I went to Switzerland to teach last weekend and I decided to bring Squid with me. She hasn’t been on an airplane for many years, but she handled everything like a pro and was an absolute dream to travel with. I really feel like teaching is so much easier when I have one of my dogs with me to show things with. Especially when teaching in another country where my style of training might be very new and different, and also especially when there is a language barrier and things get lost in translation. Another awesome thing about using my own dogs when teaching is that things happen when I show things with them, and that brings up subjects that might have been lost otherwise. On Sunday in Switzerland, I was fortunate enough to have a student videotaping most of my presentations, which made it possible to share one of these great moments in the blog.
Squid was showing some distance control to the group when I found that her “up” cue really wasn’t working the way it should. She was slow to react, sometimes didn’t react at all and didn’t go all the way up in a nice sit. I quickly realised that this was because I have used the “up” cue a lot in her agility starts, trying to get her so sit up better before releasing her in a trial. And we haven’t done formal obedience in a long time. When I started competing in agility, I would wait for her to offer the nice sit up before releasing, but for the past years I have used the cue. Often many times before I’m happy with her sit.
Cues should function as “green lights” to the dog. They should be reinforcing and give the dog permission to start a behavior that they really like to perform. I never want to feel like I have to ask or beg the dog to do something. I realise that I use the term “poisoned cue” in the video in a different way than most people would, and I will stop doing that. A poisoned cue is usually defined as a cue taught with both negative and positive reinforcement. This is not the case here, the hesitation is just a function of poor usage of the cue. It still feels “poisoned” to me, which is why I used that term, but I need to think about something else (“yellow light”, maybe?).
The fix for a problem like this is easy when your dog is used to offer behavior, even if it’s already on stimulus control. I really feel sorry for trainers who never allow the dog to offer behaviors once the cue is added. How do you fix it without nagging more? Regardless of it’s a problem with reacting to the cue, or a problem with executing the behavior correctly, the solution is the same. Get the behavior offered, reward the good responses, fix any problems with execution while the behavior is offered, make sure the dog is really eager to repeat the behavior, and then – add the stimulus control back in and get the cue to function as a green light that allows the dog to perform the behavior she’s now very happy to show you.
I would often go through this process quickly right before and obedience trial, to make sure that Squid was very eager to perform the distance control positions (especially the first one). She always had really good distance control scores.
Here’s the video where you can see the before, the process, and the result. Really quick training with a big difference in before and after.
We did our last agility trial for the year this Saturday. The arena is five hours away from where we live, but I don’t have many weekends to compete in the spring due to a lot of travelling and working. When we decided to pick up a new car in Gothenburg, it felt like a good idea to drive a couple of hours further south from there to do 3 x A3 with 3 dogs. Nine runs in five hours! And it went really well. Epic won his first run. Bud won his second and became Swedish Agility Trial Champion. Squid ran two clean runs and placed fourth in both.
This is a summary of our agility year:
Squid did one weekend of competition in January, but we didn’t get the result we were after even though she felt great. After that she had nine months off from agility. First, she had puppies. Then I probably let her run too much too early in the forest, and she showed some lameness and didn’t move well. It took some time to get an appointment with our physiotherapist, but we were back on track after two treatments in August and September. She hadn’t lost a lot of muscle as she was able to swim and walk on leash in the forest all summer, but I was nervous to start jumping and agility training again. It went well, and agility seems to only do her well. We entered our first competition in the beginning of November, and my dream goal for this year was to place top 5 once so that she would be eligible for Swedish Team Tryouts in May if she’s still fit then.
The first run was a bit weird with a few bars and miscommunication. The following two runs felt great and she ran both clean. Her times were not as good as I’m used to, and we were only fast enough to earn a leg for nationals in the last one. I had entered all dogs in a much bigger weekend trial two weeks later, but I had some trouble leaving the farm with Thomas working away that week. I went on Sunday afternoon and Squid had one standard run. I did not expect her to place since the classes were big, but she actually place fourth and our goal for the year was met! We did three runs the weekend after and Squid ran clean and won two of them. I had some handling errors in the first two runs in our next trial, but we ran the last one clean and placed fifth. And then this Saturday we had two clean runs with fourth place and one elimination. We’ve had 13 runs since she came back in November. Eight were clean, seven of them with a leg for Swedish Nationals (we need another jumping leg to be qualified for next years National Championships) and six top 5 placements (my dream was to get one).
Results are great considering we haven’t really trained agility (right now we’re focused on conditioning and jumping skills only, the rest seems to just work), but the most important thing is that Squid is back in business! I was so afraid that the lameness that came after her puppies would be the end of our agility career. Squid turned nine this September and every run with her is a gift! She’s so happy when she gets to come along to training and trials, and when I take her out of the car and she knows it’s her turn. I’m so incredibly happy to have the privilege to compete with her and feel that she does her very best at all times. All faults are mine. Squid would have had many more clean runs if I’d done my job as well as she does hers. We’re now focusing on strength and conditioning to come back even stronger and faster during next year. I’m sure that we’ve got more to do and Squid does not in any way think that she’s old.
Here’s a run from Saturday:
Epic has also had a great season. We’re a good team and our runs are often very smooth. Our problem has always been dropped bars, but I think we’ve improved this year and had more runs where all bars stay up than we’ve had before. We’ve collected eight legs for Swedish Nationals and need one more in standard agility to be qualified. We also finally earned our final agility certificate, making Epic champion of both jumping and agility. We’ve actually had even more success in bigger competitions than the normal ones. I did not have any big expectations on National Team Tryouts in May, but I worked hard in preparation for it. The feeling was amazing! We’ve never had such a good weekend of trialling and those bars stayed up until the very last run. We ran clean and fast enough to earn a spot in the Swedish team for European Open and the Nordic Championships.
We made team finals at European Open and we ran our part of the final course clean! We had a great time at the Nordic Championships. We had a bar in every run, but no other faults and we placed fairly well in total. Norwegian Open in October was another great competition for us with a lot of clean runs and a ticket to the final where we also ran clean! Epic (and I) seem to run best indoors on difficult, fast courses with big distances.
Here’s the run that qualified us for NO finals:
Bud did his first trial about a year ago and quickly progressed to class 2 in jumping. We started 2017 with a small injury and had to get some treatment and gradual build up before competing again. We started in standard agility in May and he earned his first leg with a clean run and a win. He quickly progressed to class 3 in both jumping and agility, even though that last leg in A2 took a few tries.
We’ve had some more luck in standard agility once we got to class 3. We’ve only run one J3 clean (and won it with a certificate), while we’ve ran three A3 clean and earned the Agility Trial Championship title this Saturday. Bud does a lot of great things, but there’s often something that goes wrong in a run. If we have a great flow on course he often drops one bar, which he doesn’t often do otherwise.
Bud is somewhat a different type of dog than Squid and Epic. He is very well trained and knows a lot, but he does get easily frustrated and doesn’t cope well when something goes wrong. It might just be a little hiccup in our communication that gets him frustrated. He forces me to become a better handler – I need to run fast and trust him while still maintaining communication and clarity. Bud is still very young (turning three this Christmas) and I think our communication will grow a lot during the coming year.
I’m very happy with my decision to have Bud run the large category in Sweden. This is the first year where we have five jump heights, and dogs from 43 to 49.99 centimeter can chose to compete in large and jump 40-50 cm jumps, or to compete in extra large (where Squid and Epic compete as they are about 53 cm tall) with 50-60 cm jumps. I like that I can take it easy with preparing him for 60 cm (which he has to jump internationally) and I haven’t seen any fallout from competing on lower jumps. I even like that I have to run faster to keep up with him. We now usually train on the same height as Epic (55-60). Another benefit is that I don’t have to run all my dogs in the same class since some trials are small with maybe 30 dogs or less in XL.
Bud’s clean run and win from this Saturday:
My only wish now is that I get to continue to train and compete with three sound dogs during 2018! It’s so important to really appreciate and enjoy every training session and every run with them. My thoughts are constantly with friends who lost their dogs too early, and with those that have to end their dog’s careers early because of injuries. I promise to not take anything for granted, to tell my dogs that I love them (which actually was what I did on the start line before the run with Bud above) and to take care of them in the best way possible.