larger reason I dropped out, though, was because after a few sessions it became apparent that the class was not a good fit for what I wanted to do or who I wanted to be.

Here's the thing: When you are a beginning student (as I still mostly am), the world of possibility is wide open. You have no investment in developed skills. You are a blank slate, unformed clay, insert-your-cliche-of-choice; you have complete free choice as to which methods you wish to learn and how good you want to get with them.

It's much harder to walk away from a particular methodology once you've invested a ton of time and money into mastering its skills. If you've had success using those skills, you have to be willing to risk losing that success; you have to un-learn old habits and develop entirely new ones. It's difficult and discouraging and I suspect the monumental nature of the task is one of the reasons that people can get so defensive about whatever their preferred training philosophy might be -- because if they're wrong, then suddenly all those sunk costs look like a really bad investment. And nobody wants to make (or admit they've made) a bad investment.

I used to think that forcible methods were faster to learn/teach, more reliable in producing competition results, or otherwise "better," because why else would people choose to use them for this sport? I took it on faith that this was so. Those were the reasons that people who chose to train this way gave me, and I assumed they knew what they were talking about, since after all they had done it and I had not.

So I wanted to check out the alternatives before going all-in on my original investment. I wanted to see, and try, a different school of thought firsthand.

I'm glad I did. And having done it, I feel reassured that I made the right choice for me and my dogs.

What I saw (and here I'm doing a thing that I hate: jumping right over discussion of concrete specifics to arrive at conclusory labels) was that compulsion-based methods aren't better, don't work faster, don't produce more consistent or precise results, and don't hold up more strongly over the long haul of competition and maintenance. The fallout of using them, on the other hand, was actually greater than I had anticipated, even though I dropped out before the harder "corrections" came into play.

Someday I might be able to analyze and discuss the exact reasons that I came to those conclusions. I don't feel entirely comfortable doing that today; I feel like I need more distance to be able to bring hindsight into full focus. All I can say now is that it wasn't a road I enjoyed walking, and it didn't take long to see that it wasn't leading where I wanted to go. Plus the scenery was pretty discomfiting, for both me and Pongu.

So we decamped for a more pleasant path, and I feel much more confident that we're heading to the right destination.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

CDSP Trial at Bella Vista, 11/9

One thing I often say (probably more often than I should) is that being involved in dog sports is a little bit like being involved in a Lifetime Channel bad relationship: abuse abuse abuse and then a glimmer of good and glorious sweet true love, just enough to keep you going through another round of abuse because you think "this time it'll be different."

Pongu took home a 193 (third place) at yesterday's CDSP trial to finish his CD-C with a string of three okay-but-unexceptional scores in the low 190s. I'm proud that he has his Novice title in obedience now -- a goal that once seemed unimaginable for us -- and I'm looking forward to trialing him in Open next spring.

At the same time I have to admit that I have a lot of mixed emotions about our showing yesterday. It pointed up a number of trouble areas and reminded me that as far as he's come in the past year, Pongu still is a fearful dog and always will be. I will never be able to take for granted that he's bombproof. He isn't. He still falls apart with very little prodding.

And it tantalized me with siren promises of just how good he could be if I keep working at it (and/or if I had a better dog, which is a devil voice that I shall do my utmost to ignore. At least for the next few years).

And it gave us our two worst NQs ever.

So, on to the recap.

Yesterday's trial was held at BVTC, a venue with which Pongu is very familiar and where he's normally pretty relaxed, or anyway as relaxed as crazypants dog ever gets. However, deer season recently started in our area (on the way home we passed several enormous pickup trucks with two or three freshly killed deer apiece strapped onto the back), and there were a lot of people shooting guns on the properties around the training facility. Not hunting, but doing target practice -- and doing so much of it that the percussion of shots was unending and you could actually smell the gunsmoke drifting across the fields.

Pongu did not like that. He was more of a wreck than I've seen him in months: shaking, drooling, wild-eyed, totally unable to focus. It hearkened back to our bad old days starting out in Rally last year. He calmed down somewhat as the day went on, but he was never in good form that entire trial.

Nevertheless, he held it together enough to eke out a Q with a score of 193 on his first run, finishing his CD-C title. We lost points on more anxiety-driven mistakes like Pongu jumping into me (and knocking me back a couple of steps) instead of doing a clean Front after his Recall Over Jump. He also popped up into a Stand when the judge spoke, which hit us for more points. argh.

That was the only Q I was going to get out of him the whole day.

Midway through Pongu's second run, he flipped out and ran wildly around the ring for a solid 20 seconds or so. I have absolutely no idea what set him off, other than general anxiety. It was between exercises so it didn't cost us anything, and I got his focus back after a couple of prompts, but it wasn't a good omen of things to come. (An alternative view, though, is that he was able to calm himself down and become semi-functional once I started asking him to work again, so looked at from that perspective, it's not all bad.)

Right before we set up for the Recall Over Jump, a metal shutter rattled loudly on a window directly behind Pongu. He did not want to have his back to that shutter, and he was super tense holding his Stay on the far side of the jump. So this time when the judge spoke, he broke his Stay and took the jump and that was an NQ.

However, the judge apparently forgot to write this down, because when it came time to read off the scores and pin the class, she had us down for a score of 196, which was also first place and High In Trial. I had to shamefacedly admit that no, actually, we NQ'ed that run, and watch in agony as the big glorious HIT ribbon moved down to the next person who had actually qualified.


Pongu's third run was even worse. Once again he turned in a performance that had a couple of minor flaws (lagging on the Figure 8 was particularly bad that time around) but was overall pretty good... until he POOPED IN THE RING right before setting up for the Recall Over Jump.

That was a total wtf moment, because Pongu does not have housebreaking issues. At all. Ever. He hasn't had an accident since he was five months old. He has always been flawless in other people's houses and rental cottages and every training or trial facility we've ever visited... and then he just laid a massive stinker right in front of the jump.

I have to think that was another anxiety issue but I honestly don't know. He isn't sick. And he's never been anxious enough to poop himself at a trial before, even though he has done it a couple of times out on the street. So I guess Pongu must have been even more frightened at that trial than he was letting on, and that makes me feel bad that I didn't see it.

(As an added humiliation, I don't know what our final score would have been on that run because he didn't do the Recall Over Jump so that part didn't get scored, but based on the points we lost up till then, I believe it would have been in the neighborhood of 195, maybe better. argh x3.)

Here, for posterity, is the Poop Run:

So... that was that. Pongu finished his Novice obedience title and he gave me humiliations galore. He came infuriatingly close to capturing a HIT on his second (or third, depending on how you're counting) obedience trial ever... and then he didn't, because he was a nervous wreck, but he almost did it even though he was a nervous wreck, so I still don't know how to think about that.

On the way home I stopped at the Valley Forge rest stop and got him some chicken nuggets from Burger King. I feel like overall that day deserved a three-dollar box of chicken nuggets. It wasn't a Barclay Prime filet mignon day. But it was a chicken nuggets day.

That (probably) concludes our competition obedience trialing for 2013. I'm planning to make our debut in Open next spring, and hopefully progress to Utility in the second half of 2014 too.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Oakes K9 Rally Trial 11/2

Slightly bumpy trial at Oakes K9 yesterday.

It was considerably smaller than their Rally trial last year -- I overheard other people saying that this time it hadn't been advertised anywhere except the Rallydogs website -- so the day only took 8 hours instead of 11 or 12.

That was good, because we didn't get off to a great start. I dropped the leash on our first Level 1 run, knocking us down to 205 points. On our first Level 2 run, we got hit for two extra Sits, each of which cost 5 points for a final score of 199 (the last point was on a crooked Sit). I hadn't seen either of those two extra Sits and thought we'd done pretty well on the run, so I was completely dumbfounded when I saw that score on the board.

Our first Level 3 run was pretty shaky too. There were several really vocal dogs at this trial and although barking/yowling from the crating area doesn't always faze Pongu, that day it did. On top of our other glitches, the bonus exercise was the Stand With Distraction, which I hadn't seen in months and had forgotten how to do. The exercise is actually a Sit then Stand (as opposed to a moving Stand), so I cued it wrong and poor Pongu got confused and went Down on his Stay halfway through.

It was a messy, bad run all around. Final score: 197. Ouch. I was feeling pretty bad by the time we limped back to the car for the lunch break.

The second round went better though. We got dinged for some minor errors (bumps, lags, crooked Sits, a split sign, etc. -- all stuff that I'm working on polishing out, but we're not 100% there yet) but Pongu was beautiful on all the things that used to be so hard for him. His Stays were solid, he flew through all the jumps without hesitation, and we even heeled right up to a jump without his taking it uncued (a booby trap that has gotten us several times before). AND his bonus retrieve was perfect.

Scores: Level 1 207, Level 2 209, Level 3 209.

Pongu finished his RL1X3 and RL2X2 level championships at this trial (which are not particularly impressive titles, insofar as they really just demonstrate that we NQ in Level 3 a bunch, but they do come with nice ribbons!) and picked up another two QQs toward his ARCHEX. We're halfway to that title now and have a good chance of finishing it this year, which makes me happy.

What really blew me away at this trial was seeing Edith the border collie put up six straight runs that all scored perfect 210s. That was amazing. Edith and her handler have been one of the top teams for as long as I've been doing this -- they rarely score below 208, and that's with a sharp-penciled judge -- but I've never seen a string of six perfect 210s before.

Man, I'd like to be that team someday.