Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Lesson of Selflessness

Tonight we had a great class.  This was the first week of the 4 week extension of the Advanced Beginner class, and only 3 dogs are in it.  Each dog and handler pair is quite competent, so the class moved along quickly and we got a lot done. 

We probably spent the most time on weave poles, finally moving them in closer.  These are the three dogs that can weave straight poles, although one dog walks through them when they're straight.  We moved them in slowly, and never got to quite straight, but they definitely had to start weaving around them.  At the end they were probably about 6 inches apart.  I was very pleased with Jonah.  He was really driving through, and when they got close enough he was doing one paw on each side rather than hopping through.  So, even though in the past I've complained about the channel now that he can weave straight, maybe going through the channel again in class will get him to do the faster method.  The poles at class are 22" apart, so I wonder what he'll do with 24".  After a few trips through, our teacher was impressed with Jonah and asked if we did weave poles elsewhere.  When I told her we had makeshift poles at home, she suggested that I cut the poles short in hopes that he will weave with his head lower to make him faster.  I'll have to see if I can find some shorter poles, as I'd like to avoid cutting them if I can avoid it.

Other than poles we did a whole bunch of sequences.  We worked on a serpentine, front crosses, rear crosses with the tunnel and a single jump, and trying to send Jonah out in front of me.  Overall, he was great.  I was especially pleased with his tight lines for the jumps, and he was happy with the rear crosses, thanks to our work this weekend.  His contacts were excellent.  We need to keep working on our sends.

He actually jumped off the teeter once, which was a surprise.  He's been great with the teeter recently.  Anyway, he got right back on, but he was slower than he has been.  Hopefully it's just a blip.  We'll see!

The main thing our teacher wants us to focus on is getting Jonah out in front of me.  She described it as being like a race.  If I always win the race, it's not fun for him.  Clearly he's a lot faster than I am, but he doesn't run the course that way.  Especially now that I can work at a little bit of distance, I don't have much trouble getting in place for front crosses.  So...I need to let go of my competitive nature and let him win.  We'll have to see how that speeds him up.  The other thing I was doing was restraining him at the beginning of a sequence instead of doing a lead out.  He was getting very excited and did seem to come out faster that way. 

The next few days we won't have much time to practice, but when we get back I'm going to work on sending him out ahead of me and throwing his kong out in front of him.  I'll keep working on rear crosses and just emphasize lots of rewards to get him moving faster and loving agility.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Jump Handling Practice

Today I set up a basic little exercise, but we learned a lot from it.

Here's the setup:
__          __          __

The possibilities were actually quite large.  We did regular serpentines, where I practiced front and rear crosses at each point, and worked on lead outs of various lengths and some distance.  Having the jump out of line was quite telling.  A few times Jonah would take the jump to the side instead of doing the inside line of the serpentine.  

I also worked on threadles, where he would jump the jumps of the serpentine but he would jump each one going the same direction.  I tried the two handling methods that have videos on Agilitynerd.com
The first one, the push pull, simply wasn't a strong enough cue for him.  He's conditioned to do the serpentine, so he ended up just doing that.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=echohlMf4vw&feature=player_embedded

Then I tried the front cross technique.  On the video I'd thought this looked a little bit silly, but the bigger motions seemed to make more sense to Jonah.  He wasn't going full speed, but we got it done without much trouble.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wpDBO6toWkQ&feature=player_embedded

So, fifteen minutes outside with four jumps and we got a lot of good practice out of it.  I'm glad we have class tomorrow.  Hopefully we can find some new, challenging things to work on!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Winter Weekend

It's finally time to face the fact that our outdoor training is going to start to be limited.  This weekend the highs were in the mid 30s.  When we went for a walk past a little pond nearby, it was mostly frozen over.  Puddles have clear ice crystals in them.  We had some great training time this weekend, but my un-gloved hands were definitely feeling it by the end of our short, 15 minute sessions. 

We had three focuses this weekend:  weaves, contacts and rear crosses.
1.  Weaves.  Jonah had been a little slower on his weaves recently, so I was hoping to speed him up.  The leaves around the poles are getting a little bit deep and he's been knocking poles over and I had been complacent about slower performances.  This weekend I made an emphasis on really getting him excited before sending him through.  When I do that, he flies through.  I'm not sure exactly how we'll do when poles become part of sequences/courses that don't allow me to excite him beforehand, but I'm hoping that, if I just keep making him go through quickly, it will just become habit for him to go faster.  I'm thinking again about buying a real set of poles with a metal base.  They would probably be easier to move and he could go through them without worrying about knocking them over.  Then again, I had thought that a teeter would be the next equipment I'd buy.  We'll have to see.

2.  Contacts.  I worked on doing a rear cross while Jonah was on the dog walk.  He loves the dog walk so much he didn't care much at all if he could see me or not.  His contacts are pretty good these days, but I got a lot of repetitions for them this weekend.  Still, he doesn't like me to be very far away from him and he turns toward me when I'm not right next to him.  We'll keep working on this.

3.  The big project of the weekend was front crosses.  After some online searches, we found a few good exercises.  First we tried a setup like this:

___                   ___


___                   ___

Say I started at the bottom right with Jonah on my right.  We would jump the diagonal (bottom right, middle, top left), and I would ask him to do a rear cross at the top left, curl around and then he would jump the other diagonal (top right, middle, bottom left).  The first few times we were a little confused.  If I stopped suddenly, Jonah would, too.  Sometimes he would turn the wrong way after the jump.  After doing the pattern a few times, though, it started to flow nicely.

Today we did a series of exercises that we found on Agilitynerd.com (check it out if you haven't already!).  First we did a zig-zag on the flat.  Jonah was excellent, and we could do it at a medium jog.  
Here is the video:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SHPkVaz3xbg&feature=related

Next we did landing side rear crosses on a zig zag.  This one was a little tough for me to figure out my footwork.  Jonah didn't have any trouble, though.
Watch it here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=agqZv-mPImI&feature=related

Finally we did the same zig zag with the rear cross before the jump.  The sequence of exercises worked beautifully, and Jonah did the crosses confidently, and faster than the dog in the video.  
Here's the last exercise:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yk9j0k3Nuvc&feature=related

After he was doing the rear cross smoothly, I played around with sequences, having him wrap around jumps, leading out and mixing front and rear crosses.  Jonah was loving it.

Two things of note:
1.  I've raised the height of the jumps.  Now he's jumping about 16", and I think he's happier with the higher jumps.  It's clearly not difficult for him, but it's enough of an effort that he notices the jumps.  When we were just using paint cans he was pretty much stepping/tripping over the jumps.  It's nice that he's now close to competition height and he seems perfectly happy with it.

2.  I brought his kong outside, filled with peanut butter and I'd throw it out in front of him at the end of a sequence.  I've tried this with toys before but he is so food motivated he hasn't really cared about the toys.  When I've tried throwing food he loses it in the grass.  The kong is a good middle ground.  I've been looking at food tubes online and I might give one a try some time soon.

This week is Thanksgiving.  We have class on Tuesday night, but that will be about it for agility (Dave and I will be away).  The following week I'm hoping we'll get to go to one of the new places.  I'm a little anxious to get him settled in a new class location and moving towards being able to compete.  He's doing so well...I want to be able to put it to the test!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Class Time

We had a great class tonight.  We did a variety of sequences, working all of the obstacles in at various points.  I won't go through everything, but here are the highlights:

1.  Jonah was running so fast when he jumped on the table that he almost slid right off the other side.  Funny!

2.  At the base of the A-frame I meant to drop a cookie on the target, but nothing came out of my hands (the cheese was sticky) and I went on to the next obstacle.  He couldn't believe that I could possibly have forgotten to cookie him, so he kept sniffing around and delayed in coming to the tunnel.  When he did come to me, he missed the tunnel entrance.  Next time around I got my cookie right and he did the tunnel perfectly.

3.  We worked on a pinwheel.  It was three jumps, making half a circle  ( __  |  __ ).  We actually had a little bit of trouble with this.  I was supposed to do a front cross after the second jump, but I was having trouble getting there in time and I wasn't making eye contact with him.  When he didn't have clear direction from me, he went straight after the second jump and was on the A-frame before I knew what had happened.  After a little practice we had it going smoothly.

4.  Jonah was great on the teeter, which was low but free-standing this week.  I let him go his own speed (pretty fast!), and he was a little surprised when it moved faster than expected, but he didn't seem bothered at all and was happy to get back on the next time without any hesitation. 

5.  In general, I was really pleased with Jonah's willingness to go out to jumps that were farther away from me.  We're only talking about 10 feet or so, but it's some amount of independence nonetheless.  As he warmed up, he seemed to get more and more focused and attentive.  The wider, open courses feel great.  He is smooth and quick, looking for the next obstacle and driving to it.  We need to work on the tighter, more technical questions, but I know we'll get there.

We're going to have our class extended another 4 weeks at the same place and same time.  I'm looking forward to it.  Tonight there were only 3 dogs and it looks like that's the way it will be for the next month.  The dogs are the more competent ones, so I'm excited that we'll be able to be challenged while still being in the fun environment we're so comfortable with.

I'm still waiting to hear from another new agility place to see what they have for us.  It's farther away (about an hour without traffic), but it looks like a nice facility and they have competitions there, which seems like an added bonus.  If that doesn't work, we'll wait until my classes are over and I'll go to the new, closer place (about half an hour) on Thursday nights.  Meanwhile, we've got 4 more weeks already set up for us.  Time's counting!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Weekend in the Poconos

Dave's family has a house in the Poconos and this weekend we took Jonah for his first trip there.  The drive is about 5 hours--the longest we've taken with Jonah.  He was a little fidgety, but overall very good.  Once we got to the house, he was quite brave going in the house and exploring around.  There was cat smell and cat toys and all sorts of other interesting things.  He even went down into the basement when we were turning on the breakers.

Yesterday we went to the Promised Land State Park and had a lovely walk.  There was a stream across the path that we humans had to build a stepping stone path across.  Jonah didn't understand at all why we didn't want to wade through the 3-6 inch stream and decided to jump and splash on me while I was moving the rocks.  My feet stayed dry, but thanks to his playing the rest of me got pretty wet :).

We hiked out to a pretty bridge between two lakes and took a little break there.  We played with some tricks and Jonah was doing great with long-distance down commands and stays while I ran away from him.  He also explored on top of a beaver dam, but didn't get to meet any critters.

Later that afternoon we went for a run and Jonah was great.  It's so much fun to run with him.  We never have to worry about him getting too tired--he's really in his element when running along.  He just looks so happy!

All weekend Jonah had been a little concerned with going on the dock.  There was a wooden dock that he went out on by himself, but he didn't want to go down the steep stairs onto the metal dock.  We carried him down and he'd walk around cautiously on the dock.  It was funny how I'd almost forgotten how nervous he used to be when we first got him.  We hardly ever see that from him anymore, but it reared its head with the docks.  It was neat to watch him as he was clearly so nervous but he also wanted to be with us, so he'd slowly make his way to us and conquer his fear.  Good boy.  It makes me realize that, just because he's been so good with all his agility lately, he could very well be nervous again when we take him to a new place or to a competition.  We'll have to see!

Today we had a real adventure.  Jonah went kayaking.  He (understandably) didn't want to jump off the dock into the boat, so I picked him up and handed him to Dave in the boat.  Then I got in front (2 person kayak).  Once he was in, though, he was great!  He thought it was awesome.  When we'd stop, he would lean over and take a little drink.  Sometimes he would decide we weren't paying enough attention to him and he would lick us when we were defenselessly paddling along.  We had a great time.

Now we're safely home and ready to start a new week.  I heard back from the closest potential new agility place and their intermediate class conflicts with one of my classes.  I only have 3 more weeks of class, so I could do that in a few weeks, but I went ahead and emailed one of the other potential places, too, just to see what our options are.  Wish us luck!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Serious Downturn

Today I drafted an email to our instructor asking if it would make sense to take both the morning Intermediate class as well as the extension of our Advanced Beginner course.  Then I went to the Four Paws website to get her email address.

There was a new announcement: 
It is with sadness that we must announce the closing of Four Paws Academy at the end of this year. We will not be starting any new classes after the week of November 8th. We wish to thank our staff and students for the seven wonderful years we had, and wish you all happiness and success in the future with your dogs. 

So, I erased what I had written and wrote a plea for advice, instead.  There are a number of places within a reasonable distance that offer agility courses, but it seems like most of them are casual courses and the instructors are not actively competing.  There's Gemini, but I'm reluctant to take Jonah back there because I want agility to stay fun for Jonah.  There are two places that look pretty good that are about an hour away.  Then there is an agility club nearby that has regular practices and seminars, but it's not a class.  

I'm totally bummed.  I have loved our classes at Four Paws!  The facility is great, the instructors are great, the other dogs and people are great, and Jonah just has a blast when he's there.  Anyway, I don't know where we'll go from here.  We do have class this coming Tuesday, but what then?  Right when I thought we were about to take a big step forward...not so much.  I'm sure we'll figure something out.  I'm anxiously awaiting the reply from our instructor.  Till then, I'm just disappointed.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Class #5

Our trip to class started a little bit crazy, as Dave had gotten me completely engrossed in the sporcle.com trivia (we were trying to name all the animals in the Bible) and when I finally looked at the clock it was past time to go.  Luckily I had already prepared treats, and Jonah and I ran to the car and got on the road.  We only ended up a couple minutes late, and the class hadn't started yet, so then we took a big breath and got going.

We did a bunch of sequences with jumps, tunnels, a chute the dog walk, A frame and teeter (which had a pause table under the high end of it again.  When we got to do it normally last time I thought we were done with the 'crutches,' but I guess not).  Jonah was fantastic.  His lead outs are getting very solid, even when he has to hold the stay for a long time and I am far from him.  He's getting comfortable working at more distance from me and he drives at obstacles much better than he used to.  I'm finding front crosses to be quite natural at this point, so we're both improving.

We spent a bunch of class working on a serpentine.  It started out with the jumps angled but vaguely in a straight line:
\          /           \
Then the teacher angled them more and more until they were pretty much straight:
__             __          __
It was a really neat exercise.  Jonah was perfect every trip through and really drove straight to the jumps.  It amazes me how big of an angle we were asking the dogs to jump on, and how they really didn't seem to mind one bit.  This would have been a very advanced exercise on a horse!  When I've set up serpentines at home, I've always asked Jonah to make wider turns, but now I can't wait to set it up again and work on shaving off seconds from the performance.  We did the serpentine with the dog on one side of us and also doing a front cross between the first and second jumps.  Our teacher alluded to the fact that you can do a front cross after the second jump, so I want to try that at home.  I also want to work on rear crosses in this pattern.  Good homework.

After the serpentine we did a bunch of other sequences, including the channel weave poles.  They were closer this week, but still not even close enough to be brushing the dogs' shoulders as they went through.  A few of the dogs in class are having trouble with them, so I can't blame the teacher, but I'm personally kind of bored with it.  Oh well.  

Our final sequence was where we came up with one issue this week.  We did a jump to the poles to a U-shaped tunnel (apologies for my silly looking tunnel, but the Os are the openings, and just imagine the tunnel curves in a U):
                               O  \ 
|         ::::::::::::         O  /  
When I started with Jonah on my right, we had no problems:  jump, weave, tunnel.
When I started with Jonah on my left, though, I tried to do a rear cross while he was in the tunnel.  When I stopped at the tunnel entrance, he stopped.  Then he went in but as soon as I crossed behind me he turned around and came back out.  I had to run around the outside of the tunnel once before he would do the tunnel with me crossing behind.  

In response, the teacher had us practice rear crosses with the tunnel straight.  This was great, because it got me to be really sending Jonah out ahead of me.  He had no trouble at all with this.  It shows me that my running next to him and then stopping suddenly is problematic.  In situations like these, I would be better off slowing down and really sending him into the tunnel rather than having me run right up to it.  This is a great thing for us to work on at home.  I'm excited to have two big things to be focused on.  Rear crosses I guess are a central concern.  We haven't done them in class before yesterday, so we're not behind, but I always like to be ahead, so we've got some practice to do.

Next week is the last of the 6 beginner agility classes, so we got to hear a little about what comes next.  Our teacher confirmed that the night time Intermediate class is full.  The current plan is that we would extend our class at the same time and with the same dogs and just keep working along as an 'advanced advanced beginner' class.  I have mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, I think our teacher is great, I like the other dogs and people in the class, and the time works well for me.  On the other hand, I would love it if we were in a class that challenged us a little bit more.  I'd like to be working on straight weave poles and rear crosses, obstacle discrimination and generally more difficult sequences.  When we watched the Advanced class back in August when we first visited Four Paws, we got to see what those dogs are doing.  Honestly, I think Jonah could fit in with that class.  Yes, we have to work on rear crosses, but those dogs weren't weaving consistently and they had their problems.  I know that, with a little help at class and a lot of practice at home, we could move forward a lot more quickly than we're doing in our current class.  So, all in all I really enjoy our class but I'm itching to get Jonah out and competing, so I wish we were going a little faster.  The best thing about this week, though, is that we've got good homework to set up.  Now, if only it would stop raining...

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Musings on Venues

Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself, but yesterday I took some time to look around at the different venues to start thinking about which ones Jonah would compete in.  Of course, this is all subject to change based on what our teachers have to say, and it's still pretty far off, but I would like to go watch one this year and I thought it would be best to watch something I'll actually compete in.

First off, Jonah can't compete in AKC as he's a mixed breed, so even though that's the most popular in this area, it won't work for us.

The trainers at Four Paws do AKC, USDAA and NADAC.

In our area, we have CPE, NADAC and USDAA trials. 

As for CPE, it seems like it is a good place to start, and you can pick which games you want to do based on your dog's skills.  There are a lot of CPE events in our area, but it would be nice to do something that our teachers know and do, too.  I also don't know how much I'm excited by the games.  I'm sure they'd be fun, but I'm thinking I might be more interested in more 'traditional' agility.

NADAC sounds like a great place for us to begin, but there aren't quite as many competitions around us.  Having watched some youtube videos (I know, scientific, right), I'm pretty sure he could be successful right away.  The courses are pretty simple, and having time to run in between obstacles is, in my opinion, nice.  As an athletic person, I want to be getting exercise while I'm handling.  The distance work is not something we've done much of yet, so it's hard for me to judge how that would go.  My worry with NADAC is that, as we progress up the levels, the time could get tight for him and he'd be competing against a lot of faster border collies.  I don't want to set him up in a program where he won't be able to succeed, so I'm concerned that he would get 'stuck' in NADAC where he can't really progress.

Then there's USDAA, which both of the advanced instructors do at Four Paws.  There are 12 weave poles at the introductory USDAA level, but I think weave poles are actually one of Jonah's strong points, so that's not necessarily bad.  It seems like USDAA might be a good fit for Jonah because the times are a little looser.  He might have to jump higher, but my guess is that USDAA might be the best fit for him.  It sounds like the atmosphere can be a little more competitive, and I'm not sure what I think of that, but I think we'll give USDAA a shot.

So...I think my current plan as of today would be to start Jonah in NADAC to get some comfortable experience in a relaxed atmosphere where he can succeed.  Then we'll add USDAA into the mix and see where things go from there.  Of course, we'll also be working closely with our instructors and getting their feedback, which I value greatly.  I can't wait!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Advanced Beginner Class #4

For some reason, only 4 of the 7 dogs in our class came this week.  We still had the two teachers, so it was two dogs in each group, which was fantastic.  Unfortunately, the other dog in our group (our new friend from yesterday!) got scared of one of the other dogs' barking, and so she spent most of the night being very cautious and uninterested in doing agility.  Poor thing.  I was impressed with how both the dog's person and the teachers managed to stay super positive and made small goals that she could accomplish and be praised for. 

As for us, because the other dog in our group was doing her own thing, we got to have our exercises tailored to us, as well.  We did a bunch of sequences and worked on lots of front crosses, rear crosses in the tunnels, and other general body positioning. 

First we did the teeter to a U-shaped tunnel to the channel weave poles to a jump.  The teeter was free-standing but not full height.  The high end was probably about 2 feet off the ground.  Again Jonah was very enthusiastic about getting on the teeter and I worry that he's going to scare himself, but I just let him go and stay a little behind him as he reaches the tipping point.  He never showed any sign of concern.  I'm really proud of him.

Anyway, on one of our sequences, we did the teeter with Jonah on my left and then went straight ahead to the tunnel which curved to the left.  I pointed to the tunnel and stopped, waiting for him to pass me so I could move to the left and pick him up coming out.  He stopped, too.  Oops.  Our teacher was great in explaining what had happened and let us try it again so we could get it right.  When I fixed my handling, he went perfectly.  It's so neat to see how closely he picks up on my body language even when what I'm doing is unintentional.

Next we did a sequence of a jump to the chute to the A-frame to a jump.  Our work with the chute at home paid off, and he didn't hesitate at all this week at class.  On the A-frame, he was doing things correctly but he wasn't really driving up and over, so we played with different ways to get him excited.  In general, I think he gets a lot of his speed off of my running, but on the A-frame I get him on and then run to the end and stop, waiting to treat him for his contact performance.  Here are some of the things we played with to get him moving faster: 
1.  Rope toy.  He loves to tug at home, but in class he's pretty disinterested.  Actually, whenever there's food in the picture he loses interest in playing with toys.
2.  Baiting the target.  This worked pretty well, but in the past when I've baited he has run right off the bottom of the obstacle.  Maybe his contacts have gotten good enough that I don't have to worry about that any more. 
3.  Recall over the A-frame.  Our teacher held him at the base and I went to the end and called him over.  He was a little worried when I gave him to a strange person and then went out of sight, and while he did run a little faster, I think it was more to get away from her than to get to me.  That's something I'd like to work on, since it's definitely nice if I can hand him off to someone else to hold from time to time.
4.  ''Roughing him up.' The most successful thing we did was to push him around a little bit (playfully, of course--I wasn't hurting him) and then sprint off away and get him to chase me.  Of course, in competition I couldn't do that because you can't touch your dog, but it was a good training idea.  I brought a rope toy but he was pretty uninterested in it. 

Next we put the sequences together and did the following:  teeter-tunnel-weaves-jump-jump-A-frame-chute-jump.  It was probably the longest consecutive sequence we've done, but Jonah was awesome.  So cool!

After that we switched to the other teacher and did sequences with jumps, a pause table, a tunnel, the dog walk and the tire.  Jonah didn't have any trouble with any of the obstacles (except for one brain fade when he went under the tire rather than through it), so we really got to work on handling technique.  I practiced getting to the right place for front crosses, making my footwork clean and not running backwards, and walking a sequence and then handling it.  We also worked on jumping on angles and leading out farther and on angles.  It was great to be able to go at our own pace, practice hard things a few times and really get them right, and to have an instructor who is great at explaining what I'm doing (because I often have no idea) and how to improve it.

Overall, I'm thrilled with our teachers and couldn't be happier with Four Paws.  The instructors stay so positive but give feedback to push us to get better.  They answer questions thoroughly and make me feel good about having asked them.  I'm so glad we've found such a great place.

I'm also thrilled with Jonah.  He is just eating up anything we put in front of him.  I'm so proud and I can't wait to keep seeing how to work with him along the way.  Who knows where this agility will take us, but even if he never earns a title I'm loving the process of getting to know how to work with him in a fun, high-paced game.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Time to Beat and a Fun Run

In yesterday's post I said I hadn't timed Jonah's weaves in a while.  So...today I pulled out my watch.  I didn't really know how he would react to my attention being on the watch rather than on him, but he didn't seem to notice.
The big time:  3.2 seconds.
Now that's something I'm fully pleased with.  I know there are many dogs out there who are faster, but I feel like 3.2 is completely respectable.  It's also more than a second faster than the last time we timed him.  I don't know how much faster he will get (surely shaving off another second would be a very large challenge), but if he can maintain that I'll be quite happy.  Go Jonah!
- - -
Today we went to a park that lets dogs be off leash.  We were just going for a nice walk when we came across a friend!  One of the other dogs from our class was there, too.  I was surprised because I feel like we live pretty far away from Four Paws and I didn't know anyone else came from this area.  The other dog is a little nervous about some of the equipment at class, so we offered to let her come and use our toys.  Jonah will get to have a friend over!  Today, though, they just ran around, and around, and around, and around, and around together in the woods.  Jonah was thoroughly tired when we got home.  We're excited to have a new buddy to play with, both running and doing agility here at home.