Thursday, May 31, 2007

Agility trial report: Kissing the dirt and the return of Mr. Goofball

I spent my Memorial Day weekend at a 3-day USDAA trial on my home turf at PBH. I had lots of great runs with Lucy but with Mr. Gomez ... not so much. Maybe I spoke too soon when I bragged a couple of weeks ago about how fantastic he's running. If I hadn't been laughing I might have been crying.

Things started off well enough on Saturday, when I had only entered Mr. G in PII Standard. He was mostly focused, but he drifted away from me a couple of times. I was able to get his attention back and keep him on course up until the very last jump, which he rushed past (he does that a lot.) I called him right back and got him over it, but we came in .39 over course time. Still, I felt like we were working reasonably well together. First run of the day Sunday morning, however, he looked as if he had never seen an agility course before in his life. It was PI Gamblers (I was hoping to get Q number three) and as soon as I called him over the first jump he blew me off. I got him back and lost him a few more times, so when the gamble buzzer finally sounded I think my attempt to send him out may have been rather half-hearted. Still, he took three of the four gamble jumps, which is better than none at all, I suppose.

Next up was standard, and the only word I can use to describe it is "debacle." I couldn't even get his attention on the start line--he kept staring out of the ring (I think he wanted to score some of the treats people had left on the gate steward's table). Anyway, I struggled to get him doing the first five obstacles, but then we got to the table (which he usually seems to like) and he acted like he had no idea what to do with it. He kept circling it and looking at it, as if he was thinking "What's this, then?" Finally, after about ten seconds he got on it, but he wouldn't lie down. At that point I decided that I'd take the quickest path out of the ring, getting him to do whatever obstacles were on our way. It was sweet relief to have that run end.

Next I apologized in advance to our pairs partner, who assured me she didn't care how badly we screwed up. We then proceeded to have a lovely run ... except for the part where he ran past the last jump. I got him back and over it, which gave us our only Q for the weekend. Still, I felt a little encouraged for our jumpers run, which ended up bringing me a very special honor. Unfortunately, it wasn't a Q. Instead, I was inducted by judge Lisa Jarvis into the "Kiss The Dirt Club" and presented with this lovely key chain:



I suppose I should give some credit for this achievement to Mr. Gomez, who knocked me over in his effort to avoid actually jumping the third jump on course. He could have gone around the other way and left me upright, but instead he chose to cut inside on a path that intersected with mine and he took my legs right out from under me. I jumped right back up and got him to take the jump, after which he worked with me beautifully up until the second-to-last jump, when I botched a front cross and he took and off-course. Still, I was happy to have my dog back, sort of. I was also happy that I hadn't entered him in anything on Monday, because I didn't think I needed another day of that kind of excitement.

Fotunately, I had a great weekend with Lucy--perhaps our best overall trial so far. When I heard that temperatures were supposed to hit 90 degrees all three days I was not really looking forward to this trial. Last year both the PBH Memorial Day and Labor Day trials were broiling hot, and Lucy was practically walking the courses without much motivation. I was prepared to just pull her rather than put us both through that again. But I was very pleasantly surprised--astounded, actually-- at how motivated and even relatively speedy she was despite the heat. Other people noticed as well and complimented me on how well we were doing, including one woman who told me that Lucy seems like a completely different dog than she did this time last year.

That alone felt like a significant accomplishment, but the addition of 8 Qs made me fairly euphoric (albeit exhausted) by Monday afternoon. We earned one Q each in Masters Snooker and Gamblers, two each in Masters Pairs and Jumpers (one of which got us our Masters Jumpers title!), a Grand Prix Q and a Steeplechase Q. The snooker Q was gratifying because it was a result of me keeping my head on course--a rare thing. Lucy missed a weave entry during the opening, which mean we were going to miss out on the six points from that obstacle, so I revised my plan on the fly and took a fourth red I had originally decided not to attempt, followed by a #2 (the closest obstacle). Since we didn't make it through the #7 in the closing, the three more points I picked up in the opening put us at exactly 37. Whew!

Aside from two blown A-frame contacts over the weekend (one in Grand Prix, where it didn't end up costing the Q) our only problems were lack of finesse on my part which is, so to speak, a known bug. I'm getting better--slowly--at actually doing what I know I'm supposed to. I plan a good course, I walk a good course, but during the actual run I turn into a big dork. I told my trainer, Val Olszyk, that I'm going to make a shirt that says on the back, in big letters, "It's not Val's fault!"

My next USDAA trial probably won't be until August, when I plan to enter one in Charlottesville, VA. If I can keep it together for two Standard runs, it's possible Lucy and I can earn our MAD there. I'm going to try not to think too much about that, though ... I think I do better when there's nothing at stake.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

New scam uses puppies to bilk unsuspecting suckers

An article in today's LA Times describes a new wrinkle on the Nigerian 419 scam: using photos of cute little puppies to siphon cash from the pockets of the naive. It seems from the article that the scammers favorite "bait" is the English Bulldog, a very expensive breed. English bulldogs usually have small litters and always need C-sections (the puppies huge heads do not fit through the mother's birth canal) and the newborn puppies are very fragile and have high mortality rates. This makes them costly to breed and rather rare, which drives prices up into multi-thousands. For some reason, however, some people want them very badly, despite the fact that they are horribly deformed dogs wirth a tendency to be stubborn, snorty, wheezy, farty, slobbery, and have lots of genetic health issues such as hip problems, heart problems, skin problems and bad respiratory systems. When bulldog-smitten people see a "free" or relatively inexpensive puppy advertised, some of them lose all caution whatsoever. Don't be one of them. Better yet, if you get a notion to buy a bulldog, let me try to talk you out of it.

In other news, I had a fun 3-day weekend of agility competition. I'll blather on at length about it later.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Attention!

I'm in the midst of another session of puppy classes, and yet again I'm reminded of the importance of a very easy-to-teach behavior we call attention-to-name. I just can't stress enough how valuable it is to teach (and practice frequently) the very simple act of having your dog turn toward you when you say its name.

I know first-hand that this one little behavior can save a dog's life because of an incident that happened with Zsa Zsa, the pit bull puppy I fostered last year. Zsa Zsa had only been in my company for a few hours, but I had spent part of that time teaching her to turn toward me when she heard her name. At one point I took her out into the front yard on-leash for a potty break, and I got a little tangled in the leash (she was a wiggly little thing). In the course of untangling myself, I accidentally dropped the leash. Zsa Zsa chose that exact moment to notice something very interesting across the street, and took off. Meanwhile, a car was heading up the street at a speed and trajectory that looked like it would intersect with little Zsa Zsa. All I could do was shout "Zsa Zsa!" but miraculously, it worked. She not only stopped and turned toward me, but came running back. I gave her a "jackpot" food reward when she got to me.

Teaching attention-to-name is incredibly simple. Get some tasty treats you know your dog will love (or instead of feeding her dinner out of a bowl, put it in your treat pouch or pocket and teach with it). When your dog is looking away from you, take a treat, hold it in front of the dog's nose and use it as a lure to turn the dog's head toward you (if the dog won't look away to begin with, go someplace with a few more distractions). As you are turning the dog's head, say her name, pairing the stimulus (name) with the behavior (head turning toward you). Immediately mark the behavior as correct ("yes!" or click) and give the treat as a reward. After a few times of luring, you can try the name without the lure. If the dog performs the behavior at one utterance of her name, mark, treat and keep practicing. If the dog does not turn at her name, do not repeat the name, but go back to luring. If you keep saying the dog's name without getting the behavior, you are diluting the command, i.e. teaching the dog that hearing her name is really rather meaningless. (Ever been to a dog park when someone was futilely repeating a dog's name over and over--"Harley! Harley! Harley! Harley!" With no response from the dog? Harley obviously doesn't believe that any response is necessary!)

Another great way to get your dog to pay attention is to shape a "checking-in" behavior. I use several names for this: "The Attention Game," "Be a Tree" and "The Zen Game." It requires a little time and patience because it's a shaping and not a luring exercise, so it may require a lot of waiting (which is why I call it "The Zen Game"). It's very simple, though: put your dog on a 6-foot leash, grab some tasty treats and go to a place with only a few distractions (if you start in a very distracting place you're making it too difficult for yourself and your dog). Hold the end of your dog's leash against your waist so that if she pulls toward something she doesn't gain more distance pulling your arm away--she gets her leash length and no more. Now wait. Be still ... you're a tree. Don't say anything to your dog or try to interact, just stand there and keep an eye on your dog and be ready to reward. Sooner or later--often later--she will turn toward you, maybe even look right at your face. Mark that instant ("Yes!" or click) as correct and give her a treat. Then become a tree again and wait patiently for your dog to turn and look again. If she keeps staring at you and won't look away after a reward, you may need to walk a few steps and let her get interested in something else before you become a tree again. Because behaviors that are rewarded are more likely to be repeated, it will only take a few rewards before most dogs start "checking in" more frequently. Some dogs will take longer--just be patient. As with all exercises, you'll want to start with very short sessions at first and end the exercise if you or your dog become bored or frustrated. If it seems to take forever to get a "check-in," go ahead and change the subject and practice attention-to-name instead. You can always try the attention game another time.

Once you are getting attention with either of these exercises in a low-distraction place, start increasing the level of difficulty by going to more exciting places where there are more things for your dog to see and smell. But remember that you never want to make it too difficult for your dog too quickly, or you'll both just become frustrated.

These exercises aren't just for puppies, either! The adage "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" is dead wrong.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

More about food ...

Salon.com has a good article about pet foods in the wake of the massive recalls: The Truth About cat and Dog Food (warning: you may be asked to watch an ad before being redirected to the article). Of particular interest to me was this bit:
While pet food may not be uniquely vulnerable to contaminants, however, cats and dogs themselves may be more sensitive to them. Our pets are usually a lot smaller than we are, and they eat the same thing day after day. "Because we eat a lot of different foods, toxins that come in are diluted," Hofve says. "If we ate one thing all the time like most pets do, we'd be in a lot more trouble. Variety really is the spice of life, and our pets should eat variety too."

I think this is why I'm interested in supplementing my dog's kibble with some homemade (but not necessarily raw) foods. Anyone with a good (and simple!) recipe or two, please share!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Snookering as a verb, chasing the elusive Steeplechase Q, and other odd and ends

I competed at the Blue Ridge Agility Club USDAA trial in Fletcher, NC, last weekend. Their trials are always my favorites because they're in a great venue (a covered arena in May and a heated indoor livestock show ring in December) and are always well-run. Plus their trials always attract world class competitors who are fun to watch. Of course, I often end up feeling completely inadequate as a handler after screwing up something the "pros" made look simple, but there were a few times when I successfully handled some course elements that snared a few of the better handlers, so I guess it evens out in the end.

Anyway, while walking a Snooker course on Saturday, I overheard someone saying "I need to snooker him past this jump." Although the word has other meanings as a verb, it sounded funny because I'd never heard it used as that way in relation to agility before. What the person was saying was that she had to run her dog past an undesired obstacle in a way that would convince the dog not to actually take the obstacle, which is frequently necessary on Snooker courses. So I guess I can officially say that Lucy is hard to snooker. If I drop eye contact (to look where I'm running, for example) she will always immediately take the nearest obstacle, as she did on Saturday during our first-ever masters Snooker run. So "snookering" remains on my list of things to practice. (Mr. Gomez, on the other hand is easy to snooker ... if he'd only stayed in the weaves during the closing we would have easily qualified.)

Another skill that tops our practice list is "gambling." Now that we're in Masters, the degree of difficulty is daunting. We've achieved some good basic distance on hard stuff like contacts and weaves, which got us through Advanced Gamblers by the skin of our teeth. But in Masters we face the added challenges of things like layered obstacles and changes of direction. Or both at the same time. I'm reduced to being gratified if we even get half of a gamble. I'm not alone, though, as a few other folks who train a PBH also had gambling problems this weekend. So I e-mailed the failed courses to our teacher, Val Olszyk (who is busy with her new baby and not back teaching just yet) and she sent back some handling notes. We set the course up last night and worked on them, to some degree of success--I was able to get them correctly only if I stepped over the line. But Val said the key to most Masters gambles is to stay well off the line, giving yourself room to step in and drive an "out" if the dog curls toward you. Obviously easier said than done!

The other issue that frustrated me this weekend was speed. If it's chilly, Lucy is a little racer, sometimes too fast for my handling skills. But she's no spring chicken (she turned 9 years old a little over a week ago), and after four or five runs, especially when it's warm, she slows down. So when Steeplechase--an event that's all about speed--is the last run of the day, we don't have much of a chance of making the cut even I manage a clean run. I did manage one on Saturday--a really pretty clean run, if I do say so myself, but we were too slow. Part of that was her speed--I felt like I was pulling her over and through the first four or five obstacles--and part of it was a tiny timing error on my part. One way I get her to make her A-frame contact is to say "wait" after she crosses the apex (she's small so she doesn't really "leap" the apex, but sort of scrambles over it). This usually makes her pause and pay attention to her descent--if I don't say it she often takes one stride and launches from right above the yellow. (I know it's not the best way to handle the A-frame, but it usually works!) On the Steeplechase run, I said it a lttle too early, which caused her to pause right on the apex. She looked at me, and then looked at the view as if she was thinking "Wow, I can see a lot from up here!" When I realized that she wasn't coming down, I said "OK," and she descended, but I think we lost several precious seconds right there. She was really cute, though! (And I think she's also adorable jumping the broad jump.)

Our successes for the weekend were a Q each in Masters Standard (our first), Masters Jumpers (our second) and Grand Prix (our second). Except for one of the Gamblers runs (in which both the opening and the gamble were disastrous) our runs overall were pretty good. In a few more trials I will feel like I actually belong in Masters.

I competed with Mr. Gomez on Saturday only, and he's doing fantastic. Gone are the days of running around in circles--he's looking like an actual agility dog these days. He's a little more senstive to unfamiliar equpiment however, which caused our only problems. He bailed off the side of the teeter in his Standard run (but stayed on it in pairs--I was saying "good boy good boy good boy" the whole way), and jumped out of the weaves during the closing in Snooker, giving the weave poles a funny look as if they had startled him. But we qualified in Gamblers and Pairs, and I had great fun running him. He's pretty cute, too.

We'll all be running again Memorial Day Weekend at PBH, when it will undoubtedly be hella hot, so I'm not holding out much hope for that Steeplechase Q.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

What to feed?

It'sa pretty sad when dog food manufacturers have to post special web pages promising that their feeds won't kill your pet.

In the wake of the recent massive pet food recall, a lot of people who have been feeding commercial food are now rethinking their dogs' diet. The food I feed has not been on any recall lists (yet) and the manufacturer promises (cross their hearts!) that it's not going to kill my dogs, but I've lost trust anyway. Even though the food doesn't contain any of the suspect ingredients (which, according to this article, are protein products that include wheat gluten, rice gluten, rice protein, rice protein concentrate, corn gluten, corn gluten meal, corn by-products, soy protein, soy gluten proteins, and mung bean protein) and is manufactured in the US, the one thing they DON'T say is exactly where their ingredients come from. After reading this article in the New York Times the other day I'm much more suspicious of imported ingredients (in my own food as well as that of my dogs), particularly those from China. I'm switching to a food that is (the manufacturer says) made entirely of domestic ingredients and contains none of the things that we now know to be problematic.

I'm still considering alternatives to commercial food, although I'm not ready to try a raw or BARF diet, for more reasons than I feel like going into (but this article sums up a few of them). I must add that I know several people whose dogs are doing well on partly-to-mostly raw diets, so I don't dismiss them out-of-hand. I actually looked into it when I thought Mr. Gomez had a food allergy (I'm convinced it was an environmental allergy of some sort and, thankfully, it hasn't flared up in about seven months). But I think a raw diet would be a last resort in an attempt to address a specific problem.

I am, however, considering supplementing a commercial food with some home-cooked food, so I was very interested to read this article about home-cooking for dogs in today's Washington Post. I'm far too lazy to cook regularly for myself, much less for my dogs, so I would keep feeding a trustworthy (I hope!) commercial food most days, with healthy home-cooked meals once or twice a week for variety of nutrients. Well, it's a plan, at least! If it's successful and interesting, maybe I'll report back on it now and then.

Now if only there were a diet that would make me a consistent agility handler ...