Sunday, October 20, 2013

Airport Musings

Hello from the airport!  Due to an unfortunate mistake on my part (i.e. making my reservation for the wrong day.  doh. The change fees for United were higher to get on a 4 hour trip with a stop than to book a new, direct 1.5 hour flight on Jet Blue), I am at the airport with several hours to spare.  It might be the first time I've felt like I had time to blog in a long time.  So, here I am, and I'll give an update on the dogs.

Jonah is, as always, great.  I took him to my weekly lesson last Thursday and he was his usual self:  steady and reliable.  Then I took the day off and took both dogs to a lesson on Friday.  He was the most excited and social I have ever seen him at an agility activity.  I have no idea what it was.  I brought both dogs, and Nika got her turn first, so by the time Jonah came out he was really ready to go.  Of course, that's true at trials, but then he's stressed.  He was not stressed at this lesson.  He saw a crowd of people and pulled me towards them, wagging and wiggling and weaving through their legs and jumping up to see them.  Who is this?  Not Jonah.  Then, he did the same with other dogs.  He was jumping around and trying to run and play like he does with Nika, but he's never done that in an agility setting before with any other dog, ever.  So cool.  Then, when we got to the agility part, he was so wild and fast and silly that I couldn't get him clearly through one section for several tries.  But I was laughing a lot at him, which didn't help.  What had gotten into him?  What a goof.  It was great.  If only I could recreate it.

Nika has been a bit up and down lately.  She has moments of brilliance, and then sometimes the wheels really fall off.  At the same lesson when Jonah was being so silly, she was...a puppy.  We went first, and so I pulled her out of the car and asked her to start the course right away.  She was so stimulated by all the dogs and people around, and being in an environment she's only been to once or twice, she didn't focus well.  She started fine, but then wouldn't lie down on the table (and usually she's good at that, compared to her brother.  I've vowed to not have two dogs who can't complete the table).  Then she took a silly zoomies lap, pulled bars, forgot how to weave, etc.  We got through the course, but it was a real mess.  Then our dogwalk and teeter criteria started to fail.

I was underwhelmed, so I took her to run throughs that afternoon.  Convinced that I should get things right this time, I came out with a very workman like approach, and she did fine.  She bailed off the teeter a few times, which is unusual for her.  I wanted to do hard things, so we did and she was fine, but lacked enthusiasm.

When I got home I reassessed and decided I needed to step back.  So in the last few sessions before I left for a business trip this week, we focused on short, fast and fun.  I want to keep all the speed and eagerness I've built in, and it's better to go slow and maintain that than to lose it while doing harder things.  I want to have excellent obstacle performance on all obstacles and need to maintain it at all times.  Then, I want her always happy and drivey.  As long as I can keep those things I can increase difficulty, but only if I can keep those things.  That's the plan at this point, and hopefully I can keep it.

UKI is coming to our area, and I'm thinking about trying it.  Their table criteria is a down, but it doesn't look like all standard courses have a table, so Jonah might have a chance.  Nika will measure into the 20" category, so I have to think about whether I want to start jumping her at that height or enter their Select program so she would jump 16".  There's a trial in November and I might just sign up.  Nika also just had her 18 month birthday, so she's eligible for USDAA, where I'll also have to think about jump height.  I haven't entered anything yet, but it's on the horizon.  Meanwhile Jonah is now less than 20 Qs away from his CATCH so we'll be doing CPE whenever it's convenient.  2014 could be the year!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Herding vs. Agility

Today was the Northeast English Shepherd Gathering.  Thanks Marianne, Nika's breeder, for organizing a great event!

The weather didn't cooperate especially well, but everything else did.  There were lots (35ish?) of English Shepherds there, and Nika made so. many. friends.  She's still bad about jumping on people.  I keep thinking she'll grow out of it, but it hasn't happened yet.  The excitement makes it worse.  She played with lots of dogs and had a grand time.  Jonah came out and was a very good boy, too.  He would bark at Nika but was excellent with all the other dogs and people.  Last year he found the whole thing a bit stressful, but today he didn't show any signs of that.

One of the highlights of the event was that we got to try herding.  Cool.  I didn't really know what to expect.  Nika was the first dog to go.  Marianne picked us because she said she knew my dogs would be in control.  Ha.  I was worried that, having never been exposed to livestock, control wouldn't be the first adjective you'd use to describe Nika.  That might still be true, but she turned out to be a really good girl.  

We entered the pen and she was distracted.  She saw the sheep but they weren't moving, and she thought the smells around the ground were about as interesting as the sheep.  When the trainer got them to walk, she was interested, but kept checking with me like, "Mom, that's kind of cool, but I'm paying attention to you like a good girl."  I'd walk towards the sheep and she basically heeled with me, checking back and forth between the sheep and me like, "I don't really know what I'm doing, but those things are neat."  At one point a sheep turned around and stamped its foot at Nika.  Nika ran around behind me.  In general, I wouldn't say she was especially scared, but she wasn't sure.  By the end, she was getting more bold, maybe even too bold.  She'd lunge towards the sheep and they'd run, rather than keeping a steady pace.

The trainer thought she had instinct and was well behaved (she'd lie down on command for me, etc.) but a little distracted.  She thought Nika's young age might contribute, and that she could be good at herding, but that it would take regular practice (which, in the suburbs, isn't easy).  So, I left thinking that it was neat but that Nika wasn't really cut out to be the world's greatest herding dog, especially given the fact that I love agility and want to spend time on that.

So, we went back to agility :).  We had brought some equipment and set it up for a demo.  It was interesting.  There were tons of dogs around, and Nika was pretty distracted.  Much more so than at a typical trial.  We started, she knocked a bar, had some off courses, couldn't see the weaves, which were right next to a white fence, and then got herself caught in the chute, which was really bogged down with rain.  Our second attempt went much smoother, but then a puppy came romping into the area to join in, and focus went right out the window.  I think it was still a decent taste of agility for the people watching, and it's not like we're world team members anyway.  Not our best work by far, but fun nonetheless.  Then a bunch of people played around on the equipment with their dogs, which they really seemed to enjoy.  Yay for exposing new people to agility!

Then it was Jonah's turn to try herding.  When we took him down to the area, he was barking when he first saw the sheep.  The trainer had mentioned the importance of dogs staying quiet, so I was thinking she wouldn't have much tolerance for Jonah's antics.  I told her that if it just wasn't going to work, that was fine and she should just say so.  After all, (at least to my knowledge) he wasn't bred in herding lines like she was.  To my surprise, she asked if it was his first time seeing sheep and, when I said yes, she shrugged and said it was a pretty typical reaction.  The first couple times he got near them, he barked and lunged, but then he settled right down.  And he was awesome!  Confident, calm, focused, and he just seemed to get it really well.  We moved the sheep around, changed direction, went the other way, and he was a total star.  Not distracted at all like Nika had been.  After a couple minutes the instructor said he was doing great so it was time for the next step.  She took the long line from me and had me go in front of the sheep.  Well, Jonah continued to show interest and instinct, but he was really worried about the instructor and kept looking over his shoulder at her, and then back to the sheep, then over at me.  He did fine, but after a few minutes when he walked by the gate he just stopped there, saying, "I'm done."

I have a few overall thoughts to compare agility and herding.  It may not be a fair representation of herding, but this is based just on my little taste:
  • Handling agility is WAY more fun because you get to run.
  • The instructor made a good point:  herding should be about practical work with livestock, not just entertaining dogs.  If I got into herding, it would really just be for the sake of the dogs.  I don't have any need in my current lifestyle to be moving sheep around.
  • In agility/obedience, checking in with the handler is really important.  In herding, handler focus is really a minimum.  Nika needed more obstacle/sheep focus but kept looking for me for encouragement and direction.
  • Agility can be more positive.  When Jonah barked at the sheep, I was told to "reprimand" him.  What?  I don't even know what that means, and I'm glad.  (I just called him back to me.  He came.  I asked him to sit.  He did.)
  • Food-motivation doesn't really translate to herding.  Both my dogs like to work for food.  They'll work for toys, too.  Neither had a place here.  
  • I think of Nika as my confident dog, but after today I think some of that depends on my ability to play with her happily through verbal praise, toys, food, etc. When those go away in an uncertain situation, she really wants to please and the lack of those is almost like negative reinforcement for her.
  • It's cool how much natural instinct both dogs have.  Neat to watch.  And Jonah really seemed to get satisfaction out of it.  Maybe Nika would, too, if she gained more confidence that she was doing it right.  Obviously my own lack of knowledge contributes to my inability to guide them, but they did darn well despite my blunders!

Catch Up

I realize that I haven't posted in...months!  Yikes :(.

Work is very busy, and any free dog-related time ends up going to playing with the dogs and working them, rather than writing about them.  In general, that's a good thing.

Anyway, lots has happened since the last post.

Nika went to her first trial!  And then her second.  And third, and fourth.  She's awesome.

I won't go through every run we've had, but basically she has a phenomenal focus, and has put together some beautiful runs.  This past weekend, the judge came up to me after a run and said, "You're amazing.  Where do you trial?"  I thought this was a funny question, because I've shown under her at least 5-6 times, but apparently Jonah is not very memorable.  I thanked her nonetheless.

We've had mistakes:  some dropped bars, a missed A-frame, some off courses or missed obstacles.  But, she's picked up a whole bunch of Qs and has already moved up to Level 4 in Fullhouse.  She's never made me regret starting her in level 3.  Everyone thinks she's awesome...I can't tell you how many comments I've gotten.  One woman referred to my dogs as "The fluffy one and the fast one."

Meanwhile, Jonah's doing great, too.  He's had a few perfect days lately and has just been generally very reliable.  Some super fast runs, too.  I'm proud of the big guy.  He always really wants his turn, even if he sometimes still gets nervous in the ring.  Oh, and he hit his 100th CPE Q last weekend!  Now he only has 18 left before he earns his CATCH.

For class, Nika has graduated into Competition Agility, the highest level.  Jonah and Nika switch off week to week, and both are kicking butt.  It's so fun to have the two of them.  They definitely have different strengths.  I'm lucky to have such awesome dogs.