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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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!

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.

Dog blog – exercise

Despite being five and half years old, Rusty is still mistaken for a younger dog at times – she is full of energy so regular walks are an essential part of her life.

She has three walks each day: the first is at around seven am and is usually a quick twenty minutes up the road before she comes back for her breakfast.

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The second walk is at midday and typically lasts between thirty minutes to an hour. She isn’t given any more food after this walk but if she left anything at breakfast then she can have that. (Rusty’s eating patterns are very strange; we tried to correct them when she was younger but eventually just decided to let her get on with it. Sometimes she won’t eat for days, or she will eat a little bit at each meal, or occasionally she will clear her bowl. She is a healthy weight so we don’t have any concern about her habits!)

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The third and final walk of the day is another twenty – thirty minutes up the road before her evening meal.

Most days we just walk her around the village and the fields/woods nearby, but she does seem to become bored of going to the same place. This problem is easily solved by putting her in the car and taking her somewhere new – the beach is a particular favourite!

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Because she can’t be let off, we walk Rusty on an extendable lead so that she has a bit more freedom. She wears a harness to protect her neck (sometimes she doesn’t realise that she is nearing the end of the lead and it can give her a bit of a jolt). Recently my mum also bought her a collar with lights so that she can be seen on the lane in the dark of winter.

In these photos it is still quite bright outside, but if you look at the photo below you can see the difference that the new collar makes. (This photo was taken on my phone, so please excuse the poor quality).

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I really can’t wait for spring!

Dog blog – play

Happy New Year to all of my readers! I’ve been a little quiet for the past couple of weeks but I am back and ready to see what animal adventures await in 2017…

I am currently back in Norfolk for the Christmas break and have been catching up on some much needed canine time! This got me thinking about Rusty’s lifestyle and the things we do to keep her stimulated and happy – the next three blog posts will go into detail on some of the activities we do and why they are good for her.

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Play is an essential part of a dog’s life. It provides an opportunity to burn excess energy and occupies the dog’s mind, preventing boredom (which could lead to the development of bad habits).

Chase and retrieve

Being a border terrier, Rusty has an incredibly strong chase drive. We can’t let her off the lead on walks because once her ‘switch’ goes, there is no getting through to her. In the garden however she will play fetch until she is exhausted.

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Tug of war

This can be a very fun game for dogs – however without proper control it could potentially be dangerous. Rusty was taught the command ‘leave’ when she was a puppy and was rarely allowed to ‘win’ a game of tug. Now that she is older I am much more relaxed about letting her be the victor, although she is never allowed to ignore me telling her to let go of the toy (she will try!) Tug of war is beneficial as it can help to teach a dog to control its excitement.

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Hide and seek

This is probably one of my favourites to play with Rusty. We have quite a large garden so I tell her to stay whilst I hide somewhere, and then I call her. She races towards the sound of my voice but often speeds past my hiding place and then has to back-track to find me. This really engages a lot of her natural behaviour that would have been used in situations such as hunting for prey.

We also have an indoor version of this game: I leave her in one room while I conceal a toy in a different room, and then call her through. She knows this game very well now and uses her nose to track down the toy.

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Rusty is often left to her own devices, both in the garden and in the house – there are always toys left laying around so she quite happily entertains herself.

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Indoor toys of pretty much any kind are usually taken to the rug in our living room, rolled on, tossed up in the air and pushed around by her nose.

Soft toys are usually chewed, shaken and torn to pieces!

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She also loves charging around the garden with a tennis ball on a string…

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Stay tuned for part two of dog blog, where I will be discussing Rusty’s exercise routine.