Training The Baby Dog – The Chronicles of River

under_constructionNot having a dog to run in agility has been a test of patience. It has been 5 months since Merlin started rehabbing his knees and River is still too young to do a lot of the training that needs to be addressed eventually.

River has been 19″ tall since June (11 months old) so last month I decided to take her for X-rays to check her growth plates. She was just over 14 months old at the time the images were shot. The vet we normally see took the X-rays and gave me the all clear that her plates had closed. Inside my head I let out a quiet “woohoo!” which was quickly followed up with “are they really closed?” I emailed them over to Dr. Woodside for a second opinion and while they are almost closed they’re in fact still open. I guess the small hole in her tibia wasn’t all that obvious. I really love our vet, but the important take away here is to work with a specialist when dealing with your k9 athletes. Having someone that understands exactly what the dogs put themselves through with any sport is paramount. I don’t want to imagine the possible damage that could have been caused from starting to ramp up her training with plates still open.

As she turns 15 months with her growth plates still open I’m pretty sure this is part of a larger conspiracy of the agility gods. Running a jumpers sequences with bars set to 12″ with what appears to be a fully grown BC who is full of piss and vinegar has forced me way out of my comfort zone. My attention to our training has shifted to areas I may not have focused on nearly as much if her growth plates were already closed.

Video: Unleashing the beast on a jumpers sequence.

The Twitch Effect – Going slower to go faster.
Improving my movements has probably been my largest area of focus, and a lot of it I’ve worked on without having a dog present. If the neighbors are watching I’m quite sure they’re wondering “WTF is he doing out there?!?”

Handling River is much different than handling Merlin. The boy is in need of constant cheer leading and exciting movements. The girl wants to go as fast as possible all of the time. The extra twitchy movements just confuse the daylights out of River and nothing good comes of it for either of us. We’re still learning each other’s timings, but I can consciously feel my cues and motion being more precise and direct. I’m excited to see how Merlin responds to this whenever we are able to get him back up and running. I was been able to guest handle a few dogs at a recent trial and none of them had any issues reading my motion. I hadn’t run a full course in five months and it feels like I’m headed in the right direction. I’m conscious of when I revert back to “Twitch Mode” which is a big mental victory. Being able to run a full course at a trial has tempered my “need” to get either of the BC’s out running before they’re ready. Thank you Steve, Dave and Lori Sue.

Commitment Issues
Early on it was very apparent even with my speed, there would be no outrunning the Little Bits on a course. Consequently we have spent a considerable amount of time working obstacle commitment. I’m really happy where we are at this point in time. The speed bump jump heights have really forced my hand of cueing the obstacle and getting out of there as quickly as possible.

Impulse Control – The Start Line Unlocks The Game
Merlin has a number of confidence and stress issues. Start lines can shut him down as he starts to overthink what is about to happen. With River the game has become the reward and from early on the game didn’t start until she offered up a sit or a down on her own without me cueing it. In the beginning this meant we would spend our entire time in class waiting for the behavior to be offered. I needed her in an exciting environment and this became class time well spent. This has developed into a single hand single that send her between my legs to get her placed where I want her and right into a down position. With as amped as she gets, I smile every time she patiently waits with excitement for the game to begin. The little firecracker has some impulse control. We continue to proof this on a daily basis.

Understanding Your Most Valuable Commodity – Time
I’ve set goals for Team River. We’ve got a number of short term goals to work towards as well as some specific medium and long term goals. I work two jobs and over the last year and a half I’ve seen more doctors than any individual should have to see during their life time. I never see the wifey as much as I’d like to and free time for training becomes a very precious commodity.

We work multiple skills at once to maximize what we can fit in. A simple game of fetch is transformed to combine start line proofing, blind crosses on the flat and recalling to heel. You can get very creative with what else you can work while focusing on a specific skill. I try to remain aware of what we need to focus on and what we actually have time to work on.

I’m very excited to see where all of the work we’re putting in now away from equipment gets us when we start working on weaves, contacts and raising the jump heights. For now we’ll continue to launch out of puppy cannons and fly around sequences with short jumps all while smiling and enjoying the moments of a young dog learning and loving the game.

Happy Training!

Bonus Video: Running Flyer USDAA Masters Standard

Know your dog. Know yourself. Believe in both.

When you have a psychological test done (more on that another day) and you answer it honestly, it’s quite possible you’ll find a few things out about yourself you weren’t expecting. I scored in the 99th percentile for perseverance… in other words I don’t let difficulty or challenges stop me, to the point where I may need outside intervention. This came as a bit of a shock (that noise you just heard was my wife slapping me upside the head), because I had never seen this as a trait in myself. It would explain why I enjoy CrossFit so much and very much miss it.

The test results will also get you thinking… a lot. In regards to the pups it’s left me doing some deep dives on what I may or may not have done in Merlin’s training which has resulted in some of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type trial stress he exhibits. With River I wanted to make sure I wasn’t destined to repeat those mistakes.

When I tell most people that Merlin has stress and anxiety issues at trials, I get a look of shock which is usually followed up with a statement of disbelief. It has taken me awhile, but I have learned to take this reaction as a compliment. If he isn’t showing such outward signs of stress that completely shut him down, we’re doing things rights. It means we are progressing.

If I look back to my teenage years, one of the most exciting times I can remember was the acquisition of the driving permit / licence. The licence was new and full of wonderment and adventure. It represented freedom from the “evil” and “controlling” parents. It was an all access pass to seeing the world with windows rolled down and music blaring. Now some 20 years later it represents car payments, insurance payments, stop and go traffic, construction, road rage, accidents, finding a vehicle that can hold 2 dog crates… the list goes on and on. Some how we have managed to take an activity that we couldn’t get enough of in our youth and turned it into quite possibly some of the most stressful experiences we go through on a daily basis. The act of driving and its purpose changed, turning something joyous into something most of us rather not deal with and at times loathe. I’m pretty sure this is how Merlin feels at trials.

The Blue Eyed Yin: Merlin
When we brought Merlin home, I knew I wanted to do agility with him. I did the research and felt like I had set us both up for success. We had solid obedience work and he was a very outgoing little guy. He got his CGC at 6 months of age and we were now enrolled in “Agility Foundations”. Over the next couple of months we were both soaking in a lot of information. We were going to class once a week and at least four days out of the week we would work on stuff at home. At one point we skipped a class level as the instructor thought we had progressed passed that curriculum.

Yin YangWe continued our training and when he turned 16 months old we entered our first trial. It was an awful experience. We were signed up for a total of 6 runs for the day. We got to the trial site at 6:30am and didn’t finish until 8:30pm. The trial moved incredibly slow, had what seemed to be an extraordinary amount of complaining by grumpy old women and I was wondering what had I gotten myself into. Why would anyone subject themselves to this? Thankfully I kept with it and we experimented in a few different venues before finding our home in USDAA. Going to the different venues gave me a glimpse of how environmental stress was starting to effect Merlin. Three of our first trials involved either major thunderstorm or shotgun blasts going off fairly close by. It wasn’t until more recent events that I truly saw how strong our connection is. When I look back at all of the things I did wrong with Merlin it leaves me wondering how we even get through a course without him wanting to kill me.

As our relationship grew and we started to trial more, part of me was looking for validation that we were doing things right. Some people were talking about us, more specifically his breeder/breeding, and not in a very complimentary manner. Mentally a switch went off and these voices started getting to me. I started looking at the different classes and what was needed to get the different titles to move us up to the masters level courses as quickly as possible. Clearly getting titles on Merlin would be validation of all the hard work we had put in and silence those that complemented me to my face and talk trash behind my back.

Around this time, I had a lot of changes going on in all aspects of my life and found myself with a new instructor and a new way of handling that would change everything I thought I knew about agility. We reworked a lot of our foundations to fit into a completely different handling system and tried to turn our weaknesses into strengths which has resulted in a great team on course… when he’s not trapped in his own head. He enjoys the game, but he’s still unsure of himself at times. This is how we can go from melting down at a start line, to putting up beautiful runs on challenging courses all on the same day. The less he thinks about doing, the better we are connected and the faster he is. As we continue our training I focus on doing less and rewarding more often. It’s a very fine line of too little versus too much when it comes to Merlin. Having a driven little female in the house has been great for sibling rivalry.

Merlin is my soft, noise phobic, cuddly, loving, lower drive BC who wants to do everything 100% right and will sacrifice speed to do so. He will take naps with the wife and he will alert me when my sugars are out of whack. I wouldn’t trade him for anything in the world.

The Naughty Spotted Yang: River
When we brought River home last year, it was quite possibly the worst possible time to do so. Diesel was still recovering both physically and mentally from his ACL surgery. Tucker, our 13 year old, was starting to feel the aches and pains of old age more often and I knew her days were numbered. I had lost my job and was looking at changing careers since retail was sucking the life out of me. Were we really driving out to New York to get a puppy? Yes… Yes we were.

Yin YangRiver’s first 7 months with us have been very different than any other dog I’ve owned. She is by far and away the most driven dog that has been under our roof. I didn’t want to make the same mistakes I had made with Merlin, and our training went in a different direction. She has had the least amount of “rules” and I often refer to her as a feral dog in need of training. At some point we’ll figure out that whole walking on leash thing. She has also been the youngest of our dogs to figure out what relaxing is.

We did one “Puppy Class” that I think left most of the other owners in a state of shock – I guess they had never seen a BC “smiling” and growling while tugging on her leash after successfully leaving treats on the floor. We were using the class for distraction training and politely excused ourselves from group play activities to focus on attention and preventing her from getting injured as most of the class was 2-3 months older. We were on the anti-socialization program if you would. We were doing more relationship building games, body awareness work and playing while allowing her to figure things out on her own. We didn’t enroll in any agility classes, instead we opted for taking a series of foundation seminars that are run about every 6 weeks.

River is an independent little bitch who is very biddable. She is over the top in everything she does and I don’t think she’s had a bad day in her life. She’s developing into a very sound little girl that has very little fear, a whole lot of recovery and a tremendous amount of speed. Merlin and Diesel can both attest to the fact that she will wear you down with her cuteness and perseverance, and then swipe the toy they had out from under their noses. She loves to work and I have to be careful to stop well before she’s ready to. She’s very hungry to play games and much like a teenager learning to drive, she always wants to be out there – it is my responsibility to always leave her wanting more. There hasn’t been a day since we got her that she hasn’t made me smile and laugh at least once.

The Human Factor
I’ve tried to avoid making the same mistakes with River as I did with Merlin, but in a brief moment of clarity I realized that it is impossible to do that. They are very different dogs both mentally and physically. The boy who must do everything right and the girl who will do everything and see if any of it was right. Additionally the dynamics of the house are very different. The experiences that I’ve been through are also very different. The “support staff’ I have in my life is much stronger. With all of these variables I may make similar mistakes, but they will never be the same mistakes.

Merlin and River are walking on different paths and different timelines to achieve similar goals. Events and experiences in our lives are always changing and each dog will respond differently. River does have an advantage over Merlin, and that is the confidence I now have in myself. I am no longer seeking validation at the expense of myself or my dogs. I know where I want to go. I have a plan to get there, and I know I belong there.

As she gets older and starts to train more and eventually trial, we will enjoy what we do every time we go out. We will stay in the Starters class as long as is needed to make sure we are ready for the next step. Then we’ll sit in Advanced as long as it takes to make sure we are ready for Masters. I have goals for both Merlin and River. Those goals have some very different and difficult challenges, which in the end will make the journey all that much better.

In the grand scheme of things we are not on this planet very long, and our dogs are here even less. At the end of the day the titles are great and the “Q’s” are nice, but it’s the journey that I will always keep with me. Merlin and River have shown me it is going to be quite the ride. I believe in my dogs and more importantly I believe in myself. You have to. If you don’t, why should anyone else?

I will. Just Wtach Me.

Drive It Like You Stole It (Running Sequences With River)

River is nearly 9 months old and this past weekend we had some time to work short jump sequences with the bars on the ground in a 50′ x 60′ area. We had another handler out with their 5 month old puppy working on the other side of the ring. It was a great way for both of us to test our focus with the pups. River and I had done some work with two jumps and a tunnel, but the majority of our playing had been with just one jump. We kicked it up a notch and went with four jumps and a tunnel, giving us 6 to 7 obstacles to run in sequence. Thank you one jump foundation work…

Merlin had to deal with me having high expectations and wanting him to be perfect. He had to deal with my upbringing as the son of an Army 1st Lieutenant / Accountant – where things were either right or they were wrong. There was very little grey area when it came to dealing with my father. There was a spreadsheet for everything and diabetics don’t get cookies. Thankfully Merlin’s a very forgiving boy, and we continue to work on fixing my mistakes.

River is a very different dog and thankfully I’ve grown as a trainer. I can only imagine the disaster that would be our house if Merlin wasn’t here first. From an agility perspective we took a much different approach to our foundations. One jump work became her love, and we celebrated everything. Daddy’s little girl could do no wrong. Sorry Merlin, it sucks being the first one.

While playing with different sequences we worked for a total of maybe 3 minutes over the course of 15 minutes. She was absolutely brilliant. While working she had zero interest in the other puppy and it was all about running with me. She was reliably sending to jumps (fronts and backsides) from 12′ away and from all sorts of different angles. The more we played, the happier she was. Our foundation work had paid off.

More Please!

More Please!

It became very clear to me that I had done such a good job reinforcing her jump work that she only knows one speed when it comes to playing the game – OVERDRIVE! She has figured out how to work and keep focused on me while amped up out of her skull. Without realizing it I had been sprinting with her the entire time, which left me hands on knees exhausted by the end of it. I felt slow and out of shape. It’s a feeling I can’t stand and will need to adjust my own workout programming to keep up with her – who would have guessed that?!?

I couldn’t be happier with the way we are progressing as a team. As I change my approach with handling River, it helps me make better adjustments to my training with Merlin. They will never run the same way, and I’m ok with that. When I push Merlin too hard for speed, bars tend to fall or off courses are taken – our connection gets lost. He doesn’t enjoy the extra push. River seems to thrive off going as fast as f’ng possible all of the f’ng time. Running her reminds me of watching chase scenes out of movies like Transporter, Fast & The Furious, Days of Thunder & Gone In 60 Seconds. It’s pedal to the metal and you better hang on to the oh shit handle.

As I continue to focus on making clear motion based cues I know I will make mistakes along the way, but she can do no wrong and will reap the glory of the tug, cookies and hugs as a reward. My mental focus & physical conditioning are both going to need some extra training to keep up with her. Each session we work will push me, and I couldn’t be more excited.