Friday, May 27, 2011

Muddy Paws Trial Preview

While I was away I wasn't sure if we'd be ready for a trial this weekend, but after a good lesson yesterday I think we're ready to go.  We're heading up to Vermont tonight, we'll have tomorrow off, and then Jonah will run on Sunday.  Here's a peak at what's ahead of us:

Round 1:  Jackpot Level 3
     This will be our Level 3 Jackpot debut.  It appears that we'll have a traditional Jackpot (Levels 4/5/C, 3, and 1/2 run separately).  I did a little distance work with Jonah today in the back yard and I think he has the skills to do a Level 3 Jackpot if he's not stressed, but we'll have to see how things go.  I think it's unfortunate that it's the first run of trial for us, but we'll do our best.  It does look like we'll have a good while between the briefing and our run, so hopefully Jonah will have settled and be relaxed.  We'll see what he thinks when he goes into the ring.  The arena is an indoor dirt ring.  It will be our first time running on dirt and (obviously) our first time at this site.  Grace says some dogs really love running on dirt, so I'm hoping he enjoys the footing.  Our goal for this round will just to have fun.  I hope I can plan a good, motivating opening where he can run and get a sense of the space.  Then we'll see what the gamble is like.  If we don't qualify, I won't be too upset because I know we haven't done our homework for this recently.

Round 2:  Standard Level 2
     We still need 2 legs of Standard for our Level 2 title and we missed our last shot at it, so I'm really hoping we can nail this one.  I have a fair amount of confidence in our standard ability, so I'm looking forward to this run.  I'll try to support Jonah as much as I can without babysitting him where I need to get in place for good handling.  Other than that, I hope it's an open course where we can run fast and have fun.

Round 3:  Snooker Level 3
     Snooker courses always depend so much on how they're set up.  As usual, my goal will be to make the most flowing course I can come up with.  We need 30 points in Level 3, so unless we come up with a great opening we'll have to get pretty far into the closing.  Anyway, we'll see what the map looks like when we get there.  We've already gotten one Level 3 snooker Q, so we know we can do it.

Round 4:  Colors Level 2
     This should be a nice way to end the day.  We share the course with level 1, so it shouldn't be too hard, and colors courses are always nice and short.  It's nice that we have easier courses to split up the harder Jackpot and Snooker.  Overall I think it will be a good day.  We might even have a bunch of spectators, as some of my family members are talking about coming to watch.  The weather is supposed to be great, too.  It will feel good to get back to a trial.  It's been quite a while now.

Lesson at DogStar

Today we had our first lesson at DogStar, and we had a great time!  There were differences in style, but I think we'll get a lot out of lessons with Grace.  For example, when I'd arrive for a lesson with Joan, she would always ask first what I wanted to work on.  Grace already had courses set up with numbers and just had me walk the first course.  That worked well and her courses were good, especially since we've been away from agility for a while.  I'm just going to have to be proactive if there's something in particular I want to work on in future sessions.

The first course was fairly short but had some good questions.  There was a push to an off-side weave entry, a bunch of wraps and some otherwise tight turns.  He nailed the weave entry and weaved well (he's hopping through consistently now, so his footwork has improved).

Wraps are definitely something we need to work on.  When I stop moving, Jonah likes to stop, too.  I pulled him off one of the jumps the first time through the course because I changed direction before he had committed.  He stopped on a dime, turned, and started running after me in the new direction.  It was a great reminder for me.  In general, I haven't done much practice with wraps because I think they're demotivating for him.

Grace suggested doing 'suicides' with two jumps a stride or so apart where we just run back and forth with wraps, so he gets used to the idea of committing to a jump, taking it, and wrapping tightly to catch up to me while I go ahead and start moving to the next jump.  We'll have to try that.

One other thing Grace emphasized which I thought made a lot of sense was that I should be a little bit more active with my verbal cues.  If, when I stop for a wrap, I verbally say 'jump,' he knows not to stop and follow me but to go out and jump and then catch up with me.  I can also often wait closer to the jump he's wrapping to let him feed off my acceleration steps when he lands.  He's not super happy being away from me, so I should support him as much as I can.

Other than pulling Jonah off that one jump, he was very good.  His energy and speed were great.  The one other mistake was that he ran through the weaves between a jump and the A-frame.  Looking at it afterwards, that line was the fastest, but I need to be careful to notice things like that in a course walk, because it would count as an off course.  I tried it again and just paused for a moment to change his line towards me rather than the weaves, and it worked beautifully.

After working through the first course and tidying up our lines in shorter sequences, we ran through a second course.  Its challenges were a pull off the A-frame to the weaves to a cross and a few long open lines to a turn where I had to really move to get in place for a front cross.

The first time through, something happened (a loud noise, I think) and Jonah got flustered on the A-frame which resulted in him missing his weave entry.  We went right around again, and without the distraction he nailed it nicely.  The first time I did a front cross at the end of the weaves and it worked fine, but then Grace challenged me to try a blind cross at the end of the weaves.  I've never blind crossed anything other than a tunnel before, but I figured it was good to try new things in a lesson.  It actually worked great.  Once Jonah is in the weaves, he very rarely pops out, so I wasn't too concerned about that, and it definitely allowed me to keep a better sense of where I was going next.  Grace says some dogs speed up when they see their handler's back.  I'm not sure how much he sped up, but it's good to know that I have a new tool if I needed it.  I think it would be more beneficial on a 6-weave set, since it's harder to get in front of him there than on 12 poles, as we did yesterday.

As for the running lines, I found that I wanted to babysit him a little through angled jumps and then I didn't have time to get ahead for a front cross.  When I just trusted him, though, he found the jumps just fine and I got in position.

One more thing I learned on my front cross positioning is that I was trying to block his path, which made him chip and slow down to stop in time, but he didn't know yet where he was going next.  When I did the front cross earlier and immediately started moving in the correct direction, he still made a sharp turn but it was more flowing to continue on to the next obstacle.

I had been worried about the A-frame contacts, and Grace and I talked about it some.  Her opinion was that, if I'd only been called on one contact, I was doing well.  She agreed that it was more natural and comfortable for him to have a running contact, and she thought that, based on how he was running, he would be consistent enough to keep with the same plan.  Apparently many people aim for an 80% success rate with contacts, and he's only been called on one out of probably more than 30, so over 95%.  For now at least it's not going to be a big focus for us.  If we have more trouble in the future, maybe we'll return to it.

Overall, the lesson showed me that I need to work on wraps, be more vocal with verbal cues when I'm not reinforcing him with my own movement, and it also gave me confidence that we're doing pretty well.  He was very confident and fast which meant that I had to be a better, faster handler.  I always used to feel like I was able to get to the right place at the right time without much trouble, but when he's fast it makes my job a lot harder.  I'll take that problem any day, and I hope I'm up to the challenge.  He's such a great agility partner and he seems to be growing with me, getting faster right when I'm ready to be pushed a little more.  Thanks, Jonah!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Goal Time

Now that I have time to really devote to Jonah and agility, it's time to get back to our goals.  I'm sheepish to list our goals from before my trip, but here goes:
1.  Happily walk on the sidewalk while cars pass without barking or lunging.
      This is going well.  Jonah is much more relaxed around cars.

2.  Polite behavior on-leash meeting other dogs.  If this means not saying hello but just walking by, that's fine, but I'd like to be consistently confident that we can be near other dogs without any disruptive, reactive behavior.

     I haven't seen much of this lately, but apparently it's still an issue.  I'm going to take him to a park shortly and see how it goes this afternoon.

3.  Give Jonah some off-leash social time to see if he can figure out how to get involved in playing and running when he'd like to.

     Yesterday we took Jonah to Willards Woods and he was very polite while meeting other dogs, but he also had next to no interest in playing with them.  I guess that's fine, so long as he's happy playing with us and he gets the exercise he needs.  I feel bad that he doesn't enjoy dog social time, but maybe he will some day.  We'll keep giving him opportunities to meet new dogs, and hopefully his social skills will continue to improve.

4.  Get Jonah to play tug outside of our yard (for example, at a local field, at a dog park or at one of the training facilities).

     We've had success with this, but it's certainly not 100% of the time.  I guess it's still an improvement from before, though.

5.  Go to another DogStar run-thru and have positive runs.

     Nope!  I was just so stressed and busy that I could not make time to go do this two days before I left.  There's another run-thru this Friday, so I will take him to that.

6.  Develop a plan for A-frame contacts and for managing in-ring distractions at trials.

     This still needs work.  I think I need to read some more about running A-frame contacts and decide what I think is best.  It's possible I'll end up building one, but it's a big project.  At least our truck is inspected now, so if I decide I need to go get supplies I can do it legally.
     As for in-ring distractions, I don't really know what's best other than practice, and asking him to work for me in other distracting places like parks.  He's gotten a lot better at keeping his focus on me next to roads, but I think there's some element of trial stress that is hard to reproduce.

7.  Enter Muddy Paws and Bo-Gee for after I get back!

     I entered Muddy Paws, but the Bo-Gee closing date isn't until mid June and it's unlimited, so I'll do that in the next few days.

Considering the fact that it's already May 25, I'm going to outline goals that I'd like to accomplish by the end of June:
1.  Get our agility area fully safe and useful, with stumps and leaning trees removed.

2.  Go to run-thrus at DogStar and work towards improving speed while keeping accuracy.

3.  Have a positive time at Muddy Paws this weekend.  It could be a challenging day, starting with our Level 3 Jackpot debut, then Standard level 2, Snooker level 3 and Colors level 2.  I'd at least hope to get the Standard and Colors Q's.  That said, Jonah's had a long break from agility and this will be in a new environment.  He could find it intimidating, so I really don't feel like I should have much in the way of expectations.

4.  Complete our Level 2 title at Bo-Gee.  If we get the two Level 2 Q's this weekend, then all we'd need is one more Level 2 Standard Q.  We could have as many as 4 chances at Bo-Gee, so I think it's a reasonable goal.

5.  Continue working towards on-leash manners.  I really want to not have to worry about Jonah acting aggressive, and I know he used to have excellent manners.  I still don't fully understand why things have changed, but I have confidence we can get the old Jonah back.

6.  Develop a training plan.  We're starting lessons with Grace tomorrow since it's just so much closer than Riverside.  I loved working with Joan, but the commute is four times longer to get to Riverside and back than it is to go to Dog Star.  I'm sure things will go well with Grace, too.  We'll have a half hour private lesson tomorrow and will develop a plan from there.  In some ways I think it would be nice to get Jonah back into a group class for socialization purposes, but my schedule doesn't fit with that at least for the summer.  I want to have a clear focus about how we are going to have a solid A-frame contact, and generally work towards speed and confidence in all aspects.  

7.  At the end of June, I'd like to write out 'My Handling Philosophy.'  Steve of AgilityNerd did this a while back, and I think it's a good idea.  Mine will be tailored specifically to me and Jonah as a team, trying to maximize our strengths and compensate for our weaknesses.

I think that's good for now.  We're going to have a lot of fun, and I promise I'll blog more often now!

Our Agility Area

While I was gone, my dad worked a lot on the yard, and it looks fantastic.  That's a good thing, but it means that now I'm too guilty to actually do agility on it, for fear that we would tear it up.  With that in mind, I've been working on our wooded area.

Some lily of the valley has started to encroach into the area, but it's easy to pull up, which I've started to do.

I did a major reorganization of all the obstacles except the dogwalk, in order to give us some new variety for our courses.

Next I started making natural stanchions.  We have a bunch of fallen trees, so I figured I would just cut them into 20" sections, stand them upright, and use them as jumps.  It works really well!  The trees are about 9" diameter, so it takes a while to cut them with my saw, but tomorrow I'm going to get out the chainsaw and really go to town.  I've done 5 so far (I know, an odd number isn't very helpful) and would like to do at least 5 more.  The only downside is that they're fairly heavy, and I certainly can't pick up the whole jump at once like I would be able to do with real jumps I could buy.  These are much less bright to the neighbors, though, they're free and they are completely natural.

The next order of business is a little more difficult.  There are two trees in the area which are dead and leaning on other trees.  We're going to have to pay for a professional to come take them down.

Finally, I've cut down a handful of saplings out there, and while I'm usually pretty good at avoiding the stumps, today when I was really trying to get Jonah to pick up speed I tripped on one and fell flat on my face.  I was fine, but Jonah was quite startled and it took him a minute to get back to full speed.  Poor guy.  So, I'm going to see how much I can do with an axe, but we might have to ask the tree guy to work on the stumps as well.

Aside from that, I'm quite pleased with the current situation.  The mulch footing is still looking fabulous.  We'll have to see if I decide to make an A-frame, and I was sketching out makeshift ways to make a broad jump the other day, but other than that we've got pretty much everything we need.  I can make full length courses now right in our own yard.  That's hard to beat!

I'm Back: Trip Recap

Well, I apologize for being so silent in the days leading up to my trip and then being gone for so long.  It was a really crazy, stressful time, but the trip was worth it.  I won't bore you with tons of pictures, but here are just a few shots of dogs I came across while I was there:

These are marble reliefs and statues from Greece and Turkey that date between the 5th century BCE and the 2nd century CE or so.  Clearly my trip was not mostly about dogs.

Anyway, while I was gone Jonah and Dave mostly had a good time.  They did a little agility here and there but mostly just went for walks and runs together.  The one bad thing was that Jonah found a skunk.  He still smells rather skunky, but he was very soft when I got home thanks to many baths.

He was as excited as I've ever seen him when I got home, which felt really nice.  He didn't start jumping and wagging for about 15 minutes when we finally took him outside, and he promptly found a stick for me to play with him.  So, now we're together again, I have a flexible, non-stressful schedule for the next while, and it's time to get back to agility!