Today we went to agility for the first time since before the holidays.  I had been sent off with some homework for the month, and I didn’t do it!  I felt bad, wondering if it would be frustrating to my instructor to teach someone who doesn’t practice at home, and also wondering why I continue to pay for lessons if I don’t practice!  But neither turned out to be a problem.  Our lesson was fun, both dogs (Hannah and Kestrel) made good progress just during the hour we worked, and I learned a ton.

This new instructor is so incredibly knowledgeable it’s amazing!  She is very technical, but doesn’t have a single technique.  She has studied Susan Garrett but also several of the other major handling systems and has a tremendous range of ideas for how to teach every aspect of the sport.  She has methods that involve the brain, and others that involve more of the physical.  If a dog fails three times in a row, then we switch approaches and try again.

Today we started with Kestrel.  Kess has been showing quite a bit of anxiety since I brought her back home from my parents.  Even my roommate commented on it.  She’s gone back to hiding in corners and keeping her tail between her legs more often than not.  I am a little frustrated with this because she made significant progress over the holidays in terms of her self-confidence and assertiveness.  I mentioned this to our instructor, and she said that in her experience, dogs need to spend at least 6 weeks in an environment to make any behaviour changes permanent.  Dogs’ memories, she explained, are very linked to location.  This is why when you teach a dog to sit in the kitchen, it promptly “forgets” when you try to get him to sit in the living room.  And then once you get him to sit consistently in the house, he forgets when you take him to class.  Or perhaps he learns in class but “can’t” do things at home.  You get the idea.  Dogs simply do not generalize well which is why it is important to mix up your training and do it in many places and in as many different ways as you can think of.

Kess has definitely become more confident over the months she’s been with me, and taking her from my old house in the city to this one in the country changed her environment and allowed her to forget some of her old behaviours and establish new ones (with my help).  That happened again when I went to my parents’ house. However, what she developed there wasn’t established enough to stay in place when we came back here.

This all makes sense, but what is confusing to me is that Kestrel didn’t just regress back to how she was before Christmas, she regressed to how she was when we first moved here in July.  Somehow her early memory of being here is what is strongest, despite the ensuing 6 months we’ve spent here.  Her anxiety came through in training this morning as well.  She was keen to work but clearly anxious, alternating between being a bit of a shrinking violet and being overly excited.  We both agreed that these are two sides of the same coin – both stem from her anxiety around people.  I see Kestrel as being one rabies shot away from being fear-aggressive.  Fortunately, since my township accepts titers, as long as she stays with me, she’ll never get that shot.

I am going to give her another dose of Belladonna tonight, which seems to have done her a a lot of good already.  She has stopped chewing and shredding things completely, overnight, since her last dose.  I’ll see if one more dose helps with this anxiety.  She may be due for a different remedy now, but I’d like to stick with this one (going up in potency) until I’m sure it’s no longer doing her any good.

Back to agility, we just worked on shaping her targeting and the 2-on-2-off end position for contacts.  My instructor likes to use what she calls a ‘travel board’ – a four foot long, 18 inch wide board raised up on a two-by-four on each end, to work on solidifying contacts.  She breaks down behaviours and teaches them separately, so the dog learns to target separately from learning to hold contact position (back feed on the board, front feet on the ground).  And everything is taught away from the piece of equipment it will eventually be used on.  Once both are really solid, you start to merge them together.  By really solid, as I have written before, I mean the dog can hold its contact position while you run past it at full steam, throwing toys and food and hooping and hollering.

Once finished working with Kestrel, we brought out Hannah.  Hannah is not used to working second, and clearly her brain had been going a mile a minute while I trained Kess; she was a bit on the wired side when we started.  We worked on weaves.  The last time we were there we had gone from four weaves to eight in about 10 minutes.  Today we moved up to 12.  I was amazed to see my dog weaving 12 poles like a pro in just a few minutes!  Interestingly, my instructor has a 2 month “marinade” rule.  Once the dog is up to doing 12 poles, you can do them twice at each lesson, and no more, for two months.   So much for Susan Garrett’s approach of 12 poles in 12 days!  We are taking things more slowly.

At one point my instructor worked Hannah through the poles a couple of times while I watched, and wow!  Is she ever coming a long.  She’s really learning her footwork nicely and building up a good rhythm.  Speed is coming naturally on its own.  I’ve never seen her so confident on this equipment.  We’ve only done a few lessons working on this, but Hannah’s  made tremendous progress.  I can see how teaching a dog to weave in this very consistent and patient manner builds long-lasting comprehension and muscle memory.  By changing up how you train (we used at least half a dozen different techniques), the dog never builds up any mental anxiety about the weaves.  The product is a confident, happy dog who sees weave poles as fun and a no-brainer!

After agility I stopped at a lumber store to buy some wood to make a training plank so we can practice this week.  I am inspired to get working again.  The lumber store sold me some scrap pieces for $2.52, which was a great deal for a piece of agility equipment if you ask me!  I have the parts cut (they did it at the store, included in the cost – I am a bit of a whimp with a saw) and I will nail it together tonight.  Then we can get down to business.

Before heading home, we stopped at the the conservation area.  When we got there, there were two other sets of people walking their dogs (what were they doing in MY conservation area at 1pm on a weekday??!), so I kept them on-leash.  Surprisingly, they walked well and we did a full loop of the forest with all four dogs tethered.  As we got back to the car, the last person was pulling out of the parking lot.  I let the dogs off leash and we did another loop.  Each loop takes close to an hour when walking in the uneven snow, so we’re all pretty tired now!  The dogs are sleeping soundly and I’m settling in for a few hours of work.