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…

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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…

Dog agility – more jumping exercises

Recently I have felt that I’ve been lacking in inspiration for Rusty’s agility training, so it sort of ground to a bit of a halt for a while. We were working on improving her technique with the weave poles and tunnel, however she is an intelligent dog and as a result quickly becomes bored with simple repetitions of an obstacle. I can add in other things and create sequences but due to her inexperience with the weaves in particular I have to ensure that her approach to the weave poles is straight and easy for her to see – unfortunately this does limit what we can do, especially with our few pieces of equipment.

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Over the past couple of days I set up the weaves and some jumps with the intention of just having a play to keep her feeling enthusiastic about her training.

It’s actually quite amazing how versatile a set of three jumps can be: there is a huge number of different arrangements of varying difficulties that can be set out, and even when I think I have exhausted all of the standard sequences, there really is no harm in just making something up and then figuring out how to handle it.

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The diagram below shows one of the exercises we practised. The red route drawn on is the easier of the two options I have shown – although this did still require skills which take time to learn. These include 180 degree turns and rear crosses (both of which I have written about previously).

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The first jump is very simple: I can just direct Rusty to it – however then I have to curve my body away a bit and head along the line of jumps to encourage her to turn and come back across the second jump. For the third jump, things become even more complicated as I have to ask Rusty for another 180 degree turn, but I am on the wrong side of the jumps and on the wrong side of Rusty to be able to ask properly. Needless to say, we’ve been struggling a bit with this!

So far, the best I have managed to do is to perform a rear cross (where I cross Rusty’s path behind her as she runs) and then ask her to swing back to the third jump. As you will be able to see from the video at the end of this post, this isn’t particularly smooth but I feel that with practice it may become easier.

The blue route is even trickier… I ask Rusty to jump the first hurdle, then wrap round the jump and jump the second in the same direction. This is then repeated for the third jump. Again, I can’t seem to handle this in a way that makes it a smooth sequence. I have a feeling that this may be because Rusty is constantly looking at me for instruction at the moment, and I really need her to look at where she is going more.

In fact, the other day she was so fixated on me that she walked into a chair! I use a combination of treats and toys as rewards for agility, and I am wondering whether me carrying the tennis ball more frequently is the reason for her increased attention. Although I have been doing this for a while with no problems, I may experiment with using a different reward to see if that helps her – I really do need her to watch her step on the course as it could potentially be dangerous if she doesn’t.

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The video below shows our training recently – there are some other clips in there of the weaves and some other simple jumping exercises as well.

Thank you for reading today’s post on Wild Call, stay tuned for more!

 

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!

Dog agility – improving the tunnel and weaves

Over the past couple of weeks, Rusty and I have been working specifically on the tunnel and the weave poles.

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She has done so much jumping over the past few years that as a result she is now really confident with it and will automatically run ahead of me to a jump if I give her a clear signal. However she has not had quite as much practice with the tunnel and the weaves due to them taking longer to set up (I sometimes just do jumping).

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To fix this I have begun to teach her that she can move further away from me with these obstacles and that I don’t have to lead her right up to them every time they are part of our course. It will take some time for her to learn this, but we have made a start and I have already seen lots of improvement which is pleasing!

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When I was teaching her to be more independent with the jumps, I would carry her toy and throw it as she left the ground to encourage her to be more forward thinking. This could potentially work with other obstacles too but it does present some problems – for example when she is inside the tunnel she can’t see the ball being thrown, and throwing it too early whilst she is weaving might lead to her picking up bad habits such as skipping the last poles to chase it.

I also don’t want her to rush the weaves at this stage: she is still finding her feet with them and if I ask her to run too quickly she gets confused and sometimes trips up.

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Instead of throwing the ball, I asked her to sit in front of the obstacle and then dropped it at the other end before telling her either ‘tunnel’ or ‘weave’. She still got the idea of moving ahead to the target, but didn’t rush.

Whilst reading on the internet about the weave poles, I realised that I have been spacing them incorrectly. Having moved them a few inches further apart, Rusty’s technique has improved a huge amount (the video at the end of this post shows this).

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Another tactic to give her a bit more energy coming into the obstacle is to place a jump before it. Obviously if we were doing the obstacles as part of a sequence she would already be going fairly quickly, so I did this to imitate that situation whilst still focusing specifically on the two particular obstacles.

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At one point this actually resulted in Rusty skipping the tunnel, as she gained a lot of speed after the jump and missed my directions. I took her back and she completed it the second time round without any problems, however this does show a clear difference in the way in which she treats the tunnel – if there had been a jump there instead I’m pretty sure she would have flown over it without needing much telling!

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I was also pleased to see that at one point she almost skipped the tunnel, but then corrected herself and ran through. The pictures below sort of show this, but I’ve added the clip to the video at the end of this post as well.

You may notice in the video that I did use the clicker in some of the clips (they were filmed over a couple of days). I’m still working on getting Rusty used to this, but this won’t require too much effort as it just means that I have to make sure I always give her a treat after clicking. I clicked too late in some instances – I kept forgetting, so sometimes she had her treat before hearing the click… It definitely gives me something to work on though.

Thank you for reading today’s post on Wild Call; I’ll be back in a few days time for Wildlife Wednesday so stay tuned!

Introducing clicker training

I recently decided to try using clicker training with Rusty; I have always been interested in this method but didn’t really know much about it and always thought that we got on just fine without. Of course, we have managed perfectly well without using a clicker, but I feel that it could prove to be an incredibly versatile tool as I begin to expand Rusty’s repertoire of tricks and as her skills in agility become more advanced.

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The use of a clicker is not confined to dogs – it can be applied to the training of many different animals, including horses and birds (I am hoping that I might be able to use this with some of the other animals too). A friend of mine did a sort of work experience day in a zoo where she got to help out with the big cats: they used clicker training there too. Zoo animals are often trained to present various parts of their body so that they can be examined easily without having to anaesthetise them (for example, to check that their teeth are in good health).

The main reason why clicker training is much better than simply using verbal praise is that the clicker produces a consistent sound which never changes, whereas the human voice will vary in tone and volume, so although we may be repeating the same word it will never quite sound the same to the dog.

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The clicker also enables the exact moment of good behaviour to be understood by the dog – often when Rusty does a good thing I spend a few seconds praising her, which could potentially lead to her becoming confused as to the exact moment when she got it right – but with a clicker, the good behaviour can be marked instantly without interrupting the task being performed by the dog.

Over the past couple of days, I have begun to incorporate the clicker into my training with Rusty. As she has never worked with one before, I am starting off by asking her for simple commands that she knows well, which I reward with a click, followed by a treat. Every single click must then result in her receiving a treat; if this is not done consistently then the clicker will lose its effect.

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As well as really easy commands, I asked her for some tricks that she knows well. The video below shows our first few attempts at using the clicker (I have no objection to showing our journey, but please bear in mind that I am new to this and did make a few mistakes, for example clicking slightly too late). We did some agility obstacles using the clicker, however I didn’t video this. Next time we do agility training I will make sure to take some footage – I feel that this method will work particularly well with the training of weave poles.

Another thing that I would like to point out here is that I worked on this in a couple of different environments – this is to ensure that Rusty knows that the same rules apply wherever we are. We had some builders working nearby in the outdoor clips as well: these provided the perfect opportunity for Rusty to learn not to become distracted and remain focused on me. Over the next few weeks I am also planning to take the clicker on our walks.

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Obviously at the moment I am using commands that Rusty knows well to teach her the meaning of the clicker, but once I start to teach her new tricks, the idea is to use the clicker until she knows the command and responds every time, and then phase it out due to it no longer being needed.

I will continue to work on this and may have a go with some of the other animals as well, so expect to see more blog posts about clicker training as we progress!

‘Dangerous’ dogs – the problem with dog stereotypes

Recently in Manchester there was an incident with a Staffordshire bull terrier attacking a puppy in a park. Sadly the puppy died at the scene.

I was in the park when this happened, but I wasn’t actually aware of what was going on – some other dog owners informed me afterwards.

The likely outcome of this is that the staffy will be put down.

I am a strong believer that a dog’s breed should not be used to determine its temperament and I am all for trying to break the staffy stereotype, but it is this kind of incident that reinforces people’s fear of particular dog breeds and it only takes one experience of this kind to completely destroy confidence around our canine friends.

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Unfortunately the staffy is caught up in what is known as the ‘staffy status cycle’: following an incident involving a staffy, the media publicise it and this generates fear. Some people then buy staffies for the status – unfortunately in many cases this results in poor training, which leads to the dogs ending up in rescue centres due to them being abandoned, or it leads to serious incidents occurring (which then reinforce the status).

Other potential dog owners then overlook the breed because they believe it to be dangerous, or because they do not want to be associated with the stereotypical staffy owners.

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To break this cycle, we need more responsible owners to adopt staffies from rescue centres, or even to buy staffy puppies (although the latter also fuels the excessive breeding of these dogs, which is another contributing factor to the huge number of unwanted dogs).

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However even with sensible owners and good training, there are some people who still believe that the Staffordshire bull terrier is a dangerous dog. The truth is that more people go to hospital each year in the UK with labrador bites than any other dog breed – the reason that staffies make it into the papers is because they tend to bite the upper parts of the body – particularly the face – and hold on, causing more injuries that are more severe.

The staffy isn’t the first dog to have gone through this process and have developed a bad name – rottweilers, dobermans and German shepherds have all fallen victim to it in the past. Whilst people are still wary of these dogs, their place in the status cycle has now been filled by the staffy.

(As you might be able to tell I don’t actually have any photographs of staffies, however I do have one of me having a cuddle with a very soft rottweiler! She is a perfect example of why you should never judge a dog’s character based on its breed.)

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We have had a couple of incidents where dogs have gone for Rusty, and neither of them involved breeds which are generally considered to be ‘dangerous’…

The first was when I was only about fourteen; there was a labradoodle in our village that had been poorly trained and had no respect for his owner. Gradually over several weeks the situation between him and Rusty escalated – it began with him following us on our walks and then lead onto him becoming quite dominant, which was followed by him leaping up and biting Rusty.

I say ‘leaping up’, because I had made a bit of a mistake… in seeing this dog heading towards us, I had lifted Rusty up into my arms. It didn’t take me long to realise why that was not such a good idea!

Luckily he didn’t seem to be too intent in his attack and Rusty walked away unharmed. Unfortunately however his behaviour did worsen and he badly injured my friend’s whippet a few weeks later.

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The second time Rusty was attacked was by a small Patterdale terrier which was also out of control – this time things became a little bit more vicious. I managed to separate the dogs using my foot and when the owner finally appeared to help (kicking the terrier in the ribs as punishment!) we walked away a little shaken but uninjured.

Neither of these incidents was due to the breed of dog – both were results of poor training and the owners not bothering to put their dogs on leads. The point I am trying to make here is that staffies, rottweilers, and other dogs marked with the ‘dangerous’ label are no more of a risk than any other breed – it is all about how disciplined they are.

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I hope that one day I can work with rescue dogs to provide more evidence for this – there are so many staffies in rescue centres; they deserve more of a chance!

Winter agility training

Over the Christmas break, Rusty and I had a few agility training sessions in the garden. She hadn’t practised in about six weeks but still amazed me with how much she could remember!

I thought that I would set up a few different types of jumps for a bit of fun – normally we just have straight jumps as these are quick and easy to set up, however in competitions a variety of obstacles can be found so it only makes sense to incorporate them. (I had to improvise a bit when building these jumps as we are quite limited with equipment!)

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Straight jumps – these are the most common found on an agility course and are often placed in sequences with tight angles and complex manoeuvres. They can have wings or may be without – both options can present problems to the handler.

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With wingless jumps it is very easy for the dog to ‘half jump’ it, where they sort of hop over the very edge and leave the handler wondering whether that counted or if they should be taken back to do it again! In particular this occurs when the dog has come into the jump on a tight turn, or can see that they will be expected to make one after landing.

In a competition there are three other types of jumps that are usually found just once in a course; these add a bit more interest to jumping as they require the dog to think a little more about how they are tackling the obstacles (instead of just treating each one as the same).

Spread jumps are the same height as straights, but have an added factor of length as well – this means that the dog has to make quite a big leap in order to clear the jump. A straight approach is favourable with this jump as coming into it on too much of an angle could result in the highest pole being caught by their back legs.

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Long jumps are low to the ground but have a much greater length than any other jumps in the course (the clue is in the name!). When training this jump it is advisable to begin with a short distance and gradually extend it so that the dog learns not to put any paws down in the middle. Normally this type of jump would consist of wooden or plastic planks lined up next to each other, but I had to make do with what you can see in the pictures below…

The final jump type is the tyre jump – this is quite a fun one although it is common place for run-outs. (Tyre jumps found in competitions are raised quite high off the ground which allows room for the dog to run underneath – Rusty was guilty of this when we used to go to agility classes!)

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Another exercise we had a play around with was the pinwheel. This is sometimes seen on competition courses, but is also a useful activity for general training: I have worked on this multiple times with Rusty before and have seen noticeable improvements in her ability to find and ‘lock onto’ her next jump, as well as her trusting that she can run further from my side but still understand where she is going.

On top of that, she seems to find the whole thing quite exciting so it definitely brings a lot to our training sessions (not that I need Rusty to have any more energy than she already does!)

Unfortunately the videos I have of this were taken in the afternoon when it was getting dark, so the stills were just a blur, however there is a video at the bottom of this post showing the exercise. The diagram below shows an example of a pinwheel with four jumps – this can vary but the handler should bear in mind that fewer jumps will increase the angle between each one, which will make it more challenging for the dog.

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The best place for the handler to be is in the middle of the wheel, as it keeps the dog turning on the circle. If the handler were to attempt this by running around the outside of the pinwheel, they would not be able to keep up with their dog and this would lead to mistakes being made (it is common for other jumps to be placed near a pinwheel so as to confuse the dog).

The video below shows some short clips from our most recent training sessions – this includes a clip with a set of weave poles and the tunnel. I thought I would include this because it shows how much Rusty’s understanding of the weaves has improved – she almost skipped the final pole but when I paused her she took a few steps back and corrected it – such a clever little dog!