Thursday, June 8, 2017

Joy Rediscovered

Ever since we moved to this area in 2003, hiking with dogs has been a favorite activity of mine.  Sometimes Ben and I would take Sammie, Speedy, and Maddie to Colonel Denning State Park and hike the Nature Trail with them.  Maddie and Sammie would actually cross over the creek on large fallen logs, and we used to enjoy calling them back and forth over those logs!

Speedy and Maddie in the woods near Currituck Beach Lighthouse in North Carolina

Speedy always seemed happiest in natural spaces, especially the woods.  Whether we were at one of our nearby State Parks, or at the Ecological Preserve down the shore, or at Glen Highland Farm, he seemed the most confident, the most whole, and the most at peace in wooded areas.

 One of my favorite pictures of Speedy enjoying the Nature Trail at Colonel Denning!

Speedy and Dean Dog eager to get into the woods at Glen Highland Farm!

And when Tessa came along, I found the same thing about her!  The first couple of times I hiked with Tessa, I was amazed with the joy and wonder in her eyes as she would gaze away from the trail into the trees around her.

As Speedy got older, and I became very interested in giving Tessa good quality exercise as my Agility partner, I began to take most hikes with Speedy and Tessa.  I called this little group "The Walking Club".  Sometimes we included Dean, but most often it was just the three of us together.

We went many different places together, but most often we hiked on the Nature Trail at Colonel Denning, the Pine Plantation Trail at Kings Gap, and, on our favorite trail of all - the Watershed Trail at Kings Gap.

All of this changed when we lost Speedy.

When spring of 2014 came and Tessa and I set out to enjoy our favorite trails, the experience felt like I had a deflated balloon inside.

Tessa and I did continue to take our favorite hikes, and I always enjoy them to some extent, but without the other member of our "walking club", the experience was always lacking something that I had loved.

"The Walking Club" - Speedy and Tessa


This is another of my favorite places to hike - the Nature Trail at Colonel Denning

I hoped that including puppy Bandit in our "Walking Club" would restore some of the joy that had been lost, but that did not happen.  As a baby dog, Bandit was not really ready to be a hiking partner.  And, Tessa did not really seem to enjoy Bandit's company on these walks.

We still went out and about from time to time, but I found that my interest in hiking with dogs seriously waned.

That was, until last summer, when everything changed.

Of course, last summer we began our involvement in Canine Parkour.

I distinctly remember the first time I packed up my camera and tripod and a bag of chicken, and set off into the woods to film Parkour Interactions with Tessa.

To my great surprise, I found that going out into the woods with Tessa felt right again.  Once again, the Watershed trail was beautiful, and Tessa and I were walking along with a shared sense of adventure and purpose.

Stopping to have her interact with various objects was different, and Tessa did seem a little confused at first, but she got right into the new game, and she and I have never looked back!

This is the very first Parkour Interaction that Tessa and I ever filmed together!

When Tessa and I started going around filming our Parkour entries together, I found, very much to my surprise, that the distinct feeling of something being missing vanished.

Not that I forgot about Speedy!  I always think of him when Tessa an I are out on a trail together.  But somehow it was almost like his heart and his spirit were again with us.

 Tessa and I had no idea how important these bridges would become for us someday!

Lately Tessa and I have been working hard on the Grand Champion track in All Dogs Parkour and we are currently in Level 4 (out of 5).  This has been a worthy challenge for us!  Some of the skills that Tessa has needed to master to be able to Q at this level on this track have not come easy to her!

I actually did not plan this deliberately, but the location where we filmed our third submission toward our Level 4 Grand Champion title turned out to be . . . . the Watershed Trail!

And what a cool adventure it turned out to be for us!

I took Tessa to the Watershed Trail back in March to do some filming for an online Parkour class that I have been teaching.  I found that after a long winter of low activity, we were both completely out of shape and out of practice!

We managed to get a couple of Interactions filmed, including a sequence that was really cool, but that it turned out that I could not use in our submission.

I decided after that to put filming at the Watershed Trail on hold, and we filmed at Willow Mill Park instead.  That turned out to be something of a difficult entry to film.  At Level 4 Grand Champion, we needed to include four different Advanced Interactions, and a 5 Interaction Sequence!  Tessa struggled a bit with the Sequence, and we needed to visit the park several times over the course of about a month before we were able to complete our submission.

However, we did get it done, and it was a Q!!  One down!

Our Submission for Leg #1 of Level 4 Grand Champion at Willow Mill Park

I considered going back to the Watershed Trail at that point, but I happened upon another location with Bandit - the White Oaks Trail - and I decided to film there with Tessa instead.

That entry turned out to be very straightforward to film, and Tessa and I managed to complete the whole thing in just two visits to the location!  We even took a bit of a side trip over to the Watershed Trail, which is nearby, on one of those occasions, and we filmed a couple more Interactions there!

The White Oak Trail entry was a Q, as well - two legs down!

Our Submission for Leg #2 toward Level 4 Grand Champion on the White Oaks Trail

After we finished our second submission at this level, I decided to finish our Watershed Trail entry.  By this time, summer break had begun and I had plenty of extra time to get there with Tessa to film.

But that did not make it simple . . . !

Tessa and I set out on an overcast day and I had the goal of walking the entire Watershed Trail loop - which is about 2 miles total - as we filmed some Interactions!

It started out as a beautiful day, and it was a lovely hike ... at first!

Cooling off in the creek in between hiking/filming

With about 1/4 of our hike left, it started to rain!  It was a light rain, but Tessa was none too pleased!  She started making a beeline toward the car, making exactly the right turn at each place where the trail split!!

By this point we had filmed almost all of the Regular Level Interactions that we needed, but we still had to film our four Advanced Exercises and the Sequence, which were the most difficult components of the entry!!

Since one of the Advanced Exercises that I had planned was Advanced Novel Uses, which consists of seven Interactions in and of itself, I decided to break those up and visit the location at least two more times.

And so, on another overcast day, Tessa and I returned to the trail.  I hoped to film Trick on a Platform Small, the Sequence, and possibly a couple of Interactions or Advanced Novel Uses.

We did get the first Interaction filmed (although I ended up re-doing it), but as we moved toward the area where I planned to try a sequence, there was a sudden clap of thunder!  I didn't even know there was thunder in the forecast!  Fortunately, we were not very far from the car, so we headed right home!

At this point, filming at this location was starting to feel a little . . . . drawn out!  Granted, I love the location, and I was enjoying our frequent trips there.  And I was very pleased that Tessa wholeheartedly approved of these ventures.  But I was starting to feel like we were stalling out!

On our next visit, just a couple of days after our session got cut short by thunder, we finally had a "break through" filming session!

We re-did the Trick on a Platform video, and the sequence turned out to be very straightforward to take care of.  Then we went and filmed seven Interactions for Advanced Novel Uses before Tessa started getting kind of tired.  We also had a bit of run-in with a bee while we were filming Novel Uses!  Tessa did not get stung, but the bee brushed against her side and it took a while before she was convinced that it was really gone!

So, now we were down to needing just two more Interactions - Go Around Distance and Get on Send.  And we finished those off today!  To celebrate, we filmed one more Interaction where Tessa and I sloshed into the creek together!  After all, it is the Watershed Trail!

In the end, getting this entry finished felt absolutely wonderful!  It had taken quite a bit of time, and we did a lot of walking and filming, but in the end I find that it is intensely satisfying to finish up an entry that we needed to put so much of ourselves into.

And this one is for you, Mr. Speedy!  Just as you always put your whole heart into everything you did, Tessa and I put our hearts into filming every bit of this entry!  In some mysterious way you are always with us out there.

Our Submission for Level 4 Grand Champion - Leg #3 - Watershed Trail

Now, on to Level 5.  This will be one of the most difficult challenges that Tessa and I have ever taken on together.

And I know we will love every minute of it!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Verbal Cues

Six months ago I made a decision to stop all work on verbal cues with Bandit, and focus on attitude, focus, and bringing enjoyment into our training together, especially our Freestyle training. 

That was one of the best decisions that I have ever made!  Since that time Bandit and I have truly started to know one another as training partners.  Our communication has improved, and our enjoyment of training has skyrocketed right through the roof!

And now we are at a point, with certain behaviors, where we are ready to start working on putting some of his trained behaviors on verbal cue.

I think that some people got the impression, when I made the decision to put all verbal cue training on a six month "hold", that I am against the training and use of verbal cues.

That, actually, is not the case.  With some dogs, in certain contexts, there is a time and a place for the use of well-trained verbal cues.  In addition, there are dogs who respond very well to verbal cues - with clear understanding and enthusiasm.  For those dogs, the use of verbal cues is perfectly appropriate.

What I am against (for myself) is approaching the discipline of Canine Musical Freestyle as an exercise in the performance of trained behaviors on verbal cues to music.  When one of my dogs and I perform a Freestyle routine, we are creating art together.  Freestyle is a form of expression - of who the dog is, of our bond, and of the joy that we find in the performance.  It is not a display of verbal cues.

That said, again, there is certainly a time and a place for verbal cues.

Since I do not want to fall into the same mistakes that I made, both with Tessa and Bandit, when I tried to train verbal cues in the past, I have come up with a detailed plan for our work with verbal cues.

Kristine and Bandit's Verbal Cue Training Plan

1. I will not take on a "stiff" demeanor because we are working on verbal cues.

I will strive to always keep my body language "loose" and natural.

2.  I will ensure that each behavior that is to be put on verbal cue is being performed consistently with strength, understanding, confidence, and joy on physical cue before making any attempt to put that behavior on verbal cue.

3. When working on verbal cue training, I will approach it as a game.  The introduction of the verbal cue is simply a new twist to the game.

4. When first working on verbal cues, I will reinforce all attempts on the part of the dog to avoid deflating Bandit.  Incorrect attempts will be reinforced with a treat of lower value, or with just one treat.  Correct attempts will be reinforced with a very high value reinforcer, or with a mini-jackpot.

5.  I will use verbal cues that Bandit already knows to work on the concept of listening for cues:  Whiplash Turns, Releases to Hand Touch on verbal, Releases to Leg Weaves on verbal, Spins and Twirls in center position, and Splat Downs.

6.  When putting a verbal cue on a new behavior, I will use a "food anchor" to help Bandit first listen, and then respond.  In addition, I will support his movements and choices with my eyes.

7.  Once Bandit begins to respond correctly and consistently to new verbal cues, I will have him practice by working on opposite behaviors in the same training session, and we will play "find the cue".

8.  Once Bandit knows a small selection of Freestyle behaviors on verbal cue, and he is performing those behaviors consistently, and with understanding and joy, we will introduce verbal cues into simple movement phrases.  I will remember to keep my arms and body language "loose" and natural.  No stiffness!

9.  I will remember though all of this that verbal cues are a tool.  They can be used selectively to enhance our dances.  We are not showcasing verbal cues - we are showcasing Bandit and our dance.

I am not striving for Bandit to "do everything on verbal", but to be ambidextrous - equally able to perform behaviors on obvious and supporting physical cues, and on prudently chosen verbal cues.

I will remember this!


I am excited about this because I believe that Bandit and I are really ready to take this challenge on at this stage of our work together.

It will be an adventure, not an obligation.  Perfect!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Introducing Rocky

We have a new dog!  Well, as of this past New Years Eve we have had him.  I have only just now gotten around to updating this blog since then!

My husband and I had been talking about adding a fourth dog for quite a while.  We had gone back and forth and back and forth, and had actually decided not to add a new dog at this time.  Of course, we were thinking about a Border Collie, or Border Collie mix, and were planning to adopt through rescue.

On New Years Eve, I was driving us home from church, and Ben suddenly said, "Look out - there's a dog!"  I didn't even see him at first, but then there he was - a small dog meandering up the road, in my lane.  Of course, there was a car coming in the other direction, but that person got over enough for me to just manage to squeeze by the dog.

At that point, the dog ran off the road into someone's yard.

We stopped, hoping that we would be able to catch the dog, and that he would have ID.  He was super easy to catch.  We called to him and he stopped and let us approach.  Just to be safe, we looped Ben's belt around the dog's collar and led him to the car, and he got right in.

At first we were very happy - he had a tag.  And then . . . it turned out to be a rabies tag.  That was it.  No ID.  No address.  No way to figure out where he belonged.

It wasn't terribly late, but it was dark and nobody was around outside in the area.

So, we took him home, knowing that we would probably have to hold him until Monday, when we could call the vets office to see if they could hook us up with his owner.

We could tell that he was a little Beagle mix of some sort, and he seemed to be young.  Not a baby puppy - we guessed about one or two years old.

We got him home and put him in a crate with some food and water, and put the ex-pen around it to keep our dogs back away from him.

He stunk to high heaven.  It wasn't a horrible smell -  he smelled like a farm.  But in the house it was strong, so we ended up giving him a bath, which was no problem.

By this time we could tell he was friendly, and pretty compliant.  He didn't try to bite, or fight us in any way.  I am not sure that he had ever been in a crate in his life, but he put up with sitting in there, near the space heater, while he dried off.

The boys seemed curious about him, and Tessa acted like she would like to get in there to bite his head off!!  Tessa has never taken well to new dogs coming into our house.

Ben really took to him.  Before long, Ben was carrying him around, and holding him, and taking him out when he needed to go.  By the time Monday rolled around, the little dog - who was completely nameless to us at that point - was like "Ben's little dog"!!

I had a Freestyle practice at the training building on that Monday morning.  I planned to call the vets office and see if I could get the owners info.  I told Ben that I would give his number to the owner and have them call him to make arrangements to get him back.

I did call the vets office, and they told me that they would get in touch with the owners and have them call me.  Several minutes later, I got a phone call.  The woman on the other end said, "I hear you have our dog!" 

Since I was on my way to the building, I gave her Ben's number so she could work out the dog's return with him directly.

When I got home, I was in for a surprise.  Ben had spoken with the woman's husband and he had asked if we wanted to keep him!

We talked about it, very briefly.  We knew right away that we did want to keep him.  We called them back and made arrangements to buy him for a very reasonable fee, mostly to make it official. 

It turns out that he is a mix between a Beagle and a Smooth Fox Terrier.  He is about two years old.  He ran loose on their farm and slept in a shed on the property.  He is very friendly and loves children.  And his name was Buddy.

The owners were having a difficult time keeping Buddy from running off.  They tried tethering him, but he did not like it (knowing him now, I am sure he screamed bloody murder on a tether!), so they continued to allow him to run free.  They were concerned that he would eventually get hit by a car, which, of course, is what almost happened!

And so, we now have a "Beagle Terrier"!  He has presented his share of challenges, but we really do love the little stinker! 

How could anyone not love this face?

We changed his name to "Rocket", but soon changed that to "Rocky"

This is very typical Rocky!!

He is, especially, Ben's dog!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Parkour Champion!!!

Yesterday Tessa earned her All Dogs Parkour Championship title!  Tessa is a Parkour Champion!

I am particularly excited about this because I really do love the mutually satisfying experiences that Tessa and I have had creating our Parkour entries for this venue.

We started out titling with the International Dog Parkour Association (IDPKA), and we had fun doing that.  Tessa and I explored the Parkour behaviors for that title in that venue, and we made videos of Tessa carrying out those behaviors - some on training equipment in the house, and others outside.  For IDPKA, the behaviors do not need to be filmed in a single location, so our final submission was a combination of videos from different places.

Tessa and I created a nice entry and we earned our Novice title, and that was very satisfying.

I considered going on to the Intermediate level with her, but I did not feel that some of the requirements were appropriate for Tessa, and so I decided not to.

And that is when we got into All Dogs Parkour.

At first I did not like the requirement that all of the behaviors would have to be carried out in one single location.  The first few times I filmed, I had to work very hard at coming up with 12 behaviors (although some could be repeats) on the EF's (Environmental Features) that Tessa would find in one single location.

However, as we progressed through the levels, I began to find that going to a single location, which can cover quite a lot of ground in some cases, was precisely the aspect of All Dogs Parkour that I enjoyed the most!

I also came to appreciate the fact that we could choose the Parkour behaviors that we wanted to do for each entry.  I never had to ask Tessa to do something that I felt wasn't quite right for her.

I found that I loved packing Tessa up to set off for different places, and then Tessa and I would get there and we would explore together.  She would sniff as I looked around for EF's that we could use.  Then we would try different Parkour behaviors out with what we found.  Then we would film.

Sometimes our filming attempts completely failed.  Sometimes it became clear that Tessa did not want to interact with a particular EF.  At other times, she rocked the exercises with enthusiasm and style.

I learned that it is OK to go back to film at a location twice.  I learned to film extra behaviors, especially when Tessa was in a focused and happy frame of mind, in case something didn't end up working on the video.

And after all that, I had the pleasure of cutting down our video clips, putting them together, labeling them, and submitting them.

I found that this whole process of choosing a location, searching out EF's to use, trial and error and filming, and then putting it all together is like creating an art project with Tessa!  And there is nothing that I love better than creating art with my dog!

I loved everything about this.  And - even more important - Tessa thoroughly enjoyed it.

Tessa has always been a team player.  Her love for engaging with me and accomplishing something with me as a team really shines forth in her Parkour.  And, we get to do all this, as much as we want, out in the woods where she and I have always loved to go!

Last week we filmed one of my favorite entries of all that we have done.  We went up to the top of the mountain in Kings Gap State Park to film in the area of the mansion that is up there.  Tessa absolutely loved working up there, and there were many great EF's.  On top of that, the setting was beautiful!  I enjoyed adding in bits of beauty to our film clips - the mansion, the view in the distance, a quaint light post, pumpkins, fall leaves . . . . this video really is beautiful!

I entered this as our final leg for Level 5:

As we go on to start to work toward our Grand Championship, I want to go back up the mountain to film there again!  We are allowed to re-use locations the second time around, and I plan to re-use most of ours.

We won't have the gorgeous fall background next time, but it will be fun to go and film there in another season.

After we filmed the mansion entry, we needed to do just one more.  I was completely at a loss for a last location.  On top of that, the time change had occurred, and I would not be able to go very far from home and have daylight to film in with her after school.

On a whim, I thought of the trailhead for our local rail trail right in town.  I live about 7 minutes from there, so we went to check it out.

It was a perfect location!

We had to go twice because the camera battery died on the first day that we filmed.  But I was glad for that.  On the first day we shot the Advanced Novel Uses (at the end of the clip), and that is almost an entry's worth of work unto itself with 7 behaviors!

The next day we went back and finished it up.

We both liked this location.  Tessa was a little leary of the people in the area at times, but she didn't mind them very much, and they always moved on pretty quickly.

My favorite clip in this video is her "Get Inside" in the planter.  She just got a kick out of jumping into that thing.

Here is our video for this entry:

I submitted those two videos together and yesterday we got results!  Both Q's, and we earned our Level 5 Title and our Championship!!!

Go Tessa!!!  Parkour Champion!!!!

On we go!  Weather permitting . . . we are having way too much fun at this!

Monday, November 7, 2016

Rambling Thoughts on Creativity

"You're so creative".  I hear this a lot.  Especially in the context of Musical Freestyle.
I don't think I am, though.  Sure, I can come up with ideas, but most of the time I don't take that all-important step of carrying them out.
And then a lot of times I feel like I'm just stuck doing the same things over and over.  Like I haven't come up with an original idea in years . . .
I WAS creative once upon a time . . .

Back when I did Freestyle with Speedy, I was always coming up with ideas - and we carried some of them out.

We danced to "Here Comes the Sun" and I made him a sunbeam collar and I designed the choreography to fit the music.  We danced to "Reunion" and we made it very flowy and elegant.  We danced to "Waltz from Maskarade" and our movement together was truly a dance.

And even with Dean I came up with some original ideas and we performed routines that were truly ours, as a team.
But when I go to choreograph, or design, a Freestyle routine now, I get stuck in putting together the same movement patterns I've been using with my dogs for years!  I just feel like I'm in this enormous rut!
Freestyle is a sport that requires coming up with ideas.  It's not like I can get what I need from someone else.  And, really, I want my ideas to be my own.  Sure I get inspiration at times from watching others - sometimes I see a move or a movement phrase that I want to try with my dog.  But that's not creativity unless I take it and do something with it that makes it belong to my dog and myself.

Also, I'm not like other Freestylers.  I know that turns some people off, but I have never been one to go along with the crowd.  I don't march to the beat of my own drummer - a lot of times I am turning handsprings to the beat of my own marching band playing music that nobody has ever even heard before.  That was true for me in grade school, in High School, and it's true now.
So, my routines tend to be outside the box.  The problem is that they have gotten stuck inside my own box.  I want them to be free . . . !!!

When Speedy and I did this, we did it to suit ourselves.  And now Bandit is leading me down that path again, but in a different direction altogether.
The problem with being different from everyone else is that it is easy to stagnate.  It is easy to fall into a pattern and circle there endlessly.  And then that gets old and tired and I feel like I want to go a different way, but I have no idea which way to go.  Part of me might want to go where everyone else is going, but somehow that just doesn't work for me.  I've tried it and crashed and burned.  So, if I'm not following the crowd, what do I do?

The only thing that has ever worked for me is to let my dog lead the way.  Whatever success I have had in the dog sport world I have had at the times when I have listened to my dog.  I can trust Bandit to help me figure this out.
That said . . . where is Bandit leading?  That's what we have to work together to find out.
Right now I strongly feel that exploring creativity is the next step for us.  How do I find our style as a team?  Only by trying stuff.  Thus far with Bandit I have pretty much done what I have always done.

What is the starting point for something new?  I don't even know.  That is where I am just stalled out right now.  I know that creativity is the answer . . . I'm just not quite sure how to go about becoming more creative.
But I need to think about it, and I need to figure this out.  Bandit and I can't go forward unless we find a direction and head out together.

Hopefully someday I will post a follow-up to this where I say what the resolution was . . .

Where do we go from here?

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Fruits of Good Changes

It has been just a little over a month since I made the post entitled "Thoughts on Freestyle".

Since that time, Bandit and I have adopted a completely new approach to our Freestyle training.  I barely work on verbal cues with him, other than to keep the training that he has on verbal cues fresh.  I have not been focused on precision or training anything "flashy".

And, again, it is not because I consider those to be "bad" things in some way.  Having a heavy focus on those elements of the discipline of Canine Musical Freestyle is just not right for Bandit and me at this point.

I have focused, instead, on engagement, joy, and enthusiasm.  I have focused on what I need to do, as a handler, to help Bandit be a confident and competent performer.  We have worked on honing the skills that have already been trained.  We have worked on flow and on chaining skills together.  We have spent time moving together, and we have worked on changing up reinforcement patterns.

And yesterday all of this paid off big!  I know that we are definitely on the right path together right now.

Several months ago I entered Bandit in the WCFO Freestyle competition, "Barkaritaville".  When I entered him, I was honestly not sure if he would truly be ready, but I entered because I knew that it was time to turn up the volume on our preparation and that the only way that I would be really motivated to do that would be to enter an actual event.

That was a very good thing to do.  I did focus - at least for a time - on stepping up our training and preparation.  Recently I got a bit sidetracked by the See-Saw class, but that turned out to be a very good thing in the end.

Bandit chose music a few months ago.  At first, I planned a routine and we started to practice it.  But . . . it didn't exactly . . . . click.  When we would doodle to the music together, Bandit was brilliant - focused, willing to try different things, engaged, and happy.  But when I tried to have him do choreographed sequences, his performance became somewhat flat.

I was honestly not quite sure what to do about the situation - we had a competition coming up, and I had no routine with an extremely green dog!  This called for action, but I took none whatsoever!

Instead, I just focused on doing what he and I had been doing.  We went to Rally class, and we worked on him doing the Rally exercises with less, and varied, reinforcement.  We went to Rally FrEe class and focused on enjoyment and varied reinforcement.  We went to Agility and focused on staying connected, engagement, and enjoyment.  And at home we just trained whatever I felt like training.

And all of this was very, very good.

But it didn't seem that any of it was preparing us for our first actual Freestyle event.

As the event got closer, I considered dropping out - or, at least, changing our entry to Innovations.  But, that idea did not really resonate with me.

And so, yesterday morning I found myself driving in the car with Bandit to Barkaritaville.  I had music burned onto CD, an outfit that I could wear that was nothing special, but halfway decent, and Bandit . . . and we went!

I was not excited, although I was not exactly dreading the event, either.  Really, I felt quite indifferent about the whole thing.  I really love this particular Freestyle event and I was looking forward to being there, but Bandit was such an unknown in competition, that the net result of my personal emotions was pretty much . . . nothing.

In retrospect, I think that was actually a good thing.  Too many emotions on my part - even happy excitement - might have confused Bandit.  From his perspective, I was acting normal.  The same way I would on the way to a training class, or if he and I were just out for a ride in the car.  For a  young green dog, the less that is "out of the ordinary" on a competition day, the better!!

That said, I knew I had to resolve the problem that I found myself in before we actually arrived at the event.

So, I thought about it.  And I thought hard.

I knew that I could not be thinking about qualifying.  I had to put that out of my mind altogether.  And I knew that a focus on "just having fun" was not going to get me anywhere with a dog this green with no choreographed routine and no reinforcers in the ring.  I needed some objective in going into a situation like this, so I can be supportive of my dog.

So, I gave the matter due consideration . . . . 

I accepted the fact that we were not really ready, and I put aside any ideas of actually putting together any kind of routine at the last second.

I considered what we could do out there.

First, I could be very aware of asking Bandit only for behaviors and moves that I knew were rock solid for him:  Moving in heel, side, or center, twirls and spins, switches, leg weaves, clockwise circles around me, sit and give paw, and maybe backing away from me in center as I move toward him.

There are a good many movement sequences that I have choreographed from other routines that are sequences that I tend to use quite a lot: such as me moving backwards diagonally across the ring, with the dog moving toward me in center, and pausing to ask for spins or twirls or weaves along the way.  And Bandit is familiar with those because we often do them in training. So, I knew I could go ahead and see what he could do with some of those.

But it was more than that.  I made a decision not to be outcome-focused, but to really keep my attention on helping Bandit to be relaxed and enthusiastic.  If that meant using hand signals, I would use them.  If that meant doing quite a lot of movement and few stationary moves, I would do that.  I decided not to care if he missed moves, and if he refused to do something, we would just move along and I would not ask for that move again.

I decided to do everything I could to give Bandit a chance to explore this Freestyle world, to the greatest extent possible, on his own terms.

And, if I saw him become stressed or shut down in the right, I would thank the judge and we would leave the ring.  That was not what I was hoping for, of course, but I prepared myself mentally for that possibility and accepted it.

And then it hit me out of nowhere:  this competition could be an experience that would prepare Bandit and I for our future in Freestyle performance!

Today might not be about striving for a Q, but today could be about setting a foundation of joy and good partnership in the competition ring, and that could set us up for our future.

And it occurred to me that it is truly a precious gift to have the opportunity to prepare for our future!

And, mentally, I was on board with that.

I also made a mental resolution to let the past be in the past for this one day.  I said to Bandit out loud, "Today this is all yours - today this is for you!"

I was in a pretty good frame of mind when we arrived at the competition site.  Still somewhat indifferent to the whole thing, but feeling cheerful and at peace with the whole situation.

I unloaded our stuff, and set up Bandit's crate space.  Then I walked him a bit and brought him in.  Bandit just sparkled with joy when I brought him into the building.  He has been there before - twice - to do Innovations.  But this was the first time that he and I had gone to any kind of competition completely by ourselves, without at least one other dog.

I took him out in the ring with a toy and we played.  He was very focused on me, and he was clearly thrilled to be in the ring.  It was obvious that he definitely had some idea of what we were there to do, and he was excited.

Thankfully, our turn was very early - we were the 5th team to perform.

I warmed him up in the warm up area, and then we went in for our sound check.  I did take his tug toy in with him for sound check, and I think that was a very good decision.  It got him into a really great frame of mind.

In we went for the real thing and, honestly, I don't think it could have been a more perfect first-competition experience.

I was not at all nervous or stressed.  Bandit was in a great frame of mind - engaged, eager to do whatever I asked.  I never lost his focus once - not one sniff!  And he did absolutely everything I cued him to do!  He twirled and circled and weaved and moved and sat and gave paw with skill far beyond his experience!

I was so happy that he stayed engaged and worked, even without treats or toys out there!  He loves performing in front of an audience, and he was just shining with joy the whole time!

After leaving the ring, I was happier than I ever thought I could have been with the whole thing!  Bandit gave me the best of himself out there, and I would never ask for anything more from any dog.

I found that I didn't care at all about our score - it was just such a success for Bandit and I as a team.

After giving him a good walk, we hung out and I watched a lot of the other performances.  I chatted with friends.  I fed Bandit bits of chicken from time to time.  I wished I had frozen him a Kong so he could have chilled out with it after his performance, but I hadn't.  Next time, definitely!

What do you mean, I don't get another turn?

We went to lunch and returned to watch the rest of the show.

And we got our results, which absolutely floored me!

8.0 Technical and 8.1 Artistic!!!!

For Beginner, we needed 7.3 in each category!  For Beginner scores, these were quite, quite high.

And the comments the judge gave were very positive!

Qualifying was icing on the cake, but the surprises weren't quite over yet!

We also scored in First Place in our class!!  I simply could not believe that!

My first official "Ribbon Photo"!!

In the end, the thing that makes me happiest is that Bandit and I accomplished this by doing what was right for him.  Our path may not be typical, but it is right for us.

And the changes that I have made in my approach to Freestyle have paid off.

Now I am thinking about where we go from here and I am very excited!!  Great things ahead!  Bandit is a dancer with heart and his own style!

And I love everything about him!

Here we go!!!

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