Turning an asteroid

This post is part of the Dog Agility Bloggers Network topic “Success.” Click here to read other blogs in the series.

Rush puppy

I have experienced some very gratifying agility successes with my standard poodle Rush, who turned 3 years old on May 11th. We’ve won high-in-trial (large dogs) at the Poodle Club of America’s regional in Salem, OR last fall AND in the non-sporting group at a local trial (with nice ribbons, too); we’ve won the 24″ class in Time to Beat at an AKC trial (video here); we’ve qualified for CPE Nationals (coming up this weekend–stay tuned); he’s well on his way to getting his CPE C-ATCH.

When I try to figure out what has made my competition with Rush so much more successful than my competition with Dancer (who turned 8 yesterday), I see a series of decision points. I decided to get this puppy from this litter because I’d met and observed both his mom and dad over a period of years–my Dancer is Rush’s aunt. I spent a lot of time deciding what I wanted to train and when (as described in the puppy list) and then listened to the advice of others, too; as just one example, Rush learned to balance on a Bosu ball (both sides, the flat side with sandpaper added for traction) at just nine weeks, so he learned to be comfortable with motion early. Another example was using a small child’s tunnel to train his tunnel as a puppy so that he learned to run flat from the beginning–I knew his withers would be 24″ or more from the day I brought him home. (He’s around 25 1/2″ at the withers.)

I decided when he was six months old that I would train stopped contacts (2-on-2-off), and I decided the method I would use then as well, so that I could train that slowly and easily. My goal was error-free learning. (I used a foot target, which I trained using the “big blanket method” described (briefly) here.)

I started Rush’s start-line stay the day I brought him home from Vikki’s; nope, you don’t get your supper until you stay still while I put the bowl down. It took him just a few minutes to learn that, at nine weeks, and we were well on the way to his solid stay. I wanted independent weaves–and once I started training weaves (14 months old) I also started training finishing the weaves while I did something else. I worked on jumping skills when Susan Salo gave a seminar locally.

Fast tunnels: I’ve seen so many big dogs slow when they go through tunnels, and I didn’t want Rush to slow down; I taught him to flatten and go fast as one of the first things I trained.

Contacts? I’ve spent years training and retraining and retraining Dancer’s contacts. I really wish I knew then what I know now: pick your criteria for contact performance and stick to it. Then train that performance with as many methods as you can think of and proof it. With Rush, I chose a stopped two-on-two-off contact because I’d seen the most success with that criteria. It’s very clear when the dog has met criteria. I needed that clarity. Two-on-two-off and stopped also has the advantage of being less reliant on precision timing. My timing with rewards is terrible. If I click, I click too early or too late; if I say “yes!” I may say “yes!” at precisely the wrong moment, such as exactly the moment when the dog goes airborne from the apex of the a-frame. With 2o2o, I could wait until I was sure the dog was stopped with paws in the dirt before I said anything; being late was just fine and it was harder to be too early.

For Rush, I started with a foot target; I back-chained the contacts on the equipment. Once I started to get correct performance, I started setting up as many different scenarios as I could think of. If he met criteria, treats/toy/playtime/continue on–if not, “too bad so sad” and a slow walk to his crate where he waited while I played with Dancer for a few minutes. I learned to wait a beat or two or three before rewarding in place or releasing, so that I could check my mental picture of perfect criteria against what I actually saw. Rush’s consistency with contacts is very high; I simply no longer worry about whether or not he’ll meet my criteria, even in trials. It’s great–I can get on with handling his path to the next obstacle while he does his job. It also has the bonus of giving me a place where I can catch up with him!

But beyond training specific tasks, there were other decisions. I decided I was never going to try to slow Rush down. That immediately led to some other decisions: first, I needed to be faster; second, I needed to vastly improve my handling; third, I needed to train distance; fourth, I needed to lose weight.

I refer to Rush as my personal trainer these days. He motivates me to improve; the thrill (the rush!) of a successful run with him is enormous. It requires precision timing to direct him–he takes a single stride between obstacles, and that means he needs to know before he takes off where he’s going when he lands. And if he doesn’t know? Well, Rush is a master of timing with his corrections: he gives a quick bark to let me know when I was in his way, my cue was late, he had to correct his path. When I hear that bark, I know I screwed up.

A series of decisions. They all stem from one decision: the decision to change how I approached my own life and my agility ambitions.

“Change is hard.” It’s such a cliche that there are hundreds (if not thousands) of books written about how hard it is to change. But…

The problem with that view is that it’s not hard to change a path, if you start early enough and are patient enough. As a thought exercise, imagine turning your car’s steering wheel just a quarter-inch to the left (and holding it there) as you drive down the highway. (Obviously, don’t actually do this.) How long before your car would cross the yellow line? It was such a tiny little change–and there you are, across the highway in very little time–if you don’t turn the steering wheel back. You can change the path of an asteroid hundreds of miles with a tiny little push. (And to exaggerate this thought experiment: imagine trying to make a hard right turn in fifty feet… Now that is hard work.)

I look back at that sweet, tiny poodle puppy and I realize that, not only have I left the back road I was on, but I’m now driving a race car in the fast lane. How many tiny little changes did I make? I’m not sure, but it was one decision at a time–and the refusal to leave the new course each decision set.

3 thoughts on “Turning an asteroid

  1. Doranna Durgin

    I love the thoughtfulness behind your process. It really seems as though making the choices–and laying the foundation for them–is best done at the start. (Although my current youngster is also teaching me about flexibility along the way–!)

  2. susan

    thank you for sharing your agility experience. I enjoyed reading it and loved the car steering analogy. Umm…that gives me food for thought! thanks!

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