Monday, December 17, 2012

BRINGING UP PRESTO! Christmas Special

Fifty-three Christmases ago, when Barbara and I had been married slightly more than three months, my mother gave us a beautiful top ornament for our first Christmas tree.  It was our first "special ornament."

Each year something that symbolizes what was special about the year just concluding becomes that year's special ornament.  A Greek palace guard from our visit to Athens; a steel drummer from one of our trips to Young Island, our favorite spot in the Caribbean; special ornaments given to us by our parents; the laminated cover from my first book, Remembering to Breathe; items that represent important career achievements; a stuffed dog announcing the Christmas gift that turned out to be Honeybear; and, increasingly, mementos from dog sports triumphs -- obedience for me, conformation and agility for Barbara; a special item from our 50th anniversary party.  And on and on.  Fifty-two of these memory-loaded treasures.

It should come as no surprise that 2012 has gone down as the Presto! year.  And the year of the world's most delightful competition obedience students. 

Those two happy circumstances intersected on a Saturday morning this summer.  Two of my students showed up at a lesson with a surprise "puppy shower."  Only it wasn't a shower, it was a downpour of puppy things which filled "Presto!'s first toy box."  Mostly toys but also a brush, shampoo that my little guy is still using, even a kit to record his first paw print.

The piece de resistance, though, was an almost real , nearly life-size stuffed border collie.  He's waited patiently the rest of the summer and through the fall for his turn in the lights.  And now his time has come.  Nestled up there in the branches, surrounded by lights, he represents the very best of 2012.  He's this year's special ornament.

Merry Christmas! everyone.


Saturday, December 8, 2012

BRINGING UP PRESTO! Little Pleasures

So Presto! is seven months old, at least a year -- probably more -- away from the Novice B ring.  Right now it's all about teaching fundamentals . . . and making it fun.  As I write this, I have two lacerations on my nose and one on my upper lip.  Yeah, we're having fun.

Attention, fun and want-to:  in training and competition they're like a three-legged milking stool.  Lose any one of those and the whole thing topples over.  Presto! was born with want-to gushing from every pore.  My challenge is to sustain that enthusiasm while at the same time teaching pinpoint heeling, spot-on fronts perfect finishes, relentless focus, and "discipline," a word not easily installed in the vocabulary of a young border collie.  Ah yes, discipline.  More on that in an upcoming post.

So we train and play, play and train..  My mantra:  patience, patience, patience.  And the big rewards -- the truly thrilling moments in our training sessions -- are the little pleaures.

I've been amazed at how easy it's been to teach my little guy to sit and stay.  Planted there while I go to the van to get whatever.  Sitting at attention (well, most of the time) while I put cheese on  the go-outs pole.

Sitting yes, downing no.

Presto! has known the concertina (fold-back) down since he was about nine weeks old.  He's also known how to pop right back up. And I quickly learned that trying to hold him there was the most counter-productive thing I could do. But this past Monday, one day after his seven-month birthday, the light bulb went on.  I ran back into the house.  "Barbara!" I said, "He just stayed down for about ten seconds . . . on his own!"  And we've progressed from there.  Laugh if you wish, but that made my day.

Then there's the matter of the finishes.  My bad!  Fronts have always been my Waterloo -- or so I thought.  Near the end of  Bravo!'s obedience career, before it was cut short by the double whammy of lymphangiectasia and an arthritic right hip, he was regularly putting on a heeling clinic in the ring.  And we were losing our points elsewhere.  On fronts?  Where else?

There are six fronts and seven finishes in Utility.  The last few times Bravo! showed, I approached the judge after our run with something like,  "How many of those points were fronts?"  And was surprised to get a response something like:  "It wasn't the fronts, it was your finishes."  Which puzzled me.  I can look over my shoulder and see the finishes, and most of them looked good.  Had I hit a run of blind judges?

Fast-forward now to Presto!'s early training in the backyard.  I'm practicing get-around finishes.  The kitchen window opens.  Barbara says, "Every one of them is crooked."  Oh God!  Barbara's vision is failing, too.

It took 23 years, my wife's keen eye and her explanation for me to understand how I was teaching finishes, wrong.

I'm slew-footed.  It runs in my family.  In the 8th grade a classmate said:  "Here comes your grandmother;" and he demonstrated with his feet  pointing more east-and-west  than north-and-south.  "Here comes your mother."  Another demo.  "And here you come."

Yep.  And I've been teaching my dogs to finish lined up with my left foot, which is perpetually in impending-let-turn position.

So I've taken a full-length mirror out into the back yard, and we do finishes in front of that mirror.  When Presto! is seated at an angle to my left foot but parallel to the prime meridian, I've got a good finish.  A little victory?  I think so, but we'll see how it goes in the ring.

And then there's retrieving.  I learned early on that the little stinker won't retrieve . . . anything.

As far as nonretrieving dogs are concerned, this ain't my first rodeo.  A long time ago my first instructor, Debby Boehm, told me, "Anytime someone brings me a dog with retriever in its name I know only one thing: the dog won't retrieve."  Indeed, it took me a year to teach Cheddar, my now-retired golden retriever, to play ball (or even to tug, for that matter).

I haven't pressed the issue with Presto! until now.  In the beginning I tried throwing a tennis ball for him.  He'd chase after it then settle down and begin stripping the fuzz off of it.  So much for tennis balls.  Besides, our play style has not included my being a ball-throwing machine for him.  Our play is interactive, down and dirty, like two dogs. (Hence the lacerations.)

Now though, I've begun to serious up about the retrieving.  I don't want to work on it outside where there's a lot of room.  I want a tightly confined space.  My home office is at the end of a hallway, at the front of the house.  So I close the door, creating a dead end.  I get down on my knees about seven feet out and toss a small Kong toy toward the door.  If Presto! brings it back to hand, he gets a treat.  So far he isn't putting on weight.

But we had a breakthrough a couple of days ago.  He brought back three in a row.  Granted, I had to stretch my arms all the way out and grab the toy to keep him from dropping it.   But I want him to succeed.  By the way, one of these sessions lasts less than two minutes; I don't drill on anytrhing.

"Big deal," you say?  Maybe, but I'll take my little pleasures where I can get them.

Patience, patience, patience.


Monday, December 3, 2012

Bringing Up Presto! The Most Fundamental Fundamental

When I think about training a puppy -- or a dog of any age -- for competition obedience, my thoughts default to heeling.  Not to the exclusion of all the other important competition fundamentals like fronts and finishes and retrieving and sits and downs and stands and recalls.  But my mental picture of the performance I'm seeking features the dog in perfect heel position, head up, eyes bright . . . lovin' it.

After all, when you walk into the Novice ring or into any of the advanced A classes, what's the first thing the judge is going to get the opportunity to assess?  Heeling. That's where the judge's first opinion of a team's performance is formed.  And that first impression is bound to influence how she scores the rest of the exercises.

Heeling is also where the lion's share of the attention imprint can be applied.

So in my own training, in my students' training, heeling gets high priority.  There are many ways to teach heeling, but I've found that for me the best method to get the best results is AnneMarie Silverton's Pinpoint Heeling.  For a little primer on Pinpoint Heeling as well as a good grounding on dog obedience in general, please refer to my series titled "Attention, Attention, Attention," posted to this blog in October and November 2011.

I start my dogs and my students' dogs off-leash.  That's the way it is the very first day when we begin the puppy's little follow exercises.  Then it just sort of progresses from there.  Along the way I've discovered a few benefits -- not the least of which is the total absence of the horrible trauma that comes at the terrifying point where it's time to remove the leash and heel Fluffy.  "Oh, my God! I haven't slept for a week!" 

First of all, -- and I've found there are quite a few of like mind about this -- I regard the leash as an impediment.

Beyond that, in the traditional method of training heeling, where you are initially wedded to the leash, there are all these silly gyrations, accompanied by lots of heartburn.

I had this "shark line" on my Novice A dog, Honeybear.  The idea was that it was thin; she wasn't supposed to know it was there.  I wonder if she got a clue the first time I popped her?

The shark line was only batting practice for the part of the game that got really bizarre.  We had two leashes on the dog as we started out heeling.  At some point, in a sequence worthy of an Academy Award, with much ceremony and extraneous clicking, we'd remove one of the leashes. Now the dog thought she was leash-free, right?  Oh, I hope not! Any dog that stupid should be taught to shake, then retired to the couch.

Anyhow, less by design than by the natural progression of things, my students and I start the process off-leash.  It's only later, when we want to introduce a few corrections, that we add a leash.

So in the Pinpoint Heeling scheme of things, my students and I start the process off leash.  It's only later, when we want to introduce a few corrections, that we add a leash.

In the beginning, the treat, very visible between the thumb and index finger, is first on the dog's nose, then in tiny steps (SLOWLY!  We're talking months here.) it moves up to waist level.  And then to the attention stick.

From the tone of my earlier posts you might think all of this is a piece of cake.  Tra-la!  And away we go.  Don't you believe it; those are little drops of blood on my forehead.  If you are not a serious dog trainer but just stumbled on this blog while looking for the latest week-after-Cyber Monday specials, know that training a dog to excel in competition obedience is exceeded only by Chinese water torture.  And that's before the setbacks.

Which is where we are now in Presto!'s heeling progress.  I've got the treat about three or four inches above his nose and recently his head position and his focus deteriorated.  To cope with this revoltin' development, I want to introduce some leash corrections.  I've had the leash on him from time to time with my hands occupied this way:  The treat, Presto!'s focal point for right now, is in my left hand. The leash is in my right -- which was in arm-being-twisted position behind my back.

That's a very awkward position when I want to administer a little pop to redirect Presto!'s attention to the treat.  What's more, now I've lost the ability to use my right index finger to point to the treat as I say, "Look!"

Oh, what I'd give for a third hand right now!

Which is why I'm positive that in 10,000 years all competition obedience trainers will be born with a third hand.  How often, when training your dog, have you felt the need for an extra hand?  Evolution will take care of that.  Trouble is, none of us will be around to benefit from it.  Unless, of course, there's some way to factor in the time spent in the blind during out-of-sight sits and downs.

Way back when, in a time and place long since forgotten, someone, also long since forgotten, told me about the behind-the-back leash position.  But now it was bugging me.  So I went right to the source, the current doyenne of Pinpoint Heeling, Louise Meredith.  I told her of my current discomfort and asked her how she handles the situation.  Here's her response.

I don't like having the leash behind my back and in the right hand when I'm heeling.  It's way too awkward and I can't give a proper correction.  So when the treat is still in my left hand, above the dog's head, I have the leash in my right hand.  My right hand and arm come across the front of my body, slightly above the level of the treat that's in my left hand.  There is next to no slack in the leash and I pop up on it when the dog loses attention.  The leash is tight enough so that the dog can't forge or lag.  But if he does slightly forge or lag, I either pop back or forward, depending on whether it's a forge or a lag.  

The conclusion to that little anecdote is simple and sweet.  I've been working with the new position of hand and leash for several days now and it's just what the doctor ordered.

However, dealing with heeling focus lapses is swell, but I'm not deluding myself.  There's more to this than a simple transient heeling problem.

Yesterday Presto! turned seven months old, and he's intact.  There may be hormonal factors involved here.  If so, there's no way they'll be an excuse.  We'll train through whatever obstacles present themselves.

More to the point, I think I need to work a little harder to keep Presto! engaged when he encounters the interesting new sights, sounds and smells present in the parks where we train.

I'm working much harder to keep him Velcroed to me when we practice -- treating the entirety of each practice session as one "seamless" exercise.  Stressing "right here" as we move from exercise to play interlude to exercise.  In the early weeks of this mode he's getting leashed as we move from place to place.  He then moves at my side to whatever's next.  No drifting away to sniff.

I'm also ramping up my practice of distracted recalls on a flexi.  For me, that works best by going for short walks, allowing the dog to get distracted, then:  pop/"Presto! come!/"Good come!"/ treat.  I tell my students, "When the 18-wheeler is bearing down on your dog, you want him to turn on a dime and come to you.  So practice distracted recalls until you are blue in the face."  Right now I'm trying to get a little blue in my own face.

And of course there's a lot more play being melded into our practice sessions.

Next time we'll take up other fundamentals stuff we're working on.