The Role of the National Specialty

I’m writing this post in the RV at the United States Australian Shepherd Association National Specialty at Purina Farms.  Yup- the wifi in the RV area is so good that I can write a blog post, stream Netflix, pretty much do what ever I want.  Did I mention this is the best show site ever? But I digress.

This is the first time we have attended Aussie nationals in many years, but the PBGV national is on our schedule pretty much every year.  What is it that is so important about a national?  To me, first off a national specialty is a celebration of the breed and all of its qualities.  A parent club’s role in any breed is important- to protect and promote all of a breed’s qualities- type, structure, health, temperament, and working ability.  The national specialty is a chance to celebrate and support all of those qualities with health clinics; educational seminars; companion events like obedience, rally, and agility; and breed- specific performance events like hunt tests or herding trials.

Unfortunately, those events can be overlooked by some clubs, who feel that the national specialty needs only to be a dog show to promote the breed to people already in the dog show world.  Companion and performance events can be viewed as frivolous, especially in breeds that aren’t traditionally competitive in those sports.  However, being able to try out a sport like agility or rally in the supportive environment of exhibitors who really get why certain things are harder (or easier) for your dog can go a long way to attracting new people to these sports and to our breeds in general.  I found it fascinating that there were more PBGVs competing in triathlon at this years’s specialty than there were Aussies in the Most Versatile Aussie competition, despite the fact that Aussies are a much more popular breed in general.  I don’t think this could have happened without the support of the PBGVCA for offering specialty events like agility and hunt tests even when it wasn’t convenient.  Really,  if you build it, they will come………

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned conformation at all in this article.  Honestly, I think attracting anyone new to the dog show world is a hard sell.  As the “sport” of conformation has been overtaken by advertising, professional handlers, and ranking systems it’s really much more of a game for the ultra-wealthy than a legitimate means of selecting breeding stock.  Like it or not, companion and performance events are the future for purebred dogs and it makes sense for clubs to encourage participation by people interested in their breed, rather than closing doors to those who don’t want to play along with the theater that the breed ring has become.

Online Learning

In recent years, online dog training classes have grown in popularity.  Initially, this seemed like a strange concept to me until I gave online classes a try.  Here’s what I found:

  1.  Working online gives you access to world class instructors at a fraction of the cost of a seminar and without geographic barriers.  Not only is taking an online class more affordable than a seminar, but you have the ability to work through class concepts in a more relaxed manner- you don’t have to learn the concepts and train your dog under the time pressure of a weekend to feel like you got your money’s worth.  Online classes also give access to advanced or obscure topics that might interest a dog training nerd but be hard to fill group classes on locally.
  2. The change to train on your own schedule.  Until recently I worked crazy long hours and spent 2+ hours commuting every day.  Trying to fit a weekly in-person class into the calendar was hard and the thought of having to drive somewhere, anywhere, when I finally got home at night was depressing.  Online class assignments can be done when and where you are.
  3. Teaching new concepts is always easier in the quiet of home that in a group training class- especially for distractible scent hounds.  It’s critical to take new behaviors on the road, but much better to teach them in a “safe” place first.
  4. The ability to work multiple dogs through a class.  If the class includes instructor feedback, you might have to chose one dog as the main student in the class, but you can easily work all of your dogs through the same lesson.

If you are ready to try out an online class, here’s an easy one for you.  Beginning May 1, The Clever Hound Novice Sparks Team online dog trick class will be starting a new session.  This is a free, Facebook based class, designed to help you earn your Novice Trick Dog title through Do More With Your Dog.  AKC will also be recognizing this title beginning in May.  No previous training is needed and the technology requirements are pretty simple- if you’re reading this blog you can manage it:). If you would like to join us, please send a join request to the group or email me at CleverHoundDogTraining@gmail.com.  If you would prefer an in-person learning experience, The Clever Hound LLC also has a variety of group classes beginning in May.  Happy training!

The fabulous Chili-dog is my teaching assistant for the online tricks class.

Group Classes at The Clever Hound LLC

Group Classes at The Clever Hound LLC will begin in May!  All classes will be held outdoors in a securely fenced area in Leesport, Pennsylvania.  The cost for all classes is $110 for 6 weeks.
Star Puppy is for puppies between eight weeks and twelve months.  We will introduce basic obedience cues like sit, down, come, and leash walking as well as introducing the puppies to new socialization and body awareness experience.  This class will give a great start to your puppy’s training, whether he is destined to be a dog sports star or a great family companion.  Graduates will earn the AKC Star Puppy Award.  Classes are held on Thursdays at 1 pm and 5:45 pm, beginning May 25,
Clever Dog Level 1 is for dogs six months and older.  No previous training is needed.  We will cover behaviors such as sit, down, stay, come, and leash walking as well as some fun behaviors.  Classes are held on Thursdays at 2:15 pm and 7 pm, beginning May 25.
Introduction to Dog Agility is for puppies and dogs 8 weeks and older with a reliable recall.  This is primarily a foundation skills class, but age appropriate introduction to equipment will be included in the later weeks.  Classes will be held on Mondays at 1pm and 6 pm, beginning June 5.
Introduction to AKC Rally is for dogs 6 months and older who can reliably sit, lie down, and walk on a loose leash.  We will focus on training the behaviors and handling skills required for AKC Rally Novice, with course work included each week.  The foundation behaviors required for Rally Advanced and Excellent will be introduced as well.  Classes will be held on Wednesdays at 10 am and 5:45 pm, beginning May 24.
Introduction to Scent Work is for dogs eight weeks and older.  We will introduce the dogs to the odors and searches that will be used in the AKC Scent Work program.  No previous training is required.
Please email cleverhounddogtraining@gmail.com for more information or to to sign up for classes.  Classes sizes are limited so that you and your dog will receive individualized attention.  All classes are taught using positive reinforcement.
Group classes are intended for dogs who are comfortable learning and working in the presence of other dogs.  If you feel that this would be a challenge for your dog, private lessons are always available.

All classes are taught by Megan Esherick CPDT-KA CTDI.  Megan has many years of experience training dogs for service work as well as a variety of dog sports.

The Road Trip

So I’m a little late with this post, but it turns out that recovering from a two week road trip takes longer than you would think.  Last month, we traveled with the pack to Perry, Georgia for the AKC National Agility Championship and then headed to Charlotte, North Carolina for the PBGVCA national specialty.  In all, the trip lasted two weeks which is a long time to spend in an RV with 12 dogs, but we had a great time and the dogs did very well.

Our first stop was Perry, where Chili and Salsa competed at agility nationals.  I completely get the fact that pretty much everyone there was faster than us, but felt that it was important to go and represent the fact that a really non-traditional breed can still be an amazing agility dog.  This was likely to be Chili’s last agility national since she is 12 and we won’t be able to make the trip to Reno for both the NAC and PBGV specialty next year, since they are held a month apart.  Salsa had qualified for nationals for the first time.  We had left 2 feet of snow at home and the temperature in Perry was in the 80s, so my primary focus was keeping heat sensitive Chili cool enough and preventing generally sensitive Salsa from stressing, as she often does at big events.  In the end, the girls were awesome.  Both were clean on all 3 official rounds and Chili also ran clean in premier.  We also learned that if you are wondering whether you need a golf cart rental at the Perry fairgrounds, the answer is definitely yes!

We left Perry on Monday morning and headed to a friend’s home in South Carolina.  She was kind enough to let us park the RV at her house overnight and let the dogs play in her fenced yard.  This was terrific for the dogs, especially Aussie Silk who thought this was the most boring vacation ever, since she didn’t get to play at any of the trials.  Tuesday was the PBGVCA agility trials near Charlotte.  After an early morning and some time spent battling Charlotte morning rush hour, what I’ve come to think of as the annual agility marathon began.  The club does 2 trials in one day since entries are small and I normally enter all of the PBGVs to support the entry and hopefully get triathlon Qs.  This meant that Maya and C.C. came out of retirement for the day, Muse and Gromit made their debuts in novice, and Chili, Salsa, and Wally ran as usual.

The trial was held outdoors, which is very uncommon for agility anymore, and the temperature reached the 80s.  Unfortunately, a last minute decision was made to have jumpers at the end of the day to facilitate course building, so the courses where you have to run the fastest to qualify were in the hottest part of the day when the dogs were the most tired.  Overall I was really proud of the dogs.  All of the Clever Hounds Qd on the majority of their runs and we ended up with 22 Qs out of 30 runs.  Wally got his first MACH points at his first outdoor trial, Gromit and Muse had some great novice runs (Muse even did the teeter…) and 12 year old Chili was High in Trial- an award she earned on her 4th run of this very hot day.  Judge Bob Jeffers really kept his sense of humor and was very patient with dogs and handlers throughout this very long day.

Wednesday was a much needed day off to get set up at the host hotel and prepare for conformation and obedience on Thursday.  Regional conformation was held first on Thursday.  Muse won the hunt class and her mother Maya won 7-11 veterans.

After breed judging was a quick turn around to get things ready for obedience and rally judging.  Salsa was entered in Open A for the first time.  She started off with the best heeling of her life, but missed the second retrieve so an NQ.  Frustratingly enough, later on in Graduate Novice she failed heeling and then did everything else beautifully.  I think I pushed my luck entering both classes- there’s a limit to how much off lead heeling I’m going to get in a day.  Gromit did a nice job in novice, winning Novice B for his first CD leg.  Baby Spice gave me the surprise of the day in Beginner Novice.  I had entered to give her a third event for triathlon (along with rally and hunting) but knowing that her stays are not as solid as they could be.  She managed to control herself well and won a large class with a 193.5.

Rally followed, which was a bit chaotic for me.  I had entered everyone in rally at least one of the days in order to be eligible for triathlon.  On Thursday Muse, Wally, Chili, and CC earned RAE legs, although only Muse and Wally really “needed” the legs.  Gromit got a excellent leg and Spice qualified in novice.  I think Gromit’s rally Q made him the first official triathlon qualifier of the event, since he had Qd in agility, obedience, and rally.  Thursday evening was the awards dinner.  CC got a special award as the #1 PBGV in Rally last year.

On Friday, at the ridiculous hour of 7 am, was the national obedience trial.  Our results were similar to the day before, although Spice didn’t manage to hold her sit stay.  Muse, Wally, Salsa, Maya, Gromit, and Spice all had qualifying scores on challenging rally courses.  After rally was done, Muse and Spice passed the AKC Community Canine test.

Saturday was the national specialty conformation, but because of very poor treatment by the judge in the past, I opted not to enter anyone.  Instead, we enjoyed a relaxing day off.  The more time I spend at breed shows, the less I feel like the show ring is in any way a meaningful evaluation of breeding stock.  Having winners announce on social media a week before the event that they expect to win and seeing a major award given to a dog who was clearly limping didn’t do anything to restore my faith in the system.  Oh and by the way “the ears are covered with long hair” for a reason- if you ever come out to the hunt field you will see why.

Speaking of the hunt field, that’s where we headed on Sunday morning.  The hunt was held in South Carolina- yes, I know that’s not on the way home.  The kids enjoyed practice runs on Sunday and even Juno got to play for a little while- hunting is the one thing my GBGV will happily get off the couch for.  Monday’s hunt was interrupted several times by thunderstorms and Tuesdays was terribly hot, but all 8 of our PBGVs qualified both days.  This meant that everyone had qualified in triathlon (beginner for Spice)!

After Tuesday’s hunt we started the long trip back.  We were making great time until we blew out a tire on I81 in Virginia.  If anyone tries to tell you that Good Sam is better than AAA, they are lying.  6 hours later, we were back on the road and finally got in late Wednesday night.

 

 

 

The Little Stuff Matters Part 2- When Things Go Wrong

One of the big questions that comes about when discussing reward base training is what to do when things go wrong.  Cookies are great and all, but what if you ask your dog to do something and he says no?  Many trainers can get a dog to basic things for treats or other rewards, but staying away from corrections or force when things don’t go according to plan can be more difficult.

First, let’s talk about what to do in the moment.  If you asked your dog to perform a behavior that you are sure he “knows” and he doesn’t do it, how do you respond?  One choice is to force the dog to perform the behavior, but if you are reading this, chances are that’s not your plan.  Another is to pull out a treat and lure the behavior, which may work in the moment but probably won’t be helpful in terms of your dog’s long term education.  Why should your dog comply with your request if you produce cookies when he ignores you?  For many behaviors, simply waiting the dog out can be an option, but there is one major factor to consider before doing this.  If you are going to wait the dog out, you must, must, must remove any alternate reinforcement from the environment.  Yep, there are probably things in your dog’s life that are equally or more appealing than the cookie or toy you are offering.  So yes, wait the dog out if you can safely do so, but only if you can limit his access to fun things.  This may mean moving farther away from a distraction (or having the distraction move farther from the dog), or simply holding the dog by the gently by the collar or on a short leash and waiting.  If waiting isn’t an option, consider “resetting” the dog, by moving him a short distance and trying again.  Either way, be sure to reward appropriately when the dog does what you have asked.  If all else fails, abort the request and simply don’t reward the dog.  No matter what happens in the moment, the next step is to analyze what went wrong

Once you have addressed the problem in the moment, take some time to consider what went wrong.  Chances are, the dog’s understanding of what you were asking was context specific.  Sit in the kitchen at dinner time doesn’t necessarily mean sit on the hunt field so I can leash you up and end the fun.  Just as you can never go wrong by breaking a behavior into tiny pieces and rewarding every step of the process, you can never break generalization into too many steps.  Does sit mean sit in every room of the house, outside in the yard, on a walk around the block, at the pet store, at the park, at an agility trial, on the hunt field?  What if you are sitting on a chair, kneeling on the ground, lying on the couch, or doing a downward facing dog?  While you may not have to train for every possible variation on every possible cue, you do have to teach the concept of generalization by working in lots of new places and situations.  The importance of generalization will vary some depending on your dog’s lifestyle, since a service dog or competitive sports dog may have to work in more places than a stay at home pet, but every dog can benefit from having some variety in his life.

The third piece of the puzzle is management.  Sometimes a behavior just isn’t trained or generalized enough to be used in every environment yet.  If that’s the case, tools like crates, leashes, head halters, and fences might be you and your dog’s best friend.

Can your dog sit next to the Hopping Bunnies?

The Little Stuff Matters… Part 1

Most dog trainers understand the importance of foundation training- the skills that any dog needs to learn before starting to compete in sports like obedience or agility and really just the life skills that a dog needs to be a part of society.  What sometimes gets overlooked is just how important the trainer’s skills and technique are in making this foundation training successful.  The famous animal trainer Bob Bailey often says, “Training is a mechanical skill”.  This is important to remember since it can be tempting to blame things like methodology, environment, or even the dog himself (after all, you can’t train a hound, right?) for problems that can be solved by cleaning up the trainer’s technique at a very basic level.  Over the next few posts, I’ll share some observations on places where dog training sometimes goes wrong, along with some tips on how to avoid making these errors.

The first common error associated with the use of reward based training is incorrect and over-use of a food lure.  While a lure can be a quick and easy way to get a dog to perform a behavior, it is sometimes too easy.  Often it can be tempting to take the lazy route and pull out a treat to get a behavior long after the early stages rather than taking the time to work through the fact that the dog is clearly telling you that he doesn’t understand what you have asked.  Luring can be really reinforcing to us as humans, since it can make a dog look really smart without a lot of effort, but often the only learning that has really occurred is that the dog has learned to follow a treat- not to sit, lie down, or any of the other things you may think you have trained him to do.

Please don’t think that I am implying that you should train without rewards or that food is not the correct reward to use with most dogs.  What I do think you should consider is whether the food makes the behavior happen (a lure, or bribe if you want to think in human terms) or whether the behavior makes the food happen (a reward, or paycheck for a job well done).  The difference may seem subtle, but in terms of effective learning, it is huge.

In my next post, I’ll discuss some ways to handle errors (besides pulling out a cookie lure…..)

Salsa

 

Trial Day Routine Part 3- after the run

After my adorable Hound sails over the last jump and heads to her leash (howling all the way if the Hound in question is Chili), we hook up and head back to the mat to celebrate the run. This is a “do not pass go, do not collect $200” situation. I am well aware that the hounds are in it for he cookies and not just the fun of running, so I need to keep the behavior chain of run agility- leash up- go to mat- eat cookies as intact as possible to maintain value for the game.

After the reward and a quick drink for me, we can take a minute to get our scribe sheet, check course time, etc.  That is, unless I need to run someone else right away. In a perfect world when I have plenty of time, I would take my dog for a walk to cool down and have another chance to potty before settling her in her crate, with a Back on Track coat if it’s cool out. Sometimes this turns into a group walk if the trial is small and I don’t have 10-15 dogs between runs. Having multiple dogs isn’t an excuse to skip warm up and cool down, but sometimes it requires a little flexibility. 

When we are done running for the day, we head back to the RV.  Since all of our dogs travel with us, the ones who didn’t run need a potty break by now. After everyone has had time out in the x-pens, we’ll head inside to relax a while. The dogs take turns being out of their crates and I might do short training sessions with the dogs who didn’t get to play earlier. 

At around 6 pm, or earlier if it’s going to get dark, we feed everyone and set up breakfast for the next day. Everyone is leash walked in groups of 3, usually for a longer walk than in the morning. We’ll head back in to have dinner ourselves and continue to rotate dogs through out of the crate time. Around 8:30, the dogs get one more turn in the x-pens and are settled in with bedtime biscuits and Back on Track coats for the dogs running the next day. Chili and Salsa sleep loose in he RV because they are the least likely to raid the food pantry while we are sleeping at night. (Maya and Juno are the most likely, in case you are wondering). We usually settle in for the night by 10, so we are ready to start over the next morning. 

Trial Day Routine Part 2- The pre- run warm up

We left off with all of the morning necessities finished and all set to start the trial itself.  As much as possible, I try to keep the schedule and routine consistent at trials, but schedules, building layout, and weather mean that some flexibility is needed.  Usually though, the routine doesn’t change so much as the timing of it, even at a huge event like last week’s AKC Invitational.

When I get to the trial site, I check in for all of my runs for the day, marking conflicts and moving dogs who are too close in the running order.  Please note that I mainly trial in a part of the country where exhibitors are expected to resolve these issues themselves- I have been yelled at for moving dogs and marking conflicts when we’ve traveled to other areas, so this apparently isn’t the case everywhere.  I pick up my course maps, look them all over, and take photos of them to store in a journaling app on my phone.  I used to keep the hard copies, but found I had 20 years worth of paper course maps and little ability to find the ones that might have actually been useful.  If possible, I leave the dogs crated in the RV (ideal) or car (second choice), with battery operated Ryobi fans on if needed, but some venues or weather conditions require crating in the building.  If I need a holding crate near ringside while my jump height is running, I would set that up.

About an hour before each run, I take the dogs for a potty walk.  When I settle them back into the crates, I would put on either their Back on Track coats or K9 Fitvest cool coats depending on weather.  Chili considers anything above 70 degrees to be extreme heat, so I sometimes get funny looks for breaking out the cool coats, but her comfort is my priority.  I have found that the coats have a calming effect, along the lines of a Thundershirt, so in perfect weather I usually put the Fitvests on dry and without the ice packs.  Then I head back to ringside for the walk through.

The next part of the warm up can be done with more than one dog at a time.  Ideally, I have a second person available but I can make do with a crate close to the ring.  At most trials, I run 3-4 dogs in 8 or 12 inch Master.  At big trials, this is not a problem (unless my 8 inch dog conflicts with my 12s), but at a small trial, the hounds are sometimes almost, or literally, back to back, which requires me to warm everyone up before anyone runs.

About 8-10 dogs before the run, I will get my dog, wet them down if its hot, and take them for a quick potty break.  I’ll head to ringside and take off the Back on Track coat before heading to the warm up jump (cool coats can stay on for now).  I use the jump as a quick warm up and to make sure the dog knows what the running surface will be.  Most of the time, I just ask for one jump in collection and one in extension, but I might warm up a back side or start line stay if I plan to use those skills.  Please note, warming up is not the same as training the behavior.  If your dog doesn’t have a skill like pushing to the back side of the jump, it isn’t fair to expect everyone to wait while you monopolize the warm up jump trying to train a behavior at the last minute.  (Like say, at a major event like the Invitational……just saying.)  Rewards at the warm up jump and ringside come from a tug toy, which my dogs will also retrieve and tug on to varying degrees.

After the warm up jump, we’ll settle on a Fitpaws stretching mat at ringside to wait for our turn.  If it’s even remotely warm, I’ll have a fan pointed at the mat.  The mat will be “home base” and is where the cookies will be after we run.  I also keep a drink for myself and a water dish for the dogs there.  The mat and toy are consistent from trial to trial, but I have several identical ones and always travel with at least one extra.  If this seems silly, I refer you to the Busy Bee scene in the movie “Best in Show”.  For my hounds, the cookies in the toy at a trial need to be more exciting than training cookies- usually I have steak or grilled chicken for them.  I use tug toys that are washable and they are cleaned regularly for food safety reasons.

About 2-3 dogs before our turn I’l take the cool coat off.  While we hang out on the mat, each dog has preferred activities.  Chili will play fetch and get wound up, Juno and Wally like a good belly rub, and Salsa alternates between cuddling and wrestling.  I usually save active play for 1-2 dogs before the run since keeping my dogs aroused isn’t as easy as it would be for more traditional  agility dogs.  The toy stays at the mat, but I take some food up to the ring gate with me.  As we approach the ring, I’ll ask for some heeling or tricks until the dog before us is about 30 seconds from the end of their run.  Then we have the last cookie and I will pick up the PBGV girls to carry into the ring.  Juno and Wally are too heavy to carry, so Juno heels into the ring.  Wally gets really excited watching other dogs run, so I try to keep him sitting in front position as much as possible.  Then we head to the line for a fabulous run!

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Trial Day Routine, Part 1

Dogs thrive on routine, but keeping a consistent schedule while competing can be hard.  I compete in a variety of dog sports with multiple dogs, and have found that with planning and consistency it’s possible to create a plan that allows the dogs to know what to expect and to minimize stress.

We usually travel by RV, which I think is a big advantage in many ways.  All of the dogs travel with us from the time they are puppies, so they are used to most of the rituals of travel long before they are old enough to be entered.  I try to keep the trial day schedule as consistent as possible if we are commuting from home in the morning or staying in a hotel, but the familiarity of the RV setting and ability to bring all of the comforts of home does make things easier.

In the RV, we wake up at least 1.5 hours before our first class or walk through (longer for the breed ring, since you have to groom).  Dave and I get ourselves dressed and ready first and undress any dogs who slept in their Back on Track coats.  I try not to let dogs out before 7 am, because I can’t guarantee that they won’t bark and barking at any time of day is surprisingly upsetting to some in the agility community, but sometimes the judging schedule just doesn’t allow that.  All of the dogs go out for 5-10 minutes in exercise pens to take care of any urgent business.  Dave supervises outside while I fill water buckets in crates.  The dogs come back in and eat breakfast, which was prepared the night before.  Not doing meal prep in the morning is another attempt to minimize excited morning barking.  I do feed the dogs who are competing, but only about 25% of their normal breakfast since I am really generous with rewards on trial days.

After breakfast, which takes most of our dogs 10-15 seconds to eat, everyone is walked in groups of 2 or 3.  We try to make sure everyone is empty in the morning, because if the day gets busy it might be a while before the unentered dogs get another trip outside.

At this point, I prepare anything we need for the day, like packing the cooler and making sure enough treats are defrosted and ready to go.  If we are at a breed show, I would start grooming.  I prefer to work from the RV or car at most shows because the dogs are calmer and I have more ability to control the temperature, but if needed I would move the dogs who are entered into their crates in the building.  Now it’s time to check in, pick up armbands or course maps, and let the fun begin.

Stay tuned for part 2, the Pre-run Routine.

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Gromit’s Tracking Test

Just a quick post to share the video of Gromit earning his Tracking Dog title on this very windy day.  I was really proud of the little guy working so well in tough conditions, even if he did stop to roll in something on the first leg of the track.  Out of 12 dogs today, only 3 (2 TD and 1 TDU) passed, but I think the high winds and drastic weather change had a lot to do with that.

A tracking test requires a dog to follow a path laid by a person at least 440 yards in length, with 3-5 turns (4 on this track) that has aged at least 30 minutes and locate a glove dropped at the end. 

Clancy's Curse of the Were-Rabbit TD BN RA HC CGCA

Clancy’s Curse of the Were-Rabbit TD BN RA HC CGCA