Saturday, October 22, 2016

Celebrating 50 Titles!!!

This past week, Tessa earned her 48th, 49th, and 50th titles:  Expert Trick Dog, Cyber Rally-O Dance Division Pre-Bronze, and Level 4 All Dogs Parkour.

This is an accomplishment that I never intended with any of my dogs (maybe 50 total, between all of them, but not 50 with one dog!), but I am beyond pleased that Tessa and I have done this together!

Of course, it makes me think back to when Tessa first came here and I remember that she was terrified of me, and then - as soon as she realized that she had found safety in this house and on this property - she was intensely afraid to leave the property.  I remember the tiny, tiny baby steps that we had to start with when we began training and how it took quite a lot for her to trust me even a little.

A snippet from an early blog about Tessa's training:

After Tessa had been here almost a week, I was inspired to try some noodling around with a jump with her. I don't mean that I set out to train jumping. She is nowhere near that point. But I decided to see how she would be near a jump and start to make her comfortable with the piece of equipment.

I set up a jump, with the bar set at 4, in my living room. Of course Tessa was wary of it, but she very willingly approached it since I had a handful of chicken.

Chicken! This girl adores chicken!

I walked toward the jump and handed pieces of chicken to Tessa (from behind me as I faced away), as we approached the uprights. When we got close, she stopped. I put a piece of chicken on the floor right where she was and then I put a piece closer and I sat on the floor and looked sort of away from her. She slowly moved in and took it. I put a piece right next to the bar, but still on her side. She slowly moved in and took it. I noticed that as she moved in for each piece, she didn't back off once she had taken it.

Finally, I set a piece on the floor on the other side of the bar. She put one paw over the bar and ate it. She stood there. I put another piece down where she was and then one just ahead of her. She ate the first one then put her other front paw over the bar and ate the second piece. I did that until she had moved forward to the point where she still had her back paws behind the bar, but she was streeeetching forward to get the chicken off the floor. We took a break, she ran into the living room and hit the sofa, I got more chicken and she came back all on her own.

We did what we had just done and then I put a piece far enough ahead that she would have to get a back paw over to get to it. It took a few seconds and a few extra pieces where she was, but she finally got one back leg over! Then we got the other one over!

She liked that. I could tell. She didn't get happy or excited, but she was VERY interested. I went to get more chicken and this time she stood in the fireplace room and waited for me with a very interested look on her face! We did that three more times. Neither of us wanted to quit.

My girl!  This was just the beginning and we have come so, so very far!  Although, to this day, chicken is still her all-time favorite!  Some things never change - but mostly those are the good things.

"Title chasing" has something of a bad connotation among dog sport folks.  Many hear that and think of handlers who put undue pressure on their dogs, who blame their dogs for their own mistakes, or who put chasing titles above the well being of their dogs.

In spite of that, I will shamelessly admit that I adore "title chasing" with Tessa!  With one clarification - for Tessa and me, "title chasing" always includes: putting Tessa's well being above my personal goals, avoiding putting undue pressure on her, and striving to honestly recognize that Tessa and I are both fallible beings and that we are striving to do our best, not be perfect, in our performance together.

This began at our very first Agility trial.  It was a NADAC trial, and we were waiting outside the ring to go in for our third run of the day - a Jumpers run.  Tessa had surprised me all day long with her obvious enjoyment of being at the competition venue.  I had expected a dog with her background to be nervous in a new place full of strange people.  From the moment we walked in the door together, Tessa lit up, obviously very happy to be there.  This was unexpected, but very welcome!

Before going in for our first two runs of the day, in Regular Agility, I had practiced the mindset that had been necessary with Speedy, Maddie, and Dean.  "No pressure to qualify, just go out and enjoy our time together.  I appreciate whatever we do out there."  In fact, from running Dean, I had trained myself to almost pretend we had already NQ'ed before we even got going.

But as Tessa and I waited our turn outside that Jumpers ring, I looked at her and I saw a happy girl who was clearly anticipating what we were about to do with obvious pleasure.

On impulse, I said to her out loud, "Let's try to qualify!"  Not with a "we must do it or we FAIL!" kind of motivation, but really with a, "how fun would it be to actually try to qualify?!!?" attitude.

Tessa's eyes met mine, and I could tell from Tessa's demeanor that she was "in"!

So, we did that.  We went out there together and we tried to qualify.  You see, I didn't have to worry about Tessa's comfort level - she was very comfortable.  I didn't have to give her the kind of support that I had needed to give my other dogs.  Tessa was positive that she wanted to be out there doing what we were doing!  So, we ran for it - the Q.

It was an amazing experience.  We ran with everything we had.  We didn't Q.  But it didn't matter in the least!  We had put everything that we had out there and we had gone for it.

And it was exhilarating!

And for Tessa and me, particularly in Agility, which is her favorite thing in the world to do, we have always done that.  We go out there with everything we have and we give it what we've got.

"Title chasing" for us isn't as much about the titles as it is about the experiences that we have going for them.

But the titles do serve as goals to strive for.  They help me to structure what Tessa and I do together.  And we both gain a sense of accomplishment throughout the process.

Moreover, Tessa thrives on the challenge that comes with trying to meet a particular standard in whatever kind of ring we walk into.  I am not a high-pressure handler, but with Tessa I can focus as much on success as I do on her when we are performing in a particular discipline together.

And that is why earning 50 titles with Tessa has been one of the best accomplishments of my entire life!

We have all kinds of titles, too.  Some are from live competition venues, some are from video competition venues, some are from non-competitive video venues.  To me, they all have the same inherent value because all of them present their own challenges to Tessa and me as a team.

Of course, my favorite of her titles is the one we worked toward for 5 years - her CPE C-ATCH.  That took more work and training and preparation and dedication and pure effort than any title I have ever earned with any dog.  But, Tessa being Tessa, it was also the source of absolute joy for both of us most of the way.

Her Freestyle titles mean a lot to me because Tessa is not a natural Freestyle dog, but she has been willing to put herself into that because I asked her to.

And Parkour has become our newest love.  She and I have been going into the woods together for years - earning Parkour titles with her out there is perfection!!

Here is the video of Tessa's Walk Around Tango, which finished off her CRO Dance Division Pre-Bronze Title:

And here is the video of Tessa's third All Dogs Parkour submission for her Level 4 Title.  We did this at a park that had been a favorite of Tessa, Speedy, and me when we used to hike together!

Someone on a forum where I had shared this news expressed interest in seeing these titles written out, with an explanation, so here goes . . . 

I put the highest titles in each discipline/venue first, and then the titles that preceded it in parenthesis, and then I provide a brief explanation of each:  


(Preceded by:  CL1-H, CL1-R, CL1-F, CL1-S, CL2-H, CL2-R, CL2-F, CL2-S, CL3-H, CL3-R, CL3-F, CL3-S, CL4-H, CL4-R, CL4-F, CL4-S)
Explanation - CPE Agility, all four category titles (Handler, Standard, Fun, Strategy) at Levels 1 - 4, and then the Championship title at Level 5.


(CRO-I, CRO-I(2))
Explanation:  Cyber Rally-O, Level 1 Title, Level 1 Title (2) (Now defunct, but we did earn it when it was being awarded), Level 2 Performance Division (Meaning: Dog works on both sides), Level 1 Champion Title

Explanation: World Cynosport Rally, Level 1

Canine Musical Freestyle

Explanation:  First and Second Levels of Cyber Rally-O Dance Division

Explanation:  Dogs Can Dance Challenge - Championship, twice, Classical Freestyle, twice, Entertainment, 3 times, Musical Interpretation twice (so, this is a total of 9)

Explanation:  WCFO Freestyle titles Beginner, Novice, and Intermediate (WOOT!!!), and Heelwork to Music Beginner

Rally FrEe

(RFE-N, RFE-Alt-N)
Explanation:  Rally Free, Novice and Intermediate in both Regular and Alternate Divisions

Trick Dog

Explanation:  Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, and Expert Trick Dog

Canine Parkour

Explanation:  Novice Parkour Dog, International Dog Parkour Association

(ADP-1, ADP-2, ADP-3)
Explanation:  All Dogs Parkour - Titles, Levels 1, 2, 3, and 4

And we aren't finished yet!!  Tessa and are still running Agility, playing Parkour, and I expect that we will do some more Cyber Rally-O Dance Division Patterns and Dogs Can Dance Challenge performances.  We are still having fun - so, why not?

This month of October marks Tessa's sixth "Anniversary Month" with us!!  This is the month when we celebrate the day I met her, the day I brought her home as a foster, and the day we officially adopted her.  Earning our 50th Title together during this month makes it extra special.

Go Tessa!!

Tessa on a recent Parkour outing at Colonel Denning State Park

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A Shift in My Approach . . .

Recently I have experienced a bit of a shift in my approach to training.  It is not a major shift.  It is subtle.  In fact, on the surface it might look like nothing has changed at all.

But the result of this shift, particularly for Bandit, is tremendous!

It all started with another Fenzi Dog Sport Academy class - Foundation See Saw.  I wasn't planning to take this class.  I had actually kind of given up on training a teeter with Bandit.  I had been doing some work, with a half hearted hope that something might change for him, but really I was prepared to go do NADAC with him and forget the teeter.

The trouble started when Bandit was taking Foundation Agility.

His introduction to the teeter seemed successful enough.  He first learned to choose to bang the end of the teeter with his front paws for treats.  That went well.

Then he learned to circle around behind me, push the board down to the ground with his front paws, and get on with his four paws.  That went . . . . OK.  He had a tendency to throw those back paws off if he had any opportunity whatsoever, but he did all right with it.

But when we got to the point where he was supposed to get all the way on, tip it, and go to the end, the whole thing fell apart.

Bandit quickly developed a very serious aversion to having anything moving underneath him.

And this had an effect on more than his teeter.  He quickly became suspicious of any boards that I asked him to go across, so he lost what progress he had made on the dogwalk, as well. 

I did manage to help him regain confidence on stationary boards.  Doing Parkour with him definitely helped.  And eventually I did convince him that going all the way over the dogwalk, instead of jumping off the top of it, was a good thing.

But any time I would ask him to do anything with a moving board - even slam it with his front feet - he immediately became wary of boards again.

So . . . I made up my mind that I could live without the teeter . . . mostly.

When enrollment started for this term at FDSA, I made up my mind that I was only going to take one Bronze level class.

And then I saw a post on the FDSA Alumni Facebook group announcing that there was exactly one Gold Level spot left in Foundation See Saw.

I signed up.  Completely on impulse.  I felt that Bandit and I deserved one last fair shot at this piece of Agility equipment, so we signed up - at Gold.

I really went in with few expectations.  I figured I would work on the exercises with Bandit and I would see where we went.

First week went well.  There were no moving boards in any of the lessons.  Some nice, simple exercises that gave Bandit the opportunity to get reinforced for choosing to interact with various and sundry pieces of "stuff". 

That is good for him.  Bandit has always had an initial suspicion of anything he hasn't interacted with before.

But the first lesson of the second week was the one that changed everything.

In the second lesson, the instructor posed the question of what it feels like for our dogs to be trained by us.

That question made me stop short and really take a hard look at my work with Bandit.

What does it feel like for Bandit to be trained by me?

And when I really looked at my work with him objectively and was truly honest with myself, I had to admit that it probably didn't always feel all that great.

Don't get me wrong - Bandit has always enjoyed a lot about our work together.  At the same time, there has always been something between Bandit and me that hasn't quite "clicked" between us as a dog and trainer/handler team. 

I know that as positive as I always strive to be, there have been times when I have put undue pressure on him because I know he has the most incredible potential that I have ever witnessed in one of my dogs, and I want to see him master concepts and behaviors quickly and easily.

But Bandit is not always on the same page that I am on.  I think sometimes he is trying to understand what we are doing, but I am moving too fast.  I think that sometimes he is trying to get used to something that we are doing and I want to take it to another level.  I think that sometimes he just plain does not see the point of something that I am asking him to do, and sometimes I think he doesn't really understand what I want and he checks out on me because of it.

I have often thought that I wished that Bandit has more resilience and that he was more willing to be a partner in the game.

But maybe, I realized when I read that line in the lesson, I was the one who was failing to do what needs to be done to make all of this training and performance stuff work for Bandit.

When I thought about it - why would Bandit want to play with me with a moving board?  Obviously the allure of treats - even treats that he loves - did not outweigh his personal aversion to having his back feet move when the plank tipped.  There really was absolutely no motivation for him in this.

As we have worked our way - at our own pace, which is slower than that of most of the participants in the class - through the exercises in this course, I have become more and more attuned to going out of my way to make sure that Bandit is in a state of mind where he wants to be engaged in whatever we are doing together before we start our work.

This state of engagement is more than the fact that he is paying attention.  He is paying attention, his tail is up, his eyes are bright, he is eager to jump right into whatever I am going to have him do.

If he is not in that state of mind when we begin, then I spend some time with him to help him get there.  With Bandit that isn't very difficult at all.  By nature, he wants to be a team player.  He just needs to know that what the team is doing is something that is going to be enjoyable and worthwhile for him.

I saw this attitude spilling over into my other work with him when we were at Rally FrEe class yesterday evening.  I had cued Bandit to do a spin, which he did perfectly, but he didn't come back to position afterward.  He "landed" at something of an angle from me.  I first looked at him to see where he was mentally.  He was engaged.  He was looking at me, his tail was up, his eyes were shining.  Then I cued him into position and reinforced.

If he had looked distressed, confused, or distracted, I would not have bothered to ask him to get into position.

The result of this shift in mindset is having an amazing result.  I am seeing Bandit's confidence increase, and I am starting to see him begin to trust me much more, both in the ring and in regular life.

And - yesterday, for the first time, Bandit got on a low tippy plank and he tipped it with his front feet and stayed on when his back feet tipped up!  Not only did he stay on, but he was clearly comfortable, and after I tossed a treat to send him away from the plank, he came right back to it and did it again!  He was clearly not the least bit bothered by the movement of the plank!

Again, it is difficult to really describe what is different now.  It's not that I was doing something "wrong" before.  It's more like I wasn't seeing a part of the picture that is very obvious to me now.

Before I would have said that Bandit tipping a plank and staying on it was an amazing accomplishment.  Now I would say that the fact that he wants to do it is the most important thing.

A subtle change.  But an enormous one, too!

Friday, October 7, 2016


Bandit is now in Thursday night Agility class.

He is not in class with Tessa - he has class first, and then she is in the next class.

But, she is now sharing her Agility nights with Bandit.

This is a change.  It's a change for me - mostly a good change.  It's a change for Bandit - all a good change.  And it is a change for Tessa - I'm not quite sure whether it is a good change for her or not.

It has been many years since I took two dogs to Agility class on the same night.  Years and years ago, Maddie and Dean went to Thursday night class - Maddie in the first class, and Dean in the second.  Then Tessa took Maddie's place and she and Dean shared Thursday evenings.  Eventually they were in the same group together until I retired him in the fall of 2013.

It was particularly easy to have Dean in class with another dog because he had to spend the majority of the class in the car with his music playing.  Because of his noise phobia issues, he could not hear the teeter bang, nor could he hear other dogs drop bars, so he was only in the room when it was his turn.  I could easily pop the other dog in the car while he was running, so I only needed one crate set up for one dog.

Not so with Bandit.  I can keep him in the car, but I prefer to keep him closer when possible.

So, before class, I needed to freeze Kongs for the two of them.  I also froze one for Dean so he would have something to entertain him while I had both of the other two dogs at class.

When I arrived at class, which we did have outside last night, I set up two crates - one for Tessa and one for Bandit - right next to my car.  After we were settled, I took the two of them for a walk together.

Bandit was clearly as pleased as punch.  Sometimes when we are at class, and I am out walking him, he seems a bit nervous.  Not with Tessa there.  He was very obviously thrilled with this situation.

When it was close to Bandit's turn to run, I gave Tessa her Kong and zipped the top of her crate shut, and I warmed him up a bit.  She was quiet, and seemed perfectly content to enjoy her Kong while I did my thing with him.

We started with a sequence of a tunnel to a serpentine.  I started out with the same trepidation that I usually have when I look at a sequence and try to figure out exactly how to handle it with him.  After trying it one time, our instructor gave us some pointers, and after a few tries, he ran it like a pro!  He was confident, kept the bars up, and - best of all - he was plainly enjoying every second of it.

In fact, Bandit was so happy, he was acting a bit silly out there!  Before we started the sequence, he would run around a bit - run toward the dogwalk - and then come back and run.

I am actually really glad to see this.  Once he was engaged in a sequence, he was totally focused on it, but in between he wasn't worried.  Just thought it was party time!

Then we worked on the dogwalk a bit.  His attitude on the dogwalk has turned around completely - he used to avoid it and now I can barely keep him away from it!

Then another short jump sequence - backside of one jump and then another straight on.

We tried to work some weaves with wires, but his brain was a bit fried at that point, so we ended there.

Next turn we focused on the weaves, and he ended up going through 12 weaves, wired, focused, intent on what he was doing.  Love seeing that!!

We ended by working the sequence of two jumps with the jumps raised to 20 inches, which will be his jump height.  He rocked it!

That ended Bandit's part for the night, and now it was Tessa's turn.  Another thing I will need to remember is to walk the two of them together after Bandit's second turn, so Tessa gets a bit of time out of the crate before I need to warm her up for her class.

This two dog thing is a learning curve!

When it was Tessa's turn, this time Bandit got his Kong.  I was pleased that he settled right down and enjoyed it.  He did not fuss over the fact that I was running Tessa at all.

I was absolutely shocked when I got Tessa out there.  She ran like she has never run in her life.  She was running FAST!!!

At one point she flew ahead of me over two jumps, and took the A-Frame at full speed.

I honestly don't think I have ever seen her do that in her life!  I didn't even quite know what to do with it!

It was fun running her like that!  I guess a little competition from her pesky little brother might be a good thing for her, although I expect that effect to wear off as she starts to get used to him being with us.

After Tessa's turn, I did walk the two of them together. 

Bandit didn't do so well with staying quiet on Tessa's second turn.  I gave him his Kong and zipped the top of his crate, and he started to yowl, so I ended up putting him in the car.  But once in the car he didn't fuss at all, which was very good.  He could still see us plainly from the car, so that was a big step.

After class was over, I had to tear down both crates and pack up everything.

All in all, it was an excellent night.  I really enjoyed working with Bandit and I know this is going to be very good for him.

Someday this will be our "normal" . . . we will get there!!

 Tessa:  That whippersnapper will never jump like ME!! 

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!