Winter break at last.  As of today, I am on “vacation” for twelve days.  Woo hoo!  I am so happy.  You’ll note that I put the word vacation in quotation marks.  This is because I’ll be working every single day of this break, but I’ll be working on my own work, and on my own schedule.  This means working from home with the dogs and cats sitting around me and a roaring wood fire, it means taking breaks for hikes and training, and also for cooking and doing other things that I need to do in order to feel on top of my life again.  My break started off well with getting in 6 solid hours of work on my dissertation, a nice long hike with the dogs, some cooking (lamb stew and pumpkin custard) and this evening I am catching up on my blog and some email.  I have a to-do list a mile long for this week, and I really hope that I have the self-discipline to stick to it and get as much done as is possible while still staying relaxed and getting some rest.

The dogs are pretty happy about this.

Wednesday I had an agility lesson with Kess and Hannah.  I continue to really enjoy these classes, and also to learn a lot with every session.  This week we started with training Kestrel.  I have been working on her targeting and also her ‘end position’ (2 feet on, 2 feet off on a travel board).  I have been having some trouble with Kess because she gets so ramped up when we train, that she bounces around and gets super silly.  Trying to click a stationary behaviour is all but impossible.  She’s also very quick to learn, which means she’s quick to shape to the mistakes I make.  So we end up with interesting behaviours that I had not at all planned for.  She is certainly effective at showing up any errors in handling on my part!

My instructor made a very interesting suggestion.  I mentioned how silly Kess gets and how she often quits because she doesn’t understand that I want her to keep offering me different behaviours.  I also told her that I have been working on doing some box shaping games with Kestrel as a way of trying to build up her confidence while training with me.  She suggested that when you get a dog who gets as wound up as Kess does, teaching her stationary behaviours can lead to problems down the road.  Specifically,  she will learn to hold still positions, but not to think while in motion.  The result is a dog who has only two gears: neutral and turbo.  Yep, that’s Kess.  She’s either stock still or moving at warp speed.  She does seem to still have her wits about her when she’s moving that fast as she does have considerable self-control (I expect that comes from herding) but still, it’s not easy to manage her.

The solution my trainer suggested is to shape moving behaviours instead of stationary ones.  This gets the dog to think (i.e. what behaviour shall I offer next?) while in motion.  I actually had been thinking of doing movement oriented shaping with Kess, not because of the above but basically because I have so much trouble catching those stationary behaviours.  Apparently I should have listened to my intuition!  Things I can do include shaping her to go out and around a pylon or barrel (or tree etc), run out to targets, shaping the weaves, getting her to go through or under things and so on.  I usually do plenty of this sort of thing but only after we’ve done a bunch of box work. With Kess apparently it’ll be best to just skip the box – at least for now – and go straight to the fun stuff.

We also worked on moving Kess from two to four weave poles.  This instructor uses a different method for going from two to four than my previous one did.  I’m not sure which is more effective, but Kess was doing four pretty consistently within minutes.  I don’t recall the other way working so quickly.

Hannah, in sharp contrast to Kestrel, is pretty amazing at figuring out what it is that I want from her and doing it even when I make mistakes.  She makes me look like a better handler than I am.  When running an agility course, it’s almost like she can read my mind.  She’s like that on sheep too.  However, when you make me stand still and stop giving her unconscious signals, the holes in our training show up big and wide.

This week we realized that Hannah doesn’t understand the concept of end position in and of itself, that is that what she is to do is to stand with her back feet on the board, front feet on the ground.  Rather, she thinks it’s the chain of behaviours that I want: her stepping all four feet on the board, turning around and then stepping off and holding the position.  While the end result is the same (dog in 2-on 2-off position), when running a course this causes major problems. For one, Hannah will never actually go part way up a piece of contact equipment, turn around and come back down on the same side.  For another, since she doesn’t understand the piece that I want, she has trouble sticking her contacts.  Since running contact equipment does not involve this spinning around business, end position doesn’t enter her mind.

I think Hannah is smart enough to eventually figure this out, but an easier option is to correct the training so that what I want is clear to her right off the bat.  To fix this, I need to teach her to just move her hind end onto the board without getting on and turning around.  My instructor suggested I do some rear end work with her, getting her to back onto it.  Also I should block all but the very tip of the board with a chair so that she can’t get on it with her whole body.  This is what we are to practice for our next lesson.

We also did some weaving.  Hannah was doing 12 poles last lesson, but now we’re integrating them into a sequence.  So as to not jump ahead too quickly (again, Hannah can figure these things out but she does get stressed when she’s wrong, so why set her up for a high probability of failure?) we only used 8 poles this week.  We put one jump before the poles and another after.  At first there was no bar, just the jump stands.  I tossed the toy to the far end of the poles, past the second jump, then sent Hannah through the sequence.  It’s interesting to see how much trouble dogs have generalizing.  Even though she can do the poles easily on their own, with the jump stands in place she started to miss her weaves.  Not for long though – very quickly she was back on her game and doing jump, weave, jump.  With every run through the sequence (going down and back), we raised the jump bar height, and moved the jumps a bit further back.  After half a dozen runs, she was doing the three pieces at full height and perfectly. Good girl!

This instructor is extremely technical and I really like that.  I am one to break things down and analyze and try and make sense of them very carefully, and so is she.  I walk away from every lesson feeling like I really learned something important about training and dog behaviour in general.  I particularly like how she trains each dog so differently, based on their personality, structure, behaviour patterns and physical tendencies.  It’s exciting to work with someone like this.  On Sunday she is running a jumping workshop and I am going to bring Mira.  I would really like to get some more training in with Mira and also with Ross, but it’s hard for me to fit anything else into my schedule or budget right now.  But this little workshop should be fun.  It’s been a while since I had Mira in any kind of a class and it will do her some good.