27 April 2009

When agility dogs retire.

This is Buddy. And his cake crumbs.

He belongs to my friend Kathy. He had a retirement party this weekend, did his last runs in his 8 year agility career at the dog show yesterday. Even got that hard teeter gamble.

His future? Still bright, just not competing. Think more naps, cake, puttering in the garden, maybe take a ceramics class. Future is wide open for Buddy.

Team Small Dog? After this weekend, really hammered the reality into my noggin that my dogs love agility. Love it so much, when they practice and practice and practice. You see them practice, you'd be impressed with the way they shine like the biggest, hugest diamonds, diamonds 100 times the size of some motley little dogs. At the dog show?


And really started to think. Maybe that's what they want to do. Retire from competition. Be practice dogs. Have a future like Buddy's, except they keep doing their own private agility in the privacy of their own rented field in lieu of ceramics class.

Not sure. They get Q's. Manage to win Steeplechase finals. But it's not the same dogs I have at the dog show. A lot of people have given me advice, ideas to make them happier, bridge that gap from practice to dog show. Lots of advice, for lots of years. I'm relaxed and laid back and I always think we're having fun. Have tried a lot to figure it out, have tried for many years now, actually.

But it's like I have Stepford dogs out there, they're not the ones I know that run manic and fast and accurate and most important, crazyhappy with complete over the top joy like they have when it's just us doing it, or we're at a class or practicing with friends.

In the grand scheme of global warming and economic crisis, a small problem to have. In the tiny scheme of my tiny little life and my tiny little dogs, feels like somewhat of a more grandiose, lumpy bump in my road.


Elf said...

Look look! I rated a photo in TSD! (My hands holding up Buddie's cake.)

BTW, congratulations on the steeplechase win! That was otterpop, if I remember correctly? Good job.

All of my dogs (except Boost)--that's 3 dogs-- have had much faster weaves at home than in trials. Never could figure out how to get them faster there, nor why they weren't faster there. It would've helped if I could've dropped a plate of food or a tupperware goodie container at the end of the poles, because that always made them even zippier. That's because they were thinking about the food and not about the weave poles, so zip zip zip. How do you get that in competition? Don't know. Boost is at least as fast there as at home. What did I do differently? I got myself a crazy self-driven intense border collie.

I saw at least one of your runs with each dog, and they all looked decent. Ruby and Otterpop maybe didn't look as fast as they look in your home videos, but it's hard to tell sometimes when watching a video. None of them looked UNhappy to me this weekend.

My first dog got slower & slower in competition until I really learned to not care and to never ever go back and fix any problem on course no matter how badly I wanted the Q, and then he got faster and faster again. But it was hard not to care and hard to remember not to fix something that would've been easy to fix. But that was my big yella dog, not your small black dog. So who knows what mysterious mysteries occur in their peanut brains.

team small dog said...

They feel happy, ready to go, up until we take off at that startline. That first third of the course, stressful and can include teeter bails, slow poles, a-frame refusals, all big time signs of stress for my dogs. Once they hit their groove, they can have a nice rest of the course. They get excited and motivated before their runs, they feel like they do when we practice. But it's stepping inside of that yellow tape that flicks this panic switch.

You would see the difference for sure, if you saw them happy and normal. Your jaw would drop. Manic, barking, wacky speed runs. Far away, super fast gambles. Times that would always have them at the top of their group.

I know that's why I love running Hobbes, he is the same when we practice as in the ring. Those are my hopes for Gustavo, although I burned him out this weekend and I feel bad about that and stupid. He is fast but he isn't a border collie and he's sensitive.

If they were always slowish and felt happy out there, I wouldn't care. But for them, slow means they are stressed out and that's a bad feeling to have, that you're making your dog sad. Because when they are happy, like they usually are, they RUN.

Elf said...

I suppose they act at fun matches the same way they do regularly rather than the way they do at trials? I know my dogs do.

Will your dogs run with anyone else? As an experiment? Have that someone else run your dogs a couple of times at a trial and see how they look with the other person. If they're equally stressed, then it's the trial atmosphere; if they're less stressed, then it's running with you at a trial. (That happened to me...)

team small dog said...

Yep, they love fun matches. Over the top. Put the FUN in the fun match.

It's been a long time since anyone else ran Ruby, but I've been thinking about seeing if Otterpop will run with someone else. She has in practice, and if someone has her frisbee she's great. So will be interesting to try it at a trial and see what happens.

Anonymous said...

I hope you keep posting on this topic because I am noticing the same thing beginning in my dog as you describe here, "...first third of the course [slow, stress behaviors] Once they hit their groove, they can have a nice rest of the course..."

In my dog, the stress behavior is starting to manifest as just not wanting to sit down at the start line, or looking away from me, or grazing on grass as we are entering the ring, and I don't want this to get worse because it is really depressing to see a dog who CAN'T WAIT to get to the start line in class behave like this at a trial.

I'm willing to try more things in practice to make the starting a course fun, but, as you point out, the problem is NOT un-fun starting the course IN PRACTICE, it's un-fun starting the course at a trial.

I'm thinking that maybe I should go back to never, ever, carrying my dog's preferred reward (ball) while we are on any course because I can't carry a ball into the trial ring, and so when we walk into the trial ring she is absolutely sure no ball fun is going to happen on the first part of the course and only starts getting enthusiastic towards the latter part of the run when she starts thinking about the reward that will come when the course is all done.

I think that to get her to go back to associating the *start* of a course with the exciting ball-throwing at the end of the course, it means that I have to go back to only rewarding good behaviors on course with a voice marker ("good girl"), and always, always, doing the Joy of Ball Throwing away from the ring after every completion of a course.

So, instead of this association:

practicing courses with ball in hand = semi-exciting short ball throwing may happen at any time, and for sure exciting ball throwing at the end

I need to go back to reinforcing this association:

*Opportunity* to run a course = totally exciting ball throwing for sure at end

kvan said...

WOW! Buddie made it to the blog! He's in the show! Loves retirement...can even hear him snicker as little sis Millie has to weave-jump-teeter-weave-jump-teter...evil big retired brother! Also---Millie loves to be fast and furious at home and at Kathleen's...just nerves (ours probably) at the shows...???

Elf said...

IMHO, Mary, you need to randomize the reward more. The reason most dogs speed up at the end is because they know there's a reward at the end. The goal is to get them to not know exactly when the reward is coming. So, for example, you could tuck the reward in your back pocket so they don't see it in your hand, then reward after 3 obstacles. Reward after the next 4. Do one more and reward. Have someone else throw an equal-value toy at the end, not you! Next time, reward after 6 obstacles, and then right before the end. Then have someone else throw it at the end. Next time, do the first obstacle really well and then reward, then do the whole rest of the course and reward--well, ok, you know what randomize means, I presume. Don't always break the course into 3 or 4 obstacle/reward sequences--in other words, not always the same number of obstacles--they need to get longer & longer sequences along with short sequences with rewards. When your dog has completed any cool or challenging sequence, reward, not just contacts & the end of the course. Reward after the weaves. Reward after jumps. Reward after tunnels. Do a couple of fun matches with random rewards; sure, not the same as a real trial, but it's hard to do that at a real trial. Although, if things get tough, you could do it at a real trial--pick an early sequence on course (e.g., jumps 1 thru 4), set up your reward outside the ring near the end of that sequence, and do verbal reward and run out to the reward immediately. Try that a couple of times. It's a little more expensive than at a fun match, but not a lot more.

And then, since the dog never sees the reward in your hand during practice (oh, yeah, you need to practice without the dog first, getting the toy out and tossing it while you're running!), you can find ways to make the dog think that you have the reward with you when you go into the ring. I'm not fond of pretending, but sometimes it works a few times.

Them's my thoughts on this.

BTW, little signs of stress at the start line are OK. Excited stress is OK. Tika starts sniffing everywhere right before we go into the ring. Remington always had to stand up and shake himself off at the start line. So don't stress about the stress signs early on. :-)

Like I'm an expert.

Elf said...

And one more thought--your dog doesn't necessarily have to SIT at the start line. E.g., Kathleen stands Annie. I put Tika into a down because she's much less likely to stand up and sniff around than she was in a sit.

Elf said...

I keep thinking of clarifying things to say--when you reward randomly in the middle of a course, don't then put your dog back into a stay and lead out again; that loses all the momentum and excitement that you just got. Figure out a way to just steal the toy out of the dog's mouth so it's still a game ("give" can also be a controlling downer) and take off. So obviously you have to plan these things during your walkthroughs in class.

You can also bring this up with Nancy. She may have additional suggestions. You're paying her money and driving all that way to get the best possible training and advice, so take advantage of that.

Anonymous said...

Elf, thanks. You are absolutely right about randomizing, and that works fine at home. The problem is that in class it's really hard to to use my dog's preferred reward at all in classes (long throw of ball) because it takes too much time, and is very disruptive to the other dogs, and impossible in some class situations where there is no real ball throwing area. At one point I started trying to transfer her love of ball throwing to love of tugging, and that was going pretty well except it killed my back. After reading your comments here and Laura's post-succulent post, however, I think I am going to bite the bullet and randomize rewards in class, even if it means I'll have to have very short turns, i.e., do three obstacles and then leave to go do long ball-throwing. (The other little piece of the puzzle at which I have entirely failed is getting the ball back from her quickly in a class situation. Man, I have worked on that, but I need to work on it more. Then I might be able to incorporate random short-ball-throwing in class situations and not lose our whole turn.) I will ask Nancy. I have to decide tomorrow whether I can handle six more weeks of night driving...

Anonymous said...

Oh, and how on earth does one have a ball or treat in one's pocket without the dog knowing? She always seems to know whether or not I have the ball.

team small dog said...

The thing is, it needs to not matter whether you have the ball/frisbee/treat or not. Like, it's nice to have out there for when you want to reward somewhere on the course, but it also has to be nice to leave it sitting somewhere and go and get it. Because they know. And they KNOW when you are in the show ring, the ball/frisbee/treat is never going to come out part way out there for a good poles/teeter/contact so has to not matter.

That is my biggest challenge. The making it not matter part.

Anonymous said...

Can you do something inside the ring (at the startline) that is fun and exciting? (Or that you can teach is fun and exciting.)

With Porsche we never do a "stay" ... I drop her and we race each other to the first jump, or I push her backwards, or I put her down and sneak away while breathing hard and saying ready (a conditioned exciting word) until she starts creeping because she just can't hold herself back and then we run! The start is fun for her ... I noticed this weekend she is now giving an excited bark when she hears the "Ready / Go" of the timer ... it has now become a conditioned reinforcer that something exciting is about to happen.

You say "but I need a lead out". I would propose that on many courses you don't need a lead out ... or at least you don't need a lead out as much as you need your dog to be excited and having fun.

But I did notice that a lead out in some cases where time really matters and the course suits it can be necessary to gain a second or two ... for example in the USDAA Steeplechase semifinals last year.

So I've started teaching an "Idle". An "Idle" as versus a stay means "we are about to have awesome fun ... wait there bouncing up and down and barking until you get rewarded by getting to actually go". The bouncing up and down and barking is innately exciting, and builds up enthusiasm for the run in and of itself. Then she gets rewarded for doing it with the actual run ... which has gained value because she "earned" it.

And if she gets too excited and breaks her "Idle" ... well I'm just happy she is excited enough that she can't bear to wait. If it costs a run, it costs a run ... I have a happier and faster dog for it.

And then after each run, regardless of how it goes, we go for a sprint and then a walk (her utterly favorite things to do) and spend some time together.

But Porsche also doesn't run as fast as at home ... though she runs faster than in class. I also still need to work on it. And most of our training at home is to build enthusiasm.

See you this weekend,

team small dog said...

With Otterpop I always run with her, Ruby does sort of whichever matches the course. We practiced startlines the last few days, before work. That's it. Boy o boy do they have amazing, rocket fueled starts when we practice. So I rewarded and played and played and rewarded and we'll do a few more this morning and tomorow and see.

Ruby used to practice slow and trial fast. It was always sort of a fun problem to have, to figure out how to handle a lightening fast dog once or twice per month. Now she's just evened out and slowed down.

Otterpop is the weird enigma, opposite of that. So fast when I practice, so slow and scaredy pants and sad when we trial. Just makes me sad too. Sure hope I can fix it.

So far, good old Gustavo, who may have a broken teeter, but boy oh boy do we love his startlines. He definitely needs a leadout. But I practice both. Even with Hobbes, some courses are just nice to start with them.

I made my students all practice startlines last night. They get stuck with whatever ISSUE I am having as the new focus of their class sometimes. I called it Startline Bank and we started making deposits in it last night that they can all hope to withdraw when they start trialing. Just big rewarding for super fast, blast off startlines.