Autumn Weekend

A weekend spent with my favorite girl is never wasted.

A weekend spent with my favorite girl is never wasted.

I spent last weekend at a freestyle competition. While the routine we performed and the location were the same, this time we competed in a new venue. We typically compete in WCFO freestyle but this time was for the newest freestyle venue: RFE Musical Freestyle. It’s similar in many ways. Enough so that we used the same routine we’re competing in WCFO Advanced in RFE Advanced.

On our way down, we stopped to take a walk with friends we haven’t seen in years. I knew Risa would be excited. She would have a chance to be social with another dog who was “safe” to be with. Lately, Risa has been more curious about other dogs than reactive. This is, of course, a wonderful thing. But I still have to be really choosey about who I let her meet which results in a sad Risa more often then not when I have to tell her “No, you can’t meet that dog.” When we saw our friends off in the distance, I got Risa all excited. “Who’s that!?” I asked her. She got super wiggly and practically dragged me over to her canine companion. Both dogs were wildly enthusiastic by the time they got close (uncharacteristic for both dogs) and still greeted appropriately. Yay!

We went on a nice long walk and took several opportunities to let the dogs get wet. Risa’s friend is an avid swimmer and Miss Ris just enjoys getting her paws wet. It worked out nicely. There was only one super minor “spat” the entire time. Risa simply said “back off” once when her friend was a bit too close. It was a very minor, half-hearted air snap at a distance. What a huge improvement for Risa who used to lose her mind and go over-the-top with a correction even in minor situations! :)

After a couple hours of fun, we bade farewell to our friends and continued on our journey. The scenery was beautiful. You can’t beat driving through NY in the fall! We arrived at the hotel and were lucky enough to get “our room” again. I love it because it’s out of the way of traffic making Risa less barky. It also has a mini fridge which makes bringing food, drinks, and Risa’s homecooked meals much easier!

We arrived at the competition early on Saturday so Risa could have plenty of time to get acclimated and so we could do a bit of practice. We were one of the final performances of the morning so I got to watch everyone’s routines while the nerves built up. :) When it came time for us to get in the ring, I rushed Risa in. I rarely do this. I have no idea why I did this time. I really wish I had taken the time to ask her for a couple behaviors before I asked her to dance with me but, for some reason, I felt pressured to just get in the ring. Perhaps that had something to do with her lackluster performance. It was probably part of it but I also don’t think we prepared as well as we could have. It’s not that we hadn’t practiced. We had. A lot. I’d been working on her focus along with several behaviors and sequences that I knew were weak. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. I also hadn’t realized how important practicing the routine in full would be. I have a prop and I need to be within a certain proximity to it for several sections. Without rehearsing in a ring-sized area, I was sort of flying blind in regards to where I needed to be. Lack of confidence and certainty really affects our dancing. It also messes up my timing when I’m not where I need to be at a particular part of the music.

I was pretty disappointed in our performance. I knew exactly why we fell flat. And, as per usual, it was all my fault. I vowed to do what I could on Sunday to make it better. Let’s face it, there isn’t a lot that can be done once you’re at a trial. But there were a few adjustments I could make to help us out.

Even with that lackluster performance, I still enjoyed the rest of the day. I absolutely love hanging out with my fellow competitors and catching up. I also enjoy watching their routines and getting inspired. It was also a very important event: our club was celebrating it’s 10 year anniversary. We showcased some of our older performances and stories. Later on, we had dinner with the judges and most of the club members. We had several discussions, great food, a cake, and champagne (I chose the sparkling cider simply because it sounded more delicious and it was!). I didn’t want it to end!

Risa and I were one of the first teams in the ring on Sunday. This time, I took my time getting her ready. I didn’t rush her and it seemed to help. Her focus was better and there was no stress scratching at all. Unfortunately, she still missed several cues and seemed to just want to go through my legs repeatedly instead of the other behaviors I was cuing. It was still a victory; the performance was much improved. It still wasn’t good enough to qualify. This doesn’t surprise me. Advanced is HARD. We’ll just have to try harder and practice better. We’ll get there!

Even though we didn’t earn any legs towards our title, we did get a couple ribbons (second place on Saturday and first on Sunday) and got Judge’s Choice for “Dog Having the Most Fun.” I also got a comment on my scoresheet from the judge stating that she loved my costume. Since I was so against costuming when I started freestyle, I had to smile at that. Never thought I’d get a compliment like that! Then again, maybe it was just because the judge loves purple. ;)

I am hoping to participate in one of the upcoming video competitions with a more well-practiced version of our routine. After that, I’m going to retire it. I usually don’t retire a routine until we’ve completed the title in the division it was designed for. That usually takes us 2 years. I’ve been performing this routine with Risa for 2 years now and I think it’s time we move on. I feel more like I’m drilling it with her and that it’s getting old and less fun. I have a feeling Risa agrees. Also, in our discussions with the judges, I realized the importance of continuing to teach new things even while we’re working on our routines. I haven’t really sat down to teach Ris anything new in a while and I think she’d benefit greatly from that. In fact, I have started teaching her a couple new behaviors since coming home and it’s really renewed both of our enthusiasm for the sport. I’m really looking forward to continuing work on our current routine and then getting creative and into our next. I can’t wait to see what we come up with.

I really needed some time to renew my drive and love of freestyle. It’s tough when there really aren’t any other freestylers in the area. I am teaching another class in freestyle, however, so hopefully we won’t be living in a freestyle vacuum forever!

Posted in Canine Freestyle, Dog Sports, Reactivity, RFE, Training | Leave a comment


The act of working itself should be just as rewarding as the reinforcers you're using to maintain the behaviors.

The act of working itself should be just as rewarding as the reinforcers you’re using to maintain the behaviors.

I’m simply amazed at the transformation I’m seeing already since starting the Get Focused class through Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. I haven’t spent a lot of time working on the exercises; just a couple times a week. Nor have I had the chance to try them all with Risa yet. But there’s been incredible improvement. At our weekly rally class, I feel she is much more connected with me when we’re out there. At class on Tuesday, she was so enthusiastic she kept throwing in freestyle moves or taking out signs with happy spins. No complaints here! When training at home, she is incredibly eager and practically begging to do something or to keep doing something. It’s awesome to have such a willing partner though I am always amazed at the level of energy and “crazy” she can still bring to the tasks at hand considering her age. I am not complaining. :)

The concept of a dog wanting to work has always appealed to me though I was never able to get this sort of commitment from Risa before. Whether simply due to her nature or plenty of training mistakes along the way (probably a little of both if I’m honest), keeping her focus has always been a bit of a struggle. I feel less conflicted about it now with these exercises and I think Risa does as well! It’s now her choice to work and she’s making that choice more and more with less wandering in between. It’s getting harder to lose her; she doesn’t want sessions to end!

She’s still not quite that driven to work in high stress or very distracting areas but it will take time. There is still improvement in those areas as well even with what little work we’ve done at that level. I have high hopes!

I always like to draw analogies between what we humans experience and what dogs do (even though we can never truly know). I know I personally do not like to feel forced to do things. Whether it’s in my best interest or whether I really have no choice in the matter, it makes me uncomfortable and not very happy. Actively choosing to do the same exact thing because I WANT to is far more appealing. I imagine it’s the same for Risa.

Actually wanting to do something that someone suggests also makes you feel differently about it. If you HATE filing and your boss asks you to put that box of invoices away, you’re not going to be happy about the task. However, if you secretly love to alphabetize and put things away in order and your boss asks you to do some filing, you’re going to be pretty excited. Even more excited if you ask your boss if you can do it and he says “Yes!”

I have had some jobs where I felt pretty unwanted and undervalued. Even some where the task I was hired to do was no longer needed and I was sort of a square peg being pushed into a round hole. They needed to find work for me but it wasn’t something I enjoyed nor was it anything I was particularly good at. It made me stressed and I know it stressed my bosses out too. It wasn’t a very enjoyable relationship for either party. I dreaded going in to work every day because I was constantly being forced to do things I didn’t want to just to earn reinforcement (a paycheck). When I was laid-off, I felt a huge source of relief. To use the old simile, like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I was no longer as irritable and grumpy as I had been when I had a job. (Yes, I had gained the new stress of needing to find a new job but that future-thinking stress does not apply to dogs so I’m ignoring that for this metaphor.) I was no longer being forced to do things I didn’t like to do. I was free to do what I wanted again. I was free to enjoy my work again.

With the new way of training I’m using (not really a new method or outside my typical toolbox; more a new way of approaching training), losing the ability to work is actually a punishment for Risa. If she disengages, training ends. She gets a time out (I usually just ask her to lay down). There is no harsh tone. Simply a release cue (“All done!”) signifying that the opportunity to earn reinforcement is over and then I ask her to down while I walk away and ignore her for a minute. She absolutely wants to work; she wants the game to continue! She will be less likely to disengage because it ends the fun. And that’s the sort of relationship I want with my dog. I want one who is willingly working with me because it’s fun. Not because I have forced her to stay with me. Not because I have prohibited her from sniffing, chasing squirrels, etc. by restraining her on the leash or calling her away. But because it’s her choice to work with me and that is more valuable to her than the alternative. It’s less stress for me and less stress for her making it a much nicer partnership than one where I feel I need to constantly be on top of her to make sure she’s working with me. I don’t have to ask her to work for me now. She asks me if we can work. :D

Posted in Canine Freestyle, Dog Sports, Dog Training Seminars, Fenzi Academy, Obedience, Rally, Thoughts, Training | Leave a comment

Avoiding Conflict

All relationships experience conflict.  Sometimes more frequently when it's a partnership between different species.

All relationships experience conflict. Sometimes more frequently when it’s a partnership between different species.

As I briefly mentioned before, Risa and I are taking a course on focus through the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. I have frequently mentioned how poor Risa’s focus is. It’s actually a huge frustration point for me. I know she loves to train and I know she has the capacity to show brilliantly (even in obedience and rally) but her inattentiveness in the ring makes it hard for high scores and praise-worthy performances. I feel frequently in conflict with her (and I’d bet she feels the same with me). I want her to be attentive and perform with the precision and grace I know she can. She wants to make sure the boogeyman doesn’t get her or check out the interesting smells left behind by various people and dogs.

One of my main tenets when it comes to training is avoiding conflict whenever possible (easier said than done). I understand Risa’s a dog and her goals and desires are usually vastly different than my own. For example, I walk for exercise and am concerned more with how far we went and how long it took. She, on the other hand, values stopping to sniff things or attempting to chase small furry critters. I compromise when I can so we can both get what we need out of our excursions.

I don’t want to be in constant conflict with my dog whether we’re training or just hanging out together. While I’ve worked with Risa on focus a lot (side effect of having a reactive dog), I still felt like I was always asking for her attention. Despite my insistence that I build focus into my behaviors (which is true), it didn’t matter when I couldn’t get my dog to focus on me so we could start. I might have handler focus walking in heel position but, if I can’t get my dog to respond to the cue because her mind is elsewhere, what good is it? I was always asking her for focus to begin. And, sometimes, she cannot give it to me. Since she’s a fearful dog, I expect this. It requires a lot of trust to ignore what’s going on around you and focus on a single thing. I knew I needed to get her to want to focus on me without me begging for it. I just didn’t know how.

This class has been a godsend. While I feel like I’m a bit behind on the exercises (they keep adding more when Risa can’t even perform certain ones in the boring basement yet), they’re making a huge difference. She’s really starting to offer focus in the hopes that it will initiate work and, of course, rewards. It’s actually pretty amazing to see the change. Every time I toss a treat to reset her for another trial, she eats it and quickly returns for another opportunity. No pleading, begging, or constantly calling her name required. While she’s still not quite to the point where she can run an entire rally course without disengaging a bit, there is still a huge improvement. Especially when I take the time to wait her out. If I wait for her to look at me and engage with me before cuing her to perform, her focus and attention improve greatly. Right now I do have to be patient after every reward I give her when we practice in class. But, when I do, I’m rewarded with a much more willing partner.

I have a toy.  You are now irrelevant.

I have a toy. You are now irrelevant.

There has also been another great side effect of this training. Typically, when I train with toys, I cannot get the toy back. Risa thinks it’s more enjoyable to play with it by herself than continue to interact with me. I usually would need two toys available so that I could encourage her to re-engage with me since I still had one. Or I had to chase her down, get my hands on it, and ask her to release it. Again, I found myself in conflict with my dog. I wanted to keep training. She didn’t want to give up her toy. Last night, when I used a toy to reward her focused performances, she played with it for a little bit and then turned to engage with me again for another opportunity to earn the reward. She wanted the gateway to the toy reinforcement and not just the toy itself. It was awesome.

I have no doubt that, by doing these exercises and practicing in various locations, I will get a more focused dog. I may never get a laser-locked focus from Risa due to her temperament. But that’s okay. I am seeing improvement and I’m excited. I can’t wait to get back in the ring and see the difference in my dog! Which reminds me, we need to practice those behaviors too! :)

Posted in Dog Sports, Dog Training Seminars, Fenzi Academy, Training | Leave a comment

Compare and Contrast

Getting a reward for Risa during the trick training portion of the event.  It almost looks like focus!

Getting a reward for Risa during the trick training portion of the event. It almost looks like focus!

I’m really glad I posted my Throwback Thursday entry this past week. It gave me insight and a nice reminder of where we’ve come from. And exactly how much Risa has improved.

This last Saturday was the Canine Carnival: a festival of sorts highlighting animal rescue in the area. It’s a huge event that draws immense crowds and plenty of rescue groups, local pet stores, trainers, dog daycares, etc. I’ve actually taken Risa to it several times. The first few times were to work on her reactivity and fearfulness. The last three years we’ve put on a demonstration of canine freestyle.

We volunteered to dance again this year but, this time, with our local training club. It really was the right decision and saved me from having to sit alone in a booth all day. On top of that change, the event was held at a completely different location having outgrown the original space.

This put a lot of potential stress on Risa. Firstly, it’s HUGE and a bit chaotic. This I know from previous years. Secondly, it’s now at a new location and the new is always tough for Ris. However, I also know how far she’s come and I knew she could handle it. I knew she wouldn’t be as focused and precise dancing as she typically is in competition. We simply haven’t trained to that level of distraction. I did know, however, that she would still work with me and not be overly stressed out.

I was pleasantly surprised when we arrived and I got Risa out of the car. She wasn’t worried at all. No tucked tail. No trembling. No hesitation. She just got out and we were on our way. :) I gave her plenty of time to scope things out. We walked around near the demo ring and she got to sniff and wander at her own pace. It was still early so there wasn’t much of a crowd which allowed her a lot more freedom. I was even able to get her in the ring so she could investigate the scents in there. While inside the ring, I worked with her on some focus exercises that I learned in the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy class we’re taking. I was impressed; she was able to focus pretty well and complete the tasks I asked. Since there was agility equipment set up, I was also able to let her take the tunnel and use it as a reward. She loves the tunnel!

She spent most of the event in her crate. It’s just easier and less stressful for her that way. While she was out, she only had one minor reactive moment (I hesitate to even call it that) with a puppy who had escaped from her handler and made her way to Risa’s backside. I cued Risa to come with me a couple times but the puppy was too persistent and didn’t want to leave Risa alone. So Risa turned and did an open-mouth lunge towards the pup. Risa never made a sound and, as soon as the pup went “Whoa!” and backed off, Risa was right back to looking at me. Totally appropriate and not over-the-top like she used to be! She was a bit of a jerk about her crate, though, and grumbled at several dogs who got too close or nosy while she was in there. Even with the blankets covering it up.

When it came time to demo she did really well. I did lose her focus a lot; mostly while heeling. It’s okay, though. I always remember the audience and many of them haven’t seen dogs doing tricks like Risa does. Or they struggle getting their dogs to “sit” on cue. Whatever we do probably looks pretty impressive. Besides, we’re having fun!! I was impressed that Risa was able to do her go out and circle the basketball. I figured that would fall apart but she nailed it. It was great.

I hadn’t originally planned on staying the entire time knowing how potentially stressful things would be. When asked if we would be staying for the afternoon to demo again, I said “Yes.” Risa seemed comfortable and not overly stressed out or scared. So we demoed again in the afternoon. It was a bit uglier in the afternoon as far as precision, focus, and execution but it was still good enough considering. (I got to work on my improv skills!) But the same could be said for all of the dogs who were demoing. Even the ones with solid temperaments and better focus had some trouble in the afternoon. It made me feel better about my own dog’s performance as well.

Even more encouraging than the wows from the audience were the compliments from my fellow club members when we returned to the tent after our dance. They were all really impressed with Risa and her skills. Risa rocked it and I am so very proud of her. It’s really incredible how far she’s come.

Posted in Canine Freestyle, Dog Sports, Fear, Fenzi Academy, Reactivity, Training | Leave a comment

The Illusion of Control

Dr. Ellie Sattler can't stand off-leash, out-of-control dogs either.  It's more annoying than being chased by a velociraptor.

Dr. Ellie Sattler can’t stand off-leash, out-of-control dogs either. It’s more annoying than being chased by a velociraptor.

“You never had control. That’s the illusion!” -Ellie Sattler “Jurassic Park”

If you have a fearful dog and a dog reactive dog, you think a lot about control. Firstly, you need to have your dog under your control to prevent bad things from happening. Things your dog thinks are bad or things other people are going to think are bad if your dog does them.

What’s even more important is that other people have control over their dogs. This is, of course, a potential nightmare for owners of reactive dogs. I can’t think of too many worse events than having another dog rush us; friendly or not.

I also believe a lot of people think they have control over their dogs when they really do not. Does having a leash on your dog signify he is under control? Not in my experience. I can’t recall how many times I’ve seen an on-leash dog dragging his owner from tree to tree or, heaven forbid, right into another dog’s space. Is that dog under control? Hardly. The leash is just a tool. It doesn’t equal control.

The same can be said for other tools in our dog training toolbox. Prong collars, electronic collars, front-clip harnesses, buckle collars, etc. A dog wearing any of these devices may appear to be under control but is he really? What happens when the tool is removed? Does the person still have control over the dog or is the dog doing the equivalent of kids at the end of the school year busting out the door screaming “I’m free!”?

While I don’t believe we can ever have 100% control over another being (and, really, who wants that?), the ultimate proof of our control over our dogs resides in training not the usage of tools. While the tools are beneficial to the training process, they are often used as a crutch. Sure your dog might not bark at the mailman when he’s wearing his anti-bark collar but that doesn’t mean he has been trained not to bark at passerbys. If you remove the tool and the behavior’s still there, it hasn’t been trained. You don’t have control.

If your dog will do a whiplash turn off of deer in a wide open field while wearing nothing but what he was born with. . . you have control over your dog. Your training has paid off. If you need to continue using the crutch just in case, then you don’t have control. Be honest with yourself. It benefits everyone. Personally, when I’m out walking Risa, I don’t care whether a dog is on or off leash. All that matters to me is that the dog is under control.

Posted in Thoughts | Leave a comment