Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Catch to Poodle Agility

Dancer has been one standard Q away from her CPE C-ATCH title for four trials now. Contacts are a constant issue, which is why it’s been four trials, but I fully acknowledge my role in training those unreliable contacts. The problem I face, however, is grooming.

This weekend, Dancer has two standard runs, and I am (as always) cautiously optimistic that one of those runs will be the run. Of course, that means I want Dancer to look good, should we have a C-ATCH photograph. So I have to do a little bit of show grooming. I trim face, I trim feet, I brush and scissor topknot and tail. How much grooming to do? Is too much grooming bad luck? Am I that superstitious? Maybe I should let the grooming go and go train contacts? Or weaves? What about weaves?

Do border collie people face these questions? I doubt it, honestly. Maybe they pack a brush, just in case.

“Cycling Enthusiast”

Western Bikeworks, where I am one of several owners, has the ability to add product reviews, and from time to time I review products. For several years, I’ve been posting reviews as a “casual cyclist” (with the notation that it’s a review from a member of the staff), but the last time I went to write a review, I checked the “cycling enthusiast” box before I wrote an (enthusiastic) review of an electrolyte/hydration formula called Skratch (it actually uses natural flavors and consequently tastes pretty decent). (Well, at least it doesn’t taste like artificial flavorings.)

It actually stopped me for a few minutes. When, exactly, did I become an “enthusiast”? I assume it happened sometime this spring, as I got ready for our Oregon Coast bike ride. And now that the ride is done, I find myself thinking a 20-mile round trip ride is no big deal (as long as it’s not raining). So I’ve added cycling to the topics I’ll cover in this blog. I’m working on a long article about our trip down the Coast from Astoria to Crescent City (CA), but it’ll be a few days yet.

Working with a veterinary canine behaviorist

When Rush was about ten months, he had a series of vet visits to deal with blocked anal glands, which were causing him some issues. At the third visit, he told the vet tech “don’t touch me!” when she tried to take his temperature. Specifically, he growled at her. She left it for the vet to do.

When the vet–canine behaviorist Paige Pierce–tried to take his temperature, Rush put his mouth on her arm in what Paige described as “the most inhibited bite I’ve ever experienced”. There was no pressure at all, but Rush’s message was clear: “I could bite you if I wanted to.”

I felt very fortunate that my regular vet–who has become a friend as we’ve shared agility training time–is a canine behaviorist who understood immediately that we needed to help Rush learn better behavior and also help him be less anxious about the vet. I had some experience with training behavior (I’d been taking Dancer to Control Unleashed classes), but this was different and felt more urgent. A dog that tries to hurt the vet can mean the dog doesn’t get care he needs.

Paige and I worked out a plan to help Rush understand what behavior we expected–we trained a “hold still” cue and behavior that has been incredibly useful in grooming, as well as at the vet–and we added medication (alprazolam) to help manage his anxiety during vet visits. It’s my opinion that alprazolam reduces anxiety enough that a dog can learn that he doesn’t need to be anxious in that situation.

I’ve been very happy with the results. When Rush tore off the tip of his tail, when he was two, his behavior was worried–but acceptable. When he developed an incredibly nasty ear infection and had to be sedated for cleaning (age three), his behavior was just fine.

I asked Paige about posting this commentary and she sent this link to her methodology.

“Sometimes you just have to ride the horse out of the stable” OR “The benefits of a long vacation”

After one of my first trials with Rush, I lamented to Debbie that I’d found him very challenging to run that weekend, because there was no place for him to run off some of his energy. Her reply?

Sometimes you just have to ride the horse out of the stable.

I mulled that one over for a while. At the time, it just didn’t seem to be very helpful advice. I went on giving Rush a long running warmup, if possible, on trial mornings, in an effort to tire him out. That worked, right up until I was back at that arena, with no time and no place to spend half an hour getting his ya-yas out. I took him into the ring, so excited he was bouncing at the end of his leash, I left him in his start-line-stay–I was fully expecting him to explode off the line the second I walked away from him–and I pretended I was fully confident he wouldn’t break his stay. Pretended. Actually, I was listening for the beep the first jump makes as the dog passes the timer lights, and watching Rush out of the corner of my eye. (I don’t like the kind of leadout where the handler checks back every third microsecond and keeps repeating “stay, stay, stayyyy” so I trained Rush and I trained myself to just walk away.)

I got out to the third jump–novice jumpers, so it started with a long straight line of jumps–and then glanced over my shoulder and released Rush as I started to sprint that line of jumps. Rush had held his stay–but he exploded off that line with an energy that astonished me. His intensity awed me.

I don’t remember if we Qd on that run, but I do remember the experience of trying to trust my training, even though Rush was insanely excited.

I just got back from a ten-day trip, cycling down the Oregon Coast while Rush and Dancer stayed with friends (and our son took care of the house). I took the beasts to the barn this morning, and Rush as so excited that he started play-bowing to me as soon as I took off his leash. He was every bit as excited as he is at trials. I find it hard to get that level of excitement in training–but not today. While the dogs waited in the car, I’d set up a contact speed circle around the outside of the barn–dogwalk on one side, a-frame on the other, a set of six weaves on each of the other sides, and a spiral into the teeter with a serp off the teeter over to the a-frame.

Rush sat in front of the tunnel, I raised my arm, and he broke his stay and flew into the starting tunnel.

It’s been a long time since that happened. I stopped, he sat again. I led out. He trembled, but he held his stay–and I rewarded his stay with a release. Stop on the contacts at speed? Yep. Complete the weaves while I go elsewhere? Yep. Finish the contact while I stop? Yep. Check in after the weaves instead of going into the tunnel ten feet away? Yep.

With the exception of the one mistake at the beginning, Rush was great. He was so thrilled to be there after his vacation that he gave me everything he could.

When I gave him a break and ran Dancer, same thing. She was so excited! Fast, focused, happy to be there.

Apparently, ten days off from training, lots of rest and relaxation are good things.

Ear checking and handling….

For years I’ve been working on Rush feeling good about being handled. Yesterday he went to the vet to have his ears checked and it turned out he had a massive infection; he needed to be sedated to have his ears cleaned. Today, I checked his ears, and then … he walked over to the drawer where the treats are kept and pointed at it. Okay, I get it; I did the check; you get the treat.

Dopamine and agility

I was thinking this morning about the joys and the frustrations of attending trials. I love training; I love thinking up methods to train something challenging. But trials? There are things I really dislike. All that sitting around. The rain, cold, heat, driving. But… I’ve been going to trials, often, for close to ten years now. So I find myself wondering, pretty regularly, why I go.

As all good dog trainers know, what gets rewarded gets repeated. And I keep going, so what’s so rewarding about agility trials? I think it’s partly the intermittent nature of the rewards–sometimes you Q, sometimes you don’t–but… But what is always the case? You always get to test your training, run fast, and anticipate the run.

It’s the dopamine manipulation. Agility has “maybe I’ll Q” to an exactitude. And research shows (as discussed by Robert Sapolsky here) that “maybe” raises dopamine levels like you wouldn’t believe.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter–it helps send signals over nerves–that is part of the reward system in the brain. Dopamine feels pretty good–and it’s released most effectively when you don’t know if you’ll get the reward. If the reward is a Q, and you don’t know if you’ll Q, but you can try for the Q… dopamine is maximized. (Just as a note here, dopamine levels are increased by both cocaine and amphetamines.)

Years ago, I told my husband about an agility competitor who “always Qs”–and his reply was “wouldn’t that be boring?” Looking at the research on dopamine, well, yes, it would–because dopamine levels if the reward is predictable are half what they are if the reward is “maybe” predictable.