Practice – When it doesn’t make Perfect

Last weekend, Meghan and her mini Aussies and Quattro and I braved the snow and met up for an agility practice session.  It has been a WHILE since I’ve practiced agility, between my equipment coming into my crowded basement for the winter, our instructor having work conflicts and not holding classes from late Oct until late January, snow cancellations – we were in dire need of a tune up.  So I was really excited to get some practice in, and to give Quattro a break from new puppy, Coach.  It was time he had some one-on-one time again!

Meghan brought a course map, so we set it up.  Jumps, Aframe, one tunnel and one set of 12 poles.  Sounds simple, right?  Well, as we walked it after she placed the numbers, I was left wondering how I was going to handle the first 3 obstacles, never mind the rest of the course.  Even if I’d had Maxx and Jinxx,  my experienced agility dogs, I don’t think we had done something quite that tricky, or I just don’t remember doing it.  I’ve said this many times – if you are confused, your dog is going to be confused, and most times, your dog will check out until you get your head together.  There were several back side jumps – meaning, the dog is heading towards a jump, but needs to go around to the back side of it to come over it.  This is something I’ve rarely – if ever – practiced with Quattro.  Meghan and I decided we’d split up the course, similar to how we do in class, and work the first 3rd, take a break, then work the 2nd 3rd, take a break, do the last 3rd, and finally, put the whole thing together.  That was the plan.

Well, after several resets at the start (Quattro had trouble w/ the side by side jumps and then the awkward poles entrance) we finally got the opening sequence.  Did I stop there?  No, I persisted, and overworked him.  He made mistakes, I made more, he checked out, I tried to not get frustrated, and we took a break.  We came back out and tried the next 3rd – I made more mistakes, he checked out sooner, I lost concentration, we had a few small successes, and took a break.  During the breaks, I crated him – he tends to bark and lunge when Meghan’s dog Forest runs, and I figured the crate would be better.  Well, he barked sporadically, and was super stressed / over aroused.  His eyes were dilated, he was panting, barking when he never normally barks in a crate – not fun.  We went out to give it another try – and he just immediately took off, sniffing frenetically, pacing w/ his nose to the floor.  He wasn’t hunting, he wasn’t “shopping for treats”, he was totally stressing.  I stood there, watching, and feeling really guilty for taking our fun afternoon and turning it into a stressful, miserable experience for both of us.  After several seconds, he looked up at me and slowed down.   We reconnected briefly, and then he was off again.  He seemed to want nothing to do with me, or the obstacles.

Why did I persist trying to do the numbered course?  I could have forgone following the sequential numbers, and just run the obstacles in a way that was less turn-y, more flow-y and more fun for Quattro.  What was my goal for the practice session? To throw something at him and see what happens? No, I had wanted to work on some more challenging jump approaches, like the back side jumps, and some more challenging weave pole entrances, but I *should* have done one at a time, not attempted 3 challenges in a sequence.  I never get angry or mad or say No or Uh-uh (my pet peeves when people do agility and “their dog” makes a mistake) but when I groan at myself, or say “shoot!” to myself for making a mistake, Quattro takes it on himself, and it is the same result as an “uh-uh” or “no”.  It’s really hard not to talk to yourself or show body language when you make a mistake!

So, we did a little recovery.  Meghan suggested some restrained recalls, where she held Quattro in front of 3 jumps in a simple straight line.  I started at the second jump, got his attention w/ a “Reeeeeaaaadeeeee?” started running, she released him, and I threw a toy over the 3rd jump as he was finishing the 2nd jump.  We did 3 rounds of that, and let him prance around w/ the toy in between.  So, we got some fun back to end the day.  But lesson learned!

  • Don’t work something so over your dogs head, that they lose confidence – in themselves, in you, in the game they thought they knew and loved
  • It’s good to challenge your dog, but balance each challenge with easy stuff.  1/3 challenge, 2/3 easy, or even 1/4 challenge 3/4 easy.
  • Remember what motivates your dog – even if it doesn’t have much to do w/ your training plan.  3 jumps in a row is not something I would drive in a snow storm to practice, but in that moment, that was what we needed to bring back motivation, drive and fun.
  • Have a back up plan.  What is your easy exit strategy?  If you decide to try tree skiing for the first time, a safe bet is to go into the woods alongside a trail.  That way, if you get in over your head, you can bail and come out on the groomed trail.  You don’t want to hike up over the mountain, and get deep in the woods, and decide you hate tree skiing, you hate skiing, you hate your husband… oops, I digress…
  • So what if you and your dog are not “up to” the level that the others in class / your training group / your practice session are in?  Learn from them and their approaches, try some new things, and adjust your goals.  It’s ok to opt out on something if you feel like you and your dog won’t gain anything from it
  • How do you know when to push forward and when to opt out?  Again, having an exit strategy allows you to try something super challenging, and if it doesn’t pan out the way you want, use your exit strategy and bail on the challenge for something easy – a green circle trail, in ski terms, we call it “a hero run” or “hero snow” – something that makes everyone look like Bode Miller, Olympian skier

So, Day 2 of our snowy weekend brought us to a NW practice session at the Eldridge Distribution Center.  Here we had NW3 and Elite hides set out.  Some were straightforward hide placements, made challenging by the weather – breezy and snowing, with snow covered ground and lumber piles.  Some hide placements were made challenging by air flow – breeze outside channeling odor under a plastic tarp, or drafts inside in a big high ceilinged garage, some areas heated, some not.  Many areas were large with no obvious boundaries for the dogs.  To leash or not to leash?  Lots of “stuff” the leash could (and did) get tangled on, but off leash, the dog could spend a lot of time cruising and skimming or cutting corners.  I wanted to do most of these blind, but told the practice group to let me know if I was keeping him searching too long, or if I was missing something obvious.  One example was when Quattro was searching all over a fork lift, and I mean all over – he was in the drivers seat at one point – and one of the women watching asked where the draft was coming from.  Oh right, the garage door in front of the forklift.  However, there were 2 hides he’d already found near the garage door, so when I got him off the forklift, he zoomed back to those and skipped a segment of the garage door (where the 3rd hide was). At that point a worker came in, opened another garage door, and drove a vehicle out, so I called it quits.  We never got the hide on the garage door, but he got rewarded for 2 good finds, and I learned a lesson (if your dog is working and working, but not coming up with source, he is probably working pooling odor – move along!)  How many times have you heard me say that?  Now I need to remember it myself!

We had a great Container search, and a fun bathroom search.  Quattro squeezed under a bathroom stall w/ the door closed, I could see only his feet and then saw him limbo under the divider into the next stall.  He spent quite a bit of time in that stall (I was told I didn’t need to open the doors, so I was pretty sure there were no hides in either of those stalls) then he limboed under the next divider into the final stall, which had it’s door open.  He started to leave that stall and I called Finish, but was told, no, actually there is a hide in the bathroom… as Beth was saying that, he went back into the open stall and alerted on the toilet paper dispenser.  It was set on the divider, so I imagine the odor was dropping and falling into the 2 adjacent stalls.  I learned, even though I was wrong to call Finish, that he would not have gone to such lengths to crawl under 2 stalls unless he was chasing odor.  The next bathroom was blank (I didn’t know it) and his searching was much flatter, not as determined, and he left the room after doing 2 laps.  Unlike bathroom 1, where the door was open the whole time and he never left (because there was source odor in there!)

So, while Sunday wasn’t perfect, my practice goals were met.  I wanted to work in a novel environment, work someone else’s hides, do some blind hides, have some challenges presented, but also have lots of successes.  I was slightly disappointed in the large room search we did, but all the dogs I watched after us struggled with that room.

“Practice makes perfect” is the old adage… I’ve been told that only “PERFECT practice makes perfect”, but I don’t think either of those is true.  I think it should be “Practice with an open mind and an open heart makes learning happen and progress is gained”.  Be sure your practices are fun, 1/4 challenge and 3/4 easy successes, keep an open mind about what your dog is doing and why, be honest with yourself about how your mood, pressure, stress level, internal motivations, pride and ego are affecting your results, and you will see your successes increase.  And being successful is fun, and having fun brings success.  Onward and upward!

Here is video of a practice I did yesterday.  I let the hides sit for about 2 hours, 5 out of the 6 were paired, there was a slight breeze / air movement moving uphill towards the house, and it was pretty sunny in the first video.  The second video is more in the shade and the hides had only sat for a few minutes, but again, 5 out of 6 were paired.  This is not a demonstration of good treat / reward delivery – I was carrying around a bag of treats, trying to hold the phone and pull treats out, some treats were big crunchy things, so don’t pay attention to that! But I think we accomplished fun and easy mixed with a couple challenges, so I’d call it a good practice. Quattro blasts out the back door before I can get the camera on him in both videos.  In the first video, he had already blown by 4 hides on his normal “chase the invisible squirrel route” that he has, before he realized there was a hide nearby.  In the second video, he figured what we were doing, and ran directly to a hide before I could pull the camera out.  Sorry about the bounciness of the video, and the quality… it looks great on my phone and computer, but when I send it from the cloud to youtube, it gets all grainy. Take a dramamine before watching!


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