Category Archives: training

Havin’ some fun tonight!

This post is part of the Dog Agility Bloggers Network series on FUN. After you’ve read this article, go to this link to read more articles.

A few years back, my daughter Stacia introduced me to the idea that there are three types of fun. In Type 1 Fun, you have a good time, but it’s kind of an ordinary good time. For example, Type 1 Fun might include a nice dinner with friends with a chocolate brownie for dessert. It’s fun, but it’s readily accessible fun and requires no special effort. Type 2 Fun includes some element of challenge and difficulty. Perhaps you make the dinner as a group and you try a complicated recipe or two, something like Chicken Kiev with a molten chocolate Lava Cake for dessert. Type 3 Fun? Well, Type 3 Fun involves some danger, it might not be all fun during the actual event, and part of the fun is the story you tell afterwards. To continue with the dinner-with-friends analogy (which just might be getting a little strained, but oh well, we can all deal with it), the three of you get mugged while coming home from the store after buying the ingredients for dinner, one of you ends up in the emergency room and meets the love-of-her-life while waiting for treatment, and then you have a late dinner at the best restaurant in the area and the chef hears the story and makes you a special flaming dessert, which sets the tablecloth on fire, so you don’t actually get to eat it. That would qualify as Type 3 Fun: great story, some pretty awful bits during the actual event.

Personally, I try to avoid Type 3 Fun.

Incidentally, this is a photo of some Type 2 Fun I had with my daughter last summer. Anything that involves wading through icy water is automatically Type 2 Fun. At least, that’s my opinion. I did like the effect of the ice water on my knees, though. Alleviated the soreness a bit–it was quite the hike. (However, the story is not epic, no one was hurt, so not Type 3 Fun. Now, if I’d slipped and floated downstream a bit, maybe then.)

Photo by Stacia Torborg

Photo by Stacia Torborg

I have been competing in dog agility since sometime in 2005, when my Elly–my Novice A dog, who barely finished her Open titles–was two. She was indeed a challenge to run, between her sense of humor (several judges burst out laughing at her antics during her agility career) and her health (she had multiple health issues and died at not-quite-nine as a result (three years ago) and I still miss her). I have good stories to tell about Elly–she stopped in the middle of a run to play bow to the audience, she thought contacts were electrified, she left the arena to go ask the hot dog vendor for a snack (and that’s just the beginning)–and it was never dull. I learned, with Elly, that a sense of humor is key to enjoying agility.

Photo by Joe Camp

Photo by Joe Camp

My second poodle, Dancer, is very serious about agility. She wants very much to please me. For her, the fun of agility isn’t about the course or the challenges or the jumps: it’s about me. She wants to run with me, hang out with me, be my companion. I had to learn how to make agility fun for her, and it was a challenge for me. A good challenge, though, as she taught me a lot about dog training. Dancer will do anything I ask her to do… if it doesn’t scare her. For a long time, the teeter scared her so much that she just couldn’t do it. Not no way, not no how, not even for rotisserie chicken, her personal favorite. It took me three years, and I wrote an article for Clean Run about how I did it, and that? That was rewarding because it was challenging and it took a lot of thinking and because I learned so much from her.

And long-term difficult challenges that you meet and beat? Those are fun.

Photo by Joe Camp

Dancer expresses her opinion about the teeter: photo by Joe Camp

My Rush, my big boy dog, the one I chose as a puppy even though I swore I wanted a small girl from the litter right up until the moment Rush stole my heart? His proper poodle name is Alchmys Absolut Pleasure. Alchmy is the breeder; Absolut is a tribute to his father, a white poodle from Russia; and the Pleasure? That’s all mine. I’m superstitious enough that I believe that dog names can be self-fulfilling prophecies. I’d never name a dog Chaos, as just one example. So I was hoping, with Rush, that I’d get that excitement, that surge, that incredible feeling you get when you give it what you’ve got… and it works.

From the first day with Rush, when I insisted that he wait for his dinner, just like the big poodles, I knew where I was going.

puppy Rush waits for a treat with big poodles

What I didn’t know, when I started with Rush, was that he would enjoy agility every bit as much as I do. I didn’t know that he would be fast and long-strided. I didn’t know that he would change my life completely. I had to learn how to handle, how to run, how to give it all I’ve got every single run. I didn’t know how thoroughly he would live up to his name. He has truly been an absolute pleasure to have in my life. Type 2 Fun all the way: it’s not easy, it’s not simple, it’s challenging, and it’s exciting.

Rush? Here’s how Rush approaches agility (article continues below photos).

Photo by Zoe Zimmer

Photo by Zoe Zimmer

Photo by Joe Camp

Photo by Joe Camp

After finishing the first draft of this and letting it sit for a few days, I found myself thinking: “from the dog’s perspective, is agility Type 1 or Type 2?” My first thought was: “of course, for a dog, it’s Type 1, because all fun is Type 1 if you’re a dog.” But as I thought more about it, I realized that many dogs bring problem-solving skills and anticipation to their agility careers (and to herding and hunting, as some other examples)–and that, for those dogs, agility is Type 2 Fun. I know that Rush anticipates his agility run; he grows very intense as we move closer to the gate. When he watches a dog we’ve been following all day, he starts pulling to go into the ring. He hunkers down and stares at the first jump and his eyes flick back and forth from me to the jump and back to me and back to the jump as he tries to understand what I want. He tries to read what I want, and he barks in frustration when I’m late or confusing–and still does his best to follow my lead.

I find myself thinking about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire: as Ann Richards (Texas politician of note) said “after all, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.” From the dog’s point of view, running agility (without a map or any way to know the course in advance) must be like that–and for a dog that likes a challenge and finds excitement in challenge, what could be better? Type 2 Fun, for sure.

The latest on shoes…

I was looking through the “most popular posts” part of my blog statistics, and noticed that one of the most popular posts lately is one I wrote more than two years ago about shoes for agility and for running. So I went off and read it… and found that I had moved on from almost all of my recommendations.

I’ve changed to a completely different shoe for agility. About a year and a half ago, my daughter suggested that I try the Skora Core trail running shoe. They’re lightweight, incredibly comfortable; the goat leather molds to your foot, like a glove. They’re not completely waterproof–I think Skora describes them as “water resistant” and even that is a bit of a stretch–but the comfort and the ground feel are great. Not a lot of padding… but I can feel the surface and I feel confident when I wear them that I can run well and easily. Sizing is a little odd; I wear a 9 in Inov-8s, an 8.5 in most shoes, and an 8 in Skoras.

I am wearing the Hoka One One Clifton 2 for some of my running these days. It’s wide in the forefoot, and my foot goes deep in the shoe so that it feels comfortable and secure. The generous padding of the Hokas is a wonderful thing for my knees, which have enjoyed my weight loss but are still the relative weak link in the chain from foot to hip. The Hokas are great for days when I’m running on sidewalks and streets more than on trails.

I do my trail runs in the Altra Lone Peak 2.5 . Altra shoes are zero-drop (which I have come to love) (the Skoras are zero-drop as well, and the Hokas have a relatively small heel-to-toe drop) and the Lone Peak has excellent traction, even on muddy trails. It’s not waterproof, which is a shame. I’ve tried their waterproof version of the Lone Peak (this one: Altra Lone Peak 2.0 Polartec Shoe), and it’s good, but not great. I’d rather wear wool socks and try to avoid puddles while wearing this shoe. Note that the Lone Peak keeps changing in subtle ways from version to version; I’m specifically recommending the Lone Peak 2.5.

Finally, I still recommend Inov-8’s lightweight Goretex boots for the winter. Warm, dry, comfortable. Inov-8 Roclite 286 GTX Boot is an Amazon link. But there are lots of Goretex boots these days, and frankly I wouldn’t be surprised if there are others that are more comfortable. Mine have lasted 8 years now, though.

A rant (please ignore if you don’t want to be offended) (includes swearing) (as usual)

I’ve been told lately that I have a tendency to be harsh and blunt and should be kinder and more gentle. Apparently some people have been offended. I’m contemplating whether the appropriate response is “fuck ’em” or whether I should try to be more … well, more filtered. I’ve never had much of a filter, and of late my filter has gotten perhaps a little too porous.

Losing weight–slowly, painfully, one ounce at a time–seems to have triggered my inner curmudgeon. I hear certain phrases and they trigger an instant internal response. It’s like pressing a button. “I need to go on a diet” or “I should go on a diet” triggers “no, you need to change your life, because what you’re doing now is making you fat and a diet is temporary and you’ll just get fat again when you stop ‘dieting’.” “How did you lose all that weight?” triggers “Move more, eat less.” and if I actually say that, then people say “I want it to be easier than that” and I want to snap. Losing this weight has been hard, and I’ve accumulated opinions about what it takes, and really, I’m pretty sure what worked for me would work for anyone, if you stop making excuses and decide you actually will do it (because that decision is the most crucial step), not just make excuses.

I’m not sure why my weight loss seems to anger other people. My working theory is that I’m taking away a lot of their excuses. After all, I’m sixty. I’ve had cancer. I’m female. I was really overweight. All of that was fine, and no one ever criticized me for the weight–other than the orthopedist who told me I was heading for double knee replacements by sixty (four years ago). Even the doctor who referred me to the nutritionist–the one who told me I’d “be hungry sometimes and that’s just fine”–didn’t actually criticize me. She just wrote “obesity” in the list of medical problems I was facing. But now that I’ve lost almost all the weight I set out to lose (six pounds to go, as of this morning), apparently people are worried that I might have become anorexic (and my filterless brain says “would you like to see my food diaries? no? then please be quiet.“).

I want to snap when I hear excuses that people think are reasons. I want to record their excuses and play them back to them, over and over and over (and then one or two more times), until they realize they are excuses. I had a reason I couldn’t run well, why it hurt to walk, and I had that reason for maybe ten years, and now that I don’t have bone cancer (chondrosarcoma, left distal femur, now considered cured) any more, I’ve spent nine years (nine fucking years, folks) losing weight, getting faster, working on my health–and you want an easy answer and to make excuses? Yeah. You can make excuses all you want, but if you took the energy you put into your excuses and put it into changing your life… well, in a year, you’d be a little further down that path you say you want to follow.

“I wish I could run faster but my knees hurt” is an excuse when it comes out of the mouth of someone who is fifty pounds overweight. My snappish curmudgeonly brain wants to say “Lose weight, try Couch-to-Five-K, and maybe you’ll run faster and I’m pretty sure your knees will hurt less. It worked for me. Or you could try swimming. Something. More exercise than trotting around the ring with your dog.” I try hard to shut up but don’t push me, folks. Really. Following that excuse with other ones about how you don’t have the time or energy or whatever? You’re making excuses. Stop lying to yourself. It’s not just that you’re lying to me, it’s that you’re lying to yourself. Curmudgeon says: “You don’t really want to get more fit–if you really wanted to do it, you’d be doing it, not making excuses.

I don’t know anyone whose dog is competing at the upper levels of agility who has a fat dog. We all know how to keep our dogs at a healthy weight. Many people I know have treadmills for their dogs, to keep the dog fit. We all know what it takes to have a fit, lean dog–and my first thought when someone with a fit, lean dog says “I wish I could lose weight” is that “you should manage your own diet and exercise as carefully as you manage your dog’s diet and exercise. That would work.

Ruminations as 2016 approaches

While ruminating on change and New Year’s Resolutions, I ran across this article in the New York Times. The two questions “why don’t I do this already?” and “why do I feel the need to do this now?” seem to me to constitute a very useful approach to life changes. In the case of “why don’t I do this already?” it should lead to problem-solving around the answers. If (for example) you’re not eating healthfully, why not? Is it grocery shopping? Time to cook? Lack of ability to cook? The three problems have different solutions.

When people ask me how I’ve managed to lose weight, a lot of it has been problem solving, one new habit at a time.

There are a lot of messages about weight and fitness going around as New Year’s Day approaches. I have mixed feelings about all of them. I am well aware that many resolutions are not kept–but I am also aware that *decisions* made about making a life change can be a very good thing. I ran across an article about “body positivism”. This appears, at first glance, to be about accepting your body, whatever your weight, but there seems to be an undercurrent of “don’t bother trying to change, because you should love your body no matter what you weigh.”

I think that part of this is an excellent message–“celebrate what your body can do!”– but I disagree that excess weight is okay. I spent a lot of years with more weight than I’d really want to admit (here or anyway) and I feel much better now than I did when I was heavier. My knees hurt all the time, now they rarely do, even with all the running I do. I’m no longer developing insulin resistance: my fasting blood sugar has dropped from a very slightly high 105 to a nice 92. I’m not nearly as tired at the end of the day. I don’t wake up felling unhappy about my clothing choices and the way I look in the mirror (when I had the courage to look in the mirror).

When I decided to lose weight, more than three years ago, it wasn’t about looking better (that really has been a huge bonus!), it was about performance. I wanted to feel better, lose the knee pain (and avoid knee replacement surgery), run faster, get my borderline blood sugar down, run faster so I could keep up with Rush, and not hear my knees make that crunchy noise when I went up the stairs. I wanted to fit into airline seats. I wanted to cross my legs comfortably. I wanted to feel fast and lean.

It has not been easy. I have made my contributions to Weight Watchers (an organization that makes me want desperately to change it) in pursuit of a place to discuss food issues. I track everything I eat (and very rarely eat anything wrapped in crunchy plastic); I cook my own food most of the time and take my own food with me when going to dog events. It requires planning and thought and making big batches of soup for the freezer so I always have something healthy to eat, even when I am bone-tired. I swim and I run and I bike so I can have occasional treats. It’s not easy.

But… My knees don’t hurt. I’m not going to need those knees replaced at 60 (my current age), as they warned me five years ago. My blood sugar is normal. I ran a five-K race and placed first in my age group two weeks ago–beating eight women. I still have seven and a half pounds to go, an amount that should make my five k time 49 seconds faster. And it’s a lot easier to keep up with Rush, too.

In the last few days–New Year’s Day is tomorrow, after all, a few people have asked me about the Couch to 5k running program. So here’s a fuller answer. Yes, do Couch to 5k (c25k). But… do it very slowly if you’re starting from not doing much. Repeat each week until it feels easy and comfortable and even pleasurable. C25k was written for thirty year olds. When I started (two years ago), I did each week twice–it took 6 months instead of three. Then, once I reached the ability to (mostly) run three miles very slowly (I was doing 13-minute miles–tall people can walk that fast!), I went back and started over again, trying to run the running intervals faster, really run. But doing it gradually has meant that I’m stronger, uninjured, find running a pleasure.

And keep records of how you’re doing. Progress is slow–but you can see it if you have a record.

If you’ll find it motivational, sign up for a race. If you’re local to Portland (Oregon), and want me to run with you or do a five k with you, just ask.

BUY GOOD SHOES FOR RUNNING before you start, especially if you’ve ever had foot problems. I *love* my Hoka One One Clifton 2 shoes, but YMMV. My daughter loves her Altras. A good running store can help you with shoes. BUT, if you’re like me and too intimidated/embarrassed to go into a good running store when you’re forty pounds overweight and 58 years old (all those skinny young people? scary), Zappos is your friend. Free shipping both ways. Just buy four or five pairs and return the ones you don’t like. Hoka has free returns too, with a thirty day trial, so you can wear them to actually run in.

Finally, New Year’s Day is tomorrow (as I’ve mentioned), and it’s got me thinking about accomplishing small goals with a little bit of work toward them, every day. For many years, when the kids were small, I tried to spend 10-15 minutes every day working on a quilt, because that worked stayed done. In a world with small children, most things don’t stay done: there’s always another meal to prepare, another mess to clean up, another pair of shoes to buy–it was endless. But I have quite a few quilts that I finished during that time–and they’re still done.

Last year on January 10th, Jay’s friend Kurt Searvogel started riding 11-12 hours each and every day (more than 200 miles) in his quest to set a new world’s record for most miles cycled in a year — the record will fall in just a few days now, as he is now over 74000 miles (the record is just over 75K miles). He got a lot done with a lot of time every day.

My goal for 2016 is to spend a little bit of time *every* day drawing. I admire people who can sketch and have it not look like a grey blob, and it occurred to me a while ago that this was about practice NOT about “talent.” My intent is to spend ten minutes a day practicing sketching, with the goal of being better at it by the end of 2016.

Note that this is a behavior, NOT a result. The behavior is “draw ten minutes a day”; the result would be “get good at sketching.”

A quick summary of 2015: 20.0 pounds lost, 595.6 “official” miles cycled (rides for ice cream dropped), swam 23.2 miles (started in September), ran 528.6 miles. 5.58 million steps, 2600 Fitbit “miles” (some of which were run), 12.3K floor, 778K calories torched. Patting self on back. Smugly patting self on back.

Finally, I will note that I’ve been planning my 2016. I have two 5K runs in January, another 5K in February, a 10K trail run in March, a 10K road race in June, and a sprint-distance (0.5 mile swim, 12.4 mile bike, 3.1 mile run) triathlon in August. I am entering CPE trials in hopes of qualifying for CPE Nationals in California in 2017; I am entering AKC trials with the intent of getting better at AKC courses, since I find them challenging.

Shaping: Behaviors vs. Results (dog agility edition)

I have been thinking a lot about behaviors lately, because behaviors that are rewarded are reinforced. The mantra of trainers everywhere is “what gets rewarded gets repeated.” So if you’re trying to create new behaviors in order to get different results, you have to figure out what behaviors to reward and how exactly to reward them. You can lure new behaviors, but it turns out that rewarding after the fact is way more effective than luring, because in luring, the lure is the focus; in shaping a behavior without luring, it becomes a puzzle: what did I do that resulted in that reward, that reward that I wanted so much? I have found, with Rush, that shaping–helping him puzzle out what he did that got him the reward he wanted–has resulted in solid, enthusiastic behaviors. He loves agility; I’m very proud of just how much he loves it!

In shaping a behavior, the hardest part for me is to figure out where to start and what steps to add. Sometimes I have to work three or four different pieces separately. To train Rush to put up with having his face clipped, for example, I worked on shaping “hold still while I hold your chin in one hand and look at you” as a completely separate piece from “hold still while I run this clipper,” which was, in turn, a separate piece from “hold still while I touch this clipper to your face.” It was quite a while before I put two pieces together–touching his face with the (turned-off) clipper while I held his chin–and even longer before I put all three pieces together. I didn’t get the result I wanted–“hold still while I clip your whiskers”–until I’d done a lot of work on little pieces, individual behaviors.

Back when Rush was a puppy, I tried to train all of his agility obstacles using shaping, rather than luring. There were times that was quite a challenge, but as Rush learned more obstacles and I learned more about shaping, it got easier. The lightbulb moment, though, occurred when Debbie told me Rush was ready to learn the tire jump. The tire jump is a somewhat notorious obstacle. In competition, dogs often avoid it, or jump between the frame and the tire, or duck under the tire. Typically people train it after they train jumping, and they put something on the sides of the tire so that the dog doesn’t jump between the tire frame and the tire. Alternatively, the handler lures the dog through the tire–and the dog is looking at the lure, not the tire.

Debbie’s method of training the tire was different. She had a tire–and no frame. Unobtrusive stakes had been duct-taped to the side of the tire and the tire was staked to the ground. Again, there was no frame. It was the essence of the tire. By the time we started the tire, Rush had a good startline stay, and he’d learned a lot about shaping; I’d shaped the tunnel, the startline stay itself, a “go round” with a big traffic cone and a jump wing, and a little tiny teeter that was 18 inches wide and six feet long with a fulcrum that was only three inches high. He knew what it meant that I was looking at something and had a handful of treats. So I stood and looked at the essence-of-tire and eventually Rush came toward it, I said “yes!”, and I threw the treat where he’d see it through the tire–and he went through it. We did that a few times, with me standing still, and as Rush got more confident that going through the tire was the right thing to do, I started running alongside him and he started running back and forth through the tire. We repeated that from scratch for a few training sessions. Rush’s tire jump is a solid, safe performance and he does it without hesitation, even with a slice. You can see how relaxed he is about the tire in this photo (taken when he was two-and-a-half years old):

Photo by Joe Camp

Photo by Joe Camp

I used a similar method to shape the broad jump. Rush’s first “ordinary” jump was a single bar jump, he was fourteen months old, and we rapidly raised the bar from eight inches to 20. He jumped 20 inches in competition until he was two years old, when I raised his jump height to 24″.

I shaped Rush’s weaves, starting with 2x2s. I shaped the end behavior of the dog walk, teeter, and a-frame long before I let him do the complete obstacles. I knew exactly what I wanted: right paw on a target, dog stopped dead. (It occurs to me that this may be why Rush so often stops at the end of the obstacle with one paw up. I only cared about that right paw, and I let him do what he wanted with the left–so he keeps it up and ready to rock ‘n’ roll.) I trained his target behavior starting when he was about three months old, using what I call the “big blanket” method, which I first saw demonstrated by Susan Garrett.

The “big blanket” method was my first exposure to the successive approximations needed for shaping behavior. If the goal is to have the dog put his foot on a target, it’s possible to start with the target and the dog in a small space, and reward the dog for getting closer to the target until finally the dog is touching the target. That works. But the “big blanket” method is so much easier. You start with a big blanket and you spread it out on the ground. The dog is over there somewhere and you are over here somewhere, next to the blanket, holding that oh-so-tempting handful of treats. The dog wanders toward you, and steps onto the blanket–and you say “yes!” (or click, but you always have your voice, so “yes!” can be a lot easier–at least, it was for me) and throw the treat off the blanket. After a few repeats of this, just fold the blanket in half, and the target is now half the size, and the dog is still hurrying to step onto that blanket because there’s something about the blanket that makes you say “yes!” and throw a treat–and every so often you fold that blanket in half, and five minutes later the dog is hurrying to step onto a target that’s about 6 inches square and fits in the back pocket of your jeans. I switch to a washcloth when the blanket is about a foot square. When the dog is reliably hitting the washcloth with it folded in quarters, I switch to a white bathroom tile. Easy for the dog to see, can be half-buried in the dirt to make it smaller, and cheap.

So my end behavior for the teeter, the dogwalk, and the a-frame was exactly the same: I wanted Rush’s right front paw on that tile. I put the table next to the obstacle, and I had Rush jump up on the table, and go right down to the target. He knew what to do, just as soon as he saw the target, and it wasn’t long before he did the whole obstacle, and correctly, every time. That was when I started burying the tile, a little bit more every time, until I was finally able to take it away. You can also use a big plastic lid, and a pair of scissors, and just scissor off a bit of the lid at regular intervals.

(A note on the teeter: because Dancer was so worried about the teeter, I really didn’t want Rush to be worried about it. I had a tiny training teeter at home and that was the first contact obstacle he learned. He was never surprised to discover that something moved under his feet–because he’d already experienced that.)

I have shaped a lot of non-agility behaviors with both dogs, as well. They sit and wait for me to put their food bowls down; they wait on their mats while we eat because that’s their best chance of getting something off our plates. (Dancer is especially fond of roast chicken.) Both of them have a very nice “gimme five.” A very mundane behavior that saves me a ton of time is nail Dremeling. When I set up the grooming table and get out the Dremel and get a pocket full of treats, both dogs come running. That took months to train, and I reinforce it with fresh chicken liver treats every time, but I can do all 34 nails (16 on each dog, plus Rush’s dew claws) in less than five minutes, including the time it takes to unfold the grooming table and put it away when I’m done.

(Notice that I haven’t discussed reward quality here. Reward quality really matters. That’s why I have a batch of chicken liver treats in the oven right now.)

Slow training?

Confession time: I just spent an HOUR trying to figure out whether I started the Couch-to-5K program in December of 2012 or December of 2013. December of 2013, it turns out, which means I’ve been running regularly for slightly less than two years, which means I’m doing way better at this than I thought. I really thought it had been three years! Memory is so unreliable. I started losing weight in July of 2012; I bought a Fitbit in September of 2012, when I had already lost nine pounds; I started Couch-to-5K in frustration when my weight loss stalled (at about thirty pounds down) and stayed the same for about two months; I bought a Garmin FR 10 (the base model running GPS watch) in April 2014; I bought a Garmin FR 225 (GPS running watch with heart rate) in September of this year (2015).

I like measuring things. I mostly keep pretty good records–I’ve weighed myself daily (or almost daily) for more than three years. I keep a training log in which I make brief notes about what I’ve done that day for running, dog training, swimming, cycling…. I occasionally describe specific pieces of training in this blog, too, although not as much as I did when Rush was a puppy, especially since the training I’m doing these days is getting more and more subtle and is more about timing than it is about training.

(Yes, I spend time reinforcing and rewarding weaves and contacts; I work jump sequences with Rush and Dancer both for strength training and understanding of jumping skills; I regularly reward Dancer heavily for her teeter performances. I do a lot of skills maintenance. I just don’t write about it as much as I used to.)

Last January, a friend of my husband’s, a man named Kurt Searvogel, decided to tackle one of the oldest world’s records in cycling: the task of riding the most miles in a single year. The record (as of today) belongs to Tommy Godwin, a British cyclist (and vegetarian) who biked more than 75,000 miles during 365 continuous days in 1939 and 1940. He did this feat, as Kurt is doing this feat (as of today, Kurt holds the record for the second-most miles in a year, and is slowly reaching his goal of passing Tommy Godwin), by getting up every single day and working toward his goal. It got me thinking about all the things that can be accomplished by doing something every single day, and I started thinking about what I call “slow (dog) training.”

Slow training, to my way of thinking, is about the things that don’t have to be accomplished right away, things that can take a little time, that aren’t needed right now. Sometimes it’s things that have to take time–like training myself to run fast–sometimes it’s something that I’m feeling lazy about.

Rush has always pulled on leash; he’s very determined that I walk just too damn slow, as far as he’s concerned. I would like it if Rush had better leash manners, but I don’t feel so strongly about it that I’m never going to let him pull again (because then it would be weeks before I managed to get out of the driveway). I thought about Kurt and I thought about Rush’s leash manners, and I decided I would spend a little time every day working on his leash manners. How little time? Ten treats worth. Kurt is cycling about twelve hours a day to reach his goal; I was willing to put in about a minute a day toward mine. It’s important to know your limitations.

I started putting Rush’s leash on and doing ten treats worth of loose-leash walking and things got better. Much better. Not perfect, but better. Just doing a little bit every day helped.

Meanwhile, I’ve been working on my own running fitness, four or five times a week, since Christmas of 2013. Rush has been my running buddy most days. I use a harness to run him, though, because it gives me more control, I don’t have to worry about choking him if he pulls, and because I think it’s more comfortable for him. Jay and I also use a harness for his walks; I use it on the front attachment if I’m also walking Dancer.

Rush, however, has always avoided his harness. We’ve developed a regular routine for getting his harness on to go running. The routine goes like this: I open the kitchen door. I pick up the harness. Rush runs away from me, out the kitchen door, circles under the outside stairs to the studio over the garage, then sprints past me and stands impatiently at the back gate. He hangs his head like a beaten dog while I slip his harness over his head. I attach the leash and sometimes I give him a cookie (if I have one handy). I open the gate, we go for a run. Rush likes running–when I put my running shoes on he barks and leaps into the air in excitement. He is just not happy about the harness. This has been going on for the entire (almost) two years I’ve been running with him.

Sunday (today is Tuesday) I went to run with Rush and as I picked up the harness and went to open the door, Rush appeared next to me, instead of running the other direction. I put his harness on and we went for a run. It was so easy that I didn’t even realize it had happened until it happened again later that evening, when Jay and I took the dogs for a walk. And then again today: I got my shoes on–and Rush said “okay, let’s go” without his usual detour around the yard.

Somehow, I’ve persuaded Rush to change his mind about the harness. The occasional treat, perhaps? The fun of a run? The regular walks? I don’t know which thing he’s decided makes it worthwhile to get his harness on. It might be the new harness I got a few months ago–it fits rather better than the old one–but he didn’t mind getting the old harness on when I tested it on his walk last night. Maybe he just decided it was too much effort to run around the yard avoiding me.

Aerobic Agility Fun (for you and the dog)

Most of the time when I go to the agility barn to practice, I do short sequences–no more than five or six obstacles–so that I can focus on particular skills I want to practice. Lately, though, I’ve added a new aspect to my training, which I call “aerobic agility.”

I do a lot of “exercising”: I run with the dogs (individually), which is an aerobic workout for me, and a slow trot for Rush and a medium trot for Dancer. I swim, by myself. I bike, on a bike by myself, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone. Some of these things are “exercise”–by which I mean I find them a bit of a chore sometimes, although mostly I enjoy movement and the feeling of stretching my capabilities a bit.

My favorite form of recreation, though, is an agility weekend, which involves a lot of slow walking and some serious sprinting. Recently, in response to one of “those” articles about motivating yourself to move more, I thought about how to create more regular opportunities for the kind of agility I do on weekends.

After some thought, I set up a spiraling agility course, pretty simple, all the contacts, no complex weave entries, just one discrimination, no backside jumps–but a LOT of running. (See map below.)

aerobic agility

Yes, it’s 29 obstacles. But notice that it can also be 58 obstacles, or 87 (or more), because you can go from obstacle 29 to obstacle 1.

Now Rush loves to run fast through an agility course and this is a course that is designed to give him room to run in full extension, hit the weaves in full extension, try to hold his contacts even though he’s going fast–in short, it’s a fast, flowing course where the challenges for the dog come from the speed and the flow.

The challenges for the handler also come from the speed and the flow. This is a “yeehaa!” course (which I would also call a “sprinter’s course”), for sure.

After I set it up, I started running it with Rush. He loved it. I loved it. We completed 29 obstacles and he was still flying and I could still breathe, so I kept on going, watching out of the corner of my eye for something spectacular that I could reward, so that I could stop for a moment and catch my breath. When he accelerated toward the weaves on the second go-round (somewhere around fifty obstacles under his paws), I shouted “yes!” and threw his ball as he finished the weaves, then doubled over, gasping. Rush chased the ball down and brought it back to me at a dead run, tongue hanging from the side of his mouth, huge grin on his face matching the grin on my face.

We practiced some smaller sequences (going to the backsides of jumps, for example), then I gave him a break while I let Dancer run the course (using the #4 tunnel instead of the a-frame on the repeat passes). I got in a serious workout that left me sore-of-muscle; the dogs had fun and got a speed workout as well.

Aerobic agility. What more could you ask for?

Process versus Product

I woke up this morning thinking about process versus product. Sometimes I’m a “process person”–doing something because I enjoy the process of doing it–and sometimes I’m a “product person”–doing something because I want the product.

Let me expand on this: I knit hats because I enjoy the process of knitting. I used to think I knit hats because I wanted knitted hats, but really, you can buy a perfectly good hat for $4.99 at Target, and instead I use a $50 skein of cashmere-silk blend and I knit it with a small needle, and I enjoy the texture of the yarn between my fingers as I knit, and sometimes I give the hat away when I’m done–so it really is about the process, because it can take me hours and hours of knitting, which basically means if I wanted a hat, I could have ten or twenty of them for less money and less time than that one hat cost me. So knitting is all about the process of knitting, and not really about the product. (I mean, these days the yarn to knit someone a sweater pretty much always costs more than a ready-made sweater costs. Handknitting is a costly process.)

You want another example? Dog training. I love dog training, and one reason I enjoy agility is because there’s always something you can train. There are so many aspects of agility. It’s a challenge every time to my brain, to the dog’s brain. There are new places, new ways to train. I’m so old I remember when 2x2s were the hottest training method out there and I had to work out my own method from a four-page description in a book because there were no videos yet. It’s a never-ending process. There’s no point at which you can look at your agility dog and say “there, I’m done.” That’s a process activity, definitely.

Now, what’s a product activity? Cake baking comes to mind. The goal in cake baking is to have a cake and then eat the cake. You can enjoy the process of making the cake–there are all sorts of little pleasures in baking, including licking the bowl and that moment when you slice a tiny corner off the bottokm to taste the cake before you frost it–but really, it’s all about the product–the cake–and not about the process of mixing the eggs and the butter and the flour. (Although I’ll digress a moment to say that the chemistry of baking is pretty amazing, and is definitely worthy of respect.)

Sometimes one person’s product is another person’s process. My sister makes beautiful pottery bowls and she gives them to me and I love them. To me, it’s a product–but I’m pretty sure my sister loves the process, too, because I’ve watched her make a bowl and she’s clearly enjoying herself. (I know she likes the knitted hats I occasionally send her, too.)

There are things that are both process and product and switch back and forth. Running and racing comes readily to mind. Races are the product punctuation in the process of training. You have to enjoy the process of running if you want to have the product of good races, of personal records. (I do think running races well is part of the “what gets rewarded gets repeated” cycle in running, at least for me. I like seeing concrete results. I like it a lot.)

This morning I was, as usual, obsessing about my efforts to lose weight. I have twelve pounds to go and I’m currently losing at a bit less than a pound a month and so I was doing the math (obsessively) and coming up with “oh my god, this process is going to take me at least another year before I have finally lost all the weight” and then it dawned on me that this is not a product, it is a process. I am never going to hit a point where I have a product I can hold up and say “look what I made.” I will hit a point where I can say “okay, I can eat a little bit more” but I won’t be able to eat everything I want, not no how, no way, not ever. In fact, that’s never been true (if it were, I would not have gotten to where I needed to lose 64 pounds). Health is a process by which your tiny decisions lead to a momentary product: today I’m healthy.

This morning I switched from thinking about weight loss as a product–a goal I can reach and then I can stop–to thinking about weight loss as part of a process. I need to eat carefully because health is a process. Running is a process. Training Rush is a process. Gardening is a process (although I enjoy the tomatoes and roses that are a product). I can enjoy the process of taking care of my health. I can stop worrying about how long it takes, because it’s like knitting a hat. There’s no deadline, so I might as well relax and enjoy the process.

Evolution, food rewards, dog training, and human behavior

Every beginning biology course in high school or college starts out pretty much the same way, with the same question: “how do you know if something is alive?” The students are then guided to the answers: whatever it is takes in nutrients, excretes waste material, and reproduces itself. Food and sex! The essentials of life. (And shit? Well, shit happens.)

Evolution is an amazing thing. Over the four and a half billion years of our planet’s history, life on earth has evolved from the very simplest single-celled organisms to that vast complexity of mammals (and birds, and octopuses, and honeybees, and so on). Let me stress the fundamental identity of life: food and sex. The earliest evidence for life on earth is found in rocks that are three-and-a-half billion years old. (To give an analogy here: if you spread your arms wide, and that distance represents the time span of life on earth, you can erase all of human history simply by filing down the nail on your middle finger. Three and a half billion years is a very long time.)

During all those billions of years, the organisms on earth depended on two things to ensure their longterm survival: food and sex. They had to take in enough nourishment to survive, and then enough excess nourishment to go beyond survival and all the way to reproduction. As a result of evolution, where only those organisms that were good at taking in enough extra nourishment made it to the reproduction part, there are huge mechanisms built into life forms to ensure that the drive for food is first and foremost in the actions that all life takes. (You could argue that there are times when sex is more important–the spawning of salmon would be an example–but those times always come after the organism is well fed.)

Why do I bring this up? Because it begins to explain why training your dog with food is the easiest way to train your dog. Because taking in nourishment is so evolutionarily advantageous that eating is hugely rewarding. Because eating is important in the life of any living creature.

There are a few things that dog trainers tell each other over and over, and one of them is “what gets rewarded gets repeated.” Two corollaries to that are that reward rate (timing) matters and reward quality matters.

In one of her books Karen Pryor writes about training a hermit crab to ring a bell by using a marker and a food reward. Now, hermit crabs are not nearly as smart as dogs (or humans) and yet a consistent food reward works to train at least one hermit crab. The drive for food is amazing.

To train dogs in agility (or any of the dog sports), we have to work at associating the behaviors we want with the primary and secondary rewards we offer. We can develop secondary rewards (throwing a ball, saying “good boy!”) by associating them with the primary reward of food. If you always say “good dog!” and then give the dog his food reward, the dog learns that “good dog!” means a reward is coming, and the words become a reward of their own–as long as you pair those words with food most of the time. This is the principle that is used in clicker training: the click predicts a food reward; marking the behavior with the click tells the dog (or other animal with a brainstem) that behavior predicts a food reward; the dog tries repeating the behavior that earned the click/food reward; the dog again receives the click/reward; the behavior is gradually trained.

For our dogs, who are usually pretty well-nourished (as dog trainers, we want our dogs to be in optimum health), some other activities can become primary rewards. Playing with toys or chasing balls is very rewarding for many dogs. For some herding breed dogs, the opportunity to herd is rewarding. The dog defines the reward, not the trainer!

Reward rate and timing matter a lot, because in training you’re trying to persuade a deep part of the animal’s brain stem that “this behavior, this one right now, predicts food acquisition.”* A high reward rate allows you many opportunities to form that connection; timing helps pinpoint the behavior. Sometimes when I’m training Rush or Dancer I pick a simple behavior–one I’ve trained before–and work on reinforcing my training by trying to reward that behavior with really good timing and really good rewards. Recalls are great for this, because we all need a really good recall.

As far as human training goes, I’ve written a lot about dog training in this blog over the years. I think this is the first time I’ve written about evolution, though. It’s because I’ve been thinking a lot about food for the last few months; I’m going through a challenging** time with my efforts to lose weight. The fact is that we (American) humans are going through a time of unprecedented food availability and we still have three-and-a-half billion years of evolution telling us to eat, eat now, eat now!, and only a few hundred thousand years of human self-awareness and intelligence saying “um, maybe not so much.”

The evolutionary drive to take in nourishment–to seek out food and eat it–is enormous. Think of it in the same light as trying to keep a teenage boy from thinking about sex, and the problem of reasonable food intake (instead of overeating) becomes far more understandable. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to create reward systems for myself that reward not eating. Or that reward behaviors that lead to my goal of weighing less and being more fit. I recently bought myself a pair of pink and gray Hoka One One Clifton 2 running shoes as a reward for all the training (and not-eating) I did that led to a new personal record (for my current age) in a 5K run. I love the Clifton 2s; the generous padding has meant that I don’t have knee or foot problems even as I increase my running distances.

*Think about plants. Even in plants, the reward of “food” also functions to change behavior. Plants grow toward light, which they use as energy source in photosynthesis. Light is not the same thing as food, I acknowledge, but since the point of food acquisition in organisms is to have energy for life, I will argue that the primal need is much the same.

**I have taught myself to use the word “challenging” instead of “hard” or “difficult” or “impossible” for all kinds of situations, from ignoring chocolate cake to agility handling to running a 5K. Challenges are good, I like challenges, and it’s possible (most of the time) to meet challenges and overcome them. There are methods for dealing with challenges. Just saying something is “hard” doesn’t help you get past it. At least, that’s how my brain works.


Running Rush to win, not Q….

It’s a lesson I seem to learn over and over again. With Rush, I can’t handle conservatively; there is no “conservative” option. Trying to protect a Q by going with the easy option? Not a possibility–Rush wants to run fast and furious and I better be there to help him do that, or we’re doomed.

At the recent CAT CPE trial, I was kind of focused on Dancer, since I was hoping to get her CS-ATCH2 title (which we did), and so I walked courses thinking mostly about how to run Dancer, who is a “four-foot run-with dog.” Yes, she has four feet, but what I mean by that is that she wants to run along with me, about four feet away from me at all times. It’s pretty easy to set her path–just find a line that takes her over the obstacles, and then run parallel to that line at a pace that works for her.

Rush? Not so much. He might be a four-foot dog, if I could run a five-minute mile.

However, I’ve been doing what I can, and I can now sprint 100 yards in 30 seconds. That means that–if I can figure out how to run those 100 yards while directing him around a 150-yard course–I have a distant hope of not getting too far behind. Distance handling, a good leadout, and go-ons are my friends, and my enemies. Stopped contacts? Very useful as a place to catch up and even get a bit ahead.

But rear crosses? Well, under instructions from Daisy, I’m trying to avoid those. Video review has shown over-reliance on rear crosses to be a weakness.

I ran as aggressively as I could throughout the CPE trial. The run that was the most fun was a standard course where the finish was a full outside circle of the arena with Rush going full speed. I ran the inside line, repeating “go on, go on, go tunnel” as appropriate–and Rush was great; he never looked back.

Our worst run? The last run of the day was Jumpers. As I walked it, I knew Dancer needed just that one Q to get her CS-ATCH, and so I walked the course, over and over, planning how to get Dancer through it. I never stopped to think how to run Rush! The course had numerous 180 turns, with tunnels beckoning from the other side–and I ran Rush through the course, shrieking “Rush! HERE!” at every possible off-course. We got through it, he got his Q.  But it was very crunchy.

Total for the weekend? 8 Qs for Rush out of ten runs, with five out of five on Sunday. Yeeha!