Well I didn’t get any training done yesterday – I left at 8:15am and returned at 11:25pm, completely exhausted.  Don’t worry,  I knew I was going to be away that long and made arrangements for my roommate to take the dogs out etc.  I won’t be able to do that again for at least a month as my roommate is away until March and the next nearest person who could help me is an hour drive away.  But last night I went to a lovely party hosted by my supervisor at work, an event I didn’t want to miss.  The soirée was in celebration of Imbolcg, a Celtic ritual honouring the start of spring, which today is more commonly celebrated as Groundhog Day.  While Mr. Groundhog saw his shadow and predicts 6 more weeks of winter (winter ending?  I can see grass out my window and am still waiting for it to really start…), according to Celtic belief, yesterday marked the day where seeds start to stir in the ground.  The beginning of germination.  An awakening of life, deep under the frozen earth.

How could I miss such a celebration?  It was fun, and a great opportunity to get to know my colleagues at work (and a few new people) a little better.  I am so lucky to have this job – I enjoy the work and especially the people.  While it is only for 10 hours a week and certainly doesn’t pay all the bills, it offers me social interaction at a level that I haven’t had in ages.  It’s been years since I last actually really enjoyed going to work.  What a blessing.

Back to the dogs – today I am at long last working from home (doing a serious happy dance about that) and the first thing I did was get up and train the dogs.  I didn’t even have breakfast.  Still in PJ’s, I took each dog, one at a time, into the bedroom and did 10 minutes of work with each.  Then a big breakfast for all (myself included), the dogs out in the yard and I got down to work.  I still haven’t started my academic work (next on the agenda, after I finish this and walk the dogs); instead I finished making a large pot of chicken soup stock, got caught up with a few emails and a long phone chat with a good friend, and then made six loaves of bread.  I make bread roughly once a month and freeze it.

Training went well.  Hannah is really coming along with her game of two-on-two-off, throwing herself onto the board and waiting to be released.  She is still not just reaching out with her back feet and placing them on the board, which would be ideal, but rather turns around, gets on then board and the steps off it.  I am going to see if I can think of an exercise to get her to back onto it, which will make for better rear end awareness.  I made one mistake with Hannah in that I tried to tug with her in that position, the idea being that until released she is not to take her back feet off the board, even while playing tug.  I would play tug and then stop the game the second she’d step down.  After doing this three times Hannah refused to tug while standing on the board.  Clearly I taught her the wrong thing.  Darn it.  I went back to just releasing and then tugging and she was happy with that.

We also worked on nose touches to the target.  Getting a really strong target separate from a really strong two-on-two-off position is what my instructor wants to see before combining them.  Once combined, then you can start doing full contact equipment.  Hannah and I have done contacts for over three years now but there were holes in our training that showed up very clearly with this new trainer.  So she is having us break the behaviours down separately, and build them back up again.  Our current focus is to rename the action of putting her nose to the target on the ground.  Until this point I have used ‘target’ but now I am to use ‘push!’  The idea is that you want the actual leather of the nose to move from the dog pushing so hard on the target.  Simply by switching to the word ‘push’ my criteria changed.  Of course the dog doesn’t know it, but my visual of ‘push’ is quite different than ‘target’ and I started clicking different things.  You should see Hannah ‘push’ that target now!  She actually goes into a bow position and does it, which is ideal for weight distribution.  I think she’s probably getting pretty close to being ready to rebuild the pieces into the end behaviour.

I also did a little weaving with Hannah, having her weave through four poles out to a toy already on the ground.  It took several tries before she finally understood that yes, I wanted her to actually weave in the bedroom. She’s doing 12 poles now at the arena but with a change in the environment she had trouble doing four.  At least for the first two minutes.  It’s amazing how place dependent dogs really are.  It is a good reminder for me to train in different locations as often as possible.  Since my roommate is away for a few weeks, I will put the equipment in different rooms every couple of days from now on.  By the time she gets back I’m hoping the ice will be gone and we’ll be back to being outside.  I can also go to the arena nearby which I can rent for $10 an hour, but to just work on these basics there is no point.

I next worked Mira who was surprisingly on her game.  We did targeting – I still am holding the target in my hand and working at getting her to hit the plastic and not my hand.  A couple of well-timed reinforcements and she started hitting the target squarely.  We also did a refresher on the weave poles, just working two to practice the entrance.  She nailed it every time.  Tomorrow we move back to four.  Next we did the end position game.  I am training that through shaping and then building up a desire to stay in position while I move around.  Mira is very sensitive to my body language (as I have become acutely aware of in herding, as mentioned in other posts) so I have to build this up very slowly.  She is extremely in tune with me (which is probably why I’ve gotten so frustrated with her at times) so training her to ignore what my body is saying is tough.  For example, running away from her without her following is almost impossible.  But we made some baby steps of improvement today and she’ll get there.  her impulse control has come miles and miles from where it was when I wrote about it a while back (was that a year ago now?).  Work still needs to be done but she gets it now.  I think what Mira really needed to do was grow up before she was ready to work.  At three, she is finally starting to not only make good progress in the venues I had hoped she would train in, but take pleasure in it.

Next was Ross.  Poor Ross really suffers when I’m away from home a lot and I’m glad that my schedule should now slow down a fair bit.  Or rather, while my work load is going to increase, my need to be apart from the dogs (and cats) will diminish substantially now.  At least as things currently stand it will.  Keeping my fingers crossed…

Ross’s targeting is quite good and I’m going to start moving the target to the ground from now on.  I also did the end position work with him.  Again he’s got that down pat.  He’s so smart and so much fun to train.  Actually, now that I think of it, all four of the dogs are training like Ross – happy, enthusiastic and for the most part, confident.  I recall Hannah and Mira being quite reluctant and worried in the past, but no longer.  I guess I am doing something right, or perhaps maturity has changed things.  Because I won’t be doing weaves with Ross, I decided to work on some rear end strengthening exercises and shadow handling.  Of course he did very well in both.  I use treats to train with Ross as he’s not that interested in toys.  Also I don’t like him doing a lot of starting and stopping with fetch, or playing tug which jerks the spine.  We ended our session with a good cuddle and belly rub.

Finally I worked Kess.  I started with doing box work again, which was probably a mistake.  It absolutely fried her brain.  We did it for less than 2 minutes and she was done.  She did get all four feet in the box after a few tries, and I rewarded her heavily for this (click, treat, click, treat in rapid succession until my hand was empty of treats).  She understood clearly that this is what I wanted of her and jumped in the box without hesitation two times in a row after that.  Heavy reward, and we put the box away.  Next I started to do targeting.  Kestrel was panting hard and kept lying down.  They are supposed to target standing up so I kept moving positions to get her to stand again.  She’d come over and flop.  Goodness!  I had no idea how tiring box work can be for a young dog.  Kestrel gets so worked up when working with me that she burns out quickly.  This will pass with time, but it’s something that I need to keep an eye on (and see if perhaps homeopathic treatment might help to improve).  She is always bouncy and smiling but clearly worries excessively.  I put her in a crate and gave her a short break.

After she caught her breath we tried again.  A few more targets – she’s largely slamming her nose into my hand any which way, which is at least an improvement over her tentative little taps of just a few weeks ago – and then we moved on to the weaves.  She is working on proper entries with just two poles.  She did it perfectly about 5 times in a row, and then stopped.  A couple of times she had come up short, acting like she was about to enter the poles but didn’t.  As she is so quick, I accidentally clicked these and somehow she decided that what I wanted was just movement towards the poles. Darn it.  I put the tug toy down and went back to training with food for a few minutes to lower her level of excitement and get her to go through them again.  Two successful tries and we ended on a good note.   Next a few minutes on the travel board.  She is getting end position but pops out of it very quickly still.  We did four or five repetitions and stopped.  I could tell her brain pretty much gone, so had her lay down and just practiced having her take treats gently from my hand.  She needs so much work, yet burns out so quickly, that what I should really do is several very short sessions a day.  Short like 2-3 minutes each.  I’ll see if I can do that on days that I’m working from home.  That will be more often than not in the month of February so fingers crossed we’ll make good progress.

I ended my session with Kestrel with a gentle massage.  She gets so stimulated by any interaction with me that I want to start working on having her relax when I touch her.  I’m not sure what the best way to do this is, but I thought petting her gently and quietly might help.  I have had Kess for a whole year now and she is a completely different dog from the pudgy, sway-backed, dull coated, lackluster lump I brought home from the pound in January 2009.  I first had to get her health in order, and also to let her learn how to be a dog, and specifically a border collie.  She needed to learn that it was ok to be who she really is, and that has taken a long time.  Probably always an uncertain dog, her start in life really did a number on her self-confidence.  Or at least, it did little to help it.  She’s much improved but still has a ways to go.  She’s extremely confident on sheep, and is good with the other dogs now, even Ross.  Her next big lesson is to learn how to be a good companion to me.  This is very much a two way street and I have been consistently working on our relationship – not nearly as much as I’d like, but making almost daily efforts – and I’m definitely seeing improvement.  She sleeps on the bed every night now of her own choosing, sneaking up past the other dogs to lie as close to me as possible.  She lies at my feet while I work.  Now she needs to learn to be calm when we work together.  I am sure with time this will come.