Saturday, December 13, 2008

Trial Report.

Today is not a good day to have a blog.

There are good aspects to having a blog; it forces me to think though things as I write posts, it connects me with other people and their suggestions, it encourages other people in their own training, it lets me report to several friends at once on our progress. But there are bad aspects to having a blog, too, like reporting bad news. It's awful enough to live through it, worse to report it to friends, and worse still to have to tell the people from other states or even other countries who have written or commented to wish success.

But I set myself up for this, so I can't blame anyone but myself.

The day was not a total loss, actually. Tracking went decently; Laev started correctly and, though she got excited and overshot each corner by a body length, she self-corrected and showed a deep nose. Parts of the track the judge even called "excellent." Too bad she failed to stop at the first article. (Where did that come from all of a sudden?) So she finished with a score of 80, which isn't going to knock anyone's socks off but was at least mostly respectable, considering she lost a lump 10 points by missing the article.

Shakespeare struggled considerably more at both corners and wobbled, also missing the first article. (Note to self -- leather articles no good today!) However, he finished the track and squeaked by with a score of 71 to earn his Tracking 1 title. (The judge was even kind enough to specify later over lunch that it was earned and not a gift.) That surprised and pleased me. Not bad for a dog I suspect has a handicap! I collected my skipped articles and left tracking feeling fairly happy.

Laev had showed very nice focus prior to the track and good self-control in starting the track, so I was anticipating a good obedience session. During the 45-minute drive from tracking to the club field, I listened to music. By the time I arrived, I was even singing along a bit, having conquered most of my nerves and compartmentalized the stressful stuff from earlier in the week. (I had an upsetting event this week, which hurt and challenged me personally.) I was feeling pretty confident and mostly competent.

I don't know what the temperature or wind chill really was, but it was COLD. Less wind than predicted, which was good, but colder too, I think. We were cold even with our multi-layered winter gear. Still, less wind and no rain was good for obedience. And I liked the judge, who was easy to show to and didn't give me trial jitters like I get with Laev.

BH dogs went first, and there were two. (Someone else came after all!) Alena and Valenzia did better than anticipated, given that Alena had only 10 days notice of the trial and Valenzia had done almost no outdoor work previously. They did not pass, but I was happy for them with their overall showing.

Us next! We had an honor dog working the other half of Laev's flight, as we were the only Schutzhund entry. Laev and I got to the field first -- I really thought the other dog was right behind us! -- and had to wait for the second dog. I had Laev sit while we waited. Then the second dog came and we checked in, Laev offleash and the honor dog on a long line, as approved by the judge. She asked if I wanted to do the down or heelwork first, and I looked at Laev shivering hard and said that we'd work first, to warm her up. Seemed reasonable.

I took her to the start line and sat in basic position, ready to begin. But the honor dog had to get across the field and start his down, which took a couple of minutes. Laev had been fidgety during the waiting but then had focused well for reporting in, and I thought that I didn't want to burn out her focus while waiting again. So I downed her and stepped to one side, so she didn't have to wait all keyed up.

This would have been fine during normal training. But this wasn't normal training, was it? There were strange people on the field, a different atmosphere in general, and we'd already waited in limbo before reporting in. Laev was slightly off-kilter and not quite certain of what we were doing. When I stepped back into heel position beside her, ready to begin, she didn't look up at me as she ALWAYS does.*

(* Almost always, except in times of stress. The last time she missed my stepping back as a cue to focus was during a seminar where I was in conflict, and Laev just checked out. Hey, I wasn't focused on her, either. But it's a distinct sign of disconnect.)

Now, a SMART handler would have not only noticed that the dog was not in tune, but done something about it. I could have stepped away and stepped back again. I could have said her name and asked for a simple hand target to reset her before taking a new basic position. But nope, I noticed that she wasn't focused and I just said, "Heel," to pop her forward into the sit. Laev, her eyes across the field, didn't respond. So I cued again and got her, but now we were already out of sync.

I knew immediately I didn't have the same dog I'd left in the down. But I wasn't really sure what to do at that point, and normally heeling will bring Laev's brain back. So I started the pattern. She was a bit wide, and I didn't feel we were "dancing" as we should have been. The judge said in her critique that Laev looked happy and focused, and I don't want to argue with the judge, so I'll just say that I knew it wasn't nearly as good as it can be. Laev was definitely a bit stressed and not in sync.

Still, she was starting to settle in just as the gunshots were fired. They even caught me by surprise! as I was thinking about my dog. Laev didn't startle out of position, but I saw a small reaction in her. I think it was just the straw that broke her concentration. Mine, too; I had no idea where I was in counting steps, which ususally isn't a problem for me. I guessed at a location for our turn. Probably Laev sensed my uncertainty and it didn't reassure her, because a moment later she broke and bolted.

I shouted, but the judge waved me quiet. "Let her check for the toy," she advised. "She's just trying the vor aus early. You get three commands to call her back; don't waste them."

I knew Laev wasn't trying the vor aus; I haven't been sending her that far down the field. She was running to relieve stress. Stupid greyhound genes. She disappeared into the woods, where there were barking neighbor dogs and lots of squirrels.

#*&@$! squirrels.

Laev appeared again, moving at Mach 8 across the edge of the woods. I called. I don't know if she even heard me. She cleared a brush pile -- "She must have jumped 13 feet!" gasped the judge -- and kept going. Out of sight.

I started to worry; Laev has never run that far from me, ever. I made my final call, and she didn't reappear. "Go and get her," said the judge.

I walked toward the end of the field, but there was no sign of Laev. I was getting more worried, now. I was also remembering the whistle I had in the car. I had considered tucking it into a pocket today, just in case -- okay, so I'm paranoid -- but Laev had been doing so well at staying right with me, ignoring the woods, etc. of late that I hadn't thought I'd need it.

It felt like eternity, though it was probably only about a minute before I sighted Laev galloping across the next field. She was moving really, really fast. Maybe, if I don't kill her, we can give up Schutzhund for lure coursing.

I called and she swerved to come to me. We heeled back to hear the brief critique. There wasn't much; the judge liked our early heeling (though I didn't) and then Laev was dismissed for being out of control.

That's it. No more chance to do obedience, no chance to do protection. Epic fail.

On some pathetic level, it was almost nice to see my club's disappointment. Several told me that they had expected Laev to do well; one said that after the morning's track he thought, "Obedience, and then it's in the bag." It was nice to see that they had really expected success.

But then, I feel like we failed not only ourselves, but our club, the judge who flew out for us, my friends who wanted us to succeed, and everyone who read the blog and wished us well, publicly or privately.

And, hindsight being 20/20, of course I can see where I could have done better as a handler. I mean, on at least three occasions this week I carefully explained how movement and simple, successful behaviors can manage and dispell stress safely. Laev was already focused on me when we reported in; I should have done some heel movements and targeting to keep her occupied, moving, and successful while the honor dog went to the down. Then I wouldn't have added stress by changing the routine ("why are we waiting again?") and compounded it by freezing her in place with a down, denying any relief through movement.

The bigger part, of course, is that I did not train for limbo. We've never practiced waiting on the field for the judge to get a pen or the other dog to down or someone to find a missing dumbbell or who knows what. Laev is used to coming on the field, focusing, and working. When I needed her to wait yet again, I required something other than that which I'd trained. So we're going to add dead time into our routine.

I was very disappointed. People were largely sympathetic -- heck, we've all failed sometime, right? -- until it came out that I was writing an article for Then a few comments shifted tone, which frustrated me. I mean, if we had passed, would it have been said that we did so only because I was a clicker trainer? Then why should it be said that we failed because of that?

Yes, it's obvious I have a problem. And I'll work on it. Someone asked me what I planned to do, and I answered, "I plan to think about it when I'm sober." Because, really, the initial burst of disappointment and frustration is not the best time to make decisions. (I did think, during that moment that Laev was gone, that if I just walked off the field and disappeared, being nowhere in sight when she returned, I would probably prevent leaving me for a long time. But of course I couldn't do that in the trial....)

We worked dogs after lunch in preparation for tomorrow's helper seminar. Laev garnered compliments on her bitework, but when the helper slipped the sleeve near the edge of the field -- I didn't know he would do that -- she ran with the sleeve. She did return, and she was never out of sight, but it's a disturbing trend. (Of course, she'd had HUGE reinforcement for running earlier in the day. Relief of stress is a very powerful negative reinforcer.) We put a long line on her and I worked on recalls after the sleeve is slipped, and she was returning to me even unprompted by the end of the session and in her second session as well. I don't kid myself that it's fixed, however.

Her obedience was shot to pieces during the helper sessions, too. Because the focus was on training helpers, not training dogs, the guest helper working her was talking frequently to observers instead of focusing wholly on Laev and me. He also just does some things differently than I prefer to do. What this meant, however, is that bad behavior was getting inadvertently rewarded. I told Laev to down while he was talking, for example, and then before she did he turned and agitated. So the next time I told Laev to down, she hesitated, eyes on helper. Then I was chided for not having a good down and strong corrections. I know I can get proper obedience if the helper and I are working together, not separately; I need to be hard-nosed about that tomorrow during the seminar. We agree that the bite is the ultimate reward for the dog; we disagree in that I say it must be earned though behavior performed entirely by the dog without handler help. (I'm not blaming the helpers; their job wasn't to focus on us at that time. I was clearer in telling helpers to wait during the second session and Laev's downs got more stable again.)

"There's no crying in Schutzhund!" someone told me today, but I really wanted to cry. (I need stress relief, too!) After stuff this week and now with failing our attempt at the 1, I feel like a huge loser and something of a poser. I mean, I'm supposed to be a professional trainer, and I can't pass the lowest level of titling? And we lose it in obedience?! It's tough, too, when someone says before the trial, "I'm not worried, you and Laev are both so good!" -- that's a lot of pressure, y'know? And then when we do fail, and we're supposed to be so good... yeah. I don't think I like being a novice and yet not a novice. And one with a label, too.

But mostly, I don't like failing.

It's not right; I shouldn't be so disappointed about Laev when Shakespeare earned a new title today. Yes, I expected Laev to pass and Shakespeare to fail, but this is the same 50% success ratio, right? And now I've got 4-5 months to train and polish, right? (No trials anywhere before that, I checked.)

And then, at home, Laev came to me and poked me with her long nose, wagging her tail and looking faintly worried. I was obviously upset -- not angry, just upset. She licked my face tentatively, which is pretty unusual; she's not a kisser.

And I remembered that I'd written to someone just a couple of days ago, "Your dog doesn't know he's failed a trial unless you tell him." Laev didn't know what today meant to me; Laev didn't know why I was upset hours later. So I knelt and snuggled and wished I were more balanced as a person.

Really, it's a dog sport. That's all. Some people were joking today, "Schutzhund isn't life or death -- it's much more important than that!" but that's not true. I have a friend whose brother is in the ICU fighting for his life; Laev's score doesn't matter to them. Laev's score doesn't affect whether I'll eat or pay the mortgage, or whether my husband loves me, or where I'll spend eternity. Sure, there's a permanent ugly mark in her scorebook, but really, it's one day in a long and happy relationship with my dog.

I still intend to improve our performance. I'm still not happy. But I'm trying to get over myself.


Shawndra said...

So sorry it went like that. A wise person (you) recently said "Marley doesn't have to be perfect; he just has to be Marley." You love Laev and Laev loves you. Bottom line.

Deborah Leão said...

Laura, this post of yours was really touching, and I must confess my eyes are brimming with tears.

I'm not sure you remember me from Clicker Solutions - Deborah Leão, from Brazil - but I've enjoyed your writing and training style ever since the first time I came across one of your posts.

I've been following your story for quite a while, and I have great respect and admiration for everything you've accomplished so far.

All of us fail, and failing hurts. It hurts even more when we feel it would have been so easy to succeed. But it's never easy, specially when we have to deal with another individual, one that doesn't speak our language and, like you said, doesn't even understand what a trial is.

Congratulations for the strenght in keeping up with your training, for the courage of telling us all about your feelings, and most all, for the wonderful relationship you have with your dogs. You respect them, you see them as individuals, and you love them just the way they are.

IMHO, you're a great trainer and dog owner, and your dogs are terribly lucky to have you.

Connie said...

Laura, in my eyes, you are still the person I most want to be when I grow up. Heck, I cried for the last two weeks at Schutzhund training and I was gutless and pulled my dog. At least you stuck with it. Watching you made me wish I had not pulled Batman as you tried and I didn't.

And as you well know not all training works the same with all dogs. You are an awesome clicker trainer. Don't forget it. And if you need to resort to something else to fix Laev's problem of leaving the field, it is not a failure of positive reinforcement training or you as a clicker trainer. It is just you needing to pull a different tool out of your training toolbox.

Courtenay Watson said...

I just found your blog through an aquaintance (the magic of facebook!).
I've spent the last 3 days reading through the last 3 years of Laev's life. I dabble in tracking, although we do CKC (like AKC), not shutzhund style. One day, I'll get into shutzhund, but I haven't found anyone nearby to observe/learn from.
Have you considered using the "chase the critter" as a reinforcer? Laev obviously does obedience in exchange for bitework. I know terrier people who have their dogs perform for a chance at "get the squirrel" or "chase the deer". Just a thought that comes to me as I read pages of your life :)