Thursday, May 29, 2008

Lucy gets the thumbs-up

I'm really happy to report that Dr. Sherman at VetHab found no physical concerns in his examination of Lucy. He said that she is in great shape for a 10-year-old dog. So I still don't know why she was refusing the teeter, but I feel a huge sense of relief that it's probably not physical. (She didn't refuse the teeter a single time this weekend, leading me to believe that it's something about unfamiliar teeters she doesn't trust). I will continue to limit her runs and still plan to move her to Performance after her ADCH (I already enter her in NADAC Veteran's class), but at least I know that she's sound enough to stay in Championship until I manage to get those last two Gamblers Qs.

Dr. Sherman did tell me I need to expand my pre-run warm-up routine to include a few minutes of walk/trot/canter/gallop in addition to the stuff I already do, and I need to make sure I do it no more than ten minutes before a run. I've already been feeding Lucy joint supplements for years (glucosamine/chondroitin, MSM, fish oil and vitamin E), and he said to keep it up. In reference to Pinky, I asked him at what age he recommends starting a pup on supplements and he said 4 years or after the first incident/problem.

He also told me that if Lucy has another bout of "mystery lameness" like she had a couple months ago to call him immediately and they will fit us in as soon as possible.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sunday's Jumpers and Standard runs on video

My friend Barb posted video she took of our Sunday Jumpers and Standard runs.

The Standard run was the one where I thought we had qualified only to find out we were 1.22 seconds over time. From the video I can see that maybe she wasn't running quite as fast she could have been, and there were a few other places where we lost a little time: a pause on top of the A-frame, pokey weaves, bit of delay as I RFP'd her before the dogwalk (had to avoid the off-course tunnel!), and a wide turn where I front-crossed after the fourth-to-last jump. Still, I think the yardage may have been figured a bit tight on this course.

The Jumpers run was qualifying. Not blazingly fast, but fast enough and clean. That's all that counts. Plus Lucy is darn cute.

A Standard Q, another Super Q, and more video

Monday was a good day at the USDAA trial. We started the day with a really awesome Standard run--clean and well under time. I never seem to get these kinds of runs on video; I end up getting to see my embarrassing mistakes but not my triumphs. I would love to see if this one looked as good as it felt. I got lots of "Great Run!" comments from fellow competitors afterward, so my guess is it looked pretty good. This leaves us lacking only those two darn Gamblers Qs for the ADCH.

Our Pairs run went really well, except that Lucy leapt the dogwalk contact. The score sheet showed another five faults, but I don't know what they were or which of us was responsible. I don't really care, though. It was a fun run and I don't really need the Q for anything.

We went on to get yet another Snooker Super Q. I wasn't actually trying for it, and in fact I was hoping my friend Barb would get it, but it so happened that the easiest path through this course was a 1-7/1-7/1-7 opening, and all of the 16" and 12" teams did the same thing. Lucy and I just went a tiny bit faster, and we made it all the way through the closing (by a nose!) while everyone else got the horn part way through #7. It's funny that when I first started USDAA, Snooker always filled me with dread, probably because I didn't really understand the strategy. Now I love it, and several of the Starters handlers I train with it have actually come up to me saying something like "I hear you're a Snooker expert, and I need help planning my course." That makes me chuckle because they obviously haven't seen all the Snooker runs where we got whistled off after the third or fourth obstacle.

No one would ever confuse me with a Gamblers expert, but I think I need to become one if Lucy and I are going to finish the ADCH before she's too old to run Championship. I'm already getting concerned that she can't do quite as much agility in a day as she did just a year ago, and in fact I didn't enter the tournament events this weekend just because I wanted to limit her runs. On Monday after our third run she seemed a little stiff, slow and tired, so I decided to pull her from Jumpers. I figured I'd feel horrible if I let her get injured for a Q I don't particularly need.

Tomorrow we're going to get checked out at VetHab (it was supposed to be last week but then I had a work conflict with the appointment), and I'm hoping he says she's in fabulous shape for a 10-year-old sport dog. I still plan to start taking it easier with her at trials, and I'll probably move her to Performance after getting the ADCH just for the lower jump heights.

And speaking of getting whistled off Snooker courses, here's a video of a run with Mr. Gomez last December in which nothing really went the way I planned. In the opening, he ended up taking a jump that was part of #6 when I wanted him to take a tunnel that was part of #7. I was able to salvage that and get him over the other part of #6, but then I was out of position and had to sort of make up a new strategy as I went along. Then in the closing he decided to take the #7 tunnel instead of the correct #6 jump. D'oh!

Mr. Gomez USDAA Advanced Snooker Dec. 2007 from bunchofpants on Vimeo.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Still no progress toward the ADCH ... and a couple more videos

I had been full of hope this morning that we would manage to knock out one and maybe even two of the three remaining legs we need for our ADCH but, alas, it was not to be. We did start the day right with a nice Jumpers Q, which we followed up with a Pairs Q. It was our partners' first time in Masters Pairs, and the guy really wanted a Q. So I told him we would do our part to make sure he got it. And we did. The only real challenge on either half of the course was a difficult weave pole entry, but our class two weeks ago was devoted to that very problem, and it turned out to be not so much of a problem for us.

Our Standard run felt great--squeaky clean and (I thought) reasonably fast. I was sure we had Q'd. But when I checked the results, we had gotten first place in the 16" class, but we were 1.22 seconds over time. It just didn't seem right. There's a possibility Lucy ran a little wide in a few spots, but it felt like she was turning tightly enough. Only two dogs out of the entire Masters class qualified on that course, and time was an issue for a lot of people, so there was speculation that perhaps the judge wheeled the course incorrectly, leaving out a jump at some point. Oh well, there's nothing to be done about it; as folks like to say, "The agility gods giveth and the agility gods taketh away."

I had huge hopes for our Gamblers run because the gamble looked like one we could actually get. But Lucy, instead of taking the easy and correct end of a tunnel going under an A-frame, actually swerved right and went around the A-frame to the much more difficult, but incorrect, entrance. I couldn't have gotten her to do that if I had tried, but nonetheless I'm sure it was something I did. In fact, I know that as soon as I thought she was committed to the correct entrance, I made a move to get in position for the next part of the gamble. I think she saw my motion out of the corner of her eye and she moved accordingly. Oh well. She was trying to do the right thing.

Maybe we'll get that Standard Q tomorrow. In the meantime, here are a couple more videos. The first one is a happy one--the DAM team run that pushed "Will Work For Food" up from 11th place to a 7th place (qualifying) finish a couple of weeks ago.

"Will Work For Food" USDAA DAM Team Relay May 2008 from bunchofpants on Vimeo.

The second is a Steeplechase run from last December. A fumbled weave cost us too much time and we didn't Q, but otherwise it was a nice little run.

Lucy USDAA Steeplechase Dec. 2007 from bunchofpants on Vimeo.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

A decent day at USDAA and a couple more agility videos ...

I had a reasonably good day today at the USDAA trial. Lucy and I only ran three courses because I had decided to take it easy and not enter Grand Prix. Our Gamblers run was great except for the part where we didn't get the gamble. Our Standard run would have been flawless except for one little popped weave pole. I decided not to fix it because we would have NQ'd anyway and Lucy gets demotivated sometimes when I restart her weaves; aside from being eliminated we had a super run. Then we managed to squeak out our fourth Snooker Super Q, simply because I managed to get us across the finish line slightly faster than other dogs who scored the same.

Now, as threatened previously, I'm posting a couple more videos from previous events.

The first one is Mr. Gomez doing an Advanced Gamblers run more than a year ago. If this had been Masters we would have NQ'd because we had two refusals on the three-obstacle gamble, but as it was Advanced we actually Q'd because I eventually managed to get him over the darn jumps before the finish horn sounded.

Mr. Gomez USDAA Gamblers May '07 from bunchofpants on Vimeo.

The second one is Mr. Gomez on an Advanced Standard run from last December. He didn't finish his weaves and I generally don't make more than two tries, so we would have NQ'd, but then he also took an off-course jump so we were eliminated. Still, in light of the fact that he's a Very Special Dog, I considered it a pretty good run. I love the commentary by my friend Cindy when she notes that Gomey is like her youngest dog: "This is the dog I have. I have seen the future and it's not pretty!"

Mr. Gomez USDAA Advanced Standard Dec. 2007 from bunchofpants on Vimeo.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Dog agility video overload!

I'll be spending the holiday weekend doing three full days of USDAA agility with Lucy. There's always that chance we'll get the two Gamblers and one Standard Q we need for the ADCH. Really. It could happen.

Anyway, some friends of mine occasionally took video of me running Lucy and Mr. Gomez at various trials over the past year, and yesterday they gave me a disk jam packed with action. So over the next week I'll be posting way more video than anyone ever wanted to see of me running my dogs in agility.

The first one is a NADAC Touch & Go course, and there's a lesson here: too much RFP pulls a dog off of BOTH obstacles in a discrimination. Watch and learn:

Lucy NADAC Touch & Go (or: Too Much RFP!) from bunchofpants on Vimeo.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Spay/neuter questions hit the mainstream press

Folks with performance/working dogs have been discussing for years the wisdom of early spay/neuter in regard to the health and structural soundness of dogs (I recently weighed my options for Pinky and decided to wait). Now an an article at MSNBC raises some of the questions as many states and municipalities consider mandatory spay/neuter laws. (Thanks to Pet Connection for the link).

There are many good reasons to spay or neuter, but I think mandatory spay/neuter laws have far more downside than upside (that is, supposedly our shelters wouldn't be so full with these laws). Diane Blackman at DogPlay has a fairly comprehensive list of arguments against such laws. I personally think that the administrative costs involved with enforcing such laws would be much better spent to make it easier and cheaper for the average pet owner to spay/neuter than on the sisyphean task of enforcing laws that have been shown to be less-than effective in the long run (see this Animal Law Coalition paper, for example).

As for Pinky, I do actually plan to spay her, if for no other reason than I can't see myself dealing with the required vigilance and mess of heat cycles twice a year for something like the next 15 years (or more, I hope!). I have no interest in breeding dogs, even though I think Pinky is one awesome little dog.

I've linked to these articles before, but what the heck, I'll link to them again. So for more about the health implications of spay/neuter, see:
Early Spay-Neuter Considerations for the Canine Athlete
Long-Term Health Risks and Benefits Associated with Spay/Neuter in Dogs
Determining the optimal age for gonadectomy of dogs and cats

Friday, May 16, 2008

Contact questions

This post at the Team Fernadezlopez blog was of great interest to me, because I'm currently waffling back and forth on the question of what kind of contacts I should teach Pinky. With Lucy and Mr. Gomez I just accepted that I should strive for 2o2o (for non-agility folks, that means "two on, two off," which is how we describe the contact criterion where the dog stops with its back paws on the contact and its front paws off). I think it's probably easiest way for a brand-new handler to train and enforce some consistency.

But I have a few problems with the 2o2o. The biggest is that in order to make them reliable in a trial one must be prepared to clearly mark their absence as incorrect even if the dog actually touched the contact enough to satisfy the judge. That means you have to do something that could potentially interrupt what might have been a qualifying run just because the dog didn't stop and hold at the bottom of a contact. Some people go so far as to end a run and carry the dog off the field if he doesn't stop, others just use a verbal mark or pause. If you don't consistently mark an incorrect performance, what happens is that a dog can learn two ways of doing contacts: one for practice and another for trials. That's what my dogs did (my own damn fault, of course). Because I wasn't the greatest contact trainer, I ended up with leaping contacts in trials (and eventually in practice, too) for a while. Through a lot of re-training and practice, Lucy and I have worked out a "moving contact" compromise wherein I signal her to slow down and shorten her stride enough to get a foot or two on the yellow before commencing her leap.

This isn't a great system, of course. For starters, it's really hard to front cross her coming off the A-frame, and that's occasionally been a bit inconvenient. But the worst part is that even though I've gotten to where I can signal the slowdown from about 15 feet away, I'm still stuck babysitting her contacts all the time. If I were to keep running forward or turn away slightly, odds are she would either leap the contact or come off the side. This has been a big disadvantage to me many times on the Masters Level courses, especially in Gamblers.

But even if I had done all the necessary work to get reliable 2o2o contacts, I sort of doubt they would be independent of any action by me. I rarely ever see a dog that will reliably stop in 2o2o and await the release no matter where the handler is or what she is doing. Getting a 2o2o that doesn't require at least a little "babysitting," takes months of repetitions and reinforcement ... as do most methods of teaching running contacts (like Sylvia Trkman's, for example). So if I'm going to put in all that work, why not use it to at least have FAST independent contacts?

I'm really interested to know what other people think about the pros and cons of running contacts, so if you have an opinion, please comment.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Third time's a charm and the trouble with teeters

I'm quite happy to announce that, were I the type of person who puts her dogs' names and titles in the signature of her emails, I would now have two more letters to put next to Lucy's name: TM. Last weekend at the Blue Ridge Agility Club USDAA trial we finally got the second DAM team leg we needed to complete the Tournament Master title. It was our third try for that second leg, and we made it by the skin of our teeth. In fact, I was flabbergasted when I heard our team name ("Will Work For Food") announced as the 7th place finisher (the lowest placement that qualified,) because up until the team relay we had been floundering down around 11th place. But all three of us rocked the relay course, which constitutes a huge portion of the points, while many other higher-ranked teams sustained one or more eliminations. So I guess the moral of this story is not to give up or get discouraged or something or other.

Lucy ran really well for me all weekend, and we had some really nice runs, two of which actually qualified: one in Masters Pairs (our fifth, which means we got that title as well), and one in Masters Standard. Those knocked out two of the five legs we need for the ADCH, which means now all we need in one more Standard and two Gamblers. I think ... I need to double-check these things because I've gotten it wrong in the past

Two of our runs were really awesome except for one problem: Lucy was shying away from the teeter. The first time was in Snooker on Saturday, when she hopped off the teeter in the opening. I was able to get her to complete it, but when we came around to it in the closing, she hopped off again and since in the closing that becomes a refusal, our run ended two points short. She ran the teeter correctly in Standard later Saturday and again Sunday morning, but then during the Grand Prix she ran right past it. I circled her around and got her on it, but then she jumped right off again. Knowing I wasn't going to fix whatever it was right there at the trial, I just decided to keep going, and she really smoked the rest of our course. If it hadn't been for the teeter I would have counted that as one of our best runs ever.

So now I'm wondering: whats up with Lucy's teeter? She had some issues at another trial last month, but in practice and trials at our "home" field she's been fine. So I was thinking that perhaps there's something about "away" teeters that feels or looks different to her, making her a little spooked by them. But then after I got home from the trial I read this interview with Lis' Kristoff at the USDAA site (if you haven't read it already, be warned: it's sort of a tear-jerker), and she mentioned that her dog Diva, who had knee problems, had some issues from the jarring of the teeter. So now I'm wondering if perhaps the teeter is sometimes painful for Lucy. The times she's had problems with it have been on packed dirt and sand, which are probably a little less shock-absorbing than our grassy training field.

So I made an appointment for Lucy to get an evaluation by Dr. John Sherman at VetHab. I'm hoping that it will rule out my hypothesis because he'll say "Oh, she's in fine shape," but considering that she just turned 10 years old, that might not be the case. Whatever it is I won't find out for another week because he can't see her until next Wednesday.

In Pinky news, she has gone into heat. I hope that as I write this her little hormones are sending cease and desist signals to her growth plates. I made great strides in getting her to hang out next to the measuring wicket over the weekend, but I didn't want to undo all my hard work by actually bringing the wicket arm all the way down to her withers. So the only thing I can say at this point is that she's definitely under 17 inches tall ... she may actually be under 16, but I can't say for sure. She looks shorter than a friend's dog who measures exactly 16 inches, so I'm still holding out hope that I'll end up with a 16" jumper.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

It's called a leash ...

I love a chance to let my dogs do a little off-leash roaming. It can be fun for them to get to sniff around and maybe chase a small critter or two without me telling them "leave it" or "let's go" constantly. But I try to be very aware of when it's appropriate for them to be off leash and when it's not. It goes without saying that I don't let them roam near vehicle traffic, but the number one guideline in my mind is: Will having my dog off-leash be inconsiderate to anyone else in the area? Even though my dogs have really good recall and I always carry treats and reward them for coming back to me, I never want to take the chance that one of my dogs will have an interaction that's not welcomed by another person or dog. So if we're on a quiet, secluded trail, I'll let them off leash but be prepared to call them to me and hook them up when I see or hear someone else. If we're on a busy path, I just keep them on-leash to be considerate of other people, especially those with dogs.

Unfortunately, some people are oblivious to the needs of other people. I'm not sure what they think--maybe they think their dogs are a free spirits and need to run through he world unencumbered. Maybe they never bothered to teach their dogs to behave on a leash so it's easier to walk without one. Maybe they think their dogs are so special that every other person and dog in the world will welcome them with open arms. The funny thing is ... OK, its not so funny, these people are often the last people in the world who should be out in public with their unleashed dogs--they usually have no control over them whatsoever.

Or worse, they don't think they need to control the dog. I wish I had money for everytime I've had a dog racing toward me and my dogs, and the owner calls "He's friendly!" So I call out "Mine aren't!" This is an exaggeration. Pinky is actually fine with other dogs (so far ... I'm well aware that this could change after just one bad incident), but Lucy can have some issues. Under most circumstances she'd rather mind her business and doesn't pay much attention to other dogs. But she has rules. She dislikes dogs that are overly forward and insist on face-to-face greeting before proper bum-sniffing has been completed. She dislikes dogs who stare at her too intensely. She's wary of bigger dogs in general, especially if the dog at all resembles a Rhodesian ridgeback. None of these problems is insurmountable, and with proper introductions she will eventually get along with anyone, but without proper introductions she can be a snarky little bitch. Basically, she postures big, and even though I know she will stop short of actual contact with the other dog, I can never predict the response of the other dogs. Most dogs just act like "Oh, well I guess I'll just leave you alone then." But what about the one dog who will say "Oh no you didn't just grouch in my face ..." and decide to escalate?

Anyway, the reason I'm thinking of this is that we had another incident Sunday. I live a couple of blocks from a nice walking path around Duke University's East Campus, which is very popular and I would never think of walking the dogs off-leash there. We were halfway around the path and I saw a guy with a golden retriever who looked a little high-energy. I thought the guy had the dog on a flexi-lead, so I veered off the path to allow some distance between us. It wasn't until I realized the dog was running toward us at full speed that he wasn't on a leash at all. I yelled "get your dog!!" to the guy, and he started calling the dog but of course the dog had gone selectively deaf and had his eyes on Lucy. I have no doubts that he only wanted to say hello, but Lucy doesn't care about a dog's intentions. I kept yelling at the guy to get his dog, but of course he couldn't.

Thankfully, Lucy's snark was relatively mild, but enough to let the golden know she didn't want to meet. He backed off and by that time the owner had caught up, and was scolding Bruno: "You know you're not supposed to do that!" Uh, no dude, I don't think he really knows because it doesn't appear that you've taught him. My guess is that the dog gets to be off-leash a lot, and he's learned that he's pretty much free as a bird do do as he pleases. No matter how much he gets yelled at after the fact, he's already been rewarded by getting to take off running whenever he feels like it. In fact, scolding him now is teaching him that it's more fun to run away from his person than to go back or let his person catch up.

Which brings me to another point about a leash: it's a great tool for teaching a dog "you're with me." If a dog can't learn to curb its impulses (running up to people or other dogs, chasing cats and squirrels, following a delicious scent trail) while on the leash, there's no chance of teaching him when he's off. The acts of seeking and pursuing are innately rewarding to most dogs. Unless you've already conditioned another reward (i.e., turning around and coming back to me = delicious treats), letting your dog off leash is really a way to build bad habits by getting to engage in the self-rewarding behavior of running off. If you condition a recall, however, and richly reward it every time, you may eventually be able to call your dog off something as fabulous as a squirrel or rabbit.* (I wrote a post on training recall a while back, FYI). (Also, Steve at Agility Nerd recently posted about a similar experience his partner had with a dog "greeting.")

Unfortunately, the people who need to know this stuff probably aren't the ones who read my blog ;-)

*Results may vary. I have been both successful and unsuccessful in calling Lucy off of critters in mid-chase.

UPDATE: Elayne has her own two bits to add to this discussion!