Doing vs. Understanding

It’s a lot easier for dog and handler when faced with stressful situations if they have a solid understanding of what’s necessary to fall back on.

Building on my previous post involving Kyu’s (and my) lack of direction at our most recent freestyle event, I want to talk about something I value in dog training (inside and outside of sports though I’ll mostly use dog sports here): Understanding.

To me, it’s not enough if the dog can do the thing. Sure, it helps, but them actually understanding what they’re being asked because they’ve had many reinforced repetitions of the behavior is far better and more likely to stand up under stressful conditions.

When I first started taking agility lessons with Kyu, I had no idea what I was doing. I’d done some foundation agility stuff with Risa but most of the classes I’d taken focused on what the dog needed to know to navigate the course. Not what the human needed to do to properly direct them. While our instructor went over handling basics, it wasn’t sufficient for my needs being a complete agility newbie so I struggled once we got far enough along to sequence on a course.

I remember one class where the instructor told me to use a specific type of cross after the jump to send Kyu to the tunnel. On my first attempt, I did the wrong cross and had no idea that I had done it incorrectly until I was told so. I tried again and same problem. I did the same wrong cross again. My instructor took the time to show me what to do, had me practice it a couple times, and then try again with my dog. I was able to execute it that time so I could properly cue Kyu to take the tunnel and set us up right for the next obstacles. Even though I had finally done it right, I still didn’t really know how to do the cross. My body simply did not have enough practice doing it for it to feel natural. Add the stress of being in a class with all eyes on me and it was very challenging to execute. It wasn’t until a friend showed me how to do the cross and I took time to practice it every day that it finally made sense to me. I can now do it without much thought (though I’m still struggling to make sure I get the timing right so that it works to signal Kyu properly!). Instead of just my body going through the motions, I now understand how to do the thing!

The same thing can happen to our dogs and this is sometimes why they fail to perform in a trial at the same level they do in practice. It could be that they really don’t know how to do it; you’ve just been able to “make” them do it before so that it feels like they understand. I’m not implying that force is involved in making them do it. How I set up a session or move my body can absolutely influence my dog so that they do the proper behavior without actually understanding how to do it.

For example, Kyu does not understand “front” position in rally/obedience. Not formally anyway. I cannot cue “front” and have him respond by coming in front of me, lining up centered to my body, and sitting. He would just look at me quizzically and probably offer something else. However, he has his rally novice title and has demonstrated a front behavior in Rally-FrEe and freestyle despite not actually understanding the concept. How is that? It’s because I know how to set him up (within the competition rules) to execute the behavior even if he doesn’t understand it. This is easier to do at the novice level; as we move higher up it will be more challenging to fudge our way along. It is important that I recognize his lack of understanding, however, and not get upset with him when he fails to execute it when the stress and pressure of a trial is added. I cannot get angry with him for failing to execute a behavior he actually doesn’t know.

For me, it’s important that my dog understands the behaviors I’m asking them to do. It’s not enough that they can do it. I want them to truly understand what I’m asking. It’s very reinforcing to ME when my dog does the thing so it’s very easy for us to get hung up on seeing our dog doing what we want and not recognizing that they actually haven’t learned it. Following a cookie around in a circle might look like a spin but if you remove the cookie and the large hand signal, does the dog still do it? Being able to prompt the behavior doesn’t mean the dog is truly trained to do it–but it’s a good first step!

I find a lot of dog training classes fall into this trap. It ends up being more about practicing the behaviors rather than teaching the dog how to do the thing. This is not inherently bad! If your dog already knows how to manage the agility obstacles and you know how to handle your dog properly, practice is a great way to refine your skills and determine where the holes in your training are! However, if your dog doesn’t know how to navigate the course and neither do you, you run the risk of frustrating both of you. Even if you’re able to “make it happen” while you’re under instruction, it probably won’t hold up when you’re at the start line in a trial.

The best way to see and maintain success in your training is to make sure your dog truly understands what he’s being asked to do. Take the time to train the behavior; don’t just rely on your prompts or lures to fudge your way through. (FWIW, I am guilty of this and trying to do better!) Both you and your dog will have more confidence going in the ring when you know his understanding of the requirements is solid. In my experience, confidence is the #1 thing that determines how your run will go–both your confidence AND the dog’s!

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It’s the Little Things

Two happy puppers after a successful trial weekend.

I recently entered both of my boys into a freestyle competition just for fun. Neither dog was entered competitively. Kyber is too young and inexperienced and I’ve been too busy and Kyu’s been too ill for me to have constructed a proper routine for him. Not to mention the behaviors I need at the higher level haven’t been trained to fluency. So it was a low-key affair.

Kyber, despite his age and lack of training, did really well in the ring. I couldn’t be prouder. Where he struggles is waiting his turn and seeing other dogs. I know he’s not quite ready for a long day of crating while stuff is going on so I set him up for success as best I could.

I’ve been working with him a lot on keeping his brain intact. He’d gotten to the point where he was so amped up and overly-aroused every time we went to the training club that he was unable to focus and was horrible in his crate. I started working on it and he made fast progress. It’s still hard for him but at least we’re on the right path. I do a lot of things that help me assess his thinking level. Seeing if he can eat treats before we get out of the car. Seeing if he can eat treats while we stand by the car. Leaving the building immediately if he rushes in and barks. It’s still a work in progress but at least he has a brain when he arrives now.

I crated him in the office so he’d have less traffic to bark at and, if he did bark, at least he’d be less likely to interrupt the performances. He barked more than I would have liked but at least it was less than if he’d been crated in the main area. He was a little more reactive to the dogs than is ideal but he was able to watch them without going crazy more than he’s been in the past. So we are seeing progress there as well.

Kyu, of course, is my veteran. He’s been to lots of shows so I didn’t need to do as much work to keep him prepared. However, we had no choreography for our routine. I was just winging it. Unfortunately Kyu, much like his predecessor, does better when he knows what to expect. While he still performed well to the audience’s eye, I could tell he was confused. I had this feeling of “Do you know what we’re doing, Mom?” from him the entire time. I don’t like that and I know he doesn’t either. It doesn’t feel good to be uncertain and I don’t want that feeling in the ring especially! I also know, from experience in other sports, that he does better if at least I know what I’m doing. He’s willing to lean on me as long as I’m confident even if he is a bit uncertain. I was not confident on Saturday and he knew it. I didn’t know what to do, where to be, and I flubbed several cues. I vowed to do better for him on Sunday.

After the show Saturday, I went home and listened to his music so that I could come up with some quick choreography to memorize before Sunday’s performance. It didn’t have to be anything spectacular but I needed to have a plan so that he would feel more confident in the ring.

Sunday morning, before the show began, I spent some of the open ring time memorizing the routine I’d thrown together the night before. I only hoped I would remember it when it was time for us to go. 🙂

Our dance Sunday was much better even if Kyu was still a little confused. I at least had a plan and he could rely on that. It was a small thing but it made a world of difference for him.

In addition to the boys’ trial-related small things, I’ve also made some small changes to Kyber’s life to help him as he struggles through adolescence. I stopped taking him for walks before work as it was just amping him up (we do some training and disc play to tire him out). What I hadn’t expected was how this has made our weekend hikes more bearable. He’s no longer straining at the end of the 30′ leash the entire time; he’s taking time to wander and sniff now. He’s actually getting the decompression benefits now.

It’s a never-ending journey of figuring out what my dogs need to be their best and successful. What they need so that our relationship is strong. It can be frustrating figuring out the puzzle but it’s worth the results in the end.

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Agility Dog

When I first learned about dog sports, I wanted to do agility. When I brought Risa home so many years ago, I wanted to do agility with her. Agility never happened for Risa and so I got Kyu with hopes of doing agility with him. He got closer to it than Risa did but, as I struggled to get his IBD under control, I had almost written off agility for him completely.

He was enrolled in an agility class during the worst part of his disease. I pulled him from class and went by myself several nights because he was sick. Even as he recovered and I tried to figure out how to best manage his illness, he wasn’t the same dog in classes. He’d check out or refuse to set up. He’d miss jumps. He wasn’t having it. I eventually pulled him out of classes completely because he was never healthy enough to make it through an entire session and he injured his iliopsoas.

That was two years ago. And he hasn’t done a lot of agility since. I’ve taken a couple online courses and worked through some of those things with him on my own. Friends of mine have offered to help me as well. But I still felt like agility might never happen for him. I still haven’t gotten his gut as stable as I’d like. And what if he doesn’t even like agility after the numerous times he’d tried doing it when he felt sick?

The weather started to improve and so did his health. I had to make further adjustments to his prednisone dosage (after talking to his IMS vet) and he was more interested in continuing to train. I started asking him to do a little bit of agility and he was into it. In fact, he started following me around the yard when I was setting things up and “asking” me to do this thing! He did not hate agility; I did not accidentally ruin it for him when I didn’t realize how sick he was. He wanted to play!

I started working with him on some of the foundations I felt we’d missed. I worked on my handling with him. I took him to the training place and ran him on some small sequences and worked with him in the yard as well. A nearby venue offered day of trial entries and I decided that, as long as he felt well, I would enter him for a day. That day rolled around today and, with an absolutely gorgeous weather forecast, I loaded up the car full of stuff and dogs and we were off!

I had a lot of decisions to make in choosing to enter him. I didn’t know what jump height he’d measure into but I knew I wasn’t going to jump him at full height. Between his iliopsoas strain 2 years ago and his chronic IBD, it didn’t seem fair to ask him to do that. I knew that he suffers from a lack of stamina due to being on prednisone and I didn’t want him to get hurt trying to take a jump he couldn’t manage or blow off jumps entirely. I also had not jumped him at the height class he’d likely measure into much in the weeks leading up and decided that also made it unfair. So I entered him in the 12″ class knowing that would allow him to be the most successful. I also only entered him into two classes because he’s never trialed before and I didn’t want to overdo it.

His first run was actually a lot better than I’d expected. I think, at the beginning, he wasn’t sure why he was there. It was his first trial after all! Even though I lost his focus a couple times at the beginning, he returned to work quite quickly and was able to successfully complete the first course we ran ever! He took 1st place and Q’d! I was so proud of him! And proud of me for not totally messing it up. 🙂 There were definitely things I could have done better but we did it!!! If we had erred, it was easy for me to see what the likely cause was. Like when he got ahead of me in a line of jumps and he slowed to see where I was instead of taking the jump ahead of him. If I had recognized he was driving ahead and had told him “Go!,” he might have taken the jump!

The final run was at the end of the day. I wasn’t nearly as nervous for our first run as our final. I had NO IDEA what to expect during our first run and figured we’d just go and have a good time. I had planned on that for the second run as well but my nerves got the better of me. Unlike our Full House run where I got to pick the course and didn’t have to worry as much about him missing an obstacle, that was not the case in Jumpers. It was a set course. It had to be performed a specific way.

In addition, as it was a small trial, we were one of three dogs in the class. The other two competitors were seasoned; they’d run agility before. I am very green with my first agility dog and I know neither of us is as well-practiced as we should be. And figuring out how to navigate a course properly and set my dog up successfully is something I have struggled with before. I thought I had a pretty good game plan, though, even if I kept forgetting part of the course in the middle. I only got to walk it four times and I really could have used a couple more to build up my confidence. But no one else was still out there with me and, even though I know the venue is very laid back and it was still early in the day, I didn’t want to hold things up and I left instead of staying there to do what I needed to do to properly prepare.

I felt rushed getting Kyu ready since there was only one dog ahead of us. This didn’t help either. Despite a slow start getting ready at the line, Kyu started out pretty well. He even had a nice section in the middle where I was struggling to remember what to do when walking the course. Then, it started to go south. I’m not sure if it was my handling that was unclear to him or if he was just tired. He started refusing jumps. A lot of them. When we’ve practiced, I’ve noticed he’s likely to refuse a jump if he doesn’t feel well or doesn’t have the energy to clear it. I would guess that was a huge part of why he started to struggle during the run. I also started flailing my arms as if pointing at the jump would help him realize he should go over it despite not ever doing that ever in training so I’m sure that didn’t make things better for him. He still did take every jump even though he was struggling and sort of throwing himself over by the end. He missed the final jump of the course and then back jumped it which I thought NQ’d him but it hadn’t until I petted him down to let him know he was a good boy. If I’d just sent him back over it the right way, it would have been a qualifying run. Ultimately, I cost us a Q on that run and a title.

Even if we didn’t title, we had fun. And that’s the most important part. He wanted to be out there and work with me. Even when it was confusing. Even when he didn’t quite have the energy at the end.

In addition, and most important going forward, is that I learned stuff. I now have a better idea of where the gaps in our training are. I know what we need to work on to improve. I know what to focus on so that, next trial, we’ll be better prepared.

I know most of the work is on me. I need to spend more time figuring out my job so I can better instruct him. Like needing to recognize when he’s driving ahead of me and either giving him the knowledge to take a jump because it’s in the line we’re running toward or me remembering to cue him to “Go!” when I want him to drive away. And I need to build up my confidence in reading a course map and feeling like I can accurately figure out where I need to add crosses (and which ones to do) so that I can better instruct him on where to go. In addition, by spending time working on my skills, I’ll feel more confident when I’m out there which will build his confidence and keep me from doing flailing arms to try and “make shit happen” when it feels like things are falling apart.

Overall, I’m so happy with how things went today. My boy was happy to be out there running agility with me. He was focused and he was working. Given everything we’ve been through, that was the best part. The venue itself was also super friendly, welcoming, and laid back–my favorite dog sport description! Even people I didn’t know were all smiles and wonderful to chat with.

I can’t wait to do it again. Hopefully with a healthier dog and a healthier understanding of how to direct him on a course.

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Happy Little Noodle Fox.

Kyu is having another IBD flare up. He went over 3 months, the longest ever since his diagnosis, without one. I changed nothing. Not his meds. Not his food. Nothing. I was terrified to change anything; afraid I’d set off another flare. He had a flare up anyway. This is not insignificant either. Every time he has a flare up, it takes months for him to get back to “normal” again.

I seriously love this dog. He is funny, a great training partner, the best snuggle buddy, and an intrepid hiker. But living with him and managing his disease is a nightmare. It negatively affects his quality of life and puts a strain on our relationship. I wanted a fun companion and a performance prospect. IBD takes all of that away from me far too often.

He’s not going anywhere. I love him too much for that (besides, he is overly attached to me–in a negative way–which would make that challenging). But my hopes and dreams of having a wonderful companion I could compete with in dog sports and go anywhere, do anything with have been dashed. Much like I went through with Risa. It hurts to watch your goals die in front of you over and over.

Kyu saw his IMS doctor yesterday for an annual recheck and to see if anything else needed to be done to help him over this most recent flare (aside from increasing his dosage of prednisone which I’d already done). She was impressed with just how good he looked. He’s put on almost 3 lbs since she last saw him and it’s all muscle. Apparently, few of her GI patients look this good. That makes me feel good, for sure. But it doesn’t change just how frustrating managing this disease is.

I’m also frustrated that, as a whole, his breed community doesn’t seem to care. Kyu is not alone in his struggles; it seems a lot of young Windsprites are experiencing similar troubles. We have no accurate numbers as to how many dogs are afflicted. However, I have seen several pairings with dogs who either have known GI troubles or have close relatives (siblings, parents) with known GI disease being bred. I can’t condone this. This is one of the main reasons I did not get another Windsprite as much as I have fallen deeply in love with the breed. I couldn’t find a line of dogs that was clear of dogs who potentially carried for GI troubles (or other diseases with a strong genetic component).

I’m hoping that this blip is quickly resolved and that I can get Kyu back to a lower pred dose and keep his flares to a minimum. Three months, while not nearly long enough, is still an improvement over how frequently he had flares before starting prednisone: every 4-6 weeks. It’s just so hard when he does have a flare, even a small one, because it takes him so long to recover. While the flare itself may dissipate within 2-3 weeks with an increase in pred, the additional pred has negative consequences. It affects his coat but, most significantly, it affects his attitude and energy. He gets sluggish and doesn’t have the stamina he normally does. Since I have to slowly wean him back down to his maintenance level to prevent a recurrence of the flare, he ends up spending another 2 months after the flare up not quite his bright, happy self. It’s a rollercoaster ride of misery for us both every time. It’s not fair.

It’s been a rough 3+ years between finally getting a diagnosis for him and then trying to figure out how to best manage his disease and he’s only 5 years old. His breed is known for longevity but having IBD (and long-term pred usage) leaves him vulnerable to other complications like cancer. I could lose him young to this disease or spend another 10 years managing it. Neither outlook is great for either one of us. 🙁

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Fluffy lil nugget, Abbie. She’s 3/4 poodle and 1/4 cocker spaniel.

In the dog world, there is a lot of hate for doodles. They are popular and in huge demand. The public wants them and loves them. Yet just the mere mention of a “doodle” will raise many dog people’s hackles.

Mention you want to get a doodle and you’ll find people scoffing at the thought. Why not just get a poodle instead!? Well, first off, a doodle and a poodle are not the same thing. Implying that centuries of careful pedigree-based inbreeding to create a specific type in both looks and ability creates a dog that is the exact same as itself outcrossed to any other breed is a bit of a stretch. Though goldens and Labradors are the most common crosses and are also retrievers, not all doodle crosses double up on retriever. Regardless, doodles are not the same as poodles any more than a malinois is the same as a German shepherd despite similarities in appearance and behavior.

Then they recoil at the price and usually add some disbelief about paying that sort of money for a mixed breed dog. As if being able to trace a dog’s lineage back to the same ancestor(s) on both sides of the pedigree is the only indication of a dog’s value.

The most common rebuke over doodles, however, is that they’re poorly bred. This is not completely untrue; there are plenty of unscrupulous breeders of these so-called hybrid dogs. But this same problem exists in purebred circles, too. Plenty of breeders and/or puppy mills will mass-produce purebreds and “hybrids” alike; dogs bred just to turn a profit not for any betterment of breed or concerns about health. Just like in purebred dogs, there are also reputable breeders breeding doodles. Breeders who know the dogs in their lines, perform extensive health testing, interview prospective puppy buyers, and will take back dogs if circumstances change and the family can no longer care for the dog.

As much as doodles are ridiculed in the dog fancy, they are adored by the general public. There’s a reason these dogs are popular. They fill a niche that many purebred dogs don’t: they make good pets for the average family. I know people will argue there is a whole group of dogs bred for companionship and they’re shown in the toy group. However, not everyone wants a small dog. There is a huge lack of purebred dogs that are medium to large in size and make ideal family companions. Let’s face it, the goal of most purebred dog breeding is to maintain the working ability of the breed. Keep in mind that most of us no longer need dogs to fulfill that purpose. Most of us aren’t working large flocks of sheep, coursing hare for our next meal, or need help flushing game. The modern world doesn’t need dogs who can do things; we just want dogs who can fit in with our mostly sedentary lifestyle. While I’m a huge advocate for maintaining dogs’ ability to do jobs, I also recognize it’s mostly irrelevant these days.

Labradoodle (photo by Michelle Osborne).

There are also plenty of dog breeds that are known for not being good first dogs or a good fit for the average owner. Doodles, however, are pretty adaptable. They’re friendly and people like their look. Whether you are a doodle fan or not, these dogs are more suitable for our modern life than many purebred dogs. That is the purpose of breeding them and there’s a huge market for it.

At the end of the day, I think we need to step back and stop all the hate. You don’t have to like doodles but accept that lots of people do. (There are plenty of purebred dogs I don’t like either but I don’t go around hating on them just because they don’t suit my needs.) If you’re concerned about people buying dogs from unscrupulous places, work on educating people on how to choose a good breeder. Allow people to like what they like. We advocate so much for people making educated choices regarding the dogs they choose to live with. If a doodle is the right match for a family, why should that be considered such a bad thing?

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