Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Beating ring nerves

      I often have students come up to me after class commenting on how they would love to start competing with their dog, but their ring nerves are preventing them from entering a show.  Having ring nerves isn't necessarily a bad thing. It means you take the sport seriously and you really want to do a good job.  A little bit of ring nerves will keep you focused and provide just enough adrenaline to think clearly and react quickly.  However too much of this emotion can bog you down, causing slow reaction times, foggy thinking and poor handling decisions.
 I have been competing in a variety of dog sports for 10+ years and I do still on occasion get ring nerves.  Here is how I keep it under control.
 The first thing I do is remind myself how much I love my dog and how proud I am of him (or her).  I know it seems a little silly, but it helps keep me grounded.  It helps remind me that I am simply playing a game with my dog and we do this because I love spending time with him, and I love the teamwork that the sport fosters.  It doesn't matter if we win or loose, get that Q or miss it by a point, in the end my dog always tries his hardest.  How can I be upset with him or embarrassed by his performance if I know he did his best? Instead I am proud of his efforts, regardless of the outcome, my dogs never disappoint me.  I am not going to waste my round stressing over what might happen, I am going to enjoy our time together and celebrate at the end of the round like we won the world cup.
 One of the biggest keys to beating ring nerves is being prepared.  If you do your homework, practise with your dog regularly, know the rules, and know how the sport is played, then you will know you have done your best when you walk into the ring. You will be confident in yourself and your dogs ability.  If you neglect to practise with your dog, you will walk to the line doubting yourself and your chances at success. As soon as you start to doubt, the ring nerves will begin to take over.  You will start to visualise all the things that can go wrong, and you will loose that confident air that the more experienced competitors have.  Your dog will pick up on your lack of confidence, and likely begin to send a plethora of calming signals your way.  This will only add to your ring stress, because now your normally attentive dog is busy yawning, sniffing the ground, looking away and acting sluggish.  At this point, take a couple of deep breaths, try and picture something positive, tell yourself you will be better prepared next time and begin your run.
 Having a warm up routine can really help too.  If you get to the show late, miss your walk through and then run into the ring after the ring steward hollers your name 3 times, you will be stressed.  And if you are stressed you can bet your ring nerves will take over.  So instead plan a warm up routine that begins at your home.  Make sure you pack everything you need, so that you and your dog are comfortable at the show.  Next get to the show grounds early, so you can set up your crates, and walk your dog around to acclimatize him to the new facility.  Then let him rest in his kennel until it is your time in the ring.  How early you get your dog out for his run really depends on your dog.  Some dogs might need 15 minutes or more to relax and be able to focus.  Some dogs do better with very little warm up as they get over stimulated by all the activity.  There is no right or wrong way, you need to try different things and see what works best for your dog.  Develop a routine together and the consistency of the routine will keep you calm and give you confidence.  Your warm up might include focus work, tricks, stretching, games and obedience moves.  Again it really depends on you and  your dog.  Instead of standing around stressing about the course, the judge and disengaging from your dog,  having a consistent routine will keep you and your dog connected, and help you feel like you are actively doing your best to prepare for your round.
       Another great technique for beating ring stress is to visualise success.  If you picture yourself nailing that front cross, getting your footwork perfect during your heeling pattern, running through the course in the correct order, then you are practising being successful.  Most people instead focus on what will go wrong.  They visualise themselves being late with their cross, they picture the dog leaving them to go sniff, they picture themselves getting lost on course.  Your mind cannot tell the difference between visualisation and the real thing, so you are in essence practising being wrong.  You are practising failure.  And because your mind thinks its real, your body will react as if it is real.  Your ring nerves will come on full force along with other negative emotions associated with failure.  You will be anxious, feel disappointed, maybe even a little depressed.  You will walk into the ring feeling as if its too late, the round already lost.  If you practise visualising success, you will enter the ring feeling confident and in control.
  You also need to remember that dogs are not robots and they are not going to be perfect every time.  You WILL fail, you WILL loose, so you might as well just accept it and move on.  It is not worth stressing every time you go into the ring, wondering if you will pass this round or will you be "giving another donation to the club".    Everyone at that show has failed before.  They understand what it's like and they will not judge or ridicule you.  In fact many times a friend or friendly stranger will come up and comfort you, offering words of support.  In the end it is just a dog show, it is not world peace, it is not the cure for cancer.  It is just a ribbon, it is just a title. And there will always be another show.  So reflect on what went wrong, what you can practise and improve on to better prepare for next time.  Accept the failure, learn from it and then get over it.

   So the next time you enter a dog show make sure you are prepared, you have a great warm up routine,  you have visualised success and remember to stop for a moment to appreciate your dog and give him a hug. Remember that this is just a game, and not a life altering moment.  And those pesky ring nerves will melt away.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Weaves and Wraps

Last night was lesson 4 of my Weave pole class.  It is the first time I have run this class and I was absolutely amazed at the progress of the dogs.  After only 4 sessions, there is a Duck Toller in class weaving a full set of six weave poles with entries from all sides.  There are also several other dogs in class that have 3 sets of two poles set out, with the gates angled open.  By the end of next class the poles should be almost in line with each other and I have full confidence that they will be weaving a set of six weave poles by the end of the last class.  It's absolutely incredible that a dog can go from knowing nothing about weave poles to weaving a complete set of six poles in a six week class.  I love this method and I will never teach my dogs to weave any other way again.

Spryte and I continue to work on her agility skills.  I try and go back and revisit foundation skills as often as I can.  It's easy to get caught up in working full courses, but then the finer skills tend to fall apart.  Lately I have noticed she cannot turn tight over a jump. Her idea of a wrap around a wing is to fling yourself as far as you can over the jump and then turn back to me.  She turns wider than a Mack truck!

I did a lot of sending her around cones and obstacles as a puppy.  She loved the game and would race around the cones, running as tight to them as she could, and then she would race back to me.  Next we did it around wing jumps and again she had great success.  We added a jump bar, and it was decent, she still jumped a little long, but nothing like what I see out on course.  Yesterday we practised out in the yard and again I had terrible wide turns.  I was really starting to think that I need to fix this. While pondering over her wide turns it hit me, I have only every done wraps from a stationary position.  Every time I did the ground work for this exercise, I was standing still and sending her out ahead of me.  So of course as soon as I added a lot of motion into the picture, she read it as "jump with extension" and would jump way past the jump before turning.  I had added motion into our courses when working on wraps, but I had never done it in the groundwork. 

It seems so obvious to me now, but it was such an easy thing to overlook when training.  That's the thing with dog training, you can't possibly remember to train every skill to perfection every time.  You will miss stuff and then you must go back and retrain that skill. So Spryte and I have started revisiting our wraps.  I use "dig dig dig" to cue the wrap around the jump and I have started adding a lot of my motion into the picture.  And just as expected, the first few times she flew over the jump.  By the end of the session she started to collect her stride and jump close to the wing and wrap around it.  It's no were near trained, and I don't expect it to carry over into the ring yet. But with a little more practise I should start to get the tight turns that I desire.

That is why I love dog training so much.  There is always something that needs work.  The behaviour is never perfect and it will take years of consistent training to get my dogs to the level I want them. In the meantime I get to spend countless hours training my dogs.  This means many hours of bonding with them, playing, learning from each other and growing as a team.  Nothing beats the relationship that forms between a handler and a performance dog.  It truly is priceless.

Here is a video of Spryte and I working on "wrap" when she was a puppy. Notice I always send and don't add motion! Naughty me!  The goal was for her to wrap the cone and always turn towards me, never turn away from me. If she turned the wrong way, we redid it.  I also wanted distance (that's why I am far from the cone)

Today's practise on wraps and motion.  Her first time over Spryte didn't notice the wrap signals and jumped long (and looked very surprised that I had turned), after that she started paying attention and wrapped tightly around the wings.  The jump bar is angled to encourage jumping tight to the the wing.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Princess Spryte

Spryte is a princess.  Well she thinks she is a  princess anyway. And princess' have a lot of demands. They absolutely MUST sleep in a king size bed, with their head on the pillow.  They MUST be with people all the time or yodelling will commence.  They cannot walk on gravel it hurts their delicate paws. And they despise walking in mud puddles, royal paws melt when wet.  Spring is a really difficult time for princesses.

Last weekend at the agility trial a mud puddle formed right in front of the entry door to the arena.  I went out to potty Spryte, not really paying attention to my dog, just assuming she would be right beside me. Next thing I know I hit the end of the leash and stumble forward, I turn around to see Spryte with her heels dug into the mud, absolutely refusing to take one more step. It was like being on the end of a horse lead, with the horse rearing up and backing quickly away. Who knew a 20 pound dog could have so much strength?!.   Absolutely no amount of coaxing or leash pressure could convince Spryte to muddy her precious little paws.  So like a good little servant, I picked up my princess and carried her across the abyss.

Princess Spryte made another appearance today.  I took her out herding, and with the plus 10 heat wave we've been having, the farm was a sloppy mess.  I took her out of her kennel in the car, placed her on the ground and began to walk towards the round pen.  Well just like last weekend, the bucking horse appeared and we're dodging mud puddles left, right and center. With some annoyed "lets go" from me and a bit of dragging, we finally end up at our destination.  At this point I'm just hoping that the lure of the sheep will distract her highness from the displeasure of muddy feet.

Spryte's little face lit up when she saw the sheep.  She went to work right away, moving the ewe's around and bringing my flock to me.  She  still did dodge mud puddles, but at least she kept working.  Then I was instructed to have Spryte lie down at the top of the flock. I'm thinking no problem, my dog has obedience training. But princess Spryte would have none of that nonsense. Princesses absolutely DO NOT lie down in the mud! How disgusting! I'm repeatedly telling her to lie down and she is busy glaring at me like I've lost my mind.  Our little showdown ended with Spryte in a half crouch and me standing over her thinking I should have gotten a boy.  Ahhhh. life with royalty.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

great day at the agility show

I had a great time at the CKC agility trial today.  The barn is warm and bright and the people very welcoming. The judge had some great courses too, challenging, but still very fair.

 It's been interesting watching different breeds of dogs compete.  That is one great thing about CKC agility, it tends to bring out breeds you wouldn't normally see.  Some non traditional agility breeds here this weekend have been a Scottie, Black Russian Terriers, Irish Setters, a Norrbottenspets and an Am staff.  Everyone seemed to be having a great time with their dogs and there are lots of impressive teams to watch between runs.

The shelties had a great day today. Spryte Q'de in all 4 runs.  We started with 2 jumpers runs this morning.  This worked out well for Spryte as she could really open up and run and not worry about contacts or tables.  Then on to standard in the afternoon, where she had great 2 on 2 off positions on the dogwalks and her running aframes were very nice too.  The first Aframe she was maybe only 6 inchs into the yellow before leaving, but her second one she strided well into the center.  I was so pleased! We have been working hard on retraining her aframe and it is starting to pay off.

Spryte was fast and responsive in all her runs today.  Once again I had that wonderful rush I get every time I run my little speed demon. She is causing me to become addicted to agility, like a bad drug, I just have to have more!

Strider Q'd 2/4 runs and finished up his Excellent standard title. He was sucked into the tunnel vortex during a few runs causing some off courses (shelties are very susceptible to this black hole type phenomenon), but after that he started to pay attention to the human half of the team and ran wonderfully for the rest of the day.  I still love running my old guy.  He can be so naughty, but he does it with a smile on his face the whole time.  You just have to shake your head and laugh.  I love that little dog!

Well off to bed, we need our rest for another great day of agility tomorrow.

Friday, 2 March 2012

More park pics

I drove up to Edmonton today to attend a CKC agility trial held here this weekend. Normally I work Friday nights, so I don't get the chance to leave Calgary until 10pm.   But I happened to be off today, so we headed up around one in the afternoon.  The nice thing about leaving in the afternoon is not feeling rushed. In fact the shelties and I stopped in Red Deer at a dog park to stretch our legs and get some more pictures of the fur kids.

It was a nice way to break up the trip. I will have to do it again next time we head up this way.

I'm pretty excited for our trial this weekend.  It feels like forever since I have been at an agility trial.  In reality it has only been two months, but for me that feels like ages!  I love CKC agility. I find that it is a very fair organisation for agility.  The jump heights are more reasonable than AAC, with a dog never jumping more than 2" above its height.  In AAC, Spryte would be a 22" regular, that is a big jump height for a dog that measures just over 16".  So she is in the Specials class, so that she can jump 16".  In CKC Spryte is a 16" Regular dog, as 18" is the cut off for this height class.  I think that  makes much more sense, and is safer for the dogs in the long run.
I also find that the levels are a little more  appropriate with their course challenges. Novice is very much novice.  There are no weaves and very few side changes. Often the tunnel shape changes the dogs direction for you.  To me again that makes perfect sense. To a young dog and a new handler, there is enough to worry about on course without adding extra handling options.  New handlers are just trying to remember the right order of obstacles, trying not to trip or run into an obstacle, hoping that their dog doesn't do zoomies around the ring.   New dogs are often still struggling with contact performance, jumping on the table and sticking it, holding start line stays, and following the handlers body. They also don't need the added stress of tough courses and odd angles.

Some faults are also allowed at the novice and intermediate level, so a minor error on the dog or handler's part does not always result in a non qualifying run. 

Of course as you move up through the levels the courses get much  more challenging and the rules get harder.  The CKC excellent level courses are comparable to AAC masters courses, the only difference being that darn table never goes away in CKC.

If my students have purebred dogs (unfortunately CKC still doesn't allow mixed breeds to participate) and there is a CKC agility trial coming up, then I always recommend they attend that show. It's a great way to build the confidence of both dog and handler, helping to start their agility career off on a positive note.

So Spryte will be in Novice tomorrow and Strider in Excellent.  It should be an interesting day. Hopefully I have some positive news to share tomorrow night.