Agility Spaz

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Space Invaders

I love agility lingo. For instance, I don't have just any dog. I have a Velcro ® dog. Velcro ® dogs stick to you. They do this for a variety of reasons: they lack confidence, it's in their nature, you've treated them for working close to you more than you've treated them for working away. In Viva's case, it was impossible to determine the origins of her velcrocity, as she lacked confidence, has always liked to snuggle (unless you're blowing in her ear -- ask Hector), and was treated for working close more than she'd been treated for working away. (Away? What's away?)

Except that as of this week, it's official: Viva is no longer Velcro ®.

Should I have seen it coming? Probably. We've been toying with distance work more in the past year than in the previous two. Anyone who's observed Viva's progress will attest to the huge change in her confidence level (gotta love those jump chutes, and my steadily improving reward timing hasn't hurt either). Long lead-outs don't generate the same burst of speed they did when she was desperate to catch up to me after two? three? soul-rending seconds of absence. Thankfully she still loves to snuggle. And will frantically retreat into my arms whenever a stray vacuum cleaner crosses her path.

But on course? No snuggling! On course, she is a fiery red ball of independence! Tell her where to jump, and she'll jump. The long lead-out? She spends the entire time barking at me, as if to inform me in no uncertain terms that I'm holding up the show. Obstacle discrimination? Gone to hell in a handbasket because now, given the choice between two adjacent obstacles, she's generally choosing the one farthest from me. The good ol' days of tunnel-sucking are gone. The even better not-so-ol' days of contact-sucking are old hat. These days? These days, a dog needs her space.

Yes, Viva needs space and I need a clue. Again. It's no longer enough to look at the correct obstacle or shape Viva's path. (Although there's no doubt both behaviors help, and that it's counterproductive to look over one's shoulder at one's dog when doing so involves turning one's head and quite possibly one's shoulders in the direction of the incorrect obstacle -- Agility Spaz learned that one this weekend.) It's as though I have a new dog, a parallel universe dog that moves away where the previous dog would come in, and comes in where the previous dog would move away. I don't know where the boundaries are. I know they're there, but they're invisible and intangible (though, knowing Viva, very likely audible).

Type-A that I am, I'd be inclined to figure out exactly where they are. If I invade Viva's space enough, I'll learn eventually where that space begins and ends. Fortunately, I am surrounded by more pragmatic individuals, one of whom (after watching yet another failed weave entry due to -- you guessed it -- an inadvertent invasion of Viva's space) stated calmly that I needed a front cross. My first thought in that instant was that I needed a brain. Nonetheless, after spending what felt like eternity figuring out why the front cross needed to be a yard and a half northeast of where I'd initially wanted to place it, I gamely ran the same portion of the exercise with a front cross and it worked like a charm. No pressure. No invasion of space. Merely an consise, elegant lead change, and a much happier dog.

For my dog's sake, I will be spending the week planning handling maneuvers that will stay out of her way.

P.S. The elusive Superior Novice Jumpers final leg is no longer elusive -- Miss V. earned her S-NJC this weekend. Off to Open!

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Revenge of the Weave Poles

Viva and I are lucky to be living and training in a part of the country that happens to be an agility hot spot. Scads of trials, fabulous instructors, and plenty of seminars during the off-season. Given that Rachel Sanders was here in January, our weave pole entries ought to be flawless. After all, her seminar was brilliant, plus I'd dutifully worked through the Julie Daniels "Fix It" weaves protocol last year, to the extent that Miss V. was pretty much nailing her entries from any direction. Oh, wait -- did I mention that was without any other obstacles involved? And only when I was running with her? Whereas Sanders specifies seven exercises for every starting position, and advocates using a jump to precede the weaves. (No wonder Trump is a weaving maniac!) We did fine with Position Zero (heading straight into the weaves) during the seminar. Our "send" is a little weak, but we're working on it. I figured we'd get around to the rest of the package as soon as Viva's contacts were more reliable. Several months later, the agility gods reminded me that we still had work to do when the Clean Run May issue featured a Sanders article on weave entries. Yeah, yeah, we'll get to it.

Then the agility gods intervened again. Viva managed to complete the Clean Run Ultimate Weave Pole Challenge this summer, setting a breed record (easy when you're the only dog of your breed to have attempted such a thing), and recalibrating my perceptions of her abilities. Viva's success also recalibrated other people's perceptions, because now I show up at trials and am asked whether my dog is "the one that did the sixty weave-pole challenge." Yes, she is, and no, that doesn't mean we've got our entries down. Still, three trials replete with that question combined with some rather messy entries were enough to get me to set up the weave poles, pull out my seminar notes, grab my copy of Clean Run, and start over at Position Zero, this time with a jump involved.

Position Zero still rocks. Even with the jump. Viva took a little coaxing when there was a send involved, but decided being a Velcro ® dog was overrated once her beloved Toss 'N' Treat flying disc got into the act. Then came Position One. Position One kicked our butts. For three days. For those of you who haven't yet seen Rachel's article, Position One is to the left of Position Zero. Not to the right, where your dog can run directly towards the space between Pole #1 and Pole #2, but to the left, where your dog can run directly towards the space between Pole #1 and Pole #2 from the wrong direction. That was pretty much what we did on Day #1. I would recall Viva to the weaves, she'd come charging towards me with a big ol' doggie grin on her face, enter incorrectly, and bark at me when I didn't reward. I went back to my notes. Nothing there on how to convince your dog to enter the weaves the way she's always been asked to enter the weaves. I went back to the article. Nothing there either. Apparently, Position One is not supposed to be any more difficult than Position Zero. Hmm. I resorted to luring, which worked fine as long as the lure was present but got us nowhere when I tried to fade it. It occurs to me now that I could have gone back to the touchstick I used last year (coated with peanut butter, after watching Stacy Peardot-Goudy use that trick with a scent-hound last summer), but since my brain tends to fall out when Viva barks at me, and she was barking at me as though I was the Queen of All Small Rodents Out To Get Her, I didn't think of that particular strategy at the time.

Day #2 of Position One found me backchaining -- sort of. I figured since I could lure Viva into the correct entry if she and I were both close enough to the first two poles, I could gradually move her farther away, still holding a cookie in my outstretched hand to coax her into position. This worked roughly as well as the luring had on Day #1. Which is to say not so well at all.

Day #3, Position One (because I am nothing if not persistent) -- I exchange proximity for lateral distance. Starting Viva back at Position Zero, I move her inch by inch to the left. And it works! Within four or five attempts (all successful), Viva is entering correctly from Position One. We have kicked Position One's butt! At least for the purposes of recall. Running-with and send turn out to be fairly innocuous challenges once the general concept of curving around Pole #1 to enter penetrates Viva's neurological circuitry. I forget to try the rear cross, but there's always tomorrow.

P.S. Position Two is so much easier than Position One.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Houston, We Have Lift-Off

agility n. a·gil·i·ty The state or quality of being agile; nimbleness.

spaz n. spaz or spazz One who is considered clumsy or inept; klutz.

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Welcome to the world of Agility Spaz! For one who never thought of herself as the sort of person who would have a blog, this is a bit of an adventure. Blogs are something college students have, or underground journalists, or the cool people in the neighborhood. Of course, as recently as a few years ago, I would never have thought of myself as the sort of person who would spend much of her spare time obsessing about canine agility, so there's obviously room in one's life to adjust one's sense of identity. The extent of my computer savvy consists of sending e-mail, deleting spam, reading posts from various agility groups, and checking in with the Icelandic Sheepdog Association of America, mostly when my dog is tired enough that she's happy to fall asleep at my feet. But blog? Me?!? I must really be hoping to stave off the advances of yet another academic year. That, plus the Yarn Harlot hasn't posted yet today, so unless I head upstairs to do something productive (read: wash the kitchen floor or practice piano), there's nothing to do but let you in on:

The Top Ten Reasons To Start an Agility Blog

10. Your dog plays agility.

9. On good days, you play agility almost as well as your dog.

8. You've improved enough as a team that your dog now has alphabet soup after her name to indicate the various and sundry titles she has achieved.

7. You're the only person in your family who has any idea what those constituent elements of the alphabet soup stand for, and

6. Your family is beginning to wear the all-too-familiar look of supportive yet resigned disinterest when you mention front crosses, start-line stays, or that elusive Superior Novice Jumpers final leg.

5. You dearly love the good, kind, inspiring people and dogs with whom you train but fear they're running out of patience when you post yet another trial report to the list.

4. You know there has to be a way to make the evening's weave entry practice easier for your dog, but

3. You can't figure out for the life of you what that would be, plus

2. Your dog is getting tired of paltry rewards for "Sit" and "Down" to the extent you could swear she knows there's a jackpot to be had if she could only figure out what her beloved yet temporarily inept human wants her to do involving those poles in the ground, and

1. It's started to rain hard enough that even you can't bring yourself to keep training.

Fill in the blank -- maybe it's not raining where you are. Perhaps the mosquitos that just descended on your back yard are the size of goldfinches? The thermometer reads 200 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade? Sometimes even the most hardened agility addict needs to call it quits (temporarily!) and pull a comfy chair up to her computer. May you enjoy the results.