Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A great dog-centric flyball weekend

Lucy and I had an interesting and fun road-trip weekend. We headed out Thursday afternoon to Woodstock, GA, along with my friend Barb and her dogs Twyst and Stetson (a border collie and a Jack Russell terrier, respectively) and stayed the night at the home of Laura Moretz. Laura is a talented dog trainer, disc dog handler and flyball enthusiast, and Friday morning it was like Barb and I were at "Laura's Dog Camp." She gave Barb a frisbee-throwing lesson and showed her some exercises to advance Twyst's disc-dog training. For me, she demonstrated ways to teach Lucy a few things, including getting her to stand on the soles of my feet. It's the kind of trick that requires two people in the initial stages, one to be the platform and the other to lure and reward the dog. Getting Lucy up there was no problem because she's always game to try new things, but keeping my feet stable and level so she she didn't mind staying there was the hard part. It requires muscles I don't always use.

Saturday and Sunday we had a great time at the Athens Dawg Derby flyball tournament. The local paper had a writeup on the tournament, so there were lots of spectators on Sunday. The article, along with a little video, is available at OnlineAthens. It's a reasonably accurate article, except that they call the box a "backstop," which is actually what we call the barrier behind the box.

As I mentioned before, Lucy ran in the veteran's division with the Fur Fun club. I had a blast, not just because the Fur Fun crew is indeed very fun, but because our team was competitive in the division and the racing was quite close. We were doing very well Saturday and thought we were on tract to get first or second place, but a few blown heats put us down to third. Since the format was two one-day tournaments, we were able to make a slight change to the roster for Sunday, and heading into the last race we had a shot at first place--if we won all four heats. The first two went well, but in the third one of the dogs had a bit of a ball-bobble at the box (she didn't catch the ball and had to fumble on the ground to get it) which put us too far behind to catch up. That put us in second place. The exact same thing happened in the fourth heat, and to be honest, I don't know if that put us into third or not ... I have so many second- and third-place ribbons from years of racing that I lose interest in the results when there's no possibility of getting first. So the final result was that Lucy ran well and I had a great time, which is really all that matters.

I really like competing in the Veteran's Division with Lucy. She was staring to slow down a little over her regular jump height (11"), but is running about as fast as her younger days over 7". There are also fewer heats per day (never more than 16), so I don't feel like I'm pushing her too hard. Plus, since the vet dogs tend to be very experienced, the danger of crossers (dogs who run into the opposing team's lane) is reduced. (I think crossing is the biggest risk to dogs in flyball competition. Here's a little article that addresses the subject and how to "proof" a dog in preparation for competition.) Aside from slowing down a little, vet dogs are often very consistent; most of our team's errors over the weekend were in passing, which is all the human's fault. So there's still plenty of room to rack up more points and titles, if that's what people are concerned with (I stopped worrying about that after Lucy got her Onyx award).

I was talking to another competitor who has a little mix dog about the same size and age as Lucy, and she said she would really like to get the remaining 3,000 points her dog needs for the FGDCh-30 title, but she is afraid her dog just can't race as hard as she did when she was younger. I asked if she had ever tried the vet's division, and she said she hadn't because she didn't think one got many points in vet's. I disabused her of that notion--in vet's you're allowed to run with dogs from other clubs, so it's possible to put together a "dream team" for whatever purpose--whether it's winning first place, racking up points or just racing with a really fun group of people. I think I convinced her.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Is pet insurance worth it?

There is an interesting post at Consumerist.com (one of my fave daily reads) about pet insurance (particularly a company called VPI) and whether it's a rip-off or not. I had been thinking about whether I would try such a thing with future dogs (my current dogs are old enough that the premiums would be exorbitant), but now after the article, and especially the comments, I'm thinking maybe not. It seems like people are very unhappy with the rates of reimbursement they get from pet insurance.

Currently we are on a plan at our vet that completely covers certain routine vaccinations, diagnostics and teeth cleanings and gives us a discount on most other things. It's worked out well for us, but if we were to need a specialty vet for rehab or a serious illness, that would all be out-of-pocket. (Currently I supplement their regular vet care with chriopractic, which has fortunately been affordable so far.) So I was very interested in one of the ideas that came up a few times of "self-insuring," that is putting aside a monthly amount to cover catastrophic costs. That amount could be earning interest until one needs it, which is one advantage over giving the money to an insurance company that seems reluctant to pay it back out, if the anecdotes at Consumerist are any indication.

I'd be interested to hear from anyone (other than a pet-insurance-industry flack) who's had a good experience with pet insurance.

Flyball weekend

I'm off to Athens, GA, this weekend for the Double Dog Dare Athens Dawg Derby flyball tournament. I've started running Lucy in the veterans' division, which is for dogs 7 years and older, which means her team will jump the minimum height (7"; Lucy's normal height would be 11"), have no false-start re-runs, and all races will be only three heats. What's more, in vets' division they allow dogs to run with other clubs, which makes it easier to field vets' teams in cases where a club doesn't have enough vet dogs of it's own. So this and Lucy and I will be running with a team called Fur Fun, who are known known for wacky antics and fielding fast teams (I hope Lucy's not the weakest link--she's not nearly as fast in flyball as she can be in agility).

A teammate and I are going down a day early to spend a day with Laura Moretz, a disc dog competitor and a member of the 2007 Purina Incredible Dog Team (as well as a member of the Dogsmack flyball club. I don't have a disc dog (Lucy won't catch them and although Mr. Gomez loves frisbees, we don't play because of his bad hip), but maybe I'll "interview" Laura for a blog post about disc dog training. The most I know now is that first and foremost, one must learn to properly toss the disc ... actually I think that's a great deal of the challenge in disc dog competition, because even a lightning-fast dog can't do well if its handler keeps bungling all the tosses!

Friday, July 06, 2007

Stuart Mah seminar recap (of sorts)

I thoroughly enjoyed the Stuart Mah seminar on Wednesday, although I think my brain got a little bloated with too much food for thought. The seminar didn't have a title, but if I had to pick one I'd call it "Obstacle Focus is Your Friend (or can be if you learn how to use it and train your dog to do its job)." The point being that a) obstacle focus is where the speed is, handler focus always slows a dog down; b) yes, you can actually steer a dog in obstacle focus but c) you need to communicate well and your dog needs to know its job. Of course all of this involves getting rid of some bad habits, bad instincts and trying a few things that seem downright counterintuitive ...

The course and exercises we did made us put the dog in obstacle focus and transition between obstacle focus and handler focus. I hadn't really thought before about how much I rely on handler focus (and consequently have trained Lucy to mostly stay in handler focus), but now I can see how it's slowing me down. Well, not just me--Lucy, too. Stuart made a comment about how he could tell that Lucy really wanted to let loose and go faster (in obstacle focus, of course!) but that I was holding her in handler focus (without really thinking about what I was doing). So basically I need to let my dog go be dynamite. (Whilst incorporating the stuff we learned about steering--I'm not going to describe it all in depth her because it would take hours. Go take one of Stuart's seminars.)

One of the things we talked about sort of destroyed a previous notion I'd had. I was always been under the impression that my verbal cues were the least important aspect of communicating with my dogs on course, with motion and body positioning being much more crucial. So I'd been concentrating on really using my body to direct Lucy and downplaying the verbal stuff (I mentioned my progress towards that goal in my last post. But Stuart said that's valid enough in handler focus, but in obstacle focus the verbal cues become much more important. Duh, makes sense now that I think of it--if I'm trying to get my dog to drive away from me toward, say, a tunnel in obstacle focus, making her look at me to pick up a signal will necessarily slow her down and probably bring her towards me, back into handler focus. What if I need her to stay out? So there are some good reasons to make sure you have some good verbal cues (like right and left, which Lucy knows and Gomey ... well sort of). The trick is to actually deliver them in time for the dog to use them successfully. He compared the way a lot of us give cues to having a passenger in your car who screeches "Turn right here" after you've already entered the intersection going straight in the left lane. (He used a lot of driving a car analogies.)

Anyway, there was way more to the seminar than I can possibly do justice too (or even remember--I could very easily take the same seminar over again and still benefit). So now I'm itching to get to runthroughs tonight because it's a Steeplechase course--a perfect opportunity for a little obstacle focus work.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Quick agility update

I didn't have time to blog about the Midnight Madness NADAC trial last week, but it was quite fun. It's a great way to have a trial in a place where it gets oppressively hot in the summer. After darkness fell, it almost felt like summer camp and the atmosphere was very relaxed. Plus, as much as I grouse about NADAC's silliness as an agility organization, I must admit that NADAC trials are generally always fun, and I do like the Tunnelers, Weavers and Touch & Go games.

I did very well with both dogs, but I got tripped up several times by a discrimination (dogwalk/tunnel) that I've worked and worked on. I guess I'll just have to work and work on it some more. (Maybe Stuart Mah can help me at the seminar tomorrow!) But mostly, my dogs ran like champs and I didn't do so badly as a handler. The highlight of the whole weekend was Weavers on Friday night when both of my dogs ran the course so near to perfectly I couldn't think of anything at all to criticize about either run. Those are the moments that make me think "THIS is why I love agility!!"

Generally, when she wasn't taking the wrong obstacle in a discrimination, Lucy ran as if she were tuned in to my very thoughts. We're becoming quite a solid team and it's exhilarating to run with her. I also am able to keep my mouth shut a lot more on course, because my body communication is improving. So I usually only spoke when I needed her in handler focus, with an occasional "yes" for reinforcement and to keep her confidence up. Now if we can maintain this teamwork for the upcoming USDAA trials I'll be ecstatic.

As mentioned, I'll be at a Stuart Mah seminar in Hampton, VA, tomorrow. I'm so excited I keep hoping today will fly by--what a geek I am!