Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Here in this Sonoran Desert city called Phoenix -- where on the first day of fall this year the temperature climbed past 110 -- the lion's share of dog sports training and trialing is done outdoors.  Right here you're thinking I'm about to launch into a treatise about the tribulations of training dogs in the blast furnace called Phoenix Summer.  But I'm not.  Those of us who are serious about excelling at dog sports have come to grips with that, and not to the detriment of our dogs.  Call us the Dawn Patrol.  You learn early in your dog training career how to outfox the heat or you park Fluffy on the couch and take up stamp collecting or quilting.

Heat, schmeat!  There are more insidious problems out there.  One of them is the leash.  Or, more to the point, the off-ness or on-ness of the leash.  I'm not talking about the anguish when it's time to take Fido off leash and hope he heels in the same area code.  That's one of the passages in competition obedience training guaranteed to give the neophyte handler a galloping case of the hives.

What I am talking about here is the on-leashness or off-leashness of dogs in public places, particularly urban public places such as city parks.  An issue that can generate major heartburn.

If you train outdoors, in a city park or any other large area of inviting grass, you know the scenario.  The person with her dog off leash may be 200 yards away (if you're lucky) but you know that all too soon that dog is going to break away and come charging into your training setup . . . pausing only long enough to pee on your equipment.  And  100 yards behind, here comes the woman, lumbering along, shouting, "He's friendly! He's friendly!"  That's swell, lady, but when Adonis gets here my dog is going to excise his Adam's apple.

It's a never-ending problem, one that can get quite nasty.  Years ago a park ranger warned me. "Willard, be careful.  In my career as a ranger the ugliest confrontations I've had have been with people whose dogs were off leash."

Something must have made that situation boil over.  Though I've had wonderfully close relationships with folks at high levels in the City of Phoenix parks and recreation department for the better part of two deades, no one has ever come clean about what precipitated the action that Phoenix  City Council took early in 2004.

It was mid-April of that year when I received a phone call from a competition obedience buddy who was a policy analyst with the City of Phoenix police department. He had been looking up something in the Phoenix City Code when he came across a new page (Section 8-14, Dogs Not Permitted at Large)

Did I know that on February 11 of that year -- without hearings, without public input of any sort -- council had passed a draconian new leash law?  And that it had been passed as an "emergency" measure, which meant it was effective the minute the vote was taken , as opposed to the usual 30-day waiting period?  Did I know that the new law said, "each dog shall be confined within an enclosure on the owner's or custodian's property, or on a leash not to exceed six feet in length and directly under the owner's or custodian's control when not on the owner's or custodian's property" ?  Period.  No exceptions.  Which effectively restricted dog sports training to our backyards.  (Try that with your agility course, or even your directed jumping practice.)  And did I know that the penalties for violating what I began to call the new "under-cover-of-darkness ordinance" ranged from a stiff fine to giving the law enforcement officer authority to confiscate your dog on the spot?

No, I knew none of that.  And neither did anyone else in the dog sports community.  We had been blindsided and we didn't even know it.  Although two months had passed with the new ordinance in effect, none of us had been challenged.  Clearly, though, there was no way we could train in Phoenix city parks without violating the law.

On the other hand, no one was bothering us.  None of us had been approached by a park ranger in a long, long time.  I was inclined to ignore the whole thing, let sleeping dogs lie.  Until I talked to Billie Rosen.

Billie has long been a strong, positive influence on dog sports in Arizona.  She's the "godmother" of agility in our state. And she got me started in competition obedience.  Billie is retired from a career where, as one of the superstars in the office of the Arizona attorney general, she prosecuted Medicare fraud, Hell's Angels, the Mexican Mafia and chop shop operators.  An assassination attempt a few years ago didn't slow her down one bit.

I told Billie about the new ordinance and shared my thought of just cooling it.  Billie responded in her best prosecutorial, courtroom voice:  "Willard, GET THE LAW CHANGED!" 

Next:  Rallying the Troops


Tuesday, September 13, 2011


If you haven't already read my post of part one, read it now so you'll be up to speed as we detail the second part of this not-so-simple process.  The lines in italics are my comments, interspersed with Sandy's instructions.

Now put Bowser on a flexi leash.  The first bar (we'll add a second bar later) is about eight feet in front of where you sit the dog.  You are at the other end of the flexi.  You will call Bowser from beyond the bar.

I use these recalls as an opportunity to reinforce a solid sit.  As I walk away from the dog to take up my recall position, with my back turned I engage the stop mechanism on the flexi, trying to pull the dog out of the sit.  At the same time I say, "Sit!"  The dog's opposition reflex will cause him to pull back into a more committed sit.  I do this randomly, at various distances.

Now we're going to do a series of seven recalls, seven "reps."

First rep:  Begin with a straight recall.  Say, "Come!" and pop him off the sit with the flexi. When he gets to you say, "Through!" throw a toy between your legs and let him get it.  So on this first rep he comes right over the bar.

First your dog has to know "through."  He should have learned that as you taught a brisk Novice recall.  If not, teach him now.

Second rep:  Pop him off the sit.  If you're lucky, he'll come at 100 mph.  When he's three feet from the bar, give a verbal and a hand signal to drop -- at this stage he'll need both.

If he continues over the bar, and he's likely to do that a lot early in his learning curve, walk back to him, back him over the bar -- both hands in the collar if necessary, but he must walk backwards -- then tell him, "Down!' and give him a light bonk on the head. (Anger has no place here.)  Then tap his feet with the bar three times, saying:  "Down, good boy! Down, good boy! Down, good boy!"  Finally, throw a toy or a cookie into his chest or behind him.  At this stage, however, whether the dog drops correctly or not, walk back to him and tap his feet with the bar.  It's important to make a fun game out of this correction sequence.

Third rep:  Drop him behind the bar again.  Only in the early stages of learning, while the dog is getting the idea to drop or showing signs of figuring it out, does Sandy advise dropping him twice in a row.

Once he has the idea that he's supposed to drop behind the bar, but only on your signal, start alternating the straight recall and drop for reps four through seven.  If at any point he looks like he's going to anticipate the drop, don't drop him; pop him on through and throw a toy between your legs.

"Pop him on through," is easy for me to write here, but not so easy to execute.  If you have a fast dog, his forward speed is likely to be greater than the speed at which the flexi is retracting.  Which means that when you see him about to drop on his own you find you have slack in the line and your second pop has all the impact of punching a pillow.  I offset this by giving a second verbal, "Come!" as I flail around trying to execute the second pop.  Pretty soon the dog gets the message.

When Bowser has begun to do all this well with one bar on the ground, add a second bar eight feet beyond the first bar. 

Here's Sandy's sequence with two bars.

First rep:  Pop him off the sit.  Pop again at the first bar and throw a toy between your legs.

Second rep:  Drop him at the first bar.  Timing is everything here.  The signal and verbal must be given when he's three feet from the bar.  This means you pop him off the sit and immediately give the signal/verbal to drop.  If he comes over the bar instead of dropping, follow the correction sequence spelled out above.

A few words of encouragement:  "Timing is everything here."  Very daunting for neophytes -- especially if you have a fast dog and everything is happening at warp speed.  I've found timing to be the toughest challenge.  Ah, to have a slow motion control.  But there isn't any.  And timing is crucial.  You get Rev-like drops by tightening the tolerances.  But remember, the dog isn't the only one who's learning, you are too.  I've gotten much better at the timing part of this.  So will you.

Third rep:  Straight recall, with pop off the sit.

Fourth rep:  Pop him off the sit.  Pop again at the first bar.  Drop him behind the second bar.

Fifth rep:  Straight recall . Pop him off the sit.  Pop again at the second bar.  Throw toy between your legs.

Sixth rep:  Drop him behind the second bar.

Seventh rep:  Straight recall.

This sequence does wonders for both the quick drop and drop anticipation.  And it's guaranteed not to bore you or your dog.  


Monday, September 12, 2011


Before I post part two of Sandy Rowan's drop on recall method, let's pause to answer a pair of questions submitted by Sally in Texas.  (My God!  Somebody out there is paying attention.)

After reading part one, Sally wanted to know, do you continue to tap the feet as you extend the distance?  And do you continue to tap the feet as the diameter of the barrier diminishes?

Rather than give my own answer -- which would have been yep! -- I decided to contact Sandy again, as much to renew an old acquaintance as to get the answer right from the source.  Sandy and Mike no longer live in Alaska.  Trainers in the Portland, Oregon area are now privileged to take competition obedience lessons from Sandy where she lives and teaches.

Her answer to Sally's questions was two-pronged.  Yes, she would continue to return to the dog and tap the feet, even at a distance of 50 feet.  "Make it a game!," Sandy emphasizes (and so do I).

However, as her training has evolved, she has made subtle changes in how she reinforces and rewards.  Now, instead of tapping the feet, she moves the stick, pole, bar, whatever back toward the dog.  This forces him backward slightly, and then she has him quickly drop again.  Then she may toss a toy or a cookie into his chest.  Or she may toss it behind him and have him run and get it.  These reinforcement/reward options -- presented as a game -- shift the dog's orientation away from forward motion..

Thanks for the questions, Sally.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


In last Friday's post, "The Importance of Role Models," I mentioned Sandy Rowan and her late, great border collie Rev (OTCH Copperlane R.P.M.)  I recounted how I first saw them at a Gaines tournament in the early '90s and was stunned by the way Rev dove into the drop on recall, skidding on his chin.

Just seeing that kind of commitment to hitting the deck wasn't enough, I had to know how Sandy attained that level of excellence.  She lived in Anchorage at the time, so I called her.

"How do you get Rev to dive into that drop?" I asked her.

"I train it that way," she said

"Oh," I said.

Sandy laughed, then she continued, "Actually the method is kind of complex."

Tape recorder running, I said, "Shoot."

Before I recount what Sandy told me, a few comments about the drop on recall exercise.

From the dog's point of view, this exercise is loaded with contradictory handler expectations.  First the dog is expected to stay, then come, then drop and wait, then get up and come again.  You can hear the dog thinking, For Pete's sake, make up your mind. 

Inherent in the exercise are the following common errors on the dog's part:

  --  Anticipating the recall.  Border collies are particularly prone to anticipatory behavior.  We all have the classic picture of the border collie waiting to be called.  Everything forward -- one leg, the shoulders, the head, the ears.  A loaded gun, ready to go off.  Only a split-second away from serious point deductions.

  --  Anticipating the drop.  This can manifest itself in the dog (a) creeping tentatively forward, body low, waiting for the drop command, or (b) simply hitting the deck before the command is given.

  --  Or the converse:  coming with such lightning speed that his forward momentum carries him many feet before he can drop.  It's a rare dog who can come like a bullet, then drop like a rock.  Rev was such a dog.

  --  Oh yes, the dog may not drop at all.

Sandy's method covers all of the above.  (She disclaims exclusive credit, however. Like all of us, she has sat at the feet of others who are outstanding and learned her lessons well.)

Important:  This exercise always begins with the dog in a standing position; do not drop your dog from a sit.

Begin with the stationary signal drop.  Your dog must understand to drop behind a bar.  Start with the two-inch-square bar from the bar jump; it's highly visible.  As this sequence progresses, you'll want to shrink the diameter of the bar down to one-half inch PVC pipe and eventually to only a clear plastic dowel.

Stand only a few feet in front of the dog and begin with the stationary signal drop behind the bar.  After he drops, tap his feet three times with the bar (yes, the big bar), saying, "Down, good boy! Down, good boy! Down, good boy!"  Then throw a toy into his chest or behind him.

Gradually increase the distance between you and the dog until you are giving your signals from 50 feet.  The bar remains directly in front of the dog's feet; in this initial stage, don't give him any room to travel.  Eventually -- and we're still talking about the stationary signal drop here -- begin moving the bar back so it's no longer a factor in the exercise.

Your dog must be really solid on the stationary drop before you progress to the drop on recall. And he must understand that he must not continue forward beyond the bar once he sees your drop signal.

Assuming your dog has done well on the stationary drop exercises described above, he's now ready for Sandy Rowan's supercalifragilistic, dynamite method of teaching the moving drop.  We'll go into that in detail in the next post.


Friday, September 2, 2011


The first time I saw Karen Price and Flash they were, appropriately, on a pedestal.  It was a natural pedestal, but a pedestal all the same.  And in my mind I've kept them there ever since.

It was a long time ago, the winter of 1992.  We were at the Kachina Kennel Club obedience trial held in Estrella Mountain Park, southwest of Phoenix.  Karen and Flash had taken high in trial that day and were positioned on a grassy knoll for their high in trial photo.  They looked so magnificent up there

I was greener than the grass on that knoll.  My Novice A golden retriever Honeybear and I had two legs on our CD.  I was trying to convince Honeybear to endure just one more long sit so we could finish our first obedience title.

And there was Karen with this big handsome golden, posing for the high in trial photo.  I began to dream.

That was Saturday.  The next day I wandered by the Open B ring just in time to see Flash not budge when Karen called him for the drop on recall.  A large airline was passing over as Karen gave her command, and Flash hadn't heard her.

The imprint was firm and lasting:  yesterday HIT, today NO . . . because the dog didn't hear "Come!" spoken in Karen's soft voice. From that day forward, without exception, my commands in the obedience ring have been loud and clear.

We saw a lot of Karen and Flash after that, and they became our first role models in obedience competition.

I would watch Flash:  his drive, his explosiveness, how he strutted through every heeling pattern, his sheer joy at being there at Karen's side.  And I'd dream.

Then Honeybear and I would practice and I'd say, "Be like Flash!"  Of course Honeybear didn't know what I meant, but I did, and that made all the difference.

Someone has said, "Your images lead your reality."  So doesn't it make sense that the mental pictures you use to visualize your best ring performances should be as close to perfect as possible?  My remembrances of Karen and Flash served that purpose through a UDX, a Gaines placement, multiple highs in trial and high combineds, and finally an OTCH.

Next came Ott, a $50 border collie who had a million-dollar impact on my life.  Ott belonged to Sandra Shults, sometimes student, sometimes instructor at Precision Canine, where we trained. 

Ott was my first border collie experience.  I had to ask someone, "What kind of dog is that?"  I was struck by Ott's focus, drive, intensity.  And, again, I began to dream.

If Ott planted the seed, Lace cultivated it. 

Those who compete in competition obedience in the western United States have for many years encountered Louise Meredith . . . and have gotten their clocks cleaned.  Louise is one of America's great obedience trainers and competitors.  Her teammates are border collies.

Ott had raised my antennae, so I was quick to spot Louise and Lace.  Showing in Southern California, we'd arrive the day before the trial and go about pitching our tent and arranging our setup. Invariably Louise was there working Lace.  Heeling, heeling, heeling for what seemed like an eternity.

At first I thought, That woman must be crazy.  Doesn't she know better than to work a dog that much the day before a trial?  Then, of course, for the next two or three days Louise and Lace would chew up the competition an spit us out.

We learned many things by watching them.  One of which was that there is a type of border collie (the kind with four legs) that thrives on work.

Louise and Lace were splendid role models.  I was priveleged to be present at the show when Lace retired in December of 1996 with 1062 OTCH points, 75 high combineds and 50 highs in trial.

As I developed as a trainer, my role models became less general.  Less, "Be like Flash!"  More oriented toward seeing a team do a specific exercise spectacularly well, then adopting that perfect picture as the standard we'd bust our butts to attain.

Take for instance Sandy Rowan and her dynamite border collie Rev.  The first time I saw them was at a Gaines tournament in the early '90s.  Rev did a stunning drop on recall.  When Sandy called him, he came like the wind.  When she signalled the drop, he dove into it, skidding on his chin.

Right there Sandy and Rev became our role models for the drop on recall.  And though nearly two decades have passed, I've yet to see another dog that committed to hitting the deck.

Note that we aren't talking about mentoring here, we're talking about lasting mental pictures.  How are you going to train for the perfect exercise or the perfect run if you don't have a clear image of what it looks like?

And I don't think it'll do you a bit of good to look up the date of the next local AKC obedience trial and write on your calendar, "Find role model today."  It's a passive thing.  You don't plan it, it happens to you.

You see a dog/handler team whose performance not only rings your bell, it shatters it.  Something inside you -- something involuntary -- says. "That's it!  That's why I'm in this sport.  That's the way I want us to be."

That performance stays in your mind.  When you train your dog, that's the picture you are seeking.  It's your inspiration to train in the rain, even to practice your footwork by yourself.  A good role model is the wind beneath your wings.