Changing how I train

As a result of quite a bit of reading on what constitutes effective practice, I have changed how I train dog agility.

First, what is effective practice? Back in November, I read this book and found it left me with a lot to think about. I’d heard a Freakonomics podcast on learning new skills (this one) and also discussing the “10,000 hour rule” (from this book by Malcolm Gladwell). These sources collectively introduced me to the idea of effective practice and got me thinking about how I learn new skills.

Effective practice, as I see it, introduces new skills carefully and deliberately–not necessarily slowly, but definitely thoughtfully–so that they’re learned without error. In agility, it would be the idea of teaching a tunnel-contact discrimination as follows:

  • Tunnel and contact are ten feet apart and you’re standing between them, closer to the obstacle you want, with the dog on the side closer to the desired obstacle. You release the dog, say the name of the obstacle, and take a step toward the desired obstacle; in short, you make it fairly easy for the dog.
  • Next, you move a little closer to the middle, then repeat.
  • You move closer to the “wrong” obstacle, then repeat.
  • Gradually you make it harder for the dog, but you still keep the dog on the same side as the obstacle and take a step toward the desired obstacle.
  • Next, you put the dog on the other side and repeat the steps.
  • Now, you start moving the two obstacles closer to each other and repeat the steps.

For the dog, you’ve built the skill of differentiating the two obstacles by name very slowly and in a logical step-wise fashion; the dog’s practice has been gradually getting more challenging, but in small increments.

Now, let’s say that, you–the person–have identified skills you need to improve. You want to work on your timing of blind crosses, or the footwork of your front crosses, or giving cues to your dog earlier. Effective practice dictates that you break it down into steps. By working a sequence without the dog, in slow motion, you can learn how the steps feel without confusing your dog. Once you’re comfortable walking through a sequence–or doing that front cross–slowly, you can move a little faster, then faster the third try–and then add your dog. You can look at course maps and visualize how you will move through a course before you run the course; visualization has been proven to improve performance.

When I started thinking about effective practice and how I learn, I started breaking down the long sequences presented in my lesson and only doing seven or eight obstacles at a time. I tried different handling methods and different dog paths at critical points.

Today Daisy had this sequence in the middle of the course:

course mapThe question, of course, was which path to use for Rush when going from 13 to 14 to 15. I walked three different methods of setting Rush’s path* and Daisy timed the three methods. We worked on what to do with that segment, in detail, for about fifteen minutes. Then, we moved to the next segment. The course as a whole had 21 obstacles; it took an hour of analysis and testing to determine the optimal path for Rush. We worked entirely on the single course, without trying to do more.


We analysed it one segment at a time and I refined my handling one segment at a time, deliberately working my way through the course rather than flinging myself at it and biting off more than I could chew (to use a dog analogy). Rush repeated each sequence without getting frustrated–short sequences mean a higher reward rate for him–and paid attention to the differences in handling as well.

As a result of this change in my practice sessions, I have improved my course analysis skills, become more confident with using blind crosses, gained confidence in Rush’s abilities and his understanding of agility, improved Rush’s focus (which was considerable)–and improved my Q rate.

*For the curious, the fastest path, by more than half a second, was a front cross on the landing side of 13 followed by a push (“go round!”) to the backside of 14 on the side closest to the teeter (the top of the diagram above) followed by a push to the a-frame with the verbal contact cue (“climb!”), with dog-on-right over the a-frame. (The next obstacle was a weave-tunnel discrimination, believe it or not, with the entry to the weaves (the desired obstacle) about five feet from the tunnel entrance. Challenging course!)

Listening to your inner critic?

I have had nothing to say for about two months now. I wouldn’t say I’m depressed, but I have been stuck for things to say that belong here, where I try to keep politics and personalities pretty much out of it. I’ve been writing postcards to my elected officials. I’ve been obsessively reading newspapers. All of which is irrelevant to my readers, and I apologize for the long silence.

A few weeks ago, a friend, whom I have known since we were both seven and in second grade together, came to visit for a few days. We wandered Portland, ate some good meals, talked about drawing and art and dogs. We talked about our parents, who were part of a group that met every other Friday to take dancing lessons (at the house where I grew up). We visited Portland’s Pittock Mansion together (and I pointed out the pantry sink and yes, she remembered the pantry sink in the house I grew up in) and we wandered the Japanese Garden.

And Adrienne told me something that completely stunned me. She didn’t learn to read until she was ten. She still doesn’t see herself as a fluent relaxed reader.

You will have noticed that I said we’ve known each other since we were seven. Memories of Adrienne from our shared childhood are lodged deep in my memory. When we were ten and in fifth grade together–the year Adrienne said she learned to read–there was an assignment to illustrate a book we ‘d read. Adrienne did a set of three tiny three-dimensional dioramas of short stories from a collection by a writer whose name I remember as “Sake” but googling has drawn a blank, except for a British writer who used the pen name “Saki” who might or might not be the same writer. (I talked to Adrienne, yes, the author was Saki.) But I remember the dioramas so well! They each recreated a scene from the short story. One of them had a tiny black cat. There were tiny books on a tiny desk. Not dollhouse furniture. I think some of it was papier mache. (Sometime that year I tried unsuccessfully to make a papier mache dragon. Its head fell off on the way to school.) For the same assignment, I had created a badly drawn picture of a cat from a collection of short stories about cats. I can still feel today my astonishment at how wonderful her dioramas were. I was stunned at her creativity, her skill, her ideas–and it certainly never occurred to me that she struggled with reading!

The next year, when we were in sixth grade (1966 to 1967), the sixties and all that implied for fashion and clothing had begun in earnest. Adrienne came to Gisele’s birthday party–a wonderful summer day and Gisele had a pool and there was ice cream and cake–and she was wearing a pantsuit. A black and white op-art pantsuit. I just spent about fifteen minutes searching the internet for an image of anything like what I remember, but no luck. Use your imagination here. It was a black and white pattern with varying squares, like classic op-art of the time. It was a pantsuit, at a time when we still had to wear skirts to school. It was, in short, the coolest piece of clothing I had ever seen. Ever. Adrienne has a sense of style I can only envy. I visited her last year and tried on her shoes. I thought about stealing her shoes, actually. I didn’t, though. (Later that sixth-grade summer, a friend of my mother’s wore a Pucci halter-neck plunging-back one-piece bathing suit to a pool party at our house, and I fell in love with Pucci once and for all. There’s a photo below of that one.)

Adrienne drew a little watercolor of the dogs and me and mailed it to me after our visit. Here it is:
Dogs and me by Adrienne

So I hope I’m really clear here. I have admired Adrienne for many many years, for her sense of style, her ability to create, her art, her skill. When she came to visit, I pulled a new dress out of my closet (a Pucci I’d found used) and asked her how to wear it.

And while she was here, she told me she’d felt bad about her struggles with reading.

Struggles I had no idea about. I saw her strengths; she saw her weaknesses.

And that brings me to that inner critic. The one we all have, the one that talks to us constantly about our weaknesses, about how we compare to other people, about the areas where we want to improve ourselves, about how we’re too fat or too thin or too slow or a lousy dog trainer (I had to get the dogs in there somehow) or a boring writer or a mediocre cook. That little non-stop voice that we listen to way too much.

I’m not sure how to tell my inner critic to admire myself for my strengths as much as I admire other people for their strengths. I’m not even sure that would be a good idea–but I do want that inner critic to acknowledge that I have strengths!

Oh, and here’s the photo of the Pucci bathing suit. Awesome, isn’t it?!

pucci bathing suit




It’s New Year’s Day

Happy New Year! May 2017 move us all toward better health and greater happiness.

And I haven’t written a post in a month and a half. November and December have been devastating this year. I didn’t sleep well for about a month after the election. Deena, who is my barn training partner, has been busy with her work and so I’ve been bagging on getting to the barn at all. In short: poor motivation. I have been getting to a few dog things–Sarah Stremming‘s Perfect Patient seminar and my lessons with Daisy–but I’ve also been reading a ton of books, looking for answers in memoirs, mostly. For a bit I was even reading WW2 history, but that was just too depressing for words. (I will say, though, that the parallels with Nazi era Germany really aren’t that huge; the economy is mostly doing well and we do have Constitutional protections.)

So my summary for 2016 goes like this:

  • I neither gained nor lost weight. While I still haven’t lost those last few (13) pounds, I have maintained. This is excellent, since I have not been being obsessive.
  • I ran 639 miles, biked a lot, did two sprint (short distance) triathlons (3rd in my age group in both, although one was 3rd of 3 and the other was 3rd of 10), and learned more about trail running. Over the last four years, I’ve lowered my time in the Mt. Tabor Tar N Trail 5K from 45 minutes to just under 34. I did my best 5K of the year in January, though, in very flat Palm Springs (29:56). I’m hoping to better that this year.
  • I did a lot of dog agility with Rush. I had a 35% Q rate in AKC and a 61% Q rate in CPE. 3 double Qs and a lot of points toward a MaCH in AKC (we’re somewhere around 600 points now). About 2/3rds of the way to Rush’s C-ATE in CPE. Yesterday was our last day of agility for 2016 and we finished with a first and ten points in Time to Beat and a 4th in Jumpers in a very fast group of about 15 dogs.
  • I knit a few hats. I forgot to take pictures, though, with the exception of this one. Yes, it has a weird little who-ville thing going on the top. I was feeling silly.

pink-hat-12-2016So whither 2017?

Dare I write “lose those last 13 pounds”? It’s been a theme for some years now. Oh, what the hell, maybe this is the year.

Run more. I want to try to average 20 miles a week when I’m not doing an agility trial over the weekend. As I run more, I enjoy it more. I have been having moments almost every run where I find my inner 25-year-old and feel light and fast. It’s a joy.


I think that covers it. Happy New Year again.

(Oh wait! Someone told me yesterday that one of my hat photos inspired her to learn how to knit and make a hat of her own. Made me feel all warm and fuzzy.)


My three-stride theory

In his never-ending quest to make me into the handler he wants, Rush has always been very vocal about when he needs his cues. He barks at me if I’m late, or if I’m in his way. As a consequence, starting very early on, I have worked hard to understand exactly what Rush considers a timely cue. I have come to understand that he wants his cue three strides before he has to make a turn. He can make a turn with two strides’ warning, but then it might be a bit wide and I might get a bark.

As I realized this, I started watching what other dogs do and when other dogs need their cues, and I realized that–at least in my observation–pretty much all dogs want information three strides early. Now, with a smaller dog, the dog might take three strides between jumps, and in that case the handler can wait until the dog lands a jump before cuing the next jump. Most border collies take two strides between jumps–and those dogs want to know where they’re going after the jump before they take off. Rush–with his huge stride–mostly takes just a single stride between jumps, and so his cues need to be very early in comparison with the smaller dogs.

Now, once I developed this theory, I started (kind of obsessively) counting strides as I watch dogs run. I see dogs put in extra strides to accommodate their handlers really often. It’s easiest to see when you watch dogs run jumpers. In this video of Rush running AKC Jumpers with Weaves, you can see Rush take an extra stride between jumps–going wide once and taking a stride toward me the other time–twice. Why? Because I was late with the cue. Hint: watch the striding across the back of the arena (before and after the double) and compare that to the striding before the bright yellow jump on the left side of the video.

This theory–that Rush (and possibly other dogs too) needs three strides to make a turn without having to throw in an extra stride–informs my choices in handling a course. How do I give Rush the information he needs without confusing him?

Progress takes time….

Today my daughter Stacia and I ran the Mt. Tabor Tar ‘n’ Trail 5K run for the fourth year in a row, which is very cool. I ran a little less than two minutes faster this year than last year–and was first (last, only) in my age group. My progression over the four years is 46 minutes, 43 minutes, a little less than 36 minutes, and this year, just a bit under 34 minutes. That’s on a 5K course with 477 feet of elevation gain over the 5K, with trails, sidewalks, roads, stairs, and rocks. It’s not an easy 5K.

Afterwards, Stacia sent me this composite photo:

Finish photos from 2013 (top left), 2014 (top right), 2015 (bottom left), and 2016 (bottom right).

Finish photos from 2013 (top left), 2014 (top right), 2015 (bottom left), and 2016 (bottom right).

It’s an interesting photo to me because I like seeing how I’ve changed over the years. In October of 2013, I’d already lost about thirty pounds. I’d started walking the dogs longer and faster, but I wasn’t really ready to run yet–it was just too hard on my feet! By October of 2014, I discovered that Hoka shoes allowed me to run without hurting my knees too badly… but I was still only about 30 pounds down. October 2015, I was down a total of 50 pounds–and right now (October 2016), I’m down 60 pounds. Stacia and I are amused that we’re both wearing the same shirts we wore last year.


Everyone who knows me knows that I am completely obsessive about shoes and am always searching for better shoes for agility. Currently I am wearing and loving the Skora Core, but they’re not a shoe for everyone–very minimal structure, zero drop, no padding. A few days ago, I was at a trail running shoe event and got to try two different shoes for short runs (a mile each). I took both pairs for a test over concrete, muddy dirt trail, wet grass.

The Hoka Speed Instinct really surprised me. I could NOT make it slip on the mud or wet grass; the traction was amazing. It had great padding in the heel–really comfortable running on the concrete–and was still comfortable in the snug forefoot (I have a slight bunion, so that’s often an issue). It was lightweight, comfortable. The one problem–it was completely NOT waterproof. It wasn’t even trying to be water resistant. My socks got completely soaked, immediately. (Hey, but look at the wonderful brilliant pink and orange shoe! What’s not to love?)

The other shoe I tried was the Altra Lone Peak 3.0. I’ve been running in the Lone Peak 2.5 for a lot of my trail runs and like it a lot. Nice roomy toe box, good traction, zero drop (which I like, but it’s not for everyone). The 3.0 version is better. They’ve managed to improve a great shoe. Still has good traction, but they’ve snugged up the mid-foot around the arch without getting rid of the nice big toe box. It’s a heavy shoe, though. You certainly won’t feel rocks through the sole.

Agility ladder…. for humans

I went to trail running skills clinic #4 this morning (at 6:30 AM… in the dark… in the cold (45 degrees F)… but not rainy, thankfully!) and wow was this one revelatory! We did technical-trail skills, up and down a rocky little section of trail, after warming up by doing agility-ladder drills–stuff like the drills in this video (ignore the ads, sorry about that, but the video is actually pretty good).

Anyway, doing the drills really revealed to me just how weak my left knee is and how much I favor my right knee. I could move right well but not so much on the left side. I’d heard that from Daisy, but I thought I’d been working on it… apparently not. Or at least, not enough.

The drills also made it abundantly clear to me just how much I routinely lead with my right foot. When we did a drill that was left foot out, right foot in–I could do that, but I really struggled with right foot out, left foot in, and in fact I tripped over the tape a few times.

While I enjoyed the drills and immediately found them useful for the trail running part–I ran down a bit of “technical trail” (which means: lots of rocks and roots) much more easily by thinking about “light feet, left foot, right foot” and so on–I can also see where they’d be very useful for dog agility training. We all use ladders to help teach our dogs to understand where their feet are; the drills helped me understand how my own footwork could be improved.

One of the other exercises we did was skipping down the trail. I surprised the coach who’s leading the skills clinic by being quite good at skipping; that’s because it’s my usual warmup for an agility run. I find skipping really gets all those muscles firing and ready to go. It’s a lot more fun on a soft trail, though, than in the concrete areas outside the arena!

Non-food rewards

I spent a lot of time this morning thinking about non-food rewards. All dog trainers know our mantra: “what gets rewarded gets repeated” and its corollary: “the dog decides what’s a reward and what isn’t.” Let me give an example. My dog adores chicken livers but he spits out apple chunks. The chicken livers are a reward; the apple chunks are not. For me, apples are a reward–but not for Rush. He gets to decide, if he’s the one getting rewarded. Dog trainers also spend time developing rewards that aren’t food. Rush loves to play tug with me; Dancer likes to have her hips massaged while she hides her head between my thighs. But Dancer doesn’t like tug that much–although she does like to be chased while she runs around with the tug toy in her mouth. The dog decides what’s rewarding.

I am trying these days to develop reward systems for myself, because humans (like dogs) also experience the same training effect: “what gets rewarded gets repeated.” Chocolate, for many of us, is a reward because chocolate releases a whole sequence of chemical responses. Same with caffeine. Sugar–well, sugar has massive effects on the brain. But… I’m trying to lose weight, run faster and more often, and develop other healthy habits. How do I reward myself in such a way that I want to repeat healthy behaviors? Non-food rewards are essential. So I’ve been trying out various behavioral rewards. I have a lemon creme body wash I use only when I run; I love it, but it’s pricey. I get a pedicure in the last few days before a race, as a reward for all the training (and because short toenails are way more comfortable during races). I bought a nice bathing suit to swim my laps in. I buy socks with cute designs to wear running. For a while, I tried paying myself a dollar for every mile run, but that was not (it turned out) an effective reward. It was just too abstract.

The power of your thoughts

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of thought. There’s been some research showing that the mind is more of a limit, athletically, than the body. People who believe they can go faster do, in fact, go faster. (How do you measure that? You put the person on a treadmill that lies.) (One example of such research can be found here. Here is another one.)

As a consequence of my reading on this, I’ve been experimenting with what I think while I’m running. When I run and think “light long float along” (it has a rhythm that works for me), I am about 10% faster than when I “just run.” I seriously felt like an idiot humming my little mantra to myself–it’s so new-age-bullshit I can barely stand it–but there the evidence was in my Garmin splits. Now when I start to get tired, I start thinking about floating and just touching down occasionally to propel myself along. It seems to be working.

For years now, I’ve been saying “oooohhh! this will be a challenge!” when I encounter an agility course of a certain kind (you know, the kind where you hear other people say “this is hard”). I say to myself “it’s a chance to test my training.” Lately though, I say “this will be fun!” and, intriguingly, I’m enjoying agility a lot more and feeling a lot less frustrated when things don’t go quite the way I wanted them to. Apparently, my brain–and I expect everyone’s brain feels differently about this–wants to have fun more than it wants to Q. This is good to know.

This isn’t about agility, either. Well, mostly not.

I haven’t written much about dog agility in recent months. Yes, I’m still competing with Rush, but our last trial was early July, and I spent July doing trail running, and I just completed a sprint triathlon last weekend–and next weekend is our next trial. I’ve been training contacts and weave entries and we’ll see what we get. I’m trial chair, so it mostly won’t be about me.

The triathlon was much more fun than I expected. The night before I had my usual stomach fluttering dreads. I was worried about the heat, the distance, the bike ride, flat tires, everything. That’s normal for me. I get the flutters every time, no matter what. In agility, I get the flutters in a more minor way after twelve years of competition, but I still get them. I don’t sleep well when I have an event in the morning.

This triathlon was the Girlfriends Triathlon, a women-only event in Vancouver (Washington). A half-mile down-current swim in the mighty Columbia River at Frenchman’s Bar (Park); a 11.5 mile bike ride on the local road at Frenchman’s Bar, and a 5K run on the bike path. The water temperature was 69 degrees (F); the air temp at 9:14 AM, when I started, was 71 degrees. It got hotter and hotter as we progressed through the triathlon, and the run was utterly without shade.

Why? Racing (yes, there’s a question mark as part of their name) was the event organizer. (They had signs up saying “what’s your why?” and it seemed most people weren’t answering “for fun.” I don’t know if my answer would be “for fun” but I didn’t see “because I can’t resist an accessible challenge” either.) Anyway, they are good at what they do! The race was well-organized, they’d planned for the heat, everything was thought out–they had mats so you didn’t have to run through sand coming up from the river, for example). As we all finished, they handed you a medal (a huge heavy thing) and a wet towel fresh out of a bucket of ice water. That’s planning.

I loved the down-current swim. Fast! My half-mile time was 17:09. The flat bike ride was 42:18, and the run was 32:36. I wasted a lot of time in the first transition–4:14–and less in the second (1:43), but my total was 1:37:59.9, I was 3/10 in my age group (60-64 women) and 79/143 overall. Not too shabby.