Know When to Fold ‘Em… Sort Of

I had a game plan tonight. I was going to work on heeling and fronts. That game plan went out the window when I started working with Rowan. He was lagging. A lot. He never lags. I suspect it’s due to the tight quarters in my house. So, I stopped. Instead we worked on drive, fronts, and two on/two off. The best part? I used a tennis ball as a reinforcer. I need to start packing one in my training bag.

Riot was next. His drive into front is phenomenal. I am starting to doubt he will stop in time, but he always does. Love it! Next up for him was also two on/two off. I was trying to shape the behavior I wanted. He knows heel position pretty well. It makes it easy to get him in the correct position on the board. Off side really needs some work. But, I’m not to worried. He’s a smart cookie.

So, I didn’t accomplish my original plan, but it was still a productive evening.

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A Four Beat Step

This is what I worked on today.

This is harder than it looks!
This is harder than it looks!

The previous few weeks I’ve really focused on my shoulders during an About Turn.  I have developed the habit of turning into my dog to make eye contact.  I need to stop because I’m pushing my dogs back and behind me.  It’s going to take practice to break a five year habit.  So, my homework since week one has been to straighten them.  It is so hard.  After the second week I added the head turn.  I’ve often thought a background in dance would help one with an About Turn.  The upper body needs to fluidly turn as one unit in order to successfully execute and communicate what you want to do with the dog.  Last week I added eye awareness.  Some of you who have worked with multiple dogs in obedience may think I’m so lucky as both my dogs naturally follow my eyes for direction.  Yes, if you know how use this, it’s great.  I’m still trying to put it all together and prevent a face plant.  Admittedly I still break eye contact and, yes, my dogs get pushed out of heel.  While I was working on all of this, I started pivoting on my right foot instead of stepping with my foot for step three.  Yeah… so that really, really slows you down when you are trying to drive through an About Turn.  So, my homework for this week is to remove the pivot I started doing and continue to drive through an About Turn.  So, after one month of private lessons, we are still working on me.  I’m okay with this.  After all, I knew most of this would be about me and I am making progress.  How have you worked on your obedience footwork?  I’d love to hear your stories if you’re willing to share!

Heeling, heeling, and more heeling

I won’t say I hate heeling, but it does have this mythical aura surrounding it. I watch other teams perform heeling exercises and the connection they have as they maneuver through the course or the menagerie of dogs, people, and crates is enviable. I’m sure if they were to observe me watching them I would look green.

Prior to deciding I wanted to try competitive obedience (and that took 5 years from when I brought Rowan home), I never needed to teach a dog to heel formally. Our family dog was a Shih Tzu when I was growing up. I’m not suggesting that a Shih Tzu doesn’t need to learn how to heel, but he loved walks and pranced ahead of me just enjoying life. And if he happened to get distracted and want to great other people (he ignored dogs), most people were okay with a 12 pound dog greeting them.

When I got Rowan, I hadn’t lived with a large, active dog. I knew he would be a good fit with my lifestyle, I just didn’t know what I didn’t know. I really don’t remember how he was as a puppy on a leash. I just know that, as an adult, he would race to the end of the leash and pull, pull, pull! I struggled with getting him focused and having him slow down. When I was in ‘training’ mode he would engage and work with me, but I’ll be honest. I just wanted to walk. Walk. I didn’t want to be ‘training’ the entire time. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I had behavioral expectations (no, you may not bark at that dog, no, you may not jump on the pedestrian, etc.) and I would take those moments to reinforce the desired behavior (Good Leave It! Cookies!), but I didn’t want to spend 30-60 minutes working on heel. So, I stopped.  Which, in hindsight, is a good thing.  I was confusing heel and loose lead walking.  I still struggle to this day with Rowan and loose lead walking.  I manage it and our walks are now enjoyable, but I wish I had done better with him.

When I got Riot I was bound and determined to have a dog that would walk on a loose leash. See, I was paying attention in class and learned to differentiate between heel and loose leash walking. I walked him separately from Rowan for a long time. And he caught on. When I walk him alone, he is pretty good on a loose lead. I need to work on upping his distractions, but for a walk around the neighborhood, I’m happy. And then I started walking Rowan and Riot together. Sigh. They compete. They both want to be lead dog. So, if you have any ideas how to tackle team training, I’m curious about your suggestions.

But, in regards to heel as a behavior to teach for competitive obedience, I have found the process to refreshing when working one-on-one with a trainer. I’m much more relaxed and both of my dogs are doing well. I do have to walk fast – or with much drive, if you prefer, to keep my dogs engaged and at a trot. Rowan especially pushes my physical limits. I have short legs and they only reach so far… He has a large side gait. I wouldn’t change that about him, but it challenges me. Riot has a much more manageable side gait. I can move quickly, but I don’t feel as if I’m trying to turn into Gumby or start jogging to make it easier. I will love the Fast pace in a heeling pattern. Not gonna lie.

My homework continues to be keep driving, get them engaged, and sits/pace changes. But most importantly, keep it fun. I will need to find some warm indoor areas at local businesses to up the distractions and for the space. It’s 10 degrees outside (and feels like -8) and I only have so much space in the house. After today’s session with Riot, I love working with both my boys. They have different personalities and that is challenging my brain, but I am also starting to recognize their similarities. A big driver for both of them is their love of mom and they want to please. I love my vizslas and they make me happy. Honestly, I love working with them. I’ve grown a lot as a dog owner and it is very rewarding to see them try and grow too. I think I will get more gratification out of their growth than any title we earn.

So, maybe someday my dogs and I will inspire awe in another team.  If so, I hope they approach me and ask me about my story. I would love to share my experiences with them. Because growing a supportive dog community is so important. And it’s really nice if my dog resists the urge to smell the other dog’s butt.

Walking Rowan and Riot in October 2013.
Walking Rowan and Riot in October 2013.

It’s all about me!

I’m just going to get this out of the way.  In case no one ever told you, training a dog is never about the dog.  It’s always about you.  The trainer’s methods may vary, but inevitably it’s all about you.  Sunday was no different.  I had my first private session with the dogs.  And, as I expected, it was all about me.  Ok, some of it was about the dogs, but really, it was all about me.

Attitude

I have heard this before, but a reminder never hurt anyone.  I have to be in the right frame of mind if I want to have a training session.  This means I need to be positive and be ready to train.  I shouldn’t be distracted.  I should be in the moment with my dogs.  I should also be honest with myself and my dogs.  If I’m not in a mood to train, then I should wait until I am.  Sometimes, this also means I just may have a short session.  For example, tonight I had a very short session.  I did some healing circles, about turns, and sits.  I probably worked both dogs in less than 10 minutes.  They could have worked longer, but I feel a cold coursing through my body and I would have lost my positive attitude if I had worked much longer.

Communication

I have developed some bad habits.  Surprise!  For example, I tend to turn my upper body toward my dog to make eye contact while asking the dog to heel.  It can cause mis-communication with my dog when I’m changing direction.  I have worked on my body awareness because I’ve had my body language thrown in my face while working a dog in agility.  The same rules apply in obedience and rally, but they are usually more subtle.  I just need to be more aware of what I want to say to my dog and what I really am saying.  I was amazed at what a small head movement did for our about turns.  So, I need to start most of our training sessions in the beginning warming myself up.  How is my posture?  What am I saying to Sasha?  (Sasha is my imaginary dog.  More about her later.)  What do I want to look like?  I need to work on me first.  Yep.  I need to work on me first.

Methods

I didn’t just ask anyone to work with.  I asked a trainer who I thought I would work well with and who has a positive training method.  My dogs blossom (as do most) with positive training methods.  They don’t need a strong correction or a strong hand.  They respond well to shaping and I have had a lot of success with clicker training.  I have learned about Behavioral Science from workshops at my job.  The basics are applicable to people and dogs.  For example, if my dog is not focused on me during a high distraction training session, I don’t have the correct reinforcement.  I know there are more experienced and/or certified dog trainers out there who can expound more on the topic, but I find that writing thoughts down help me remember them.

There it is.   My homework — Attitude.   Communication.  Methods.  What is my attitude?  What am I communicating?  What method am I using?  I need to start with a plan for each training session.  The first objective I get to apply my homework to is heeling.  While I need to work on focus and forging, both Rowan and Riot heel well in a low distraction environment.  They are happy to work.  So, that is next goal.  Keep them in position and happy to work in a low distraction environment.  I can throw in sits and changes of pace, but that still falls under correct positioning and happy pups.

I’d love to hear your stories about your experiences with heeling.  What experiences have you learned from and why?

Goal Setting

Setting goals helps people work towards their own objectives

I have recently set some personal and professional goals for myself.  During this process, I have repeatedly been told I should write them down.  I will be more likely to achieve them if I do.  This isn’t a venue I want to share those goals, however it is avenue for my dog training.  I have set some ambitious ones for 2014.

Rowan: Achieve his RA, RE, JH, and NA.

Riot: Achieve his RA, REJH, and BN.

This list is by no means all inclusive, but it’s one small chunk designated for the new year.  And, I’ve taken the next step and have made arrangements for private lessons.  Hopefully, this will help me become a better trainer.  I’m aware unanticipated bumps may occur, but that’s okay.  It’s all about the journey.  Besides, if I think about training then I will be less inclined to think about the ultra-cold weather outside.

Baby It’s Cold Outside

I have fleece coats and winter jackets for my dogs.  I also have snoods for them, but I hadn’t purchased any boots for them.  I grew up in Wisconsin and currently reside in Minnesota.  The winter weather can be harsh at times.  I have Vizslas, not Malamutes.  Therefore, they need help in the cold weather protection department.  Growing up, our family dog had boots.  Once he realized how awesome they are in cold weather, he enjoyed wearing them.  My biggest complaint was that one boot always fell off on our walks.  It was a pain to try and put it back on, only to wait with baited breath to see if it would stay put.  So, needless to say, I’ve been researching dog boots for the past three years and I finally made my purchase.

During my evaluations of boots, I had come to following conclusion.  Dog boots come in two basic categories: frou frou or REI.  Since my main reason for purchasing dog boots was cold weather protection, all of the frou frou boots were immediately crossed of my list.  That left the REI category.  A very popular brand is Muttluks.  I have no opinion of these boots, as I haven’t tried them, but the reviews were mixed and they were expensive ($50-$70) for one set.  Ruffwear was another popular brand.  I also have no opinion of them, for the same reason listed for the Muttluks, and while I was leaning towards this brand, the sticker shock of $90 for one set, and the fact I was shopping for two dogs, made me pause.  It was during this period of indecision I came across another brand in an online forum.

Woof Hoofs are a brand you may not have heard of.  And they don’t show up in a popular search engine when you type “dog boots”.  Their website is simple and easy to navigate.  Instructions are provided how to size your dog.  They have videos demonstrating how to put the boots on and, more importantly, the boots in action in various weather conditions.  They have plenty of testimonials from happy dog owners.  While I realize some reviews can be “questionable” on their authenticity, I was willing to give them a shot.  And here’s why: it’s a small US business, the price was right ($27-$33) for a set, AND you could mix/match sizes.  This was the only company that pointed out most dogs front and rear feet are different sizes.  And, when it comes to shoes, the difference is significant in some.  Both of my dogs measured a medium size in the front and small in the rear.  I ordered one set of each size.  If you have one dog (or an odd numbered pack) you can call the company and they will let you order a set of two different sizes AT NO ADDITIONAL COST.  How cool is that?

So, I ordered the boots and they were shipped the same day.  I was impressed!  They arrived within two days.  There are some retail vendors, but I didn’t have any in my city.  I had to put them on my dogs that night.  I have to admit, there was a small learning curve for my dogs, but they got over it quickly.  The boots were a perfect fit.  Next, I got their leashes and took them for a walk.  My younger dog does not like the wet cold snow that had been on the ground before our first walk with these boots.  Well, the boots were a huge success for city walks.  Not only did they stay on, I didn’t have to re-adjust them, and the dogs enjoyed their 30 minute walk.  Afterwards, they played in the yard until I got cold!  They were outside in zero degree weather for almost an hour and I had to DRAG THEM BACK INSIDE.  I have to admit, I was sold after that.

I hate my voice, but here is a short video of my dogs’ first time in the boots.

I have had the dogs wear them in deep snow.  I’m defining deep snow as snow that is over the top of the boot.  My older dog has a thing for snow banks.  A boot has never fallen off nor has snow been in a boot.  There is a double velcro strap that seems to work really well in keeping snow out.  Now, my dogs enjoy our longer walks in the winter and will be able to go to the bathroom in the arctic freeze (-50 with windchill) that is predicted in a few days.  Lastly,  I plan on giving myself 15 minutes to get my dogs suited up to go outside.  So, take that into consideration.  I wouldn’t try these out if you are in a rush.  My dogs get excited when they see their boots because they know we are doing something fun.

I guess the last thing I will mention is that Woof Hoofs did not ask me to review their product.  I just love the boots so much that I wanted to share them with you.  Their website is http://www.woofhoofs.com and they are also on Facebook.  Stay warm!

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Summary of 2013

I had a good year with the dogs.  Here are a few of the goals we accomplished.

Rowan earned his BN, CA, and NAJ titles!  He is one leg away from his NA title.  Riot earned his RN and CA titles.  He earned his RN title the same day he was awarded the TCVC Highest Scoring Vizlsa at the May 2013 supported entry.  He also qualified for the AKC Rally National Championship (Novice Level) by earned his RN title and posting three 90+ scores.  One of which, was a perfect score of 100 at the 2013 VCA Nationals for a First place finish!

I have a lot more that I want to accomplish with my dogs.  But to be honest, it’s about the journey along the way.  Reaching the goal only leads to setting more goals.  I love the time I spend with my dogs and I can’t wait to see what 2014 brings.

The Tails of Two Red Dogs