sobota, 29 października 2022

Enjoy the ride

I've recently seen a pretty impressive video of border collie running short, but quite advanced sequences, with lots of sending, some layering, some obstacle differentiation and some height on the jumps as well. The thing was, the border collie was 7 months old on the video. I'm not gonna get into whether you should be doing that kind of stuff that early and whether some dogs are geniuses that do those things on first try ever, but when I saw it I was like "thank goodness you can't pull that off with a Pyrshep at this age". On a second thought I might also add, "thank goodness I already know (because I've learnt the hard way) that you can't pull that off with a Pyrshep at this age".

To illustrate, this is how my last session with Maupka went. My plan was to do this sequence:

I wanted to start with just 1-3, so I put her in a sit close to the dogwalk exit, lead out, released... and she went past the long jump to go bark at the guy who was vacuuming a car behind a fence (some distance away from the jump no 2, she's seen him being there and doing that before, as we had to go next to him to enter the field). Ok, I called her back, put her in a sit, rewarded sit-stay, released, she did the long jump this time, so I rewarded. I put her in a sit again, released, she took the long jump and then run around the whole no 2, because she was still a bit distracted with the vacuum. I asked for the tight turn on no 2, rewarded, went back to put her in sit stay, released, we did 1-3, YAY!!! Success, celebration and fireworks. I let her win the toy, she ran a victory lap with that and then at some point dropped it to run and bark at a dog behind the other fence. I stopped her midway with "DON'T YOU EVEN THINK OF DOING THAT!", she recalled which is again HUGE, because for her it's still very difficult situation, so I praised her, ran to get the abandoned toy, played with her. She switched into "ok, we're serious now" mode so I attempted the whole 1-6 sequence which she did brilliantly, ta dam, again, success, celebration, loads of praise, end of session. 

That was, all in all, pretty good session, in which we managed to work through distractions and in the end we also managed to run the longest sequence she ever did, with an "out" which is a skill she's learnt a week before. This is also what I consider to be a normal learning curve for a young dog. Some days we have better sessions, without her getting distracted anymore, with me coming up with a session plan that gets to be put in practice without any blips and getting just the right amount of difficulty to develop both her skills and confidence. Some days I'm worse - I forget she's still a baby and expect her to do things with more independence that she is currently able to or I fail to end the session in just the right moment, before her getting distracted becomes more likely (again, she's still a puppy, her attention span is not very long just yet). She is generally getting better and better - before summer just getting her to play in that field was very difficult. She is also totally freaking awesome - funny, smart, enthusiastic and totally normal for her breed and age. 

But  this is what you'd normally see on social media from such a session:

What I'm saying is that normally you don't get to see "behind the scenes" on FB and if you're not experienced, savvy trainer or if you're lacking confidence and wonder whether you're doing it right or not, you might put unrealistic expectations of both yourself and your dog. 

Not only you see all those fantastic performances of sometimes very young dogs, you also read all those books and blog posts from wise people and great trainers how you should build on success, should never get frustrated or allow your dog to get frustrated, split the behaviours into tiny steps without lumping things together etc. etc. This is technically true and this is something we should strive for, but on the other hand, just don't beat yourself up too much if it doesn't always go that way. 

Good training session relies on so many components: your mood, your dog's mood, the right type of reward, right external situation (like lack of distractions that your dog is not ready to manage at that point), weather (especially not too hot for a young dog), your physical well being (and as you get older you'll find out that if you were to wait for you to feel perfectly, you'd never got to train at all), your dogs physical well-being, the moon, the stars and who knows what else. Only some of those factors are within our control. Also no matter how hard you try, sometimes you won't recognise right away that "today is not that day". Especially with a young dog: one day they would be super focused and able to do relatively advanced things, another time simple sit-stay seems way too difficult. That's fine. If you're not making any mistakes ever, probably you're just idling in your comfort zone -  when learning or teaching a new skill, sometimes you would miscalculate. Know that this is normal and learn from that. Record your sessions, think what you could have done better, why something worked or why something didn't work, change and adapt accordingly. 

And enjoy the ride, being perfect all the time is both difficult and boring ;). 

So, here's an example of another REAL training session - mistakes were made on both parts. We had fun. We'll do better in future. 

poniedziałek, 26 września 2022

After AWC is before AWC

 Oh the bliss! 

To run AWC again after three years break, to step on that green carpet, feel the atmosphere again, meet the friends from all over the world (I broke my personal record in collecting T-shirts this year 😁 ) - that was priceless and since it was always my favourite competition, I'm even more motivated to work, train and qualify next year again, possibly to all runs and possibly with two dogs 😉. 

The organisers did a stellar job - and I always say that the most important thing on AWC is that everybody from the organising team is nice and supportive - the stewards, the helpers and so on - because they are on a "first line", very often dealing with people who are stressed, emotional etc. The Austrians nailed it, everybody was friendly, relaxed, focused on comfort of both the dogs and the handlers. Literally couldn't be better and I would like to thank all of them 💓.

The atmosphere in our Polish sector was probably the best I've ever experienced - thanks everybody for cheering, laughing, discussing, wining and dining together! Result-wise I didn't achieve anything, but I'm still happy about our teamwork with Mojo and her skills, hopefully we get a chance next year to fight also in individual.

What I was disappointed about was the judging and the courses... and as the judges for this year's AWC were Jan Egil Eide and Bernd Hueppe, who are both on my list of personal favourites, I was really taken aback about some things. And no, I'm not gonna bitch about the difficulty of the courses, I'm totally fine with the courses being difficult, either you have the skills or go train them - but I swear for years I haven't seen so many dangerous situations slammed into parcours, especially on Bernd's courses. Team jumping large - dog after dog crashing the jump no 3, hitting the metal wing, making my skin crawl every time I heard that horrible sound. Same situation on individual jumping large with jump no 2. Team agility medium - dogs taking a backside jump after the long jump from the wrong direction and landing directly on the tyre legs, or slicing the tyre to save themselves. Turn after dogwalk into the tyre and then the off-course wall being so close some dogs bounced the distance. Same course - dogs bouncing off the dogwalk instead of going into the tunnel under it. Individual jumping medium (which was actually one of the most interesting courses of the weekend, with many handling options) - handlers being forced to run over tyre's legs. Individual agility large - handlers crashing the dogwalk so hard a couple of times it actually tilted, dogs loosing their balance after dogwalk, sliding off the contact, slicing the wall and the long jump - what the hell happened with adhering to "straight approach to tyre / long jump / wall" rule in the regulations? Oh, I forgot, it's more important that the distance doesn't exceed 7m by some centimeters. It is so important that there had to be a special person measuring the distances and correcting them, altering a perfectly good course. Entries to the tunnels not on dogs' natural line, forcing them to break, slide, enter from weird angles. Individual agility small - see-saw being on handler's and dog's line when turning right on the jump after the A-frame. And the list goes on, I've never seen handlers crashing the obstacles or doing weird things to avoid it or running into their dogs so much as during this AWC. And don't get me started on the judging calls - I get it, judging such an event is a lot of pressure and we're all human and all that - but the inconsistencies in judging, especially concerning refusals and see-saw contacts were striking and influenced the results. It was almost like "the course is so hard that I'm just gonna take pity and ignore all the jumping over dogwalk and touching the dog mistakes". And "oh, a famous handler is running, let's just ignore that jumped see-saw contact, even though I faulted much better executions of the obstacle couple of minutes ago". Again, I understand the human factor in all those situations, and this is not the first AWC it happened, but perhaps some measures can be taken to avoid such mistakes in the future? Video judging? Another judge to consult some calls with? Psychology training for the judges to be able to distance themselves from WHO is running and what is at stake and focus on seeing the actual performance?

And, last but not least, the metal jumps. With the lines being so hard for the dogs, with so many better options available, why do we keep using them? Why was it so easy to accept that soft wall and long jump are better than metal ones, but still people don't see that metal wings are dangerous? Most of the obstacles on the course are jumps. That's like 15 chances to get injured on the fucking thing on each course. Roman crashed a jump this weekend (by fault of his own, that actually was not a course design issue), cut his hand in two places and hit himself hard enough that he was not able to finish the run after (yes, he will survive, it's nothing more than a strain and some bruises fortunately). I still have a scar from bumping into metal wing ten years ago (here's the video for people who like horrors - the bruise and the cut took 3 weeks to heal). Also the visibility of the metal is not good enough - that's simply not contrasting with the background / surface and dogs measure to the coloured part of the wing rather than the upright. Ban the fucking metal jumps finally! 

And yes, making the poles 140-150 cm would also be a great change, just opening the jumps a bit more - totally cheap and easy fix. 

czwartek, 15 września 2022

Maupka is 8 months old

Maupka is 8 months old today!

42.5 cm, 7.2 kg of pyrfection

There are moments when I see the glimpses of the well-behaved, reliable dog that she is going to become. There are also moments when her teenage brain just gets overwhelmed with everything or anything and she barks for 2 minutes straight for reasons known only to herself. She can be freakishly smart and I love how she learns, yet she still (being from California) hasn't figured out the concept of rain, so whenever it's raining, she tries to go potty inside, because nope, she is not going out there. 

She is probably the funniest dog ever and also has the cutest face and the softest paws on the planet. She loves to cuddle and then bites your nose unexpectedly. 

Seeing that description of her, my friend commented: "loud, opinionated pyri perfection" and it fits her to a tee. 

Her pedigree names is Rebelle FORTIS MILVA de Bien-Aime: Fortis means "brave" (after Brava) and "Milva" after the one of the most beautiful birds, kite, and one of the most interesting characters in "The Witcher". Milva was supposed to be her calling name as well, but since she still looks and behaves as a cheeky monkey, the nickname Maupka is gonna stick. I guess the rebel part of her kennel name also influenced her character: she takes no bullshit from anyone and really acts as she pleases rather than being told what to do. Best of all, "bien-aime" part is also true, because it's impossible not to love that crazy, sweet, independent, full of character and mischief little monkey 💙🐒

We started some agility foundations and I'm really excited for our journey together, although we haven't done much yet (because teenage brain). Here is a little video of some tricks and some mischief :).



środa, 31 sierpnia 2022

Surviving Pyrshep adolescence or why less is more

 Just a handful of facts before I begin:

- dogs, same as humans, go through adolescence stage, which precedes the sexual maturity and also, maturity in general. What I want to say is that same as a teenager cannot become an adult, independent, responsible and thoughtful human being without going through the stage of rebellion, impulsiveness and utter stupidity, neither can a dog become this perfect companion that you've always dreamt of without being horrible, reactive, "naughty" adolescent. 

- during adolescence period dog's brain is quite literally flooded with hormones which explains lack of impulse control and various undesired behaviours. It's important to understand that when this happens, the dog REALLY cannot control herself / himself. They are not trying to make you mad, they are not spiteful, sometimes they are even a bit puzzled and scared of what's happening themselves. 

- that period can begin as early as 20 weeks of age, although it is usually most pronounced between 7-9 months. The behaviours connected with adolescence usually gradually subside (although they might reoccur every now and then for quite a long time) after the dog is 12-18 months. 

- dogs might become fearful, easily agitated, loud, unruly etc. during that time.

- the intensity of adolescent behaviours might vary among the breeds and individuals. 

Although most dogs will go through this, I think Pyrsheps are more prone to being really nightmarish teenagers. The reasons for that are that they are very perceptive normally, very intelligent, very sensitive to environment, and very bullshit-intolerant - and all these traits get more pronounced during adolescence. 

With my first dog, Sunday, a cocker spaniel, I barely noticed that period. It was something I read about in books about dogs, but I haven't really experienced it with her. She passed her obedience exam at 9 months and with flying colours (my next dog, Vigo, was not even able to hold a sit for 5 seconds at that age... Zelda was not able to focus for more than 15 seconds at that time), she was never fearful and actually didn't have a single behavioural problem throughout her life. She was a simple dog: if her needs were met, she was totally content and didn't make any fuss. Feeding, walking, playing with her and training her were enough to get a happy and problem-free dog. 

Well, universe has the tendency to even things out, so my first Pyrshep, Vigo, made up in spades for what I didn't get to experience with Sunday. There were days when I wanted to kill him, there were days when I cried because of him and there were days when I was totally scared and out of my depth about what was going on - I seriously suspected him to have epilepsy for instance, because sometimes he would just "shut down" and stare into nothing, as if he didn't hear or see me. I also felt totally helpless at times - I tried to train him, I tried to help him, I tried to countercondition his fears, I tried and I tried...

Now I actually realise that perhaps I tried too much. 

It took me a while to recognise that, but it changed my approach to every next Pyrshep (and every next dog) that I had. 

With Vigo, whenever I noticed any undesired behaviour, I was like "we need to change it!". He's afraid of a ladder? Let's spend a whole day walking around it and getting him to approach it, using super tasty treats. He barks at dogs, leaves, cars, people etc? Let's socialise him more, train him more, teach him more behaviours that he could do instead and so on. He is bouncing off the walks and cannot settle? Give him more exercise!

It was exhausting. I was just putting so much energy into it, sometimes I think even contributing to the problem, because I tried so hard to convince him that some things were okay that in the end he got suspicious. I mean, I wouldn't feed him half of the cheesecake to make him approach the ladder if the ladder wasn't actually dangerous, right? 

It was also actually, mostly, not effective. Counterconditioning the fear of the ladder didn't prevent him from getting terrified of dustbins, training lots of behaviours could only help in the second when he was doing them (if he even was able to do it at all), but as soon as I rewarded the "sit", "touch" or any other "appropriate" behaviour, he would immediately go back to whatever undesired reaction he had just before that, which more often than not was barking his head off. 

Well, in the end, he grew out to be mostly normal ;), not because of my efforts, but despite it. 

So how is my approach different now? 

Well, I notice those changes and I adjust accordingly. I remember that it will pass and mostly it doesn't require any particular action. When my puppy gets scared of some random object, I just approach the object, touch it even and then walk on, giving puppy the chance to decide whether to approach it or not. If they do, great. If they don't, also great. Usually by the next day they don't even remember that they were scared of that particular rock, tree, bicycle or whatever. When my puppy suddenly becomes deaf and doesn't come when called, I use long line and we practice recalls in an environment where the success is highly likely. When I see the puppy is overwhelmed by the situation, I remove them from the situation. When the puppy suddenly becomes destructive, I use crates, gates etc. to prevent them from harming themselves and destroying something valuable. I try to manage things in such a way that my teenager doesn't get to practice undesired responses and behaviours: being hysterical, running away, chasing animals etc. I continue to train as much as the puppy is ready for - there will be days when I can see they are not up to it and then we might just practice the things they already know and like - or not. There will also be days when the puppy is in super good and cooperative mood and then we'll work some, with the priority being not so much teaching new behaviours but rather having a great time together. I want to be my dogs safe place. I want them to know that I do my best to understand them. 

Sometimes I just do nothing, just have relaxing walks in calm environment, where the dog can sniff, relax, roll in the grass. Sometimes I just sit somewhere and let the world go by - and here's is an excellent video of one of my gurus, Susanne Clothier, about the power of doing nothing - LINK . Here is also a link to her website with some excellent, free articles, as well as shop with ebooks, DVD and webinars with her work. 


Love your dog.

And remember that THIS TOO SHALL PASS. 

P.S. The actual impulse to write that post was that today morning when I let Maupka in the garden for her potty break, mid-poo she noticed a stuffed toy that one of the other dogs carried outside the house and forgot there. It got her so scared that a/ she couldn't finish her business, b/ she started to bark hysterically for like a minute before I managed to stop laughing and helped her by removing the toy. 

piątek, 19 sierpnia 2022

Puppy exercise guidelines

The photo of "bag of floating bones puppy" keeps haunting the internet, same as the (in)famous 5-minute rule (increasing the time of walks by 5 minutes per month, so 4 month old puppy can have 20 minutes walks, which lots of people actually interpret as the total time of exercise for the pup), there is "waiting for growth plate to close" advice and so on - basically it all can be summed up with "unless you limit your puppy's exercise, you're gonna hurt them for life".

In fact, the opposite might be true - there is a disclaimer of course, and that is mainly that you should use some common sense, but basically puppies NEED and HAVE TO move, run, turn, jump etc. to develop muscles, proprioception and coordination. Puppies actually need A LOT of exercise. 

I will provide a bit more sources and details below, but common sense in this aspect boils down to a couple of rules:

- avoid too many repetitions of same behaviour or movement. If you tap your knuckle lightly with a pencil 3-5 times, nothing bad will happen. If you do the same 300 times, it's gonna hurt, swell and there's gonna be inflammation. Same thing works for any puppy exercise. You can teach them many behaviours, just don't drill them over and over. 

- free exercise is good. Mostly what your puppy is doing at their own pace and volition is good - again, some common sense is needed, as some (Pyrshep) puppies have crazy ideas like launching themselves from the sofa as high up as possible for instance, but when your puppy is running freely during the walk, jumping over logs, running through puddles etc. that is usually totally okay.

- slippery surfaces are not good - try to provide at least some surface with good grip at home, so the puppy can play there. On the other hand, varied surfaces are great, so make sure your puppy has the possibility to experience walking on grass, sand, gravel etc. 

- rest is vital and needed. Observe your puppy, provide calm environment, teach them to relax but this is complimentary to actually giving them opportunity to let off of all that energy. Again, puppies need LOT of exercise. 

- early training, including both basic obedience, trick and foundations for sport training is great. It teaches the puppy to learn, it gives them mental stimulation, fosters your relationship. 

- healthy weight is essential and it is actually better for the adolescent puppy to be slightly on the "too slim" side than the other way round. Again, I don't mean emaciated, but same as humans, dogs go through that gangly teenage stage and that is fine, they gain more muscles and substance later on, that doesn't mean you need to "fatten them up" in the meantime. Hardly any exercise can hurt you puppy more than being overweight. 

Of course, you don't have to take MY word on that, so here are two great sources to use - by dr Chris Zink, who is one of the world's leading authorities when it comes to canine movement, development and fitness. 

First is her book:  Fit for Life Puppy. I found a digital copy - here.

Second is her poster Fit for Life Puppy Exercise Guidelines - here

Now, when it comes to my puppies and agility training, here is what I do, roughly, as it might vary from pup to pup:

1. Just as soon as I get the pup, at the age of 8-15 weeks - we begin going for walks and I try to give them the option of off leash walks as much as possible. With very young puppies I also have a backpack/ sherpa bag, so whenever I see the puppy is tired, I might put them in the backpack for 15 minutes to let them rest. Usually by the time they are 4 months old they can easily and happily accompany my adult dogs on a full walk, which is usually about 5 km / 1 hr long.

2. Just as soon as I get the pup, we begin some basic training: recall, clicker training for tricks, mainly focused on body awareness, playing with toys.

3. At about 5-6 months of age I introduce first jumping grids, based on Susan Salo's Foundation Jumping program. I work with speed bumps (regulators), so no actual height,but already some stride regulation, soft turns etc. I do one-digit number of repetitions, one or two exercises, roughly once 7-10 days, so again I limit the number of repetitions, not the exercise as such.

4. After 6 months of age I slowly introduce wrapping the objects, running through tunnels, low jumps - again, perhaps 5 minute session once every 7-14 days - you can see an example of such session here. This is Maupka's only agility session this week:

5. After 9 months of age I begin to increase a bit the intensity and length of the sessions. I begin target training for the contacts, I slowly begin to increase jump heights, start building longer sequences etc. 

6. After 12 months of age I begin all the other equipment training such as weaves / see saw / A-frame etc. - of course starting with foundations, so when I say I begin weave training it means I start with running through 2 poles at that time ;). 

Don't treat the above as the manual, you need to do what feels right for you and your puppy. The puppy has to be mentally ready for this as well - Zelda for instance wasn't and most of her agility training happened after she was 12 months old, whereas Mojo and Brego were born adults and were sequencing much sooner than that. 

Also, I think it's good to consult the puppy with a good canine fitness specialist or orthopedist. I also believe it's worth taking x-rays before 4 months of age to see if the puppy is developing properly (at this stage early surgical intervention can prevent further damage and arthritis). By all means consult whenever something is bothering you. 

sobota, 1 stycznia 2022

A very subjective overview of breeds suitable for agility

So initially this post was supposed to be only in Polish, but someone suggested it might be useful in English as well, so here we go. It was inspired by people asking on general FB dog-related groups about recommendations for a breed that would be suitable to train agility with and mostly absurd, or funny, or ignorant (or all of the above) answers they usually received. The problem is that people who don't do agility recommend all kind of breeds which they think would be suitable, without having slightest idea what actually is required and expected of the dog in this sport. They also don't really grasp the difference between backyard training and competition, which requires working under greater pressure and among distractions. Sometimes it also happens that breeders recommend their own breed simply because they happen to have puppies for sale and recommend them even though they don't really meet original poster expectations. 
Hence I came with the idea of making a list (which is far from complete although I intend to develop it further) based on descriptions of people who actually work and compete in agility with those breeds as well as my experiences as a trainer and competitor.

Long list of disclaimers:

Disclaimer #1: Dogs are not cookie cutter made - so even within one breed there might be huge differences, especially that the breeding of many breeds is diverging from the original working purpose - sometimes heading towards "sport lines", more often heading towards somehow more "user-friendly", less driven family dog, quite often possesing also quite extreme physical characteristics in comparison to breeds' ancestors. Therefore saying "they are awesome for agility" or "they are not suitable for agility at all" are generalisations and particular individual might not really match that description. 

Disclaimer #2: quite often (though not always) breeds and individuals with great predispositions for agility are not really best family dogs or at least not really easy to live with. Sometimes because of traits such as high reactivity, great intelligence, lots of energy they could be quite demanding especially during first months or years of their lives. Therefore I think it's really important that predispositions for sport are not really main criterion when picking a breed - especially that you might cease to be interested in sport for particular reason (dog's injury, world pandemic, change of life circumstances) and you'd still need to live with particular animal. So ask yourself if the breed characteristics are something that you would generally enjoy and feel good with and whether you are up to providing that particular breed with the kind of life it requires. 

Disclaimer #2a: Lots of people who plan to train agility don't realise yet what it is like. It's costly. It requires regular training, sometimes at unearthly hours or horrific weather. The success doesn't come fast. Well, generally it requires sweat, blood and tears and so on - and sometimes you might realise it's not really what it cracked up to be. 

Disclaimer #2b: No dog, however predisposed, would train and handle itself. Dog's handler is an integral part of the team and without devoted and talented handler the success is not possible. Work both ways actually, even the best handler won't become world champion in agility with a dog that is physically or mentally really not up to the task. 

Disclaimer #3: There is an authentic story about a farmer, who took part in ultramarathon from Sidney to Melbourne, wearing overalls and boots, yet without his dentures, because they made noise when he was running. Cliff Young was 61 years old when he decided to participate and needless to say, nobody thought he'd stand a chance. He ended up not only winning it, but also improving the record by almost two days and actually changing the whole approach to running ultramarathons. The moral of the story is that sometimes you just need to ignore what everybody else is saying and do your thing. I was told cockers are not good for agility and then ended up competiting 6 times at world championship with a cocker, winning Polish Agility Cup with her as well as Polish Agility Champioship (funnily enough, I never won it again with any of my other dogs). You can't really overestimate luck, will and sheer heart for something - and sometimes success is given to those who don't know something is not possible. 

Disclaimer #4: if your breed is not on the list and you're actually competing with it in agility - drop me a message and share your experiences - I'd be happy to update the list. That being said, I'm not really interested in "I've never done any agility, but I have or breed this particular breed and I think it would excel in it" kind of messages. 

Disclaimer 5: if your breed is on the list, but you think what is written about it is utter bollocks, also drop me a message - particularly if you actually compete in agility with that breed. 

The list doesn't include mixbreeds, simply because they are too big and too varied group. If your mixbreed origins are knows, you might usually expect some combination of the traits of the breeds that went into the mix.