Thursday, May 31, 2007

What I Did On My UDC Vacation, Friday

The IPO tracking was in the morning, in beautiful thigh-high alfalfa fields. Judge Roar Kjønstad (Norway) was tough but fair, approaching the dogs on the articles to check positions before calling the handlers to approach.

The BHs were supposed to be later, but we realized there wouldn’t be time for them and decided to have them following tracking. Huzzah! Even less waiting! So we all traveled out to the trial field.

The judge checked tattoos and microchips and impartiality well away from the trial field, near where a couple of conservationists gathered gear and started into the tall grass. Laev watched them with keen interest and I turned her away, moving her down the hill away from the temptations. “Don’t think about the grass. Don’t think about the hill. Don’t think about the rabbits.”

Then we went to the field, checked in, and I went to set Laev up for the down. She gave me beautiful attention, hesitated a little in going down – “But, Mom, long downs are boring! Aren’t we going to do something fun?” – and then I left her. Count about forty paces, stop, stare straight ahead. Imagine dog in mind’s eye, lying quietly in place. Watch other dog working, visualize Laev in place.

Roar Kjønstad reversed the standard heeling pattern to use left turns instead of right. No problem, except that it caught us off-guard (the poor first competitor learned on the field as she turned). I watched, waited, thought happy thoughts about Laev’s attentive heeling. She was going to be so ready to work when it was our turn–

A jingle of collar! I turned and saw Laev barreling toward me at high speed. I called a warning to the other competitor, who was setting up for her final exercises, and called Laev, who passed me, circled and came in. I downed her and held her while the other dog finished. What had happened? I hadn’t expected trouble in the down.

Well, Laev was the first dog in that corner, and apparently we hadn’t scared off all the critters. When I watched our video that night, I saw at least a dozen instances of Laev jumping about, obviously hearing something in the grass, and twitching. Her ears were working, her mouth was open – she was ready. And finally, with what I can only describe as the incredibly anthropomorphic, “If I stay here I am going to be bad, so I’m going to Mom,” she bolted for me. A better decision than heading into the grass, yes! but a little hard on our scoring. And so near the end, too!

Okay, time to set up for our heeling. Laev gave me such lovely attention as we moved to the center of the field, but I was in no mood to appreciate it – I was upset by the blown down, and the video and photos show it. Bad Laura. So Laev started with only two-thirds of a handler.

She did well, in the beginning – her heeling was a little wide, but she had nice attention, at least. Change of pace when well, we finished the L and headed into the group. That went pretty well, just one quick eyeball at a group member and then we reversed and sat. Off came the leash, and for the first time in 250 paces or so I could speak to the dog. “Good girl,” I said. “This is the fun one. Stay with me. Are you ready?” Laev’s off-leash work is almost always better than her on-leash work....

But this was going too long with a zombie handler. I hadn’t even done any real praise during our brief respite. Laev was getting tired of my failure to produce a toy, a treat, or even a smile, and she started drifting. My nerves caught me and I tensed more. It felt like slow torture. Laev drifted more, still nominally with me but no longer a dance partner. And then we turned left, directly toward the tall grass....!

Laev froze up during the last part of the L, staring off across the meadow. I gave her an extra, “heel,” but it didn’t take. There was a lot of world out there, and most of it more interesting than the unsmiling alien beside her. I took a deep breath, kept myself from touching her, tried to remember if we could ask to be excused, and waited. And then Laev looked back at me, and I said, “heel,” and we kept going.

I *should* have praised her hugely at the end of that, but I didn’t. (Zombie handler.) Instead I set up quietly for the last exercises and looked to the judge. Our routine was feeling so awful to me...! And when he said, “Thank you,” I thought for a moment that we were being excused, that he didn’t trust us to try the last two motion exercises. But then I realized that he was merely signaling us to begin.

The video shows clearly that Laev recognizes my moment of uncertainty and begins to sniff the grass in avoidance. Again, I *should* have spoken to her, given her a brief pet and then paused before starting the next exercise. But instead I simply said, “Heel,” and started, leaving Laev hesitant behind me. A second command brought her to me, and we did the sit out of motion successfully. But the same thing for the down out of motion – no break in stress (granted, we usually practice the sits and downs as one long chain, but I should have recognized that I’d already violated our contract) and Laev needed a second command to start with me. I downed her and kept going.

I turned back at the edge of the long grass and saw Laev looking across the grass, not at me. I hesitated a bit longer than the standard few seconds and the judge’s signal, waiting for Laev to glance back, and then I called her. She ran for me, veering left...! But she made the correct decision and corrected her path, coming to sit crookedly in front of me instead of heading up the hill to rabbit-land. I breathed again. “Fuss,” and she circled me to heel position, adding a gruff little bark to protest my handling. At least that part seemed to be a crowd pleaser.

I snapped on the leash and went to check in, my mood black. Then we went to wait in the shade, where the judge gave our critiques. Laev had good temperament, he said, great willingness to work, but was distracted.... Parts were excellent, but other parts.... We did not pass.

After the other obedience routines, we went to town for the traffic testing. Laev did not participate, as she hadn’t passed the first part. The traffic testing was more intense than I’ve seen elsewhere but very reasonable; Laev would have had no problems with it, if we’d gotten that far.

Then we went back to Progress City for the breed survey (fit for breeding tests evaluating conformation, temperament and working aptitude). That’s where we set up the second silent auction. And finally we went to our catered judge’s dinner, where Roar Kjønstad talked on temperament, evaluation, breeding to improve faulty temperaments, etc.

I went back to the hotel and watched the video. “Ye gads,” I said, looking at Laev’s twitchy down. “It’s a good thing I didn’t know this was going on.”

“Yeah,” Alena said, “we were all glad you had to have your back to her, or you would have been really nervous.”

I was starting to feel really awful about having failed the BH, but some part of me recognized that at least part of it was due to tiredness and I put myself to bed.

What I Did On My UDC Vacation, Thursday

Alena started the AD at 6 in the morning. The other entry had pulled, so Alena and Valenzia were the only pair, with Anne riding beside them to help with traffic, pacing, etc. We had to start early because of temperature worries (the test must stop if the temperature reaches 70 degrees), but it turned out to be quite chilly with the wind. Alena borrowed my new Goretex pants, a jacket from Anne, and gloves from José.

The AD was run on a stretch of road outside Progress City, with unfortunately rough pavement. The wind was sweeping, making parts of it quite difficult to ride, but they held in there, and Valenzia was still running strong at the end of the 12.5 miles. She had torn her pads a bit at the very end (she was fine during the first two checks), but the judge passed her anyway, as she was utterly unaffected by it and he recognized the rough pavement was an issue. Valenzia would have been fine with running some more, in fact, returning to the bike – silly dog. And she never did start panting or take any of the water offered on the mandatory breaks. Doberman.

Afterward, a group of us went for breakfast with the judge and helped Anne grade college tests.

We watched the Search and Rescue demonstrations then, and after that did a Rally introduction. Laev and I of course were already familiar with Rally obedience, but it was good practice and *great* training, working in the conformation ring liberally littered with liver and hot dogs! I had to switch to some nice sausage to keep Laev’s attention up after her initial dive for tasty bits, but by the end she was focusing much better.

Then I went back to the field for practice. Oops! Others had taken the field for protection practice. I waited, fidgeting, for them to finish; I didn’t want to work elsewhere, I wanted to fix the problem we had *here.* Finally they were done, and I pulled Laev for a super-fast session. I put the electric collar on her, just in case, and took her off-leash. Once again, she never took a step away from me. I never touched the electric. Once again, I was very, very happy that I hadn’t needed it, but worried about the next day. Would she remember leaving me when I didn’t have a contingency plan?

Then back to the hotel for the silent auction and draw party! I was running late, due to practicing with Laev, and sent Alena ahead to set up the silent auction. This is a big fund-raiser for the club, and it went very well this year – except for the items which were misplaced! We’d had some mis-communication, and several items were still at Progress City, not at the hotel to be sold. I promised a second auction on the next day.

Draw time – BH number two! We’d do our down first, which was fine by me, and then work the heeling pattern. And we’d get it all done early, as opposed to building up slow nerves while waiting our turn.

What I Did On My UDC Vacation, Wednesday

More Butch Henderson observation, more obedience. I didn’t see any conformation at all this year. I left the seminar early to get in some more practice on the trial field. Wow, Laev’s doing well, I thought. This is fantastic. She’s actually going to pass this time. (We failed the BH last fall.)

Well, that was brief. The trial field was a mowed space within a conservation area. I saw Laev alert and reached for her, but she was already off, chasing a critter through the tall grass. She raced up the hill and disappeared.

Well, there goes the BH, was my first thought. My second was, at least there’s no traffic here. I wasn’t worried about her being injured, just about the incredible reinforcement she was getting for leaving the field and myself.

I went up the hill after her, saw Laev, and called her. She ran past me but didn’t stop. I didn’t argue, just turned and walked down the road and around a bend so that I was hidden by trees. Sure enough a moment later Laev trotted around the bend, looking for me. It took a lot of self-control to greet her neutrally, pet her, attach the leash and go downhill.

Stink. What do I do now?

I got a long line from the car and had Alena act as safety net while I set up recalls right beside the tempting tall grass. No problem; Laev’s more than bright enough to recognize a long line.

I went back to the car, put Laev away, and considered. This was not the first time that Laev had left me for a critter. Laev has incredible, intense “prey drive,” to use an inaccurate but popular term, strong even for a type which has been bred specifically for generations to enhance predatory reactions far beyond normal. And she’d just had huge R+ for leaving me.

I wasn’t worried about the BH, so much – if we failed that, it wasn’t the end of the world. Laev wouldn’t know the difference, and my ego would recover. But I had to do something about her leaving me for chasing prey.

I racked my brain. I talked to Alena. And in the end, I decided to use positive punishment. I needed to suppress a behavior, and the alternate behavior I’d trained just wasn’t strong enough to outweigh instinct. (A dog bred for “prey drive” shows stronger reactions than a wolf, who won’t waste energy on difficult prey or when not in need – it’s very nearly an OCD issue with Laev.) So I opted for positive punishment.

I called a friend back at the showgrounds and arranged to borrow an electric collar. I carefully planned my training session, because I was not going to allow this to happen badly. The collar was set to its strongest setting, because I would need something powerful to snap Laev out of her obsession and because I don’t believe in nagging. If I’m going to punish something, it should be finished within a couple of reps. I decided that I would not touch the button unless Laev hit the tall grass bordering the field, fully committing to leaving me for the critters. No half-cocked firing. I don’t use positive punishment often, but when I do, I want to use it in the most scientific manner possible.

So I went back and set Laev up, carrying more of her raw diet and the collar remote. I worked her a long, long time, deliberately setting her up beside the grass, going long stretches without reinforcement, straining our training as much as was fair. If I were going to use punishment, I wanted it to be quick and clean and finished, no fussing about it, and then I wanted two or three days to repair any damage. (Passing the BH would be nice, but I also wanted to be sure that she wouldn’t associate the field with the shock, only the committed chasing, if necessary.)

But no matter what I did, I couldn’t get Laev to leave me. She worked well, in focus, and stayed close. Once or twice she paused to scan the meadow, but she never actually took a step away, and certainly she never hit the tall grass, so I never touched her.

Finally I left the field and went back to the car, stripping Laev of equipment. I hadn’t needed the electric collar! I put Laev on her normal flat collar and went to walk her away from the field...

...where she flushed a feral cat and a rabbit in close succession. Yeek! I dragged the screaming monster back to the van, loaded up and went back to the hotel, hugely grateful that I had not needed the punishment! but also still worried because she hadn’t tried to leave me and because she’d just been reminded of cool things out there. I wasn’t foolish enough to think that it just wouldn’t occur to her again – that was a lot of reinforcement for running away! It would just pop up later, when I wasn’t prepared for it. Still, it felt really, really good to have not used the electric.

The UDC’s annual meeting was that night; lots of reports and updates and business. Alena and I went to bed early afterward, because it was going to be an early morning.

What I Did On My UDC Vacation, Tuesday

The next day I audited the Butch Henderson seminar in obedience and protection. I opted to audit not because I don’t trust Butch Henderson, but because I just didn’t know him well. I’m very choosy about who gets to actively work my dog. Instead, I took notes in the notebook brought for that purpose. I had to make a quick break to run and watch Alena and Valenzia in obedience. (I hate that the obedience and conformation rings are always opposite the working seminar – I understand the need to compress events, but it’s a frustrating situation to me.)

It was hot and very windy; the wind destroyed Anne’s tent and the sun roasted us all. However, that wind was bringing a cold front, and an arriving thunderstorm interrupted the protection work and the temperament testing. We hid in cars and restrooms until the worst of it passed.

(Temperament testing, you ask? UDC rules require that all conformation entries enter a breed-specific temperament test, briefly covering acceptable behavior toward strangers and a proper Doberman reaction to a threat on the dog and handler. Dogs may enter the ring regardless of score, but only those who pass the test can earn championships.)

I skipped out early to go to the trial field and do some obedience with Laev. She’d had days off from training while I was gone, and I wanted to get her onto the trial field and do some review before her BH trial on Friday. Laev did quite well, working for toys and her supper. (All of her food for the week had been packaged in quarter pound chunks for easy training. No free lunch!) I was pleased.

Then we returned to the host hotel for a banquet and talk by trainer John Soares. I was in charge of tagging folks, circulating with my sticky nametags and markers and catching unmarked people like a game warden. I ate enough for three people, probably due to the last several days of convention and late nights.

What I Did On My UDC Vacation, Monday

I’m sorry; this is *long* overdue. But here’s the final report on UDC Nationals.

We drove home from a fun but hectic four days at Acen, arriving Sunday night. We stripped costumes and panel presentation materials from the borrowed van, loaded UDC necessities and dogs into the van which the Marvelous Dave had repaired during our absence, and Alena and I took off. We drove overnight to Decatur, IL, pulled in and slept in the van for about an hour and a half.

UDC Nationals, 2007, Monday
At six, I crawled out of the van and went to join the tracking workshop, led by the talented Anne Rammelsburg. I didn’t get a chance to work Laev (we just ran out of time with so many dogs), but I paid close attention to what was said about other dogs and will be trying some new ideas of my own, too. Laev is too talented a tracker to be where we are now – she is just too enthusiastically fast on the track, and I need to drop her a few RPMs for competition quality work.

It was then sometime after nine o’clock, so Alena and I checked in for the week, picking up our catalogs and maps and information. Decatur was so nice to us, having a Chamber of Commerce person on hand to greet us and hand out booklets on Decatur services and attractions and restaurants. But all I really wanted at that point was my nice Decatur bed. I called the host hotel, who allowed us to check in early, and we crashed for some hours. That was probably the best sleep I’d had in a week.

We returned to Progress City (the farm show grounds, where most of our UDC events were held) for the annual Search and Rescue fund-raising games. For $5, the dogs could play a collection of fun games and activities. Laev won the obedience relay (go for a walk while holding a full cup of water, leave dog, return to start, place quarters under armpits, call dog, finish without losing quarters – judged on speed and amount of remaining water), and she made a pretty paw painting, and she got to pick a toy from a collection, but her mostest favoritest game was the bobbing for hot dogs. These hot dogs hadn’t been boiled and so they sank rather than floated, but Laev didn’t care – she had fifteen seconds to scarf as many as she could reach, and unlike many dogs, she was quite happy to submerge for them! She was so funny and made so much noise about wanting to do it again later that they let her come back for another 15 seconds of dunking. I think she cost them money ;-) but everyone had a good laugh at her.

Alena and Valenzia had a run-off for the other relay, the Doggie Duds dress up timed event, but they took second. Valenzia was fine with the participation cookies, though.

I had a talk with the owner of Laev’s half-sister, too, who told me that she’d been working hard on suppressing critter-chasing. Yeah, yeah, I can relate to that – Laev’s single biggest challenge is squirrels and cats. It triggers something deep within her, something beyond mere “likes to chase squirrels.” Linda told me that their shared sire has one of the strongest prey drives (I dislike that scientifically vague term, but it’s common parlance) even among working-bred dogs, according to many people, and that he throws that to their offspring. Well, at least now I know where it comes from!

Breed-Specific Legislation, Again?!

I know, I know, I'm *way* behind in updating Laev's blog, but I just couldn't let this go by.

The word is that our mayor Bart Peterson will introduce his BSL again this year. And I find that ridiculous. After all, we've fought it down twice now, and the last time we were very clear that the problems the city was citing could be addressed not by BSL which would hurt responsible dog owners more than the criminal element they complained of, but by cracking down on the dog fight rings and associated drug activity. That's where the Animal Control officers were complaining of threat to their persons -- not from the sweet-tempered family pets who are coming through my training classes.

But I guess it's a lot easier as a politician to invent new laws and create the appearance of activity than to enforce existing laws with less media buzz.

And enforcing the old laws *would* help. That pit bull which mauled the child last year? I don't mean to downplay that as a tragedy -- it's not, it was awful for that child. But that dog and its owner had been reported to Animal Control three times before that incident, with no real action. A basic enforcement of the existing leash law would have prevented that bite just as well (and with much less backlash against responsible owners already obeying existing laws) as a breed ban -- probably more so, since I doubt a legal ban would have fazed such obviously negligent owners.

A friend sent a link to a blog post on dog politics and owner responsibility. The gist of this is true -- this is a human problem, not a dog problem, and it's driven by over-hyped media. (I've seen photos of Lab mixes, posted with bite stories, labeled as "pit bulls." Puh-lease!)

If you own a dog, or if you like dogs, don't think this won't eventually affect you. There are places in the world where Corgis and other small dogs are considered "dangerous" and are regulated by law -- once the precedent is set, it's easy to add any breed with a bite to the list of vicious dogs. I am wholly in favor of safe and responsible ownership! and wholly opposed to breed-specific legislation.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Forget the Heeling -- I'm Miserable!

Well, we'd been making progress, I thought. Last night I had my husband hold Laev's dinner while I took her through roughly half a BH routine, at the end of which I sent her for supper. It wasn't a world-class routine, but it was good enough, and I was happy that she was able to work that long.

This afternoon, however, I felt as if I were begging for every scrap of behavior, and Laev was failing abominably at stuff she's known forever -- the down out of motion, for example, which has been nearly foolproof since she was six months old. What on earth is going on?

My plan was to hit the road and work in all-new locations this week. Conventional wisdom would have me continue at home until she's much better, but 1) I don't have time for that, and 2) I think a good chunk of the problem is conditioned critter-hunting in her own yard. Maybe she'll do better away.

I'm just nearly ripping my hair out. This is a test she should have been able to pass months and months ago, consisting entirely of behaviors at which she's been fluent for well over a year. I had no reason to anticipate particular trouble with this. I don't know why I'm getting trouble with this. She's driving me crazy!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Less-Miserable Heeling

My training friend Wes is taking a Harvard class in behavior and shared with me some startling information regarding open and closed economies in training. Graphs of success rates indicated much different rates of learning -- in closed economies (those without supplemental feeding regardless of performance), the rates were much higher. The two charts looked like different experiments entirely!

I think it's obvious that the average pet dog does not need to live in a closed food economy. He should get regular meals and a fixed number of calories a day. I'm certainly not advocating starving a dog into obedience! But when I found my back up against the wall with Laev -- fast approaching Nationals and a dog more interesting in squirrel-gazing than anything else -- I opted for a closed economy.

Well, we're on day 3, and I've seen a startling difference today. Last night there was a glimmer of brain activity but it came and went irregularly; today, Laev actually earned 1 3/4 lbs of food (she ordinarily gets 2 lbs/day -- yes, it's high-quality raw, and yes, I would shed blood for that metabolism!). Yesterday she maxed out at 1/2 lb earned and 1/4 lb for free because the other dogs were having supper. (My closed economy wasn't 100% closed; I just don't have it in me to make her watch them eat.)

And Laev's attention has improved dramatically. While the other night I was rejoicing to get 25 steps of attentive heeling, tonight she was giving me nearly 100. I opted to R+ at that point, but probably could have stretched it longer. I'll be building up over the next two weeks to a full BH routine and beyond.

We're not using any toys or special treats, just her daily diet. I'm using ground raw in a waist bag with a spoon to dispense it -- not pretty, but clean and effective. I'll be getting the food off me soon so that it's not a cue itself.

So it's been a steep learning curve for Laev, and she nearly blew it tonight; she was doing very well in the center of our yard (several fenced acres) and so I moved behind the big historic barn. Oops! Wildlife area! and she started to fade. I caught her collar for safety and asked for some very simple behaviors with an absurdly high rate of reinforcement until she could refocus. Even then, it was stare at Laura, hear click, scan for critters while Laura delivered food, wrench eyes back to earn another click.... But I did some fast sequential fronts back in the direction of the safe zone and then faded into heeling again, which she did well. I rewarded a final recall by letting her clean out the treat bag.

This is not an easy environment. Our mower broke 3 weeks ago and the #&*$ mechanics didn't pick it up for repair today, so I have large areas which have not yet been cut this year. The grass is knee-deep on me in places; if Laev were a Pomeranian, she'd be lost. And Laev's been watching the squirrels come out after hibernation, and there are favorite cat hiding places all over, and.... Oh, well. When she can focus here, with such a history of R+ for hunting, traveling on the road should be much easier.

But at least I'm seeing progress! Huzzah!

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Miserable Obedience

Okay, UDC Nationals is in two weeks, and my dog is utterly brainless.

We'd been doing shorter heelwork, focusing on AKC obedience and AKC/APDT rally over the winter, and I knew we were going to have some work to get back into a full, *long* BH routine. I didn't realize that my dog is completely worthless at this stuff.

Now, part of the problem is that I'm working outside on my own property, where she has a tremendous reinforcement history of chasing cats and squirrels. But I'm having a murderous time getting her to focus through the heelwork. I'm starting to panic.

As of yesterday, Laev's on a closed economy -- no food except for work, with the exception of a quarter pound during standard dinner time when the other dogs eat, too. But that still leaves me nearly two pounds for her to earn through obedience.

Last night she had a tough time focusing and I eventually decided that she could make her own choice -- so she had a half pound of food for the day yesterday. "The thing is," I told me husband, "she's counting on me being nicer than I am. I don't particularly care if she eats it now or later." Today so far she's had most of a quarter pound, but that's it.

I expect that by Friday, I'll have a really focused dog.

I'd feel bad about this if these were new behaviors or a new environment -- but this stuff should be old hat to her, and this is my own driveway! She just would rather hunt this time of year, with the squirrels out from hibernation. Sorry, honey; I've got no plans to fail a second time, and you're working for dinner.

I'm about to go out the door to buy auto parts and I'll take Laev with me to practice in an unfamiliar (and less loaded) environment. We'll see how she does.