26 December 2013

Twenty Thirteen

2013 was generally a good year for me and my pack. We had a few ups and downs, especially with Kiba, but we are finishing out the year in a good place mentally.

I'm going to review the year briefly, chronologically, because that kind of order appeals to me :)
I don't really do a lot of specific "goal-setting" or "training journal" activities. The only records I keep are Strafe's AKC Record, because I'm supposed to do so for AKC World Team Tryouts.

I am going to omit the bits about traveling all over to teach, because I did that quite a lot of times this past year. I met knew people, had fun with old friends, and got to explores all kinds of different parts of the country. But this blog is about my dogs and their competition year!

In January and Feb 2013, we did just a local AKC trial and a USDAA trial, trying to get a head start on points and Q's for 2014 AKC Nationals and finishing up Strafe's last Q for USDAA. I had already absorbed what the new AKC qualifying rules would mean for me, and I planned my year out well in advance to make sure I could get both my dogs qualified. They each got a few Q's during these months. Seri got to run at USDAA and didn't do badly, earning a Steeplechase and Team Q.

March was one last local trial, then focusing on AKC Nationals. By this point in time I was worrying a bit about jumping for both Strafe and Kiba. I felt that Kiba's vision issues had gotten worse and wasn't sure how well we'd be able to keep running, and wondered if I should retire her. Strafe had spent the winter picking up speed, and was sometimes getting too close to his jumps and hitting the bar. March 2013 was the very first time I walked Strafe off a course (for knocking a bar). Then we had Nationals, where I despaired about Kiba's inability to track me on course, and she hit the triple as well. Strafe, however, did very well, and I was pretty happy with him.

April was one more AKC trial, and running some really hard courses to prep for Tryouts. I was feeling pretty confident with Strafe. I also had Kiba's eyes checked with a general "not too bad" report. Seri re-injured her wrist during this time as well, and got a nifty custom support to help prevent that from happening again.

In May we went to Tryouts and won 3 of the 5 rounds, giving us a paid spot on the EO Team (I declined to try out for AWC, but obviously would have won on if I had done so). 

June was the USDAA Regional, where Kiba ran surprisingly well, hitting no bars all weekend, and Strafe won just about everything he could win - Regional GP, STP, top individual 26" Team dog, and Biathlon combined winner.

In July I ran only Kiba in a few AKC trials, and she picked up a lot of single Q's, but we still hadn't found our full groove yet. Then Strafe and I traveled to the European Open, where we had a rough start in the first class but then turned in 4 clean rounds in a row culminating in 2nd place in the Large Final - Strafe was 2 years and 10 months old! A thrilling first trip to compete internationally!

In August we ran another local AKC trial, and I withdrew Kiba because of suspected arthritis in her front feet/wrists causing intermittent mild lameness. This was confirmed soon after, but the consensus among my veterinary and PT professionals was "as long as it doesn't hurt her, it's fine to keep running" so we've been keeping an eye on it, so to speak.

In September I ran both dogs at a couple AKC trials, and Kiba started picking up some Q's again including a QQ, and Strafe finished his necessary points and Q's for Nationals. 

October started with a local AKC trial where Kiba got her last QQ and points for Nationals too, and I felt like we were finally getting our groove back with some new handling choices. Then we had USDAA Nationals, where Kiba had some good runs, some bad runs, but I'm super happy with getting 2nd place in PGP Finals. She is almost certainly not going to be attending another USDAA National event. Strafe also did well, placing high in several individual classes and getting 2nd in Biathlon combined and 7th in Grand Prix with a borderline see-saw flyoff (would have been 3rd place without that call, but I don't hold grudges;).

November was local USDAA to begin qualifying for Cynosport 2014 - only Strafe running these Tournaments now. Seri got to play in a local class and stayed sound, running at P16", but basically the idea of running her seriously has been nixed by her healthcare professionals.

and in December we just did some stuff for fun. 
So Strafe met and exceeded all my competition goals for 2013 by far. I wanted to "test him out" a bit against some of the best, just to see where we stood, and we ended up going far beyond that. For 2014 I would like to continue building our skills and his speed and confidence, and "take it to another level" if possible. I do set "competition/performance" goals as in, I have little hopes for how we will perform at AKC Nationals, Tryouts, etc. But the key to having goals like "I want to place in the top 3 at XXXX event" is that you have to be able to accept and move on, if that goal does not happen, because much of what needs to happen is not under your control (footing, equipment, course design, the judge, how the other competitors do)! So yes, i would like to make AKC Finals, for example, but I won't be crying in the corner if we don't!

Kiba tried very hard in 2013 and I'm extremely proud of her for qualifying for AKC Nationals for the 6th time in a row. I was feeling pretty negative about her career after Nationals last spring but I'm pretty optimistic now, and looking forward to her last National event. As with Strafe, she has potential to do very well, but at 9 years old and with a jumping issue, I will take whatever she gives me! I would LOVE to get her to Finals one least time and do her justice by running clean.

Seri retired permanently, with the sole exception of the occasional P3 Jumpers class in USDAA, with no weaves or contacts allowed.

Drifter ran a couple runs last winter, and then I decided that I didn't care about finishing that MACH2 and he is now happily retired as well.

And now it is snowing big fat fluffy snowflakes, and we are hoping to try some sheep herding later today!
ETA: this morning's dusting of snow. Perfect flakes falling, perfect amount - just enough and it'll melt this afternoon ;)

25 December 2013

Back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Been using the new van to take all 4 dogs hiking at the state forest where they can legally be off lead

Kiba's Christmas hangover (presents include these toys, antlers, and the bed she's in)

As expected, I am enjoying some time off from teaching. I enjoy teaching, but it's still work and quite draining after a while. Same with the travel; I really like to travel, but it's nice to just stay home now and then. We have another week of basically nothing. We may get to try some herding tomorrow, if all works out.

23 December 2013

On Early Takeoffs.

I wanted to revisit early takeoffs. I see a lot of varying opinions in the agility world still about dogs with "ETS". ETS stands for Early Takeoff Syndrome, a term Linda Mecklenburg coined to refer to those dogs who consistently take off early despite thorough training, and with no definable physical cause.

Many of us who "believe in" this problem are actually beginning to drop the use of the acronym and refer to these dogs more simply. I just say a dog has "early takeoffs" or a "vision issue" (if that has been proven to be the case).

I wanted to talk, briefly, about what is, and what should not be, considered an "early takeoff problem".

On occasion, Strafe leaves a stride out, somewhat inappropriately, and hits the peak of his jumping arc significantly before the jump. I would say, for that jump, that he "took off early".

Every dog will take off early on occasion. This can be caused by any number of factors, but primarily it is caused by dogs being dogs - an animal with a finite limit to its ability to adjust its stride while running. Ideally, our dogs would be able to adjust their strides AND the length of their jumping arc, but the peak of the arc should always be over the jump, whether they are extending or collecting. But of course, as I mentioned, mistakes happen.

Below, a centered, collected jumping arc.

However, a dog with generally normal takeoffs will generally takeoff normally. Some dogs are better judges of the appropriate place to take off than others - these are dogs we might call a "natural jumper" (regardless of training). They almost always arc appropriately over the bar, and probably don't knock many bars down either. They probably don't find spread jumps to be extra challenging either.

A dog with an early takeoff problem probably finds spread jumps to be extra challenging. This seems to feed into the hypothesis that the issue is probably vision-related (especially with regards to binocular vision or depth perception). There is some great research currently being conducted on dog vision using infant testing methods (so there is no feedback needed), but so far there is no consistent result for dogs with problems versus those without.

Along with spread jumps, tires are often very challenging for these dogs. This is a picture of my first border collie, who had a really bad early takeoff problem. I like this picture because it shows her looking fairly relaxed, and with not a bad jumping arc, although she's clearly coming down already even though she's just beginning to break the plane of the tire. Most of the issues noticed with early takeoff dogs is on horizontal lines, so it is interesting that the tire is something they struggle with. Most of these dogs have normal weave entries, even though the weave poles are skinny bars that should be just as hard to see as horizontal jump poles. 

Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words. And if you suspect your dog may have a jumping issue, I would urge you to look at as many pictures of the dog as possible. One picture does not present an accurate picture of the dog's habits, just as one early takeoff does not either. But something I see a lot in dogs with early takeoffs is that, as in the picture above, it almost seems as if they don't know exactly where the bar is in relation to depth perception. Kiba looks like she's jumping "extra high", and she is, but it looks to me also as if she doesn't have a good grasp of exactly where the bar is. She has her front feet all tucked up, as if the bar is right there, but it isn't. 

Now she's cleared it - she's also obviously on the landing part of her arc by now, and still isn't even close to "skimming" the bar. Interesting, for a dog whose primary fault is usually knocking bars!

Can you see the big difference here? Drifter has his head tucked down, his feet tucked up, but he's centering over the bar, and is going to clear it by just enough. He looks very confident about its location. 

And he is confident. Not to say Drifter never hit bars, or Strafe either. (or Seri, who could jump with a hugely long jumping arc, but was usually centered over the bar)! But their mistakes usually come in the form of taking off too late. This, I do not believe is a mystery at all; it is usually an indication of a dog who got too caught up in what it was doing (jumping! yay!) and forgot to look "down the line" at the spacing, and so adjusted his stride too late and took off too close to the jump, causing a jump that looks a bit silly, where the peak of the arc is too late, and after the bar.

So the point I am trying to convey is; all dogs who do agility will make the occasional jumping mistake. Excited dogs may even make them fairly often. The difference for a dog with an early takeoff issue is that they make this same, strange mistake on most of their jumps; a majority of their jumping arcs are too early and they are almost always landing by the time they clear the bar. We don't know exactly what is causing this issue; many of us suspect it is either a vision, or visual-processing issue. Whatever it is, it seems to pass down in families of dogs. This would make sense, as vision is a heritable trait. It is certainly not going to be something as simple as coat color; even in humans vision heritability is still a bit mysterious. 

Something else I want to emphasize is that, while some training may improve your dog's jumping, if he isn't sure where the bar is, you can't fix that. True early takeoff problems can be mildly improved with some training, but they won't magically disappear. So if you are a handler with such a dog, don't blame yourself! Another thing to note is that if your dog can't figure out where the bar is, and you correct him harshly for hitting it, YOU'RE NOT HELPING. Confidence should be the name of the game here. I've found adding some verbals for certain situations (especially for spread jumps!) has helped me tremendously with Kiba. Her issue is relatively mild, though.

Here is the video of my first BC, Freeze. She was incredibly intelligent and athletic, and tried very hard. I learned a lot from her about both jumping and about training a smart, sensitive dog. Please forgive the quality of the video - it is a video of a video playing on my laptop, but you should easily be able to see what I'm getting at. I had already been training dogs for agility for 7 years when I got this dog, we did jump grids, one jump work, tried jumping higher heights, jumping lower heights. All spreads, no spreads. We spent an entire winter once with tire set at 8" and a clicker and a bag of treats, just rewarding her for going near and through it (she was terrified of them due to a few horrible crashes). But in the end, I retired her from agility before she turned 7, and through some unusual circumstances not related at all to her agility career, ended up allowing her to live with a nice retired couple.

How anyone can believe this is a training problem is beyond me. How could I possibly train my dog to jump like this? Even if I tried, I could not formulate such a plan, because it isn't possible. It seems to be aggravated by the dog's confidence level being low, but a normal dog still doesn't respond by taking off too early on every jump (or nearly every one).

16 December 2013

OK so yeah

It's true, when I decide I am going to do something, I really suck at waiting. And since we are off from agility right now and not traveling for a bit, it was a pretty good time to do it.

I went down to the dealer to "look at" this particular van because it had the options I wanted, and lacked the ones I didn't. I'm not big on paying for things like a DVD player (for the dogs?) and other things I don't need. But I'm old enough and sore enough now that I do want things like a fully adjustable seat, and back seats that fold like magic into the floor (so I don't have to carry and store them).

It's not my favorite car color. It's not funky. It's not cool. But it was reasonably affordable. It's new. And it will fit ALL of my dogs in safe, strapped down crates, while still being kind of, sort of economical, at least on the highway. (I SO wish we had the European diesels!)

I still have to pick up a few accessories for it - some cheap rug scraps to line the floor and keep the original flooring somewhat cleaner. I need to buy 2 more Large Ruff Tough Kennels, and I might need a few more of the sturdy cargo straps to tie them down with. But by the time we go to a trial or a seminar, they should be all set up. I'll post pics of the finished set up when it all comes together, but I don't use a platform (I like the dogs being down low so they can't look out and tend to get more shade), so it's nothing really fancy.

I also took Drifter to the vet today to run a geriatric blood panel and a urinalysis. The blood panel I had planned to run anyway, just so I can make sure that, at 11 years old, everything is working properly and I will have something to look at and compare to if he starts to feel ill later on. And then twice this week he's started to pee in the house, which is highly unusual for him even when he drinks a lot, so we're checking that out too. He seems to be feeling perfectly normal and the quick check of his urine looks good too (no blood, pH is OK, etc). I was also really pleased that when the vet listened to his heart he had to work hard to find the murmur, and said he would have graded it a 2 at most, it was very localized. Previous workups at the specialist graded his murmur as 3/4. Clearly it is not getting any worse, which is great to hear!

Throwback: 2010, my first trip across the Atlantic and my first international team. Drifter and I reading the map in London, I think this was Kensington Park?

13 December 2013

I went south. Then I came back north. I want to go back south now.

I had originally planned to take the month of December off of EVERYTHING including teaching, but someone in VA who does not have great access to good training bugged me to come down and do a day or two of privates for them down by Richmond. So I finally agreed to do that December 3rd and 4th and figured after that I'd be finished.

hiking in VA

Then someone 2 hours away really wanted me back for privates too...
then I found out that a trainer who I'm pretty good friends with would be teaching seminars in GA at the lovely place where I stayed back in October before Cynosport, so I ended up sort of inviting myself down to hang out with them for a few days after I was done in North Carolina. Not having a teaching obligation while down there, I considered it to be my "dogs along with me" vacation of sorts. The weather wasn't the absolute best, but it wasn't awful either. Around 45 to 50F each day with rain on and off, but meanwhile at home in Maryland it SNOWED 6-8" of snow, melted a bit, then snowed some more. So by the time I got back yesterday it is COLD and there is nasty crunchy snow on the ground. So yeah. I miss Georgia now. I'm not one to really enjoy hot weather, so I really would not enjoy living down there in the summer very much, but I could see myself living down there in the winter for a while. And I may get a chance to say down there for a few weeks next winter... if you are located near northern GA and would like me to teach a seminar next winter (probably late Jan or sometime in Feb) let me know (this would be 2015). Nothing firmed up, just a fun thought.

no snow down here!
And then I came home and saw Drifter limping because the crunchy cold snow hurts his arthritic toes and thought "sheesh, I obviously need to bring ALL my dogs if I go that long" and that thought was followed by "oh my, I may need to get a bigger car".

The dogs are saying "WTF is this cold white crunchy crap?"
 My little Hyundai wagon has served me super well and is only 2 years old, but if I am going to be traveling with my entire clan (which is currently 4 dogs, and may be 5 dogs soon), I may need to go back to a minivan. I also admit, I switched to the car for both efficiency and comfort reasons. I do get better mpg which is great, but I also thought driving the lower car would be more comfortable on my bad shoulder and slightly wrecked various body parts, and it really hasn't seemed to be any different. So I may be switching back to the larger car sometime in the next year. Then I can get all of my dogs into Ruff Tough Kennels, not just 2 or 3, and have lots of cargo space besides.

my car, brand new, when I got it 2 years ago. has a few crate scratches here and there now ;)

Intermediate and Small Ruff Tough Kennels. Now it has a Large and Intermediate.

Edited to add: because I added teaching in at the beginning of Dec and Strafe did some agility for fun at the seminar in GA, I decided to take New Year's Weekend off. This was a hard decision because there are 2 AKC and 1 USDAA Trial all on soccer turf within a reasonable distance of me on that weekend. But I really wanted at LEAST 4 full weeks off of EVERYTHING other than walks and tricks and playing. So we don't have any trials till at least January 18th now.