Monday, June 30, 2014

Match... Point?

On Saturday and Sunday, Pongu and I went out to two different obedience matches.

Originally, I had thought we were only entered in one, and I had planned to scratch from that one, because Pongu's nowhere near being ready to do a match in obedience, not even in Beginner Novice. I didn't have a plan for what we'd do in the ring and I didn't have any expectation of even minimal success, so I figured there was no point in going.

But then!, our super awesome instructor talked me into it. Just go into the ring and play, she suggested; don't worry about doing obedience behaviors. (Well, her actual wording may have been something rather more along the lines of "I **FORBID** you to do any obedience behaviors"... and by "more along the lines" I might possibly mean "just exactly that," but hey, let's not nitpick here.)

So off we trundled to a new obedience club that we'd never previously visited, and into the ring we went.

Here's that, in all its four-and-a-half minutes of glory. I don't expect anyone to actually watch it, except maybe me in a few years' time.

I was really happy with this. Yes, Pongu's wobbly, and yes, he gets distracted, and yes, I should have stopped at the three-and-a-half minute mark when he starts fading during that short stretch of heeling. I made several mistakes during this match.

But my dog stayed with me, he mostly stayed engaged, he was willing to play (for a certain value of "play" -- a lot of that is stress jumping as much as it is legitimate engagement). For his first time going into a new venue with zero prep, and being asked to do something that's moderately strange for him (Pongu is not accustomed to just going into a ring and playing with me), that is a good performance for us right now.

So on Sunday we went out to K9Jym to do the same thing again. And this time, even though Pongu was only a little wobblier than he'd been on Saturday, and his engagement wasn't all that much worse, I felt really sad after we left the facility, whereas I'd been full of renewed optimism the day before.

Part of it was that this was a familiar venue to him, and in the past he's done okay there, so I was really expecting him to be a little better, rather than a little worse.

Part of it was that we warmed up outside a ring where a former NOI competitor was doing awesome Utility work with her blazing fast, accurate border collie, which is sort of like trying on swimsuits in the stall next to Kate Upton's. Not really a formula for improved self-esteem.

Whatever the cause, I left feeling pretty lousy, even though the tape doesn't look that bad to watch.

The rest of that day, I moped around obsessing about how we were never going to do competition obedience and what was even the point of training and why was I putting myself or my fearful dog through any of this, bla bla fourth verse same as the first, etc.

And then this morning I saw that the agility intro class I wanted to take in July wasn't filling -- in fact, as of right now, there are only two students enrolled, so if more people don't sign up then the class will likely be canceled -- and thought "welp, so much for switching to a totally new sport, I guess."

And then tonight Pongu and I had a good training session outside.

So I don't know what to think. Currently my plan is that I'm going to take the rest of the year and just play around and train these exercises and try to get Pongu really happy about doing them, and I'm not going to worry about trialing or doing matches or any of the other stuff.

It is strictly going to be about the journey, taking small steps each week, and I refuse to raise my eyes to the prospect of titling down the road.

Let's see how far we can get doing that.

Friday, June 20, 2014


...seems to be the theme of our summer.

We had two more not-very-successful Rally trials in the past week. Saturday we went to Let's Speak Dog in Nazareth; Wednesday we went to Bella Vista outside Harrisburg. Only the second trial was actually bad, but neither of them left me feeling good afterwards.

We struggle with stress, with anxiety, with disengagement. We struggle with difficult environmental conditions, but we also struggle when the environment is -- or should be -- fine.

I wonder if we've hit a wall, if this is as far as we can go, if I've finally reached the limit of what my fearful dog can do. Is this it?

I can see some small improvements. Unless something pretty dramatic happens, Pongu doesn't break Stays anymore. He doesn't refuse jumps. At Saturday's trial, he knocked a bar and NQ'ed a Level 3 run, but the next two runs when he encountered the same jump, he took it without flinching. A year ago, that knocked bar would have frightened him for weeks (which I know because a knocked bar in class cost us several Qs on jump refusals and runouts in trials days later). This degree of resilience is something he wouldn't have been able to summon then.

But I also see much that isn't improving. I do not have a happy dog in the ring on most runs. Pongu is still worried, still stressed, seldom relaxed. Our scores aren't getting higher. (Actually, when I went back and scrolled through the trial listings, our scores apparently have never gotten higher after, like, last March. What's that about?)

I don't know whether my disappointment is a factor of my increased expectations or whether we really are stalled out. Am I just shifting the goalposts too quickly, or too much? Have we just had a fluke run of bad trials? Or are we genuinely not making any progress here?

I've got no idea. I feel like we're floundering. I hope we're floundering in a generally forward-ish direction, but I have not the foggiest notion whether that is actually true.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

World Cynosport Rally at KCA, 6/8/14

Last Sunday we drove up to northern New Jersey for a World Cynosport Rally trial at Kellars Canine Academy.

It went... okay. Not great, not terrible. Pongu was a little out of practice (we hadn't trialed in about a month and we have not been doing a ton of Rally practice at home lately) and seemed a little stressy, so it was not one of our more glorious showings.

I tried crating him inside the trial venue for much of the time, since it was a hot day (86 degrees!) and the parking lot had no shade. With the windows rolled down and a reflector shield in the rear window, the car was tolerable, but I thought Pongu would do better indoors.

That might have been a misjudgment, I don't know. It was hard to tell.

Our scores were pretty meh. 206/207/203, 210/206/193(!! our worst qualifying score in WCRL ever! yesssss). I had some handling errors on both of the Level 3 runs -- I really need to figure out a better way of getting Pongu back into Heel position after the send-over jumps -- but almost all of our deductions were on repeat cues, with a couple of stray 1-point hits for crooked Sits and lags in heeling. The courses had a bunch of moving Downs, and those continue to be a weak point for us when Pongu gets stressy.

He also broke a Stay during the Recall Over Jump by standing up on the last run of the day, which is a mistake we haven't had in a while, and which I view as an indicator that he'd had enough by that point.

So it kinda sucked. Pongu placed in every run except our first Level 1 (a 206 does not get you into the ribbons in Level 1!), but never higher than third. In fact, our average placement for the day was exactly #4, so that is the ribbon I kept (plus the white rosettes are the ones I like best anyhow).

Good things:

-- I mostly got better Heeling off the start line than I have in the past. We had some stretches of quite nice Heeling, in fact. Never consistently for the entire run, or even half of a run, but good enough to make me feel optimistic that we're improving, particularly since Pongu was not on his A game during that trial.

-- it's kind of nice (I guess?) to be in a position where I can look at a 203 in Level 3 and go "JESUS CHRIST THAT IS TERRIBLE WHAT IS GOING ON HERE." This time last year, we were struggling mightily just to scrape together three Qs for our Level 3 title.

Bad things:

-- basically everything else

-- Pongu really, really sucks at working when he's hot.

Overall, not a super fantastic day for us, although it was nice to see friends and the KCA crew is always great. We'll try again next weekend, and then we have one more WCRL trial in June before Pongu goes on hiatus until August.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Queenie Goes Home and Gets a Name Change

Henceforth, she shall be known as "Agnes."

On Friday, Queenie met up with her prospective adopters and canine housemates for some pre-visit introductions. Neither of the resident dogs in her proposed new home was immediately thrilled with her, but at least they didn't react with spittle-flinging rage, either. She went home for a trial sleepover, and I spent the next couple of days with my fingers tightly crossed. While I had a certain amount of faith in Queenie's good nature and house manners, she was going into a situation with a couple of new variables -- the resident dogs in the adoptive home were female and smaller than she was, as opposed to the all-boys crew here -- so I couldn't be completely sure that I knew exactly how she would react.

But it went well! Monday morning I woke up to find an email announcing that her prospective adopters wanted to knock the "prospective" out of that description. Hooray!

I was particularly happy about this adoption for a couple of reasons:

First, the adopters had recently had a bad experience with a shelter dog that was not disclosed as being dog-aggressive prior to adoption. The aggression was a dealbreaker, and they'd been forced to return the dog. (To be fair, the shelter staff may not have known the dog had problems with other dogs. It's often hard to differentiate reactivity and even outright aggression from the general stress and overarousal that can be a constant problem, even for "normal" dogs, in kennel environments. But that exact problem is one of the reasons I tend to advocate adopting from a foster-based rescue rather than a shelter for most people.)

That sort of experience often turns people off from adopting ever again. Fortunately, these particular adopters were so committed to rescuing a dog that they kept looking even after an experience that would have sent a lot of other people straight to a breeder.

Second, they initially weren't too excited about looking at pittie mixes, but they were open-minded enough to reconsider when they saw how friendly and talented Queenie was. I really liked that. I don't have a problem with people liking or disliking certain breeds (seriously, I don't -- I have my un-favorite breeds too!), but I do have a lot of respect for people who are willing to rethink their opinions in light of new evidence. To me, this is indicative of an emotional flexibility and tolerance that really, really comes in handy down the road with any new dog (and a few old ones!). So I thought that was a promising sign.

Third, they were not only willing but eager to enroll with Queenie in a local training club. Not two days after I relayed my friends' recommendation for the best club in their area, these adopters went to check it out. That, too, made me really happy; I was glad to know that Queenie would get a chance to continue her fun games of learning in her new home.

So that was that! Queenie, newly renamed Agnes, got her happily ever after, and I could not be more excited about where she ended up.

Good luck to you, little dog.

...and now I'm on hiatus from fostering for a while. Pongu's performance at our last Rally trial was not too hot, so clearly we need to spend some more time working on competition stuff, and also I should probably pay some attention to that book I'm supposed to be writing right now.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Team Unruly - Washout

Today's post over on Team Unruly is about the Life and Times of Crookytail the Tigerwuff, Eternal Washout From Everything.

Hopefully in a day or two I'll have an update about Queenie. She went off on her trial sleepover today, and I've got my fingers crossed real hard that it all works out.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Queenie Gets A Sleepover

Since I posted her Novice Trick Dog video, Queenie's been getting a lot more adoptive interest (and some anti-interest, about which: more later!).

By the end of last week, she had a couple of applications pending, but nothing that was 100% a lock (since Queenie, like Gremlin, has shown herself to be a little selective about the people she likes [which is a nice way of saying: she has straight-up tanked prospective adoptions], I don't count anything as a "lock" until the prospective adopters meet Queenie in person and she meets them).

I hauled her out to Wags Rescue's adoption event on Sunday to meet some people, and I put a stat sheet on the top of her crate just in case somebody happened to stop by that might be looking for a performance dog.

Watching people's reactions to Queenie's writeup was really interesting. The standard practice at Wags adoption events is that each dog has a one-sheet summary on top of its crate that lists basic information like age, size, our best guess as to breed mix, spay/neuter status, and any notes the foster wants to add about the dog's personality and quirks (high energy, doesn't like cats, loves kids, is housebroken, etc.).

In Queenie's case, I wrote down her basic info and then added at the bottom that she knows 17 tricks (that was last week; now it's 18), had her Novice Trick Dog title, and would be a good sport prospect if anyone was looking for a fun starter dog to play with.

Broadly speaking, people reacted to this information in one of three ways:

(1) They would mouth a silent "Wow" or nudge the person next to them to read the end of her sheet... and then they would move on to the next crated dog at a slightly faster pace. This was by far the most common reaction and it was really strange and funny to me, because Queenie was not acting like the kind of crazy, hectic, spun-up dog that rescues sometimes try to market as "agility prospects." She was being perfectly nice and quiet and was not even barking when the reactive coonhounds crated across the room from her barked up a storm at the smallest disturbance.

After watching a few of those reactions in succession, I started to feel like my poor little foster dog was a PhD trying to get a job at Burger King. Apparently she was massively overqualified for what a lot of people wanted. (But, honestly, I think that kind of self-selection is probably for the best. Homes that just want a dog to be furry furniture definitely don't need a dog like this.)


(2) They would have grossly unrealistic expectations about how much effort is required to train and maintain those behaviors -- basically, they were expecting a push-button robot dog, rather than being prepared to meet the needs of a living, thinking creature who is really smart and talented, but has only had a few weeks of training and has a long, long way to go.

Fortunately this was the least common reaction and it was pretty easy for me to deter these people. But yeah, I got to see a couple of real live versions of the people who buy border collies because they watched Babe, or rough collies because they think they'll get Lassie, and it was... enlightening.

(3) They might actually be good homes!

Queenie will be going out to a trial sleepover with one of those potentially good homes later this week. I'm hopeful that it will work out -- I think this is a great family and could be a very solid match for her.

The only potential stumbling block I foresee is that there are other dogs in the home and Queenie can be a touch snarky with unfamiliar dogs in a home at first (or at least she was here), but... well, she learned to deal with my crew of bumptious dimwits within a week, so hopefully she'll be able to do that a second time.

Speaking of the bumptious dimwits, I was screwing around with Pongu last night (because this is what I do when I should be sleeping), and I thought it would be funny to use the guinea pig to proof his scent article exercise because clearly I just think it's inherently hilarious to harass the guinea pig.

So we did! This is the third attempt in that session (first time we had a mistake, second one was good, third try I turned the camera on):

I am so proud of that. He isn't even distracted a little bit! Look at that focus and work ethic. We might get into the obedience ring one of these days after all.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

An Epiphany to Everest

This morning I was reflecting on some things our obedience instructor had told us yesterday, and I had an epiphany: I think I finally realized why I've been feeling so down about Pongu's and my progress in obedience training.

We've been working on one of Silvia Trkman's tricks DVDs recently, and that is going beautifully even though the behaviors are way crazier than anything asked in the obedience ring. (For context, our current projects are parastanding and the backwards figure 8.) We're nowhere near finished with any of the tricks, but Pongu's progressing quickly and I'm happy with our work and it's just been really fun.

(2on/2off: baby steps! But fun baby steps!)

I haven't felt "fun" about our obedience training in a while. It's not about ring nerves or wanting to get a 200-point perfect picture (it will be about those things later, because I can't help myself, but that's not where we are today); it's just about training and proofing the exercises to a basic level of proficiency in the ring.

And the reason I haven't felt "fun" about that is, I finally realized, because the task is so monumental. When it comes to trick shaping, I know what progress looks like, I know how close we are to the final picture, and I am correspondingly confident that we can get there.

When it comes to obedience, I have no freaking clue. First, I've never done it before. Second, it's a huge topic. There are a lot of exercises, and every single one of them is way more complicated than it seemed when I was a clueless newb going "hur the dog just walks next to me, that is so easy, hurr de durr." On top of that, every piece in the chain has to be proofed to ring-readiness, which is another monumental task, particularly for ol' scaredybutt and me.

It's like I'm trying to climb Mt. Everest and I've gone 10 feet and there's still 10,000 feet ahead, every one of them harder and higher and steeper than the 10 feet I've already gone, and it's like "AAAAAGGGH WHAT AM I EVEN DOING SCREW IT."

In short, I've been trying to do everything at once and it's not a good strategy because it makes me feel like we're not getting anywhere. What I need to do is break things down a lot smaller. Not just for my dog, but (this is the epiphany!) for me.

When you're writing a novel, you don't focus on finishing the entire book. Lots of newbies make that mistake and they feel like they're not getting anywhere and so they give up. You can't do that. What you do is focus on each chapter. Set smaller, concrete benchmarks to measure your progress to the end.

So that's what I'm going to do. That is my new plan for working with Pongu. Every week we are going to set one little bitty benchmark and if we hit that goal, I am going to force my stupid brain to accept that as a success. I am going to find a way to measure and mark what we're doing. Not just recording it in a journal, because I've done that and it doesn't feel like progress to me, but setting target goals in advance and hitting them on the way.

If I can get Pongu to nose a correct scent article outside the house this week, WE WIN. He doesn't have to pick it up. He doesn't have to do the full retrieve chain. It isn't going to be on cue. If he offers the behavior of identifying the correct one in some way -- yeah, that's right, we are going all the way back to OB SB 1 on this -- WE WIN.

So there. That's my epiphany.We will start on that first thing tomorrow!