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!

 

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!

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!