Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Agility 1.3: My dog is a paddle ball

Third agility class was on Tuesday. In short, Chimera has bursts of brilliance when he's able to focus on me, which is generally when the other dogs are stationary. When they're moving, his brain starts to leak out of his ears (it's because they're so big). No reactivity (yay!), just super distracted (darn). He was exceptionally distracted by a large dog who hadn't been in class the previous week. The instructor had us do straight lines of heeling, moving in parallel lines to two other dogs at a time. Cai would look at me, and as soon as I took a step forward he would be at the end of the leash, pulling toward another dog, or the chairs or tunnel that were on our other side. It was bad. I might have been able to keep his attention somewhat if not for the fact that we were supposed to do straight lines, which is about the most boring work I could have tried to engage him in. If I backed up away from the other dogs and did a little turn in place, I'd have him for a second, but then he'd be gone again.

The instructor repeated again that "in agility we're the leaders" and to "keep moving forward" and that I "treat him like there's something wrong with him, but there's not". That was... frustrating. She implied that I was doing something wrong and put pressure on me to perform a certain way. And it was a one-way conversation because the instructor can't stand around talking to one person in a room full of students, leaving me with little opportunity to explain what I was trying to do and why. (Plus I just start ineptly stuttering in these situations.)

We switched exercises, and then went back to heeling, this time in a big circle with the two other handlers in my group. Feeling frustrated and wanting to avoid more tension between myself and the instructor, I decided that following her suggestion to "keep moving forward" would not create undue stress on Cai and would avoid making me look like a completely unwilling student. This is how it went:

Entirely as expected: about five treats for the very briefest of glances at me, with what felt like 45 seconds of Cai hitting the end of the leash as he went in random directions. He was confused, and more importantly, not learning anything (except maybe that walking in a big circle with other dogs is confusing and mildly stressful).

I sent a short e-mail to the instructor tonight asking for our own space when it's time to practice circle work. He was overfaced. I will NOT put him in that situation again. I want him to be able to think and choose to engage with me, and have the opportunity to learn that the work is rewarding. I can take my time building that history of reinforcement. Getting the behaviors is much less important.

I looked at my calendar and set aside the weekend after this one to read the Control Unleashed Puppy book, which Sherry gifted me about a month ago but I haven't had time to read yet.

One other thing I learned today: I had brought his mat last week and this week, with the intention of using it to create a clear "break" from work, when he can turn off and rest. However I didn't put enough foundation into it for him to want to rest on his mat, and he would constantly leave it and head out to sniff stuff. I found that he was more focused during work if I sat on the floor with him and was hands-on -- scratching him under the collar, on his butt, or petting his chest as he sat on my lap. I also let him lie down next to me and watch the other dogs as long as he didn't lock eyes with any of them.

I told some of this to my friend Elissa, who suggested that I drop the class until his focus is good enough that I can just work on getting the behaviors. I'll re-assess when it's time to pay for the next six weeks, but I don't think it's that bad. He did quite well in a number of other behaviors, when the dogs weren't moving about the room. For example, one of the other exercises we did was holding the dog by the collar, dropping a toy ahead of them, and releasing them to it. We were facing the wall and he went to his toy every time without turning around to watch the other dogs. If I can just have enough space to practice circle work successfully, over time he'll be able to handle the group exercises. We'll see what the instructor says in reply to my e-mail...


  1. Albee was, for a long time, (and still sometimes is, in a new class with Exciting Dogs) exactly the same way about his mat: had a hard time choosing to settle on it, did better if I massaged his ears or scratched his belly. I taught him a "roll onto your side" behavior, and I'd cue that and then reward with tactile reinforcers to help anchor and calm him.

    Another thing that's been HUGELY helpful for Albee is that I've started bringing a pop-up crate to classes. It's got mesh sides, so he can still see what's going on, but he's much calmer in the crate, and he often chooses to go into it when he needs a break (CLICK!). It's a little more of an "anchored" place than just a mat, and it gives a little more of a visual barrier (and I can throw a towel or sheet over one side if he needs a break from watching other dogs move).

    This is the crate I use:

    It is quite flimsy and won't stand up to serious scratching to get out, but it's a great place for a dog to hang out while you're with him.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion (and sympathy). In the previous agility class we went to, I brought our Noz 2 Noz soft crate. Cai did not enjoy taking breaks in it like Albee does. He'd stay inside with the door open only with a very high rate of reinforcement, but he wanted to come out and play/work, and if I closed the door he would get upset.

      This instructor said that we'll be doing crate games soon in this class, so I think I'll wait until then to bring his crate and try again.