Dog agility – training the seesaw

Since we began agility training a few years ago, Rusty and I have often found ourselves a little bit limited with our equipment. We acquired a tunnel and a set of weave poles as Christmas presents, but I was unable to teach the contact obstacles (A-frame, dog walk and seesaw) as these are large pieces of equipment and are usually quite expensive.

However, shortly after starting my job a couple of months ago I began to do some research and decided to buy Rusty her very own seesaw. I thought that this was the best option as it is the smallest of the three contact obstacles (so is easier to store), and is possibly also the most difficult to train – so if we do go on to do more agility in the future we will be better prepared for it.

Rusty seemed to know that the contents of this box were for her…

Rusty box

Once I had assembled the seesaw, I began training with the plank laid flat on the ground. The main focus at this stage was to get Rusty used to walking over it and to teach her to always go in a straight line without leaving the board. This is important because when the seesaw is set up properly, Rusty mustn’t ever try to jump off it or turn around on it as this could potentially be dangerous.

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However, with the board on the ground Rusty didn’t seem to have very much respect for it and frequently stepped off it as she walked along. For this reason, I decided to raise the plank up on a couple of plant trays – this made Rusty think about where she was placing her paws whilst still being low enough to the ground to be safe in the event of something going wrong.

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The next step was to use one plant tray to add a tiny bit of an angle to the board: I kept Rusty on a lead to begin with so that I could control her speed and ensure that she kept going in a straight line.

I also controlled the movement of the plank with my other hand so that it didn’t move too quickly. During these early stages of training it is important to build up the confidence of the dog: Rusty is naturally timid so I had to be careful that she didn’t become scared of her new toy.

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Another important thing that I worked on at this point was teaching Rusty to ‘leave’ the obstacle. She began to find racing along the board pretty exciting and was choosing to do it without being asked, which then led to her jumping on and off it at random intervals.

We practiced walking and running past the board both on and off lead – sometimes I would ask her to ’tilt’ (our specific command for this obstacle) but the majority of the time I told her to ‘leave’.

Once I was satisfied that Rusty felt confident with the board and how it moved, I lifted it up onto the stand so that it was at its full height. With Rusty wearing her harness and lead I walked her up to the middle and then slowly moved the plank down. I put plant trays underneath to begin with so that the change in gradient wasn’t too great.

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Rusty picked this up so quickly – within a few training sessions she was completing the obstacle at speed with no help from me at all. I definitely think that taking it slowly during the first few stages really helped her find her confidence.

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As always, she loved learning something new and seeing her having fun made me even more excited for us doing more agility together in the future. The video below shows some clips from our training sessions…

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Overcoming Rusty’s fear of gunshot noise

When Rusty was about a year and a half old, we moved to a more rural area with lots of woods and fields surrounding us. There are many more bird-scarers and shooting parties in this area, and we often hear them on our walks (particularly in the Autumn time).

I can’t remember exactly when it began, but I think we had been here some time when Rusty began to show signs of fear whenever she heard gunshots.

Initially it began with her simply changing her pace on the walk – if we were heading away from home she would hang back and walk very slowly behind me, whereas if we were going towards home she would run as far ahead as the lead would allow and try to pull.

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Over time the situation escalated until it reached a point where Rusty would be panting, drooling and shaking with her tail tucked between her legs. Sometimes she even tried to crawl into hedges in an attempt to hide.

This was awful to watch and also very frustrating as we didn’t really know how to help her. In the end it took us many months to fix the problem, during which we tried several different techniques to teach her that there wasn’t anything to be afraid of.
In the beginning, I thought that it was best to just ignore the behaviour and carry on as if nothing was happening – the idea behind this being that the dog doesn’t get any kind of attention so that the behaviour isn’t reinforced. Trying to comfort the dog could be interpreted as the owner rewarding it, but becoming angry could convey the message that there really is something to be afraid of.

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This had little effect, so we then borrowed a CD with recordings of gunshot noise and other scary sounds from a friend. This is supposed to be played quietly when it is first introduced to the dog, and then the volume is gradually increased so that they become desensitised to it. I do think that this is a really good idea and if I have another puppy in the future I will definitely use it, however Rusty seemed totally fine with the noises on the CD (a far cry from her attitude on walks!) – I think that this is because the gunshot sounds didn’t have the same kind of echo to them that they do when we are out walking.

We also carried toys on walks so that we could try to distract her – this would work, but only for a limited amount of time: she soon became fixated on the gunshot noise again.

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It was around this time that we were attending agility classes, and when Rusty displayed her fear during training it was suggested that we actually pick her up and hold her. We weren’t supposed to make a fuss over her, just try to make her feel a little more safe. Unfortunately that didn’t work either, and it was at this point that we really did feel stuck! There didn’t seem to be anything we could do to help her.

However, another few months down the line and we had had a major breakthrough… it was spring again by this point, and I can remember one particular walk where I headed over a stubble field with Rusty panting and panicking due to the gunshot noise nearby.
We sat down on a grass bank at the side of the field, and I began thinking about a programme I had watched on TV. It was the ‘Dog Whisperer’ – I imagine most people will have heard of Cesar Millan! When he is working with dogs he talks a lot about the energy we give off, and how dogs can pick up even the slightest changes in our attitude.

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There was one clip that stuck with me, where he pointed out to someone that they needed to be thinking about what they wanted their dog to do, instead of focusing on the things that their dog was doing that they didn’t like.

It then occurred to me that all of my thoughts were revolving around Rusty’s fear – I would walk along wondering why she was so afraid, questioning when it had begun and feeling annoyed that we couldn’t just go for a relaxed walk.

As I sat there with Rusty drooling and shivering next to me, I began to imagine her calmly lying in the grass. We set off walking towards home again, and I worked really hard to only think positive thoughts – I pictured her skipping along next to me, stopping to sniff in the hedgerow and running over to beg for a treat.

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I was completely astonished to find that she stopped pulling on the lead and her shaking subsided… Once home I explained everything to my mum, and from then on we began to use this on walks. It is surprisingly difficult to avoid thinking negatively, especially if at first it doesn’t appear to be working, but with time and patience it paid off.

Now, Rusty is much happier with walking when there is gunshot noise. She will sometimes come over to us for reassurance, but apart from that she no longer seems too bothered.

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This experience definitely taught me how important my thoughts and energy are when working with animals – I use this all of the time now, especially when things aren’t going exactly to plan!

Agility training after a long break

Due to my A-level exams, I had to give up agility for a couple of months as there wasn’t enough time to fit it in. During that time I popped Rusty over a couple of jumps but we didn’t do much else, so today I began to re-familiarise her with the training we had done before.

Basics

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To get her listening to me and paying attention (her little head seemed to be into everything except my voice!) we went back to basics and practised sit, lie down, stay and come. Then we did a bit of heeling through changes of speed – her usual reaction to me speeding up is to blast ahead of me so I was pleasantly surprised when she managed to contain her energy.

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The next stage in our session was to set up a small jump and warm her up over it a few times.

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I then asked her for a slightly more challenging manoeuvre where I wanted her to wrap the jump and then re-jump it (almost creating a figure of eight shape).

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I also practised handling her from a greater distance and she still flew over the jump as if we had never had a break!

The final thing with the single jump was to remind her that she must have confidence to move ahead of me, so I stood back from the jump and sent her over it from behind.

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After this I added another jump and we worked through some 90º, 180º and 270º turns – to be entirely honest this was more beneficial to my handling skills than to her, as she seemed to remember everything I had previously taught her!

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Lastly, we worked through some easy weave poles – this is still our weakest area so it gives us something to focus on through the summer.

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The video below shows some short clips from our training session.