Moonwalking: Weekly Agility Report

It had been a challenging week, returning home to Rain after being gone. She was bursting with energy all week—at least in part because I hadn’t taken any days off after returning to just stay home and be with her. Thus, there were just short windows of time each morning and evening to work out all her pent-up energy. By the afternoon of class, she still had crazy to spare.

It probably shouldn’t have surprised me, then, that she was a real loudmouth leading up to class. Just after turning on the street to approach the agility facility she started barking excitedly, whereas during a more typical week she won’t start barking until we’ve turned into the property driveway.

Rain and Rudy were the only dogs in class this week, but from the ruckus Rain was making at the start of class you’d think there was a crowd. Rain even barked while running the first course during class—something that her mom Skye used to do during agility but Rain generally hasn’t. Until now.

Evidence was suggesting that Rain was happy to be back in class.

We started out by walking a six-part course to think through how we’d handle it with our dog. There was one tricky spot, a jump right next to a tunnel. We’d have to give our dog the jump and then get them back to us to feed them into the tunnel which was sitting next to it. Sounds fairly easy but when a dog is running at full speed and sees a different obstacle in front of them they may be more inclined to just power ahead to that one.

Rain didn’t fall for the trick and we navigated the tunnel more or less just fine, pleasing Molly immensely. During the next part of the same course (7-12) there was a similar gotcha in the setup. Coming off a teeter, the dogs approached a tunnel with an A-frame over it and many dogs might go straight for the A-frame. Not Rain!

Molly has been gently trying to steer me away from the cookie belt (bait bag) I usually wear during class, for a variety of reasons. Most recently she suggested that Rain’s reward for pausing at the end of a contact obstacle would be her release. During the first part of the course I caught myself giving her a treat so I decided to just ditch the cookie belt altogether.

Molly suggested I keep a few treats in my pocket but we went the rest of class without the cookie belt—and Rain didn’t instantly go on strike.

Why does Molly want you to get rid of the cookie belt (bait bag)?

  1. Bait bags/treat rewards aren’t allowed at agility trials.
  2. When Rain and I run a course, training treats will often fly out, depositing themselves around the arena floor and other dogs will get distracted by the free treats when it’s their turn to run.
  3. Treats are supposed to assist in training, not be a crutch. I started using them a lot when Rain was going through Reactive Rover but now that Rain knows her stuff at agility I shouldn’t need to use them as much.
  4. It’s freeing to run a course with a dog without worrying about cookie logistics!

In addition to challenging ourselves, Molly threw an unexpected challenge at me during class. During one run she had me approach a particular jump backwards and send Rain over it. Moonwalking, sorta! The first time it felt so awkward that I bailed on the backwards part to signal the jump, but the second time it worked just beautifully. Molly praised how smoothly it went, and then pointed out that as we got better doing agility would be more of a fluid dance.

After class Rain was still being a real loudmouth but after we played more ball in the pens out back a wave of calm washed over her. It was like a heavenly vacation for my ears, and I decided to step out of the pen and observe the next class a little, reveling in the silence. (Rain was still supervising me from the pen.)

Rain’s temporary silence gave me hope that she’d settle down for the rest of the evening when we got home. She took a nap in the car on the way home and resumed being energetic and noisy once we returned.

But then, around 8pm, I noticed something unusual. A sleeping Rain! She had settled down for the evening much earlier than usual. I was able to have another nice little vacation at the end of the day, with evidence suggesting I had finally worked out Rain’s pent-up energy from my time away from her.


Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder: Weekly Agility Report

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. We’re testing that theory, as Rain and I were absent from agility this week! In fact, we were also absent from each other for the week. Rain was in the continental US, and I was not!

Rain and Roy both made strong arguments for stowing away into my bag so they could visit Hawaii by my side. After all, Roy mewed, you don’t need to pack all those wool sweaters when you’re going there. A bathing suit, sunscreen, and a ukulele leave plenty of room for two loving furballs who will miss you while you’re gone. Rain astutely noted that she could not adequately guard her flock (that’s me) if we were separated by miles of ocean!

Despite all their sound arguments, I still left them behind. I’m so cruel.

We’ll be back next week with more hijinks!

What’s It Like Running a Course with Rain?

Recently I was writing an agility update and realized that people might wonder what it feels like to be the human running the agility course alongside a dog. Not only a dog, but an Australian shepherd who is fast. Or maybe there are people in our audience who just wonder why I’m always the weakest link in our work.

First, it’s the human’s job to walk through each course before running it with a dog. Not only do you have to keep track of what is being asked of you and in what order, but theoretically you should be using this time to figure out how you want to ask your dog to take an obstacle for best results. We’re not to a level yet where we have such amazing insight into our dog’s tendencies, nor can we watch other dogs getting tripped up by a detail and think through how we might avoid the same pitfall. But theoretically this is all stuff the human gets to keep track of in agility.

Second, unlike others I came to agility knowing the human was a key part of the work, that we wouldn’t just be “training dogs” with no human involvement. BUT—getting involved in agility wasn’t something I was doing for ME. I was doing it purely for Rain. As she has been working over the last year, her behavior has changed and my relationship with her has changed. If I thought of agility as a human activity, I’d say no way—I’m not really interested. As we have started doing courses though, I’ve gained far more understanding about the handler’s importance in the process. It’s like flying a plane—a very fast, very barky plane. Often the reason Rain doesn’t get something right is because I am not doing something right. This means that I should be learning as much as she is, and because I’m there for her, I’ve been pretty slow about letting those lessons sink in.

Finally, Rain is FAST. When I watch our classmates saunter through a course, one with her tiny Papillon and the other with her deaf dog, I get jealous. Rain can outrun me in every scenario. Even when she’s in the kitchen and I drop a chopped vegetable at the cutting board, she slurps it up before I can bend down to keep it from her. She’s a lightning-fast dog, even as she approaches her senior years.

What’s it like running a course with Rain, then? It’s a little like storming a castle. You’re running with all of your might, trying to execute the tasks as quickly as possible, but doing your best to keep track of a thousand details. Details like at what point on the dog walk you need to say “feet!” so Rain will stop at the bottom with her back feet on the contact area. How far back you need to be to say “out!” so Rain will drive away from you to get a jump instead of bypassing it completely.

Ultimately your brain shorts out a little—or at least mine does—so having Molly there to observe is infinitely helpful. If Rain continues to not get a command, Molly can point out that I should say it sooner (this has been a big one), or my shoulders are pointing the opposite way from where I want her to go.

As you can see in the photo above I am leaning forward, running at full speed. I am trying to connect with Rain but also look ahead to see what I need to tell her. And this was just to use the dog walk, no other obstacles were involved! As you can see, Rain looks like she’s about to yawn of boredom.

Eventually, I’m hoping some of this will get easier. That’s how training works, right? You practice and build your skills slowly but surely. But with such a fast dog, I often ponder whether I should take up some form of running just to try and improve that aspect of my performance.

Kitty Crimestoppers

REEEEERRRR!!!!!Angry Cat by Orias1978 on Flickr.

Rain broke up a cat fight last week!

Unfortunately the cats were across the street from the park we visit each morning.

When we get to the play structure at the park near our house—the one where Rain and I practice some moves each morning—I often unleash her for a few moments while we practice her skillz. We’ve had a couple of incidents where her leash caught on something and she bonked her head pretty hard, plus I know her well enough now to judge when unleashing her is a risky move. (That is to say when a certain skwerl is scampering around on the ground within sight.)

There’s a house across the street from that part of the park that has an orange and white cat. He will sometimes come out and walk around or sit on the sidewalk. If he’s moving around, he catches Rain’s eye and she gets distracted by him. If he’s sitting, she can usually focus on the task and I get her back on leash post haste.

On this particular morning there was a different cat, a fluffy Himalayan, who came and sat in the same place on the sidewalk. It wasn’t moving so it didn’t catch Rain’s attention. I took her to the other side of the play structure for a specific sequence I wanted her to do, had her sit, and removed her leash.

It was at that point I heard: REEEEEEEEEEEEERRRRR!!!!!!

And Rain was OFF.

She raced to the nearest park entrance and across the street. I saw one cat haul ass in one direction, then Rain chased the Himalayan down the sidewalk in the other direction and up over the wood fence to the neighboring backyard. A white minivan was coming down the street, albeit slowly.

Once the catfight was broken up and the minivan had passed, Rain emerged from the driveway, paused on the sidewalk to shake out her coat, and calmly trotted back across the street to join me, where I had finally made it to the same park entrance she had exited from.

She looked pretty proud of herself.

There was a woman walking in the park who saw my secret shame—she walks the park nearly as regularly as we do, so I know she knows that Rain is usually on leash and generally a well-behaved dog. She did have earbuds in her ears, so she may not have realized that a catfight was the impetus for the big scene.

Of course incidents like this remind us why leashes are a good thing, and can keep a dog out of danger even if “they’re friendly” as owners of strange dogs often try to shout out as their dog approaches. As an Australian shepherd, Rain has a serious chase drive and loves to run after skwerls, birds, and kitties most of all.

That said, she also needs varied types of exercise, and I try to control the conditions a bit to avoid mishaps. On this day, though, our luck clearly ran out. Fortunately the conditions were such that a doggy crisis was averted.

Running the Distance: Weekly Agility Report

Agility this week consisted of ‘just’ two courses, but they were both longer than any others we’ve done before! And if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, it was one of the warmest days we’ve had so far this year. The arena floor had been watered down earlier in the day and it was warmer and more humid inside the arena than outside, just a few steps away.

Molly set up a long course using numbered cones at the beginning of class. We hadn’t used these cones before, but they indicate the order of obstacles as well as the side you’ll be approaching each of them from. We had 13 obstacles in all, forming a long snake formation through about 2/3 of the arena.

The first course began with a line of jumps, and Molly challenged me to set Rain up at the start and cue her from the end of the third jump. It didn’t work at first—Rain ran around the second jump. Then Molly suggested I look at and point to Rain’s line as I walked to the third jump, which improved things considerably.

Through the tunnel, around a jump backwards (towards me), then along the dog walk. At the end of the dog walk she started off by swinging far too wide and ended up saying a quick hello to everyone else on the platform! We started up again, then she flew off the upper end of the teeter before it had a chance to land! (Whoops, turns out that was my bad.) A couple of jumps later and Rain didn’t feed into the weave poles right, but I stopped and once she had done that, she closed it out with a great run through the tunnel.

Phew! One thing was for sure, I’m glad I decided to change into better clothes for running when I was home to pick her up. Sports bra FTW!

After we ran through the course once, Molly gave us some pointers for improvement. One: no jumping off the end of the teeter! As it turns out, dogs can have a hard time telling the teeter apart from the ramp up to the dog walk, so it’s up to the humans to say “teeter teeter teeter teeter teeter” until they’re through safely. Whoops.

We had a second run through the course which went marginally better. Then it was Rudy’s turn and Poppy’s turn.

Rudy comes off the end of the dog walk.

Poppy descends the dog walk.

Rain asks, isn’t it my turn again yet?
Why haven’t you given me food for five whole seconds?

In preparation for a second (shorter) course, Molly introduced us to the double jump and triple jump. These pieces are not brought out in the arena too often, so Molly was using the opportunity of their presence to learn some new equipment. When Rain took the double jump, it looked just like she was going over any other jump. When she sailed over the triple jump, she looked as graceful and beautiful as I’ve ever seen her! It was quite a sight.

The second course, then, consisted mostly of the pieces set up in the remaining third of the arena. We started by sending them into the same tunnel they ended with previously, over the A-frame, and then up to a pause table. (Rain has a habit of taking her sweet time to lie down fully on the pause table, and Molly had to wait to do a coundown of five before we could proceed. Then I forgot to wait for “and go” so we started again too soon.) Next over the double and triple jumps, and we were done!

And that was class. The dogs were getting warm and the menopausal women in our group were getting even hotter. We disbanded for another week, but not without seizing the chance to further enjoy a sunny afternoon in the countryside before heading back home.

Jump in the Line: Weekly Agility Report

Out standing in her field.

Agility class brought warm, sunny weather to us again this week! Rain hopped right in the car and when I had to stop at a couple of places en route, she didn’t even make her usual ruckus. I was starting to wonder if she was feeling ill, but when we got to the park she more than made up for it.

If the temperature wasn’t enough to be a clear sign of spring, we saw a literal sign as we pulled up the driveway to class.

One of the property owners, a woman, loves animals. She has come out to visit and play with Rain in the recent past, but clearly it’s not just the canines she cares about. Their driveway crosses a marshy runoff area which clearly hosts a fowl nesting area!

Molly asked us to warm up our dogs with a short pinwheel set, pointing out that the dogs didn’t actually need warming up considering the temperature. Rain did really well the first time, but then she was having a hard time with the “out” jump. Soon enough she got everything again, and we sat down.

During the rest of class worked on a pretty tricky task. Last week we learned a new way of taking jumps, sending the dog around the side to jump toward you.

Molly set up a line of just three jumps, and outlined the challenge. Humans were to send the dog around to take the jump the other way while we humans were moving forward toward the next jump!

As usual, I was the problem in our team, as I didn’t understand what Molly was asking me to do that was different than what I was already doing. Eventually, we got there: in order to help Rain take the jump once my body was in front of it, my hand was to be just slightly behind the wing of the jump so her previous instincts would kick in and she’d still take the jump.

Once we finally got my part all figured out, Rain took all three jumps in succession without any problem! We came back on the other side just as well.

After Poppy and Rudy had their turns with this interesting challenge, Molly asked if everyone had a winged jump at home so they could practice. I was the sole empty-handed student. Molly had a spare set of wings that she loaned me for a couple of weeks, and now that the lawn has been freshly mowed, we’re able to impress the neighbors with our skills! I might even bring our safety cones out and think up a little course to work on this week.

Around and Around: Weekly Agility Report

It has been an amazingly wet spring in the Pacific northwest. Our area is already known for its rain, but this spring has been wreaking havoc on the area. Farmers have been covering fields with plastic just so they can plant crops without more delay, and some spring crops have already had harvest delays due to our dearth of sun.

Rain and I have been extremely lucky the last several weeks then, as going to agility has been a pretty consistently sunny affair! This week, some heavy showers raged outside my office window in the morning, but almost as soon as I left work to get Rain the sun broke through and everything was dry through the evening.

We even discovered some patches of blooming camas flowers before class this week! The one above was at the park, but as we headed through a low patch on the property where our classes were held, I noticed dozens of blooming camas flowers where we had been seeing swampy grass for weeks prior.

When we started class this week, Molly had us introduce our dog to taking a jump “backwards,” by running around the side and jumping back toward us. It seemed to me that Rain and I have been doing something pretty similar for a while now! I called this “around” as I had with similar exercises, and Rain caught on right away, moving so fast that no camera could catch her completely in focus.

Once we had been drilling this a while, Molly had us start switching up “around” (taking a jump coming toward us) with “over” (taking a jump going away from us). This was mostly to make clear we weren’t trying to retrain them to take jumps the other way now. This is where Rain got a little confused at times! Perhaps I wasn’t as clear as I could have been with my arm, but I think her doggy brain may have been getting a little tired of this activity by then. After all, she can only drill something for so long.

After teaching the initial command, Molly set up a modest course that consisted of a line of jumps and a dog walk. We started one jump from the end—the dog was to wrap around the wing of that jump, then get on the dog walk which would take them to the back of the line of jumps. At that point we were practicing “go on,” with the dog taking the jumps ahead of us.

Rain and I got stuck a few times transitioning from the end of the dog walk to the line of jumps. Rain kept taking the first jump and then running alongside the others. Molly told me that as Rain came over the first jump, I should try pointing to her line—she was taking the first jump at an angle and then continuing to move out from there. When I tried what Molly suggested, Rain did great!

In order to get Rain to quickly drive forward through the line of jumps, Molly asked me for a toy that Rain would be excited about. I hadn’t pulled it out in class for some time, but I got Rain’s rope toy and handed it to Molly. As soon as I did, I didn’t exist to Rain—we had a hard time getting Rain’s focus off of Molly (who was hiding the rope in her jacket at this point) so she’d go with me to start the exercise. Remember when Rain didn’t know how to play with her rope toy? These days when I get the rope toy at home, Rain gets really revved up and we can play tug of war for a while before Rain lets up even just a little.

Once we had all made it through the course, it was time to go. Rain and I headed out to play ball in the pens out back. The neighbor’s cows were out grazing, and I am quite certain that this steer was impressed by Rain’s fetch-playing prowess.