Yesterday I took Kestrel to an agility workshop being held by my new instructor.  It was very well run and quite interesting.  The focus of the workshop was jumping.  Specifically, it was on getting the dog to collect and move tightly over jumps, turning as they land.  She had us do several exercises, all requiring just one jump to practice.  I’ll be doing this with all three girls, and might even do a little with Ross as building muscle memory for more compact jumping will be a good thing for him.  I’m already noticing a difference in his abilities since I started back into doing rear end awareness work with him.  My first clue that he’s gaining hind end strength is that he starts counter surfing.  I’m probably the only person around who is happy when she catches her dog stealing food off the counters!  This holds true only for Ross though!

The first exercise we did was to determine our dog’s stride.  The floor was cleanly raked and we worked in pairs where one person held the dog in question and the owner of that dog would run down the arena and call the dog to her.  This would get the dog running in full stride, leaving clear footprints so that you can measure their distance.  Kess didn’t do a great job of this as she was torn between coming to me, and greeting every person in the arena, so her stride wasn’t exactly even or necessarily as extended as it would be if she was just running to me at home.  This is only the second time I’ve worked Kess in an environment with other dogs, and this was the first thing she did coming out of the crate.  I’ll have to do this again at home, perhaps if we get a fresh dusting of snow so I can see footprints clearly.  I will do it with all four dogs so I know their stride length.

Why is this important?  Well, for one it’s necessary for proper set-up while training.  When you set your dog in front of a jump, apparently there are only two options for where you should place them.  You either have them stand the jump height in front of the jump (so if your dog jumps 22 inches, you set them 22 inches in front of the jump), or you place them one (or more) stride lengths in front of the jump.  It’s also important for setting jump distances so your dog can learn to sequence properly.

Who knew it was all so technical?  Kess’s stride appears to be two large steps for me.

Next we did jump exercises.  These involved placing the jump close to a wall and doing various exercises where the dog has to go over the jump and turn immediately (otherwise they will run into the wall).  This is done from a stationary sit or stand, and then the dog is turned and stopped immediately as it lands.  The idea is to teach them to collect so that they are jumping compactly.  Stopping them as they land (by holding the food reward right in their face, down low to the ground) teaches them to land low and again, gathered.  The analogy given was that of a gymnast dismounting from the parallel bars.  The will stay low and tucked until they get their balance, so that they stick their jump.  They are not allowed to take a step after landing, so need to develop great balance.  Getting the dog to jump and stop immediately, with head low to the ground (gobbling up food) is to teach them the same type of landing.

The workshop was based on Linda Mecklenburg‘s handling system.  I knew nothing about her methods, although I’m starting to learn now with this new instructor.  It’s interesting to see Mecklenburg’s approach being compared with that of Greg Derrett’s (which, as I understand it, is the same as Susan Garrett‘s approach).  At this point I don’t have an opinion as to which one I prefer, although I have to say I did have questions about the methods I have been previously taught.  So it will be fun to learn something new and see if I like it better.

I find it fascinating how precisely people have developed agility training theory.  Not only is it broken down to a very detailed science, but there are competing theories on how best to do it!  This is very different from herding.  Every sheepdog handler has his or her own system, but to date I haven’t read anything that is overly theoretical about how to do it.  Herding is taught as more of an art, done by feel and instinct.  Perhaps that’s because this is how the dogs do it.  I think some theorizing wouldn’t hurt and might make it easier to learn.  At the same time, perhaps agility has gone too far in the opposite direction. I enjoy the theory quite a bit, but don’t want to get too bogged down in it.  Hannah is already four and because of all the theory we have to follow, she still hasn’t competed in an entry level agility class!  Yet she’s been on the herding trial field since age two.

Speaking of which, I am hoping to compete again this summer, not only with Hannah but with Kess & Mira too.  There will probably be 5 trials relatively local to me and I’m hoping to make all five.  Right now my life is getting ridiculously busy and I’m starting to get stressed just thinking about all I have to do.  I’ve got work pretty much finalized for next year and am very happy to have full-time employment waiting for me come September.  In fact I will have more than full-time employment – more like almost double time.  The pay is extremely low so I have to work almost double full-time to make ends meet.  This will hopefully be only for one year.  I doubt I’ll be able to do it for longer than that anyway.  Because of this it looks like I will definitely have to move closer to work.  I’m not sure when yet – part of me would like to stay put until I finish my degree (August) but August is going to be a ridiculously busy month.  I’m probably better off moving at the end of April, but that’s just around the corner.  Quite frankly, I don’t want to move at all!  Hopefully something will make it clear what – or rather, where – my next step is.

This is nothing I can solve today, so I’m going to sign off and take the dogs for a hike.  And later tonight, I’m going to practice what I learned in the workshop.  More homework, just what I need in my life!