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!!!