Nala Walking with Focus

I admit that I usually don't have to do much with the dogs I've raised to get nice "attention walking" or heads up heeling.  Having focus on me is always a must have before I begin any actual training with a dog each session.  I don't want to have to fight with a dog in trying to be more exciting than the environment, so I just don't.

Through our play sessions, all of my dogs have easily learned how to keep their focus on my eyes or shoulders even while moving.  They don't want to miss out on anything!  Then it's just a matter of getting that focus as part of our criteria when doing formal heeling or our less formal attention walking, but the foundation of focusing while moving has already been taught.  I don't require any of my dogs to keep their eyes on me 100% of the time when we're going on our neighborhood walk, but they can be called upon that skill when needed.

Nala has been a fantastic 9 month old puppy for me.  Very easy going, eager, and just a bit sensitive.  But she has really struggled with learning this skill.  Of course, she gets the typical level of distractability that any puppy would have, but even when "focused" and wanting to work she naturally dips her head any time we start moving, on or off leash.

As a future service dog, the ability to give eye contact while moving can be crucial in navigating crowded areas.  Nala does a great job of general "loose leash walking" but she has a long way to go in learning to focus on her person instead of getting excited to greet people, or sniff the shelves, or...

I am currently teaching Nala that it IS possible to keep her head up and still move! Rewarding UP has helped her quite a bit.

I've also found that Nala is a bit different from all the other dogs I've worked with, in that she has had an easier time learning to focus up when walking forwards than backwards.  I think we finally reached 6 steps of walking forward without a head dip vs backwards walking is still about the level she shows in the video from a few weeks ago.  Very slow progress, but progress!


Rally Advanced title and kids

This past weekend I went to another AKC trial with Zumi to see how she would do.  I like rally as a stepping stone to obedience for her as it lets me see how she's doing with the bit more formal and stressful AKC environment, yet is a much shorter time in the ring and with more opportunities for me to support her with praise if needed.

The trial was unexpectedly HOT.  It was inside, but not air-conditioned. Summer came back to MN and was even warmer than most of the entire summer was.  I know I was affected by the heat on Saturday and I think Zumi was too.   She was a bit sedated than expected but I didn't get the feeling that it was just from stress.  Overall she was eager to engage and I didn't notice any "broken" behaviors outside of the ring.

My main worry on Saturday was that the first sign in advanced rally was the figure 8 with toy distractions.  Zumi has done well with those signs before, but I've never seen it right at the entrance before.  It was definitely a case for needing a strong connection on the ring entrance and leash removal!!!

However when it was getting close to our turn in the ring I discovered that the toys would be the least of our worries.  There was young boy who walked up to the ring and I could see that his mom was going to be in the ring right before Zumi.

Zumi is terrified of children.  I didn't put as much effort into socializing my winter puppy as I should have and it shows with kids.  Getting gradually used to Netta getting more mobile will help, but I am doubtful it will generalize to other children.

I strongly believe that kids have every right to be at trials, from all ages.  I want more kids involved in dog sports!!!  And yes, I currently bring Netta to agility trials so that I can actually trial my own dogs and she will continue to come to trials as she grows.  Zumi's issue with children is MY problem, not the other family's problem.  I see it the same as if I were to have a dog afraid of black dogs, or didn't like men in hats, or....   Sometimes you can do training to help with the issue, but mostly you need to figure out how to manage it as you can't expect that trials are completely sterile environments devoid of anything your dog finds distracting or scary.

I have no problem with people coming up to me and asking for REASONABLE accommodation if their dog has issues with Netta.  (And of course some people give me evil glares no matter what.)

Since the child was extremely well behaved and already off to the side of the ring I couldn't reasonably ask the child to miss his mom's run.  And unfortunately Zumi had spotted him and was clearly nervous.   I tried to calm her with moving away and cookie scatters, but it wasn't enough.  When we went into the ring the boy was walking behind us and leaving the area, and Zumi turned to give a single bark to him.  I told the judge that I thought we were going to have to leave since she was worried, but he was generous enough to give us a few minutes to regroup.  I was able to get Zumi refocused and mostly pulled together so I decided to try our run.

The first half of our was held together with praise. She was technically precise, but not with the attitude I want.  After the first half she loosened up and finished pretty well.  The run scored a 99 and finished our rally advanced title.

Sunday I moved her up to excellent and was certain it wouldn't be an issue since we would be behind a different team.  Unfortunately for Zumi, there were about 4 different kids there (but YAY for the sport!) and once again a young girl was going to be watching the dog right before us.
This time I had a better plan for managing the issue so that Zumi would hopefully not notice.  I did end up apologetically approaching the handler to ask if she would station the girl a bit further from the ring entrance instead of right in front of it when it was closer to our run time.

I can't say our warmup was exactly what Zumi needed, but we did have a great focused ring entrance without any anxieties.  Her focus was better, but whether due to the warm weather or stress some of her energy was lacking.  We did qualify again for our first excellent leg.

I was honestly surprised by Zumi's behavior at the trial, minus the kid worries.  Based on her last CDSP trial where she was high as a kite, and then the AKC rally trial we did last month, and in general her higher intensity while training recently...I was expecting to work on calming her arousal levels down.  But mostly she was very relaxed outside of the ring.  I remain puzzled on how to best warm up Zumi for a trial.

All that being said, I did end up submitting my entry for AKC novice at my club's trial the end of October.  I'm not entirely sold that Zumi is where I want her to be before entering, but I was swayed by several outside factors including supporting the 2 provisional judges who need the numbers.
Now I just need to practice doing the stays as I can't say I do very much formal practice with it!


2 Day Trials

Our consecutive weekends of agility finishsed up this last weekend with a 2 day UKI trial.
And I learned I absolutely should not be trying to do agility runs 2 days in a row with how sleep deprived I am.  Snooker was certainly a disaster on Sunday, sorry Vito.  If only Netta would stop waking up every hour!

Alas my goal of getting a standard Q or 2 with Zumi was not to be.  She was a pretty good Duck, but I feel we're not quite consistent yet in her handling.  Sometimes she feels very "sticky" and other times she's barely contained, and alternates in the same run.
Still, there was improvement from our last trials!  Zumi's "vulturing" start line was much improved! Still there, but responding to "sit" cues to get up.
 I'm working on it in practice with having her do a "Beg" before released but she can't do it yet with much distance.

Zumi's Master Series jumpers course was probably her best run of the weekend.  She even made up for some poor handling in the beginning when I wasn't quite moving fast enough.  The dropped bar was all my fault.

Her novice standard run on Sunday, some more bad handling as well!  So tired!

Vito was also very happy for his runs on Saturday.  Sunday was more meh.


Zumi's Dumbbell Progress

I have been continuing to work with Zumi on being in a more calm, thoughtful mode before being sent on her retrieves.  We are making progress with distance of the throw and starting to do a little bit more proofing with my body language and other cues before being sent.  The new critieria I've been working on are:
- No foot movement as I give the cue to wait
- Eye contact before being sent

And the new criteria for myself is remembering I changed her cue from "Get it" to "Fetch" in order to be more clear with my marker/reward cues.

This is a session from Zumi this past week.  She is still moving a foot in wanting to vulture when I give the wait cue for the beginnign reps each session. I  try to reset when I notice this.

When I add in other cues she sometimes whines in excitement although she is able to listen and do what I ask.  Since this is a sign of over arousal,  I try to go into calming mode with cookie scatters and sticky targets.  You can see this at 1.31 in the video below:

Zumi still has a long way to go before she's ready to take this into a trial setting again!


Back to Agility Trials

In a very rare move for us, we're actually doing 3 agility trials in a row this month!  Agility pretty much becomes non-existent for USDAA/UKI and I wanted to squeeze some trials in with Zumi.  She's had such a broken up year in being able to trial vs being on the sidelines!

1 day of UKI we did the first weekend of September.  In UKI we still need 2 Q's in standard to get out of novice, so I've been having fun doing the master heat challenge courses in addition to our quest in novice.  She's been spiraling upwards in intensity and just started the dreaded vulture again.  But on course she's mostly listening well and getting very close!  No standard Q's for us, but she did actually qualify in the master challenger jumpers run!

Then we did 2 days of USDAA this last weekend.  Vulturing continued on the startline, but she again impressed me with her focus on course.  Zero issues with visiting Grandma again!

Here was her master standard run on Sunday, NQ of course, although she did manage to qualify on Friday!

The biggest area of off courses can be narrowed down to serpentine type pushes.  She comes in but then doesn't go back out so well.
The same difficulty with finding jumps on weirdly angled lines.  Zumi just isn't experienced yet to push slighty off her path to them.

This coming weekend we are back for 2 days of UKI.  Seeking those standard Q's!


Evaluating our Automatic Leave its

When I train the service dogs, the task I work on the most is getting solid automatic leave its in the real world.  Without being given any cue such as leave it or watch me, the dogs have to learn to ignore dropped food on the floor, trash, and people excitedly calling out to the cute doggy in the store.

For the service dogs in public, they are kinda in a weird combination of being in "working mode" and "relaxed mode."  The distinction between those two modes is actually quite important in most dog's mind!  For many dogs, they can learn to leave distractions alone and focus on their handler when they know they are actively working.  A well-trained dog can heel right over tempting crumbs on the ground without even really registering they're there.  The dog is in the zone and has an active task to do.

But that same dog might really struggle with leaving distractions in their relaxed, every day life mode.  They're not actively working and tend to default into move really quickly before mom yells "leave it" mode.  That trash on the ground during a walk? Fair game!  You drop a kernel of popcorn on the couch, and watch all your dogs madly sprint for it!

For competition purposes, this sometimes means that dogs can struggle actually getting INTO the ring to work if they're not being 100% managed by their handler.  The dog knows they're not really working and they choose to seize the moment by staring and even lunging at what they want.

With some dogs, this distinction between working and not working is muddy even when actually in the competition ring.  Does the dog consider themselves "working" when you move to setup on the startline in agility?  Or in between exercises in obedience?  I focus a lot on these moments in my Ring Confidence classes as I find they are very common moments where dogs tend to tune out and focus on the environment.  The handler needs to learn how to stay connected with their dog during these moments and train the dog that this in between time is still a part of their "work."

Evaluating Your Expectations
Dogs are masters are reading enviornmental cues and learning when certain behaviors are expected of them and when they aren't.  Maybe you accidentally trained your dog that they only need to focus when they're on leash and you're looking at them.  Or perhaps your dog is great when at training centers, but has no clue about impulse control in your house.

The first thing to think about is if you actually care about your dog automatically focusing in each situation.  Maybe it doesn't bother you at all that your dog scarfs up anything that hits the ground when you're at home as long as they learned not to touch things on the counters.  But you decided that anytime your dog is on leash or actively doing a command, that is the cue you want for them to ignore distractions.  That's ok!

But maybe you looked at what you want and you realized you have huge contradictions.  It is much harder for your dog to learn it's ok to go after ice shooting out of the freezer's dispenser but it's not ok to sprint towards your dropped slice of ham in the kitchen, or your dropped pill bottle.  Maybe there's a simple work around solution such as you deciding it's fine for your dog to lick your plate when you are holding it for them, but you decide to start training them it's not ok to lick it/steal food when you set it on the coffee table or put it in the dishwasher.

Training For Better Impulse Control
So you decided you want to clean things up in one or more areas, great!  Since your dog already has thier own expectations of what to do in that context you will need to go back to the beginning.
Make it easier for the dog by putting them in "working mode" when you introduce your distractions.
Even consider giving them a very concrete task to do such as lying on a mat.    Reward heavily!

As you progress, keep looking at how they respond the first time.  Does your dog always fall for it on the start of each session and then quickly learn "it's a trap!"  That's pretty normal!  One way you can try to minimize that is to move between each repetition.  If you're working on heeling by pieces of fuzz on the ground then, after rewarding your dog, move to a completely different area of the ring and briefly do some other type of work before trying to go back to heeling by the fuzz.

You will also want to make sure to introduce surprise distractions as you train.  If your dog watches you walk out and set food on the floor that is a pretty big clue that you are setting up a proof for your dog!  But if you set the distraction out before you even get your dog out of their crate then you are much more likely to get some advanced level training in!  The more you purposefully set stuff out before the start of a session, the greater likelihood that your dog will start automatically thinking that stuff they stumble upon was a purposeful proof!

Here I set out an obvious target distraction for Vito.  The bigger distraction is actually easier than something smaller!  Progress to cutting out small squares of paper that look like cookie crumbles!  With Vito I am working on not just ignoring it when actively heeling, but continuing to ignore it as I do less formal play with him!  He shows that this work is still a challenge for him:

Getting the Real Life Leave It
A similar concept can be applied to working on impulse control when your dog is out of their working mode and in their relaxed/off duty mode.  One of the biggest clues to our dog that we're not really paying attention is eye contact.  Build up to practicing your distraction work when you're not actively staring at the dog!

Once your dog is a pro at learning to leave food you drop from the kitchen counter, start sly dropping a piece of food while your back is to the dog and you're pretending not to notice the fall.  Be ready to body block the food if you need to!

Is downtime your issue at training centers?  First, teach your dog a nice place to wait (maybe between your legs!) and then slowly start "ignoring" your dog while you talk to someone.  Reward heavily for your dog continuing to leave distractions when they think your attention is of them.  And remember that your dog isn't being bad, they are just learning a new skill!  Previously eye contact was their cue to ignore distractions, and now they are having to learn to do it in a new context!

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