Friday, September 30, 2016

More All Dogs Parkour

I have to say - I haven't had this much fun in a very long time!

Tessa and I have just gone to town with our All Dogs Parkour entries!  Since my last post, we completed Level 2, which requires just one Q.  And we have completed Level 3, which requires three Q's!  So, we have filmed at four more locations and we have enjoyed every step of the way!

For our Level 2, we went to the park where Dean and I filmed his first entry - Stuart Park at Barnitz Mill near Mount Holly Springs.  It was a very hot evening, but I wasn't really too concerned about it.  I figured that after a quick dip in the Yellow Breeches Creek, Tessa would be very comfortable - and she was.  I was, too.  I love to slosh around in the Yellow Breeches!

Hanging out in the nice cool water!
My favorite spot along the creek.  I don't know who owns that table setup - I would be sitting there all day long if that were mine!

Here is our entry!  I love seeing how much she enjoys this.  The tail was waggling away after many of those exercises!

In Level 2, the dog has to complete 7 different exercises, so only 5 can be repeated.

After this we were on to Level 3, where the dog has to complete 8 different exercises, so only 4 can be repeated.  And, we needed to qualify in three different entries.

For our first Level 3 filming session, we went to a location that was brand new to me.  A good friend of mine, and fellow Parkour enthusiast, lives near a small park near Boiling Springs.  She, and two of our other Parkour friends, spent the morning in her "Little Park".

It was hot again, but this park is also along the Yellow Breeches, so Tessa got to take a bit of a dip after we had been working for a while.

My favorite part of this filming session was trying out two of the Landscape Patterns - Figure 8 and Loops.  Tessa really seemed to enjoy doing those, too.

Here is our submission video.  It was a Q!

We went to film next at a location at which I had been looking forward to working with Tessa for quite some time - Willow Mill Park.

I had expected that it would be cooler on this particular day, and it was - somewhat.  As we worked we got pretty warm again.  Thankfully, there was a creek at this park, too - the Conodoguinet.  After filming about six exercises, we enjoyed a bit of wading to cool off.

My favorite part of this filming session was actually the Get On (4 Feet) onto the big rock.  We did that toward the end of our time at Willow Mill.  It felt something like a CPE Table, and Tessa and I adore the CPE Table!

Tessa also enjoyed the filming with did with the picnic table for "Novel Uses".  I let her come up with some ideas and she really liked that!

Finally, for our third Level 3 entry, Tessa and I went up to the Watershed Trail in Kings Gap State Park.  It actually was much cooler for this filming session, which was a very good thing because the Watershed Trail was dry as a bone!  The entire creek has completely dried up!

Tessa was really into our Parkour this time around.  She had a clear attitude of adventure and interest on every exercise we filmed.  We ended up filming twenty exercises that we could have submitted, and, of course, we only needed 12.

My favorite part of this one was "Back Up onto an EF".  She had I have been working on this, and she almost always sits after she backs on.  That's OK.  In ADP that is allowed.  But this time she nailed the exercise and remained standing!  It was gorgeous!

And she had so much fun working with that big log.  She love walking on a log, and doing her Jump Assisted (which I refer to privately as "VAULT!").

If I could go back and film with her on the Watershed Trail, I definitely would!  Maybe we will when we are eventually working toward our Grand Championship!  But that will come later.

Here is our entry from Watershed Trail . . .

And that was a Q and our Level 3 Title!

Now we go on to Level 4 where we will need three more Q's at three more locations, now with nine different exercises within our total of 12, and one must be an Advanced exercise.

Here we go!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Thoughts on Freestyle

I have been involved with Canine Musical Freestyle since 2006 when my first Border Collie, Speedy, and I, took a Freestyle class because he needed a break from Rally and a chance to regain some lost confidence.

Speedy and I discovered a passion that I never expected.

From the first time Speedy stepped onto the floor and did a few of his Rally moves to music, we were both hooked.  There was something about moving to music with him.  It didn't matter what kind of music it was.  It didn't matter what we were doing - we were in an amazing zone together.

At first I literally lured him around.  He was lured through spins and twirls and leg weaves.  He already had a nice assortment of skills from his extensive Rally training.  He could heel nicely, he could circle around me, and swing into heel position from center.  He could pivot very well.  He even had a little bit of training in backing and sidepassing from his Rally work.  It all served as a great foundation for Freestyle training.

We dove into training for Freestyle.  He learned to touch his paws to my hands, my legs, and to props.  He learned to put his paws on props and circle them.

And every moment of all of that was an experience of enjoyment, discovery, and growing together.

Speedy's intense love for learning and movement inspired me and we were soon performing little sequences, and finally routines.

We had fun.  I wasn't worried about cue styles, nor about what any titling venue was looking for.  I used what worked for Speedy.  If he knew something on verbal, I cued it with a verbal cue.  If he didn't, I used a hand signal or a hand target or even a prop as a target stick!  Sometimes the type of cue I would use was more of an artistic choice.  We did many routines at nursing homes where I would use a prop as a target stick, especially to get him to do his absolutely gorgeous high step prance in a big arc around me.  He loved to prance to Tchaikovsky's Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies from the Nutcracker.  It was that performance, which we did at many demonstrations, that led to me nicknaming Speedy "Barishnacov".

And we trained the behaviors in the best way that worked for him.  Some were lured.  Some were shaped.  Some were captured.  Some were trained with combinations of techniques.  I wasn't thinking much about it, and I didn't really care.  I was not trying to train him perfectly.  I did what made sense to him and to me.  If I didn't know how to train something, I made it up!  Sometimes that worked and sometimes it didn't, but Speedy and I never got tired of trying.

Best of all were the times when I would rent a training building and we would put on music and just move together.  I called this "doodling".  At first I always had food in my hand, held up above his head, to encourage the prancing.  I had no interest, whatsoever, in taking that food away so he wouldn't need it.  Who cared if he needed it?  We were in our zone and it was perfect.

As time went on, that food became an open hand target, and later he didn't need anything and I could hold my arms straight out, or have them on my hips, or whatever I wanted to do in the moment.  It was a natural progression.  We were not on any timeframe.  When he was ready for less help, I gave him less help.

Speedy and I danced together.  It was about expression.  It was about creating art.  It was about doing what we both loved.  That boy was an artist like I have never encountered before or since.  It was about Speedy and I moving to the music, connected at the heart, and loving every second of it.

And when we competed or did a demonstration, Speedy and I went out there to entertain the people.  He always put on a good show, just by virtue of who he was!  People loved the leg weaves, and the prop moves, and his prance, but what people responded to most was him.  He drew in his audience and made a lasting impression on them.  For years after I retired him from live performance, people came up to me and said that they remembered him and this routine and that routine that he did.

Speedy was not a high precision dog.  There were some moves that he did precisely, but he was always much more about moving through the moves and experiencing them than he was about carrying them out to any particular specification.  What he did was always beautiful, but it was not often precise.  In competition, our artistic scores were always significantly higher than our technical scores.

And honestly, I didn't care.  This was our dance.  Our art.  Speedy wasn't about precision, and it never even occurred to me to try to make him be something he was not.  Really, with Speedy, the idea of trying to make him have a strength he did not have would have been beyond absurd!  Speedy was Speedy - he had tremendous talent and artistry.  I am glad now that I always appreciated that in him.

Speedy was not perfect.  He struggled with an absolutely horrendous overstimulation problem that was often triggered by his own motion.  As he got older, his arthritis became more of an issue and he became limited in the moves that he could do in his dances.

But there is a lot I would give to go back and have just one more dance with him.  If I could, I would not be thinking about precision, or technical difficulty, or cues, or titles.  I would not be thinking about what anyone else might think our dance should or should not be.  I would be savoring every second of experiencing that amazing dance one more time, and appreciating Speedy for the artist he was.

I will never have that. 

But I just may have something even better.  Yes, I actually said that.  When I face reality, I know it is true.  Bandit has potential that astonishes me over and over.  He is his own dog, and in many ways he is as different from Speedy as he can possibly be.  However, he has three things that Speedy had - three things that I have longed for in a Freestyle dog since losing Speedy.

First, he has a natural passion for moving to music.  In front of an audience is even better.  We haven't performed much, but the few times we have, his eyes have just sparkled, and he has performed to the best of his ability!  I am amazed at how he has just taken to Freestyle like a duck to water.  I know he was bred to work stock, but that boy was born to dance!

Second, he LOVES movement.  And, unlike Speedy, he is not overstimulated by it!  He can MOVE and be thrilled with it, and he retains his ability to think!  I am seeing this come out in his Agility training, and I see the same thing in his Freestyle work.  He is not really into a lot of stationary exercises, although I believe he will develop more of an aptitude for that in time.  By his nature, he's a mover!

Finally, Bandit has an artistry of his own.  It is nothing like Speedy's.  He is not the soft dancer gliding across the floor as if his feet aren't touching the ground!  But I can tell that Bandit does have his own creativity and style in his movement.  It is untapped potential right now, and probably something that will develop much more as he matures.  It's there, though.  I see it.

Since the days when Speedy and I started out in Freestyle together, blissfully clueless, finding our way based on what we discovered together, a lot has changed for me as a trainer, handler, and title seeker!  I have gotten involved with Agility, Cyber Rally-O, the CRO Dance Divisions, Rally FrEe, and now Parkour.  I did some Freestyle training with Maddie, although not very much.  I did a great deal of Freestyle training with Dean, and Tessa and I have done a fair amount as well.  My team of Speedy, Maddie, Dean Dog, and Tessa has become a Dogs Can Dance Champion 2 team.  I have earned bunches of Beginner titles in WCFO Freestyle with Speedy, Dean, and Tessa, and Tessa and I went all the way through Intermediate Musical Freestyle together.

I have read countless training books, attended workshops and conferences with many presenters, and taken online classes.  Some of these have been Freestyle specific, and some have been more general.

I know some things now that I wish I had known when Speedy and I had gotten started.  But then . . . . in a big way . . . I am actually glad that I did not know then what I know now!  Speedy and I may have missed out on our unique experience if he and I had not started out at the same place and spent those years learning together.

When I started training with Bandit, I was very set on trying to train him very well.  After all, someone with the amount of training experience that I have now, should want to train very well - right?  I wanted Bandit to learn to work with the precision of Dean Dog, but with the heart for the sport that Speedy had!  I wanted him to be the total package - dynamic, artistic, precise . . . . well, perfect!

But . . . there was one little wrench in that monkeyworks!

I know better.

If Speedy and Dean Dog taught me one lesson very well it is that my first and top priority must always be to appreciate my dog as an individual.  I was true to that with Tessa and I have never regretted it.  Tessa's love is Agility and we ran with that - literally!  Yes, she and I do other things, but her number one dog sport is Agility, and to that we dedicate most of our work together.  That is why our five year C-ATCH quest is such a precious memory to me now: I respected Tessa for who she is - for her strengths, for her weaknesses, for everything about the beautiful girl that she is, inside and out - every step of the way.  To me that is the greatest success there is in any dog sport.

So . . . Bandit . . . Freestyle.

When he and I started, I was very much taken with the idea of trying to train him using few lures, lots of shaping and tools like gates and platforms, and with the goal of getting everything on verbal cue.

And that's fine.  He was a baby and I really didn't know who he was going to turn out to be.  Might as well start somewhere!

The thing is - that mindset literally sucked all of the joy out of Freestyle training for me.  And, even more important, Bandit didn't really take to it, either.  Deflated balloon team . . . no dance.

And this was a problem.  From the time I sent in the deposit for my then-unborn puppy, just weeks after I lost the best dance partner of my life, it was on my heart that we would dance together.

When Bandit, then unknown to me, was still inside his mother, the Winter Olympics in Sochi Russia were taking place.  It was one of the darkest times of my entire life.  I was still stunned by Speedy's sudden death, and I missed him horribly.  Sammie's health was in decline and I saw that the end was coming for him.  It was winter.  It was extremely cold.  And I felt guilty because I was more afraid than happy about my future puppy.

But, I couldn't help it.  When I watched the figure skating routines, and listened to the music -  they used a lot of Tchaikovsky at those Olympics - mixed in with the terrible sadness of the time was just the tiniest glimmer of hope that someday that puppy and I would find a zone of our own and have our own dance.

I have never forgotten that.  And I am more delighted than I can possibly express that in Bandit that tiny glimmer has burst forth into everything I ever could have wanted and more.

But . . . I have found myself incredibly frustrated.  When Bandit and I go to dance, I am burdened with worries about how I am using my hands, and verbal cues, and him getting his rear end into position properly, and whether or not he is forging too much.  Somewhere along the line I lost everything that made Freestyle such a delight for Speedy and me, and I have turned into a neurotic mess of, "Are we doing this exactly right?"

And to say that is no fun would be an understatement.

Now, I know that some people actually do enjoy that kind of thing.  And I am not against good training in any way - I have something of a passion for that, I just tend to go outside the box more than most people.  And I understand that titling venues have their own requirements and that it is my choice to participate in those venues.

But, still.  I have developed a mindset toward Freestyle that does not suit me, and I must make a deliberate choice to change if Bandit and I are going to find our place in the sport together.

This really came to light for me over the summer when Bandit and I attended the Future of Freestyle conference at the end of July.  It was an incredible and intense experience for Bandit and me.

In that particular format, there is no emphasis on verbal cues.  There is total freedom to use verbal cues, physical cues, and even to use props to cue!  When Bandit and I were in the prop workshop, I felt that I rediscovered something that Speedy and I had once shared - a real sense of discovery, and of finding what works for Bandit and me as a team.

The participants of the conference were watching my dog, and when I got comments they were about how beautiful he is, and his movement, and what he did well, and what he still needs some help with.  Nobody watched Bandit move beautifully on the floor and then turned around to tell me the equivalent of, "well that's nice, but you were using too many hand signals"!  (As if that is the only thing that really matters in Freestyle!)  How refreshing!

The most amazing part of the conference was during a session where we were trying out music.  Bandit and I were moving to one song, and we just locked in.  We were in perfect synchronicity - in movement and in mind!  It was an experience that transcended cues and training styles and what my hands happen to be doing at the moment!  We were dancing.  In fact, in that moment, that glimmer of "maybe" that was in my heart during those Olympics in the dark cold winter of 2014 burst into reality.

So, what's my point?  I feel like I am at a crossroads right now.  Somehow I know that now is the time when I need to make some decisions about going forward in Freestyle with Bandit.  We have been training since summer and he is making beautiful progress.  We are starting to become a team and we are going to start preparing routines for performance very soon!

I think the big thing that is on my mind and heart right now is that, for me personally, Freestyle cannot be about cues and difficulty of behaviors.  It just can't be.  That isn't me.

Of course, we are going to train a variety of behaviors, and of course I am going to do everything within reason to help him learn to be "bi-lingual" between his natural language, physical cues, and my natural language, verbal.

But I am just not going to make those two things the heart and soul of our Freestyle training.  Those are part of the package, not the essence of the discipline.

That leaves me with the question - then what is it going to be?

And I guess Bandit has a lot to do with the answer to that question.

But I want him to have the opportunity to show me who he is as a dancer.  I want him to be able to help me discover his personal artistry and style.  I need to find a way for he and I to have a chance to move to music together on a regular basis so we can discover our own dance.

And I am going to be very concrete:

For the next six months:

There will be NO focus on cues in my work with Bandit.  None.  When he needs for me to use my hands to show him what I want, I will use hands.  When he doesn't, I won't use them.  What a concept!  We will play with target sticks and training aids, but there will be no immediate goal of fluency on any particular cue.  Absolutely no big deal.  We can work out the particulars for titling venues when we are ready to think about that.  That's not where we are now, and I seriously don't care a thing about it!

We will work on the foundation behaviors in whatever way works best for Bandit.  In particular, I want to start him on laterals.  I plan to use the same process that I used with Speedy, unless we try it and find it is not the right way for Bandit.  And as we are working on behaviors, I am going to focus on joy!  I realize that in the early learning stages, sometimes there is more concentration than joy, especially with a Border Collie.  But no shutting down, no frustration.  If that means I use a lure, so be it - I use a lure!  We will be going for physical fluency with whatever aid is needed.  Not final fluency.

Bandit and I will also work on focus and engagement more than we work on particular behaviors.  Again, I want to see joy in being connected to me much more than I want to see precision.  Unless Bandit suddenly decides he loves precision - then we will go for it!

And, at least once a week, I will put on music at home and Bandit and I will dance in the house like Speedy and I used to.  We will doodle.  And it will be a dance, not an exercise in performance of behaviors on verbal cue!

Yes.  This is right for us.  I know this in my heart.  Time will tell where it takes us, but I know this - it will be someplace very good.

I am glad I took the time to work all of this out.  And to anyone who has read all the way to the end - thank you for taking your time and consideration to do so!

In the end, I believe that Freestyle is actually a highly individualized artistic sport.  While titling venues have a place, I think we lose something when we base our entire training and performance framework on any organization's guidelines.  Freestyle can be a sport that transcends titling organizations . . . and maybe that is where Bandit and I are going . . . more to find our own way and see where we land when we become the team we are meant to be!

Friday, September 9, 2016

All Dogs Parkour

Several posts ago, I talked a little bit about getting into Parkour with all three of my dogs this past summer.  Already we are off and running on a brand new Parkour adventure.

Jude Azaren, who founded and runs Cyber Rally-O and the Cyber Rally-O Dance Divisions started a new Parkour venue that is meant to be complementary to the program that is run by the International Dog Parkour Association (IDPKA).  It literally just opened for entries on the first of this month, so it really is brand new.

There are similarities between All Dogs Parkour (ADP) and the titling program run through IDPKA.  But there are also some key distinctions.

In order to title with IDPKA, the dog must successfully complete all of the tasks, to the standard set for that level.  So, in order to earn the Training Level title, the handler must submit video clips of every single exercise that is required for Training Level.  In contrast, with ADP, there are about 50 different exercises to choose from, including some that allow some degree of creativity, and the handler chooses from those to complete 12 for an entry at each level.

I like this.  If there is a particular Parkour behavior that a dog cannot do, or should not do, the handler never has to ask the dog to do it.

On the other hand, in order to make submissions for ADP titles, all 12 of the behaviors must be filmed at one single location.  This presents something of a challenge, especially when one gets home and starts editing together the footage to submit and realizes that there is a video error or something.  One must then go back to that same location in order to get more video in order to complete the submission.  When we filmed Tessa's entry for IDPKA and I needed a couple more clips, I filmed them in the back yard.  That is not an option with ADP.  The clips must be filmed at whatever location is selected for the submission at that level.

One does not have to film 12 different Parkour behaviors at each location.  At each level a certain number of repeats are permitted.  At Level 1, every behavior could be repeated one time - six distinct behaviors are required.  At Level 2, seven distinct behaviors are required, so five repeats are possible.  As one goes up the levels, the number of repeats allowed is reduced.  In addition, at the upper levels a certain number of behaviors from the "Advanced Behavior" category are required.

I honestly wasn't sure at first if I was going to like this, but now that I have filmed and submitted three entries, I like it a lot.  In fact, ADP is now my preferred Parkour venue!

Tessa and I filmed first.  We filmed at Village Park in Carlisle, PA.  That is one of my favorite places to work on Parkour with my dogs.

Tessa did a lovely job, and it turned out that her submission earned the very first ADP title ever!

Tessa's submission:

Next Dean and I filmed at Stuart Park at Barnutz Mill near Mount Holly Springs, PA.  This is a park that has some personal significance for me and it was extra special to work with Dean there.

I registered Dean for the Special Division.  The Special Division is for veteran or handicapped dogs and there are some modifications allowed to some of the exercises, as well as some additional exercises allowed just for Special Division dogs.  In our first submission I did not take advantage of any of those with Dean.

Here is his Level 1 Submission, which earned him the very first-ever Special Division title awarded through ADP!

This was more challenging for Dean than it looks in the video.  Just as we started to work, a train went by on tracks that are very close to the park.  He wasn't sure what the heck that was and it took some doing to get his head back.  He got hot and tired on our first video venture, and I realized that I need to keep these video sessions shorter for him.

I thought I had all of the footage that I needed, but when I got home I realized that I needed one more, and that it would be good to re-shoot a couple of takes, so we went back on another day.

That second day of shooting was very good.  He was familiar with the park on the second visit, and he seemed to know what we were doing there and he was eager to play.  We got some really nice footage that day.

After our first visit, Dean was a little stiff in his hind end, and I realized that I need to take advantage of some of the Special Division modifications for him.  In our second filming session at Willow Mill Park in Mechanicsburg, PA, I did just that!

At Willow Mill, we tried some of the Parking Lot Patterns, which are allowed only for the Special Division dogs.  In addition, when he did an "Under", I found something that he only needed to duck his head under, instead of going something shoulder height.  In Special Division, the dog can also step over an object as a "Jump", and we did that.

Dean enjoyed this.  Again, I had to go back on another day, but that was because the camera didn't record one of the clips.  But I did find that Dean also enjoyed his second visit to the park much more than his first.

Here is his Level 2 submission, which qualified and earned us the Level 2 title!

At Level 1 and Level 2 in ADP, one Q is required to earn the title.  At Levels 3, 4, and 5, three Q's are required, so after this Dean won't earn the titles so quickly.

Another thing I love about All Dogs Parkour - we get ribbons for our titles!

Here are Dean and Tessa's certificates and ribbons!

Just the ribbons!

I am really looking forward to doing more of this.  I hope to take Dean and Tessa all the way through to their championships!

Bandit is still doing a lot of basic training, but he will eventually play, too!

Photos from Saturday

My favorite Agility photographer was at the trial on Saturday and she got some phenomenal shots of Tessa!

If they gave points for beauty and style, Tessa would win first place every time!

Driving out of a tunnel toward a set of jumps . . . one of Tessa's favorite things to do!

Driving out of another tunnel toward the final jump of the course!

And . . . . BIG jump for the grand finale!

My girl has still got it!!

Photo Credit:  Key 4 Prints

Check out her work - it's fantastic!

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Back to Agility

Tessa and I ended up taking almost the entire summer off from Agility competition.  We did do one NADAC trial in July, but that was really just for an outing, and, while we enjoyed ourselves, it wasn't the same.

We both went into our day with a much better frame of mind than either of us had at our last trial at the end of May.

I am still just a little bit sad that our C-ATCH chase is over, but I am much more used to the fact that we have moved on to a new part of our journey together, and it doesn't bother me nearly as much as it did before.

We have spent the summer doing other things - mainly Freestyle and Parkour.  And that was very, very good.  I think we both needed the break.  I think we both needed to detach from Agility for a while.  We did go to class all summer, but we mostly did small jumper sequences inside and it was pretty relaxed and casual.

Thankfully, at class last Thursday the weather was nice and we were outside, so Tessa had a chance to go over a dogwalk, an A-Frame, and a teeter!!  I don't think she would ever forget those things, but it was good to know she was still solid before we went into the competition ring!

I made up my mind that I was going to approach these three Agility runs a bit differently.  I have always been one to be supportive of my dog, and to put his or her well being above chasing titles.

That said, Tessa is a partner who absolutely adored chasing titles with me!  And because of that, I thoroughly enjoyed the title chasing mindset with her for five years!

Now I needed a new mindset and a new approach.

So, I decided to focus on being really in the moment with Tessa while we were out on the course.  During the walk-through I mentally broke each course into parts, and then, when we were running, I focused on helping Tessa navigate just that part, and I kept my mind on connecting with her (but also trusting her to do her job!) and being a real team.

It is actually kind of difficult to explain how this is different from how I have approached Agility with her in the past.  But there was a difference.

And I think it worked well for us.  We both enjoyed all three runs.

On her first, a Standard, Tessa did a great job.  Just one little blip on the weave poles, but that is one of the few faults you are allowed in Level 5 Standard, so we still qualified in spite of it!

I loved her work on the jump sequences in that run.  I am starting to appreciate her talent as a jumper more than I ever have before!

After quite a nice break, we got to run our second Standard course of the day.  This one was nearly flawless!

You may notice on the video that it looks like Tessa completely blew her dogwalk contact, but from my perspective, it looked like she did get at least one foot in the yellow.  And the judge, who was a bit behind us, obviously agreed with that because she did not call it as a miss!

I was shocked when I looked at the video and saw that it looked like she missed it altogether.  But in real time it really did look like she actually hit the contact, so that's our story and I'm sticking to it - especially since the judge saw it the way I did!

I loved the serpentine in that one!  Tessa loved coming out of the tunnel and flying into the serpentine!  We got to do that again in Snooker!

And finally, Snooker!  My favorite run of all that we did!

That was a Q, too!

I saw the difference in Tessa in the two days following the trial.  Her eyes sparkled and she held her tail just a bit higher!  She was a happy girl.  I think she missed this, and so did I!

The premium for our next trial - first Sunday in October - has been sent.

We're back!!!!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Summer of Parkour

Summer has been excellent so far!  I have spent so much time training with all three dogs, and we have all been enjoying it thoroughly!

And . . . Dean Dog, Tessa, Bandit, and I have gotten into something new this summer . . . dog Parkour!

I really had not intended to get involved with this.  Do I really need one more dog sport on my plate?  Not remotely!

However . . . 

When Tessa got close to earning her C-ATCH, I really wanted to try to find something that she and I could do together that would be a big reward for her for all of the years of work and commitment that Tessa has put into our Agility.

When I saw some dog Parkour videos around on the Internet, I knew right away that it was something that Tessa would just eat up.  She loves to do anything that involves interaction with "stuff" - Agility, fitness, you name it!

A good friend of mine took the Parkour class that was offered by the Fenzi Academy in the spring, so she and I made a deal - she would teach me about Parkour and I would teach her some skills that I learned in the class that I was taking with Bandit.

A couple of friends of our were also interested, so we all got together for an introduction.  At some point I made the decision to work with Dean instead of Tessa, at least to get started.  He is mostly retired now and I thought it might be something that he would enjoy.  I figured that Tessa and I could always jump in later on.

At our first lesson, we worked on some of the basics that we would need if any of us wanted to video for the Training Level Title - Four Feet On, Two Feet On, Under, Through, In.

Dean had a great time.  I enjoyed working with him because he had the chance to dust off some old skills and use them in a fun, and kind of different, context!

But I do have to say - training for Parkour is . . . . different . . . from most of the training that I do.  Normally I am training with the ultimate goal of creating behaviors that will be fluent in the ring, with me not having food present (usually), that will be performed under a certain cue structure.

However, Parkour really is about movement.  Although we cannot lure with food in the videos that we submit for titling, food can always be in a pocket for immediate reinforcement after the behavior is completed.  And hand signals are welcome, as long as they are used as targets, not lures.

So, when working with Dean on the Parkour behaviors, I was much more focused on what Dean was actually doing with his body than I normally am.  And I found that to be a very, very good thing.  Dean clearly enjoyed the shift in my focus, and I did, too.

Everyone in the group had such a great experience that we got together a week later and we all filmed our submissions for our Training Level Titles!

Here is a compilation of Dean's Training Level video clips.  And, I just found out this past week that Dean did earn his Training Level Title: PKD - T

Once I did this with Dean, I found that I simply had to give it a try with both Tessa and Bandit.  I had returned to my original thought that Tessa would just love every second of it, and it became very clear to me that Parkour could potentially be an excellent confidence builder for Bandit.

So, we dove in with some training at home!

Tessa's first Parkour training session:

Bandit's first Parkour training session:

The difference in their attitudes toward this is quite striking!  Actually, Bandit and I have done some work since this first video and he is already getting more confident!!

Here is a video of his first outdoor training session:

So, now I am working with all three of them on this, and we are having a really nice time with it!

One of the things that I love most about this discipline (I think of it as a discipline more than a "sport", and maybe I will write a post about that later on) is that I really can customize it to the dog that I am working with for his or her greatest benefit.

For Dean, it is something we can enjoy from time to time as a fun retirement activity.  I am hoping to film with him for the Novice level, but I plan for us to take our time and get our videos gradually and really enjoy the process.

For Tessa, it is a format where she can use a lot of her Agility and physical skills in new and fun ways.  We are also in the process of filming for Novice.  I could see going on to try Intermediate with Tessa after that!

And for Bandit, it is great for confidence and him learning what he can actually do!  He and I are working on the skills that he needs for Training Level, and are gradually creating the videos that we will need to submit for that tile.  Bandit could go all the way through the levels with this, and I am kind of hoping that we will!

I find that I really appreciate the opportunity to work toward titles in this discipline.  That gives me a specific structure to guide my training and goals, and it provides motivation to actually get out and work with my dogs on a consistent basis.

I believe there are a few different Dog Parkour titling organizations out there.  We are working on our titling through the International Dog Parkour Association.  So far the experience has been good.

I look forward to continuing on with this through the rest of the summer and into the fall!


Saturday, May 21, 2016

Going on . . .

Going on after losing a heart dog . . . in life, in sports . . .

Recently I have seen this topic raised in several different online discussion contexts, and I wanted to take a bit of time to share my own answer.  I share this in hopes that it might be helpful to somebody out there . . .

I even hate the fact that I have an answer to this question.  But I do.  I realize that this is a highly personal and subjective thing.  Not everyone is going to find the way to keep going in exactly the same way.

That said, I have been through the sudden and unexpected loss of that one special dog that I will always call my "heart dog".  And I have gone on.  I have experienced the months on end of abject grief, and I have found the way to deal with his loss, and even to continue on in the dog sport that, for me, was completely defined by Speedy himself.

". . . what it does to you when such a dog dies is not fit to print."

My Speedy, of course, was my heart dog.  To say he was special doesn't even do it justice.  I have never known another dog anything like him, and I doubt I ever will.  I always used to say that Speedy didn't just have "screws loose".  He had "screws loose", "screws too tight", he was "missing some screws", and he "had screws that didn't even belong"!!  Suffice it to say, he had mental challenges that were completely out of his own control.

Early on in our training and work together, I considered Speedy's "issues" to be a problem.  Later in our journey, I came to know that he was unique and highly gifted.  We ran with that together, and it was the ride of a lifetime!

I could write an entire book about what Speedy was to me.  (Maybe someday I will!)  We were joined at the heart from the day we brought him home as a 12 week old puppy.  I used to rush home from work every day bursting with excitement to see him.  We played silly games, I sang songs to him, and I was delighted in everything about him.

My favorite of all of Speedy's puppy pictures

Speedy wasn't perfect.  In fact, he was seriously flawed in many ways.  But in one way it never mattered - he was perfect in my heart, and for me the world was a better place simply because he was in it.

When we got into training, and then behavior modification, and then dog sports, our bond only grew.  I got the equivalent of a college education through our work together.  He was always a partner in that work.  And I remember every step of the journey as an amazing adventure.

Learning how to help him deal with fears and overstimulation, learning how to train Rally and then Freestyle skills, learning how to be a performance competition team, and the actual performance of all of our dances - at demonstrations, at competitions, at video filming, and even just at private practice - was an intensely emotional experience.  And that experience forged a bond between us that was like no other I have ever known.

Every dance was a tribute to the bond that Speedy and I shared

There were moments along the way when I realized that he would not be with me forever, and I wondered how I was going to go on without him when he was gone.  The very thought brought tears to my eyes when it happened to pop up in my mind.  I simply did not allow myself to think about it.  And, in retrospect, I am very glad for that.  There was literally nothing that I could have done to prepare myself for life without Speedy.  It was far better that I appreciated every second of the time that I had with him.

But . . . that indescribably horrible day finally came.  And it came too soon.  It will always seem to me that Speedy should have had a few more good years.  The reason why he died was so stupid.  He was not young, but he still died too soon.

It did help that he died peacefully, with Ben and I both there with him.  There was no fight in him.  No resistance.  Just the total trust that he always had in us.  It was time to go, and he was perfectly fine with that.  I will always be grateful that he left this life quietly, peacefully, and with trust.

But none of that made dealing with the bottomless pit of a black hole in my heart that was left behind when he was gone any easier to handle.

So . . . how did I go on?

I cried A LOT.  

Speedy died on a Saturday and I spent the rest of that day, and all of Sunday, crying my eyes out.  There was no consolation.  Any little thing could start it off again.  And even after that - for weeks, for months - I just felt this horrible pit of sorrow within myself that nothing could change.  I didn't try to fight that.  When I was in a situation where I could go ahead and cry, I would do so.

I gave myself permission to ask, "WHY?" and cry endlessly over that question.  I fully felt the emotions that would wash over me when I caught sight of his food bowl, or his collar, or something else that reminded me of him.

I looked at photos and videos of Speedy and remembered our life together.

Somehow it helped me to see pictures of Speedy full of life and vigor.  I felt that I was somehow still connected to him.  I found watching video of him particularly helpful.

Sometimes I could do this and actually feel just a tiny bit better, and at other times I needed to avoid his pictures and videos.  Even now, two years later, there are times when it is upsetting to me to listen to his Freestyle music, but that is more the exception than the rule.  Usually I like to listen and remember the good times he and I had moving to that music together.

I actually started to look at pictures and videos and listen to his music very soon after losing him.  For the most part I found it more helpful than not - even when it made me start crying all over again!

I went through the motions of life.  

I would have liked to have crawled into a cave somewhere and just mourned for months on end, but life went on and I had to go on with it - even if I was just going through the motions.

I had to feed and care for my other dogs.  I had to go to work.  I had to teach my dog training classes.  I had to teach lessons and grade papers.  I had to do what life required.

I can't say I found much joy in much of anything for a while afterward, but I went through the motions because there was no choice.

Training and working with my other dogs was the worst part.  The last thing I would have chosen to do would have been attending training classes, but I learned long ago that it is not fair to my dogs to take away what they enjoy because I am mourning a loss.  And, it was good for me to be there even if I couldn't do my best work at class.

I remember that Tessa had an Agility trial at Periland not long after we lost Speedy.  I took her even though I felt it was much, much too soon.  I was glad that I did.  I distinctly remember running those courses with Tessa as the first time I started to feel normal again after losing Speedy.  Tessa and I were still who we are, and running her in competition helped me tap back into that.

I hid the loss from some people.  

Of course, I told my friends, but there were some people that I did not tell right away.

I did not tell my High School students, nor did I tell my work colleagues right away.  I needed my privacy for a while.  It was good for me to have one context in my life where nobody knew and I could put on the face of "everything is normal" during those first weeks after this devastating loss.

I pushed myself through the "first times"

Every one of the "first times" after losing Speedy was difficult, but some were much worse than others:

  • My first Freestyle competition without Speedy.
  • Our first trip to the beach without Speedy.
  • My first trip to Glen Highland Farm without Speedy.
  • My first hike with Tessa without Speedy.
  • Our first spring, summer, fall, and winter without Speedy.
  • Our first Christmas without Speedy (this was particularly difficult because my last good memories of Speedy, alive and happy, were at Christmas time).

That list could go on and on and on!

But . . . the first time was always the most difficult.  After the first time I had an experience in my memory of each of those things without him.  That helped.

I gave myself lots of breaks.

I couldn't train my dogs like I used to.  In fact, it was over a year before I really found that I could put something of my old effort into training, although I didn't quit - just went through the motions.  I gave myself permission to be where I was in that regard, even in the midst of raising a puppy.

I couldn't choreograph Freestyle routines.  Speedy had been my heart-Freestyle dog, as well as my heart dog.  I lost all of my love for the sport, I lost all of my desire to go on in the sport, and I lost my ability to create.  And you can't do Freestyle if you can't create routines.  I wasn't sure what was going to happen - if I would ever get that back again.  But I accepted that for what it was.

I put a deposit down on a Border Collie puppy.

This was a very individual choice.  I realize that if, and when, to bring a new dog into the home after such a devastating loss is a very personal thing.  For us it turned out to be the right thing to do.

I had always thought that when that inevitable horrible day came, and we lost Speedy, I would honor him by going to a shelter, finding a fearful Border Collie to adopt, and then give that dog the best possible life.  But when the time actually came, that wasn't on my heart.  I felt that I already had that dog in Tessa, and I was not inclined to do that again at that time.

Almost right away, I started to think about a puppy.  I mean, I started to think about a puppy so soon it struck me as positively indecent!  I felt guilty, and might not have pursued the idea if not for two things.  Within a day of losing Speedy, my husband said to me, out of nowhere, "maybe we will get another puppy"!  He is not usually one to want to add new dogs to the household, so I took that very seriously.

Shortly after that, an online friend sent me an article that contained advice that was rather shocking: "Another dog.  Same breed, as soon as possible".  After getting over my initial resistance to the idea, particularly the "as soon as possible" part, it resonated with me, and I knew that starting the search for a puppy was right for us.

It was too soon.  I really only wanted Speedy back.  I wasn't anywhere near emotionally prepared.  But it was clear to me that it was time to act right away.  I put word out among my Border Collie friends that I wanted to try to get a working bred Border Collie puppy.

I did not think this was going to happen immediately.  I rather expected to search for a breeder for a good long while, and then sit on a few lists for at least a year.  Within just a couple of weeks, I had put down a deposit on the puppy that would be Bandit.  At that time, the pregnancy had only just been confirmed!

Committing to a puppy who was not even born yet opened up a whole host of new conflicting emotions that I had to deal with, but I was confident that everything was happening exactly as it was supposed to be happening, and we went with it.

At the time the plan to get a puppy, and then waiting for the puppy to be born, and then watching him grow through pictures, seemed to upset me more than it helped.  But, in retrospect, I believe that process forced me to deal with the emotions of loss and that more good came from it than upset.

And, even if I did not feel it at the time, having plans to bring a new life into our home did give me just the tiniest seed of hope that someday better times would come.

Enter Bandit

When I think back about that time after losing Speedy, it seems that in my memory the world went black that day, and it stayed that way until the day I held baby Bandit in my arms.  On that day a ray of light burst in, the sky turned blue again, and it seems that color and warmth and light and hope came back into my life.

That doesn't mean I forgot about Speedy or that I stopped mourning or that it got easy.  In some ways it actually got harder for a little while.

But the day I met Bandit was the day I really started to heal.

How could I not have hope and joy in my life with this in front of me?

I can't really explain this.  Bandit did not take Speedy's place.  He is a very, very different dog.

I think at first the tremendous amount of work that taking care of a puppy requires became a distraction, and that helped for the very practical reason that I didn't have the time, nor the emotional wherewithal, to dwell on Speedy's loss so much!

But, of course, it was much more than that.  Against the background of devastating loss, watching Bandit grow was a daily miracle.  Getting to know him was a pleasure I will never forget.  He was so full of life and potential, I could not help but feel that life was going to be good again one day soon.

Naturally, I have come to be head over heels in love with Bandit because of who he is.  Still, I will always love him a little bit more out of gratitude all that he did - simply by his very presence in our lives - to help me deal with Speedy's loss.

Everything that Speedy and I did and experienced together
prepared me to love and learn from this master teacher

Dog Sports

Almost two and a half years after later, I really do believe that the most difficult part of going on after losing Speedy was continuing in dog sports.  Life happened whether I wanted it to or not.  Dogs had to be fed and cared for, work had to be done, and everyday living was not an option.

I could have quit dog sports.  I entertained the thought very seriously at several points, especially when it came to Freestyle.

After all, I got into dog sports with Speedy.  He was the dog that I discovered the joy of training with.  He was the dog with whom I earned my first Q and my first title.  I had so many years of memories of training with him, classes with him, Rally trials with him, Freestyle competitions with him, and some of the best of my dog sport memories happened with Speedy at my side.

I probably would not have quit Agility.  By that point Tessa and I had become a very solid Agility team with a competition history of our own.  And it helped that the place where we trialed in Agility at the most was one that Speedy had never even been to.  Speedy and I had few Agility memories in spite of the fact that he did study Agility briefly at one point.  I never really thought of Speedy as an "Agility dog".

Rally FrEe was a lot more difficult.  Even though I had actually started in Rally FrEe with Tessa and Dean, and Speedy had done very little of it, Rally FrEe is closely related to Freestyle, and, of course, that is where my most intense memories of Speedy are.  Both Tessa and Dean were involved with Rally FrEe, and I really did go through the motions with them for several months without putting much heart into it.

As for Freestyle itself, as I mentioned above, it became nearly impossible to continue on.  Really, I should have taken a break, but I tried to push forward with Tessa, and it was almost entirely disheartening.

I came to a point where I realized that the best of me as a Freestyle trainer/choreographer/performer/trainer was Speedy himself!  How was I to go on in the sport without him?

I felt that I couldn't.  Any attempt I made to train made me feel inept.  Performances were flat.  I had no inspiration, no ideas.  I wanted nothing more than to find some of the "magic" that I had in Freestyle with Speedy, but the best I could do was muddle . . .

In the end, I did take something of a break, and then I got myself some help when I was really ready to start trying to move forward again.  I took an online choreography class with both Dean, and the not-quite-one-year-old Bandit to get some assistance with creating routines for them.  I needed a lot of help, but we got it done.  We actually ended up creating one of Dean's nicest routines, and the routine that I think of as Bandit's "baby routine"!

Now I am at a point, with Dean Dog, Tessa, and Bandit, where I can create routines.  Tessa and I, of course, had our success with her New York, New York routine.  Bandit and I have created a phenomenal dance that is going to be nothing but fun to perform once I finish the training!  I still believe that I lost something of myself as a Freestyler that I will never get back when I lost Speedy.  But I can continue on in the sport with my current dogs, and I can find something with each of them that Speedy never had.

" . . . because that way you can pick up somewhere near where you left off, say that you have it in you."

In order to get to this point, I had to find it within myself to continue on.  I had to be willing to fumble along, I had to be willing to accept that it will never be quite the same, I had to allow myself to feel completely and utterly incompetent, and I had to focus on each of the dogs in front of me and learn how to allow the best in them to shine.

Things are much better now, and I genuinely enjoy training, trialing, and performing with each of my three current dogs.  I still run into a difficulty here and there, but I find that my dogs and I work through those much more easily these days.

Getting into Rally with Bandit brought me to such point of difficulty.  A good deal about his Rally style is very similar to Speedy's style.  And when we would first move though some of the Rally exercises together - fronts and finishes, right pivots, pace changes, etc., Bandit actually felt exactly like Speedy, if that makes any sense.  I would look down into Bandit's eyes riveted at mine, and I would see Speedy there.

I might have quit over that, but Bandit clearly enjoyed Rally training, so I put my feeling aside and we continued.  As the weeks and months have gone on since we started, our experience has changed.  Now I am starting to feel like this is how Bandit works, and when I look down into his eyes, I see only the light brown eyes of Bandit himself.

That's the way it is now.  Something reminds me of Speedy, or a regret crops up, and I am able to focus on the dog in front of me and move forward.

Speedy will always be a part of everything I do in dog sports.  His memory is always in my heart, and he will always be a part of who I am. 

I am the trainer, handler, and person that I am today because of Speedy
In that sense, he really always will be with me

Quotes from "Oyez a Beaumont" by Vicki Hearne