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…

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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!

A long walk with Max

On Monday I took Max for our last walk together before I headed home for Easter. The weather was incredible and we had a fantastic time, so much so that I just had to write about it!

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As Max now knows me better and is starting to take confidence from me, I decided that we would leave the park and venture out to a new place. However, this plan of mine involved crossing and walking along a couple of really busy roads, so I was a little worried that we might encounter some problems.

I meet Max’s owner near the park, so to begin with we just walked back through past the lake and along the quieter roads: due to the sunshine there were quite a lot of people around but Max was on his best behaviour, which made me feel more confident when we stepped out onto Oxford Road (one of the busiest bus routes in Europe!).

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At the traffic lights Max showed some signs of being anxious – he cowered away from people walking past and initially did not want to cross between the buses and cars that were waiting, however with a little encouragement he then leapt forward and proceeded to drag me until we had reached a quieter area again.

To be honest I was incredibly relieved that that was the worst he did – I had been wondering whether he might revert to his old trick of leaping up and twisting away from me (it is difficult to hold onto the lead when he does that). I do think however that he used to do that because he was afraid to be close to me, whereas now he comes bounding up to me when I collect him, and is happy for me to fuss him.

Once we were off the roads altogether, I let him have a bit more freedom on the lead and he really settled down. The path we were on is popular with cyclists, so I did have to keep bringing him back to me to get out of their way, but he was well behaved and didn’t do anything silly.

We were out walking for a couple of hours, and unfortunately on the way back we got caught up with a load of parents picking their children up from school.

As I walked past a particular group of people, I called out to let them know I was behind them. One woman turned around and instantly jumped away from Max; I could see that she was quite afraid of him. This really made me realise how much he feeds off the people that are around him – he in turn flinched away from her and began to really pull and lean on the lead again.

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On our way back, I decided to stop by at my flat to drop my coat off (I hadn’t really needed it in the first place so had carried it for most of the walk). I’m not technically supposed to take animals into halls, but there weren’t any people around who would have reported me so I snuck him in…

Max had also become quite warm, so sitting him in the kitchen for a few minutes allowed him to cool down.

A couple of my flatmates came in while I was there and they immediately came over to see Max, stretching their hands out to touch him. At first he flinched and tried to back away, but it only took him a couple of minutes and then he was fine – he actually ended up really enjoying all of the fuss he got!

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This was amazing to watch, as when I first met him in November he wouldn’t come near for me ages, and our first walks together were really stressful because he didn’t want to be near me or any other people that we passed. I couldn’t even walk in parts of the park that were close to the road without him becoming anxious.

It is true what people say, building a bond with a rescue dog is incredibly rewarding.

Introducing Max

I really miss spending time with Rusty when I am in Manchester but I can’t keep my own dog here, so a couple of months ago I decided to look for an alternative. There is a website called ‘BorrowMyDoggy’, which is a great way for busy dog owners to meet people who would like a dog, but aren’t able to have one.

I joined, and after browsing through many potential canine friends I contacted the owner of a young Siberian husky. So… let me introduce Max!

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He is about a year and half old, and is a rescue dog – as a result of this he can be quite nervous of people (the first time I met him he wouldn’t let me touch him for the first half hour) so his owner would like him to have more time socialising with different humans.

I realised when I began walking him on my own that he was going to be a challenge to handle at times, but I am becoming increasingly interested in the behaviour and training of animals so this is a fantastic opportunity for me to get hands on!

Our first few walks were pretty difficult and a couple of times it crossed my mind that I may have bitten off more than I could chew, as he was basically just dragging me around the park and not showing any signs of responding to what I was saying. He is on an extendable lead as his recall isn’t that great, but if I had to bring him closer to me when passing other people and dogs he would leap and twist away. I went home with aching arms! (He is on a harness to spare his neck).

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Upon arriving back in Manchester after the Christmas break, I decided to buy a few dog treats and took a small number in my pocket on our walk. When I first presented one to him he showed no interest whatsoever, however with a bit of patience he eventually tried it and discovered that he actually quite enjoyed it.

This was a bit of a turning point for me. Whilst I didn’t want to completely rely on treats, it really helped me that he knew I had them – amazingly the next time I called him he came running! The video below shows me repeating this (this was taken on my phone, hopefully soon I’ll have some better footage). As you can see, he was still slightly wary of me touching him.

His owner usually leaves him with me for a couple of hours at a time, so I have begun to spend some of it trying to use up his energy before attempting to gain his attention. With a bit of encouragement I found I could actually get him to run circles around me – this was much better as it avoided him launching himself against the lead and wrenching my arms. After a considerable amount of time he really showed signs of calming down and this proved to be the best time for me to attempt to interact with him.

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However, after seeing a few tasty treats appearing from my pockets, Max’s behaviour changed slightly and he started to pester me, even leaping on me at one point… He is not an aggressive dog in any way, but I think that he was testing me to see if I would tolerate him invading my personal space like that!

All it took to deter him was for me to be little bit more assertive: I stood up tall, looked at him and told him no. He tried this trick a few times but soon realised that it wasn’t going to have any effect.

This really highlighted the importance of only giving treats when they are deserved – Max always has to do something good to earn one.

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I haven’t walked Max for a little while now as his owner and I have been a bit too busy to find a time that suits both of us, but hopefully I will see him tomorrow afternoon. If everything goes according to plan, I should have some more videos to share; these will be uploaded to my YouTube channel, the link to which can be found using the menu at the top of the page.

Dog blog – mind

Dogs require a combination of physical and mental activities to keep them occupied (see my two previous blog posts for more information on play and exercise). This is especially important for the more intelligent breeds of dog as they can easily become bored and this can result in the development of bad behaviour.

Rusty loves being taught new things – she always shows a willingness to learn and loves the fuss and rewards when she finally ‘gets it’.

Recently I decided to begin teaching her to roll over. I can’t say that this has much of a function other than being a cute trick, but she picked it up quickly and I am now working on gradually improving her reaction to my cue (at the moment she is quite reliant on me signalling with my hand, however the end goal is for her to roll over having just been given a verbal command).

When we first started with this trick, I asked Rusty to lie down and then held a treat near her shoulder blades, which encouraged her to turn her head and shift her weight onto one side of her body. By moving the treat a little further and applying a gentle pressure to her shoulder with my other hand I could get her lying down on her side, and from this position a simple gesture would tell her to complete the roll. As she completed the trick, I gave the verbal cue and then rewarded her once she was up again.

In the video below you can see that she is becoming quite quick to roll over one way… but does not want to do it in the other direction! I’d quite like her to go both ways so this will be something to work on, although it means that you can see my initial training techniques being used again…

This kind of learning activity is really great for dogs – no matter what age they are, they can always benefit from trying something new and having extra one-on-one time with their owner.

Another tactic for eliminating boredom in dogs is to give them puzzle toys. There is a huge variety of these available, and they generally involve hiding treats inside the toy for the dog to find. Rusty has one toy like this which we bought for her when she was a puppy. It can be stuffed with dog biscuits and other treats, and she has to figure out how to get to them.

She often tries to reach through the opening in the toy with her tongue, but then realises that repeatedly picking up and dropping the toy results in the treats falling out onto the floor.

With this sort of game it is better to begin with the treats being easy to obtain so that the dog builds an enthusiasm for it, and then it can be made more difficult by packing the treats in tighter so that the dog has to work harder to reach them.

Frequent interaction with other canine friends is another essential part of a dog’s life. Where we live is quite a quiet area but we know a few people with dogs so Rusty often sees her friends and has a chance to play. Her reactions to different dogs is quite amusing – she will growl and bark at smaller dogs, but anything larger is usually greeted with submission.

Our neighbour’s dog Bailey is a good walking buddy and playmate for Rusty… even if she does spend half of her time on her back!

The final thing I would like to mention is dog agility.

I often write about Rusty’s agility training, but haven’t ever really discussed the benefits of it. Before they were domesticated by humans, dogs were predators that would spend much of their time running and hunting. Despite many changes in their anatomy and behaviour since then, some of those basic instincts remain – agility allows these to be expressed.

The fast-paced chase around the course mimics the capture of prey – a variety of obstacles present different situations to the dog which may be encountered during a hunt: for example leaping over jumps, winding between objects and crawling through tunnels.

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I would honestly recommend dog agility to any dog owner out there – it doesn’t matter if you and your pup aren’t particularly speedy or talented – training Rusty wasn’t all plain-sailing, but I persevered! I firmly believe that agility strengthened our bond and resulted in Rusty’s general behaviour improving as well.

Most importantly, it is great fun for all involved.