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!!!

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