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!!