Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s been a while. But let’s jump right into it, so to speak.
When training your dog, be very careful of what it is exactly that you are training.
Camm recently started ducking under jump bars.
Until last month, she had ducked under jump bars perhaps a handful of times. Two of those times were when we first started agility training. The other three were intermittently earlier this year.
In mid-November, I entered a USDAA agility trial with Youke, Brady and Camm. I had been asked to be one of the chief ring stewards for the trial and it seemed like a really good idea a few weeks prior to the trial to do that job and run three dogs. Oh, and it was a two-ring trial. Located in a big arena with no direct path between the two rings. And I don’t generally crate my dogs inside, choosing instead to park in a location on the other side of the building. Lastly, it was raining heavily that weekend.
But enough about me.
Camm ducked under the first jump in most of her runs that weekend. This led to a few laughs from some of the observers in the stands, and a few helpful comments from those that thought I should know. Did you know she went under the first jump?
The behavior wasn’t really something I could fix in a trial setting and I opted to run her and just have fun since USDAA isn’t my main venue anyway and I don’t care about qualifications. Plus, she was jumping at 20 inches, instead of 16 inches, which is her standard height in the two main venues I compete in with her at this time.
Camm was also pretty worked up that weekend.
I’ve decided that worked up is the best way to phrase it. I think there’s an element of stress and being over threshold at certain events for her and I suspect there are times when agility simply isn’t that fun for her. Too many stoopid rules to remember, too many stoopid rude dogs and a stoopid stressed out Human that is acting weird and not playing Ball as much as she would like. This all contributes to Camm’s world being tilted, and not in a good way.
However, she jumped as normal during practices and at the Thanksgiving NADAC trial we went to, although she did duck under one start line jump that weekend.
The weekend after Thanksgiving, I entered Camm and Brady in another USDAA trial.
While the trial was a bit momentous for Brady, it was a disenchanting weekend for Camm.
I’ll get to Brady in a bit.
Camm ducked under every single first jump at the December trial, with one exception. The one exception occurred when I did a slingshot start with her because she was distracted by a friend who was leash running and kept going to say hello to her. I took advantage of her distraction and she actually jumped the first jump standard. However, if I recall correctly, she made up for that by actually ducking under some of the jumps in sequence on the course, which was a completely new phenomenon and one I had not seen before. She then made up for that by clearing by several inches, and with great speed, a line of jumps on the other side of the dog walk while I ran on the outside of the dog walk. That feat earned some oohs and ahhs from onlookers, because while I frequently do stunts like that with my dogs in practices, and even sometimes in NADAC trials, no one does that kind of distance in USDAA apparently.
Did I mention that one of my agility instructors was at this trial and got to watch Camm’s meltdown up close and personal? No start line stay, ducking under jumps and no stopped contacts. In Camm’s defense, she does have gorgeous natural running contacts that many people spend years teaching their dogs to do and I totally get that stopped contacts are STOOPID. Stoopid, but necessary if you are the Human dealing with Camm’s speed.
Thus, off I went to The Relationship Counselor.
First, I discussed the problem with her last week while Rhys had a mini-session with her. (Yes!! RHYS! The puppy! More on him later too.) We came up with a training plan to work on after contemplating the various reasons why this behavior has suddenly emerged.
One of my theories was that perhaps Camm was having some difficulty differentiating between hoops and jumps as a start line obstacle. In NADAC, the first obstacle is often either a hoop or a jump.In CPE, two bars are used on jumps, therefore, while she could do it, the visual created makes it far less tempting to go between or under bars. She also jumps 16 inches in NADAC and in CPE, but 20 inches in USDAA. Perhaps that extra clearance was just too tempting for her? Camm also starts typically in a “down” position, which allows her to scan the obstacle in front of her with ease and perhaps the temptation is just too much? Plus, it’s a venue that I’ve only done with her twice before, and it was six and 12 months ago, respectively.
The thing of it is that Camm is a gorgeous, light-bodied and athletic jumper. Because she jumps generally fine once in flow, the issue seemed to be with the first obstacle, and not a physical problem.
Typical of many dogs, including numerous border collies, Camm scans an agility course when setting foot into the ring. She is making decisions about a course before we get off the start line. Camm is also a dog that likes to do things fast. Very, very fast. Camm is also a dog that is pretty sure that she knows what she’s doing and doesn’t really need a Human to tell her.
The Relationship Counselor surmised that perhaps the first time Camm ducked under a jump it was not exactly intentional – perhaps she really did think it was a hoop and not a jump from her lowered position. However, like many brilliant dogs before her, Camm learned from that experience, and what she learned was that it is much faster and far less physical effort to get to the next thing on an agility course – say that dog walk that she loves so much, if one goes under the jump bar, rather than over it.
Thus, today, The Relationship Counselor and I set about working to change her mind.
Like many things I work on with my dogs with the aid of The Relationship Counselor, today’s session was endlessly fascinating and eye-opening. Not just because of The Counselor’s skill and insight, but also to truly glimpse the innermost workings of my dog’s mind.
All of my dogs learn in their own idiosyncratic way and all see the world in their own unique way. Camm is a dog that learns things extremely quickly. As in two sessions and she has it. By session number three, she’s an expert. And if that’s not what you wanted her to learn, then why the hell did you teach it that way??!!
With The Counselor on one side of a jump armed with treats for rewards and a target plate, and me with Camm on the other side and armed with a clicker to mark the desired behavior, we prepared to change her mind about that start line jump.
Note that I did not say that we set about to correct her behavior or to teach her the right way to do it. In Camm’s mind, this newfound solution was perfectly logical. Really, think about it. You’re a dog lying down in the ground at the start line and you see a ton of super fun stuff to do super fast. It would actually take some effort to look up and jump that thing in front of you. In fact, that would be STOOPID! Far better to get started as quickly as possible and go for the very first thing you see, which is not a jump in front of you because you’re lying on the ground and that thing is above your head.
Instead, we worked on persuading Camm to do things the way we’d like to see it done. She would get paid with a treat for jumping over the bar, while going under it would not result in any payment.
We started with the jump bar at a lowered position, which Camm easily jumped over and was rewarded with a treat. However, once the jump bar was lifted to a height that a 33-pound lithe border collie could run under easily in order to more quickly get to the target plate with the intention of attaining another tasty treat, the real training began. Quickly, Camm learned that going under did not result in treats raining down onto the target plate. As she worked a few times to figure out the solution and what new Stoopid Thing the Humans wanted, she decided that stopping short of the jump might be the solution. Since that’s not what we wanted, The Counselor opted to try a visual cue to help Camm understand.
Enter, the towel.
The Counselor draped a hand towel across the bar. Bingo! Camm started jumping the bar. She naturally earned a treat reward for doing the desired behavior. However, so that she wouldn’t completely rely upon this visual cue, The Relationship Counselor worked to quickly fade it by folding the towel up smaller and smaller and placing it on different parts of the bar. This was so successful, that we moved to a different jump in the practice area. This too was quite successful.
And then we realized what was going on.
Camm was approaching the bar and deliberately positioning herself so that she would jump the part of the bar where the towel was draped. To proof this, The Counselor asked me to deliberately set Camm up in a certain position where she had to approach and jump the bar where the towel, even though folded up smaller, was not draped.
She ducked under the bar, ever hopeful that a treat would be her reward.
We had inadvertently clicked and treated Camm for jumping over a towel.
As much as we laughed about it and as much as I fantasized all day today about creating a custom glitter and sparkle-designed special towel to bring with me to all future trials and to drape across the first jump at every trial, the reality of being allowed to do this seemed more like a hallucination on my part. So, we moved on.
Eventually, we did have a breakthrough with Camm today, but it will likely take a few more sessions to work through.
Camm is a great example of what many people would characterize as stubborn or manipulative. In reality, she is a fantastic example of doing what works. What works for her.
Dog training is so intriguing.
I might’ve mentioned in the past that when I first got Brady, I did not think he’d ever be able to compete in agility due to his reactivity and other issues. I quickly became okay with that because he was such a blast to learn and to train with and made me a better handler already within a short time of working with him. My original intent was for him to be my training dog. As many know, I eventually became convinced by people who I trusted, including The Relationship Counselor, to try competing with him. Those first few competitions were scary as hell, and not because of trial or obstacle performance issues. In time, we overcame a lot of things – well, Brady overcame a lot of things and with my help and by me proving that I had his back at all times. However, Brady could not overcome his incredible fear of the teeter. After nearly a year of trying to train teeter performance, and making little headway but to make him even more fearful of it, I asked my instructors to not pursue it any longer. NADAC doesn’t allow the teeter in competition and in CPE I could avoid it by never doing Standard courses and just ignoring it in games classes. The few USDAA or ASCA trials I did I would only enter Jumpers or Gamblers. I joked with The Counselor that I would attempt to train him on teeter again once he reached 10 years old.
So imagine my surprise, when at the age of 7.5 years, The Counselor announced this past summer that we were going to working on training the teeter again for Brady. I adore and admire The Counselor and clearly the inability to convince Brady that the teeter was a worthwhile obstacle had been more of a thorn in her side than I had known. I decided to humour her, quite sure that Brady had other ideas.
I was wrong.
This past fall, Brady became adept at the teeter, and, in fact, did his first successful teeter in competition at a CPE trial in September to the cheers and cries of his adoring aunties.
I decided at the December USDAA trial to enter Brady in Grand Prix. Brady has only done a handful of USDAA trials over the years and is still at the Starters level in the titling classes, but he runs at the Elite level in other venues. Plus, he’d absolutely rocked a Grand Prix course offered by one of our instructors a few weeks before in a practice session.
The run was a thing of beauty. He was fast and accurate, and he performed the teeter like he’d been doing it for years, instead of only since about August. We did not qualify because he ended up blowing a dog walk contact by a toenail, or three. Nevertheless, it was the highlight of the trial for me. The icing on the cake was when he earned qualifications in his standard runs.
But even better, was that for the first time in a two-ring, amped up USDAA crowd full of hyper, pent-up dogs and uber competitive types, Brady was loose and relaxed and just plain happy to be playing one of his favorite games with his person.
Those are the moments I think of when I suggest to people to relax and be patient in the journey with their dogs and that hard times and obstacles can be overcome with time, expertise, understanding and lots and lots of patience. I know of which I speak.
Rhys turns one year old in a little over a week. Back in February I could hardly wait for his first year to pass. Now, it seems as it has gone far to quickly and in such a blur.
I’ll devote far more blog time to his next year of life and to the start of our agility training journey.
I stuck to my guns and opted not to do any agility training with him in his first year. No obstacle training that is. I did a tiny bit of footwork foundation with him, and of course he has a foundation on skills that will come in handy should he and I decided to play agility together. I’ve tentatively enrolled him in an agility foundation class to start in January, and of course he has already made the acquaintance of two of my agility instructors, including The Relationship Counselor. I’m excited to see what’s ahead, but determined to be slow and steady. I’m in no rush to get into a ring and compete with him. Mostly, I look forward to the start of more formal learning and training. To me, that is often the best part of playing agility.
And, as Youke, Brady and Camm continually teach me, it is an ongoing journey.