Saturday, 17 January 2015


Happy New Year!  I enter this year filled with hope and excitement for my training adventures with Stella but also dreading the progression of things for Riley.  Things never really improved for him after my post in September but we pretty much have stabilized into a new routine.   The ataxia is a bit worse and a few more things still point to progressing neurological issues likely from scar tissue pressing on the spinal cord from his previous surgery.
He is a very difficult dog to read as doesn't present any obvious signs of pain and never "complains".  We have primarily managed any pain in his life using holistic methods but he has been on an nsaid since summer.   We are supporting his system with some supplements and slippery elm for his stomach.  There were however some minor things like shifting a lot, groans while sleeping and some minor habit changes that led me to believe he was still uncomfortable.  We recently added amantadine to his metacam and that seems to have made him a lot more comfortable and he is bouncing like a crazy puppy. Amantadine is a human anti-viral drug and often used in Parkinsons disease. It doesn't do a lot for dogs by itself but it helps boosts the effectiveness of other pain medications by resetting spinal cord receptors.  He might feel better but he still has a limit of about 15-20 minutes on exercise before his body starts to rebel and his back end gets all wonky.  He is a mind-over-matter dog and would just keep going and pay the price later so we do our best to control the activity levels.  On leash would probably be best for him but I have opted to allow some off leash freedoms as long as he doesn't get to wound up and excited as he just gets SOOOOO much joy from it.  I mostly walk him separately from Stella as he is less likely to do stupid stuff on his own.   We continue to do regular chiro/accupuncture treatments and have also added some massage which seems helpful.
I realized at Christmas that I have never had a Santa pic taken with Riley and Stella so we went off to the mall for our visit and pic.  Riley cracked me up because he desperately wanted the squeaky toy they were using to get the attention of the baby in front of us.  Such a silly dog!  We are enjoying life together, he is happy and makes me laugh so I can be happy if this is our new normal.  Please keep good thoughts for us!

Monday, 17 November 2014

Hannah Branigan Seminar

Soooooo many layers!!!!!  I recently attended a three day Hannah Branigan obedience seminar with Stella called Beyond Fundamentals and it was awesome.  I am familiar with Hannah's teachings from online obedience classes at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy and seeing her at Clicker Expo and she is very good at breaking things down.  The further I go in this dog training adventure the more geeked out and fascinated I seem to get with all the subtle layers.

The seminar was less about training each specific obedience exercise and more about applying concepts like conditioned emotional responses and foundation skills that help us carry the trained behaviours into a high pressure ring situation.  We need to train each ring behaviour (or part of) until the skill is fluent and then add stimulus control, distance, distractions and sequencing.  We can teach and work all those additional steps as separate concepts without ever screwing up our ring exercises!

One area that I basically suck at is putting things on stimulus control. Dogs need to understand all sorts of cues both from the handler and the environment and translate those to reliably doing the behaviour only on the conditioned cue.  Hannah said that once our dogs understand the concept that a cue is significant then each progressive cue should be easier to teach as dogs can generalize that skill. I guess it is time to get all of those half taught tricks under stimulus control!

Lost focus on distance work is the source of many ring errors.  A lot of exercises require us to leave our dog in a wait (stand for exam, recall, drop on recall, signals etc) where the dog needs to maintain focus on us to prevent errors when we move on to the next step of the exercise. Waiting is boring and/or watching us walk away can be stressful for some dogs.  We can train our dogs that waiting is fun and rewarding.  Randomly turning back to toss rewards or take off running in a chase game or releasing to a toy or zen bowl are all ways to build value for waiting.  It keeps our dogs focused and ready for the next part of the chain.   Alternatively there are also exercises that require us to send our dogs out to do a task (directed jumping, gloves, scent discrimination, dumbbell exercises etc.) and then return to us.   We can train the send/return concept by layering levels of difficulty using things like zen bowls, targets and wraps (cone etc) to build confidence and understanding before adding in things like retrieves, positions and scent work. 

Distractions can then all be built on to the foundations.  An example would be when we want a dog to be comfortable with a judge working right next to the scent articles.  If we start with getting the dog comfortable with a "judge" close to a zen bowl or target first and gradually build on that we keep  success rates high and build lots of confidence.  All of that hopefully carries over to the formal exercises in a ring environment.

Sequencing is the final step.  Again we can teach that concept to our dogs by starting with strong behaviours that don't need high rates of reinforcement (sit, hand touch, paw etc)  and teach our dogs that the reinforcement comes at the end of a series of cued behaviours instead of after every single cue.

One of the areas of struggle for positive reinforcement trainers is what to do when a dog makes an error.  Hannah really stresses the emotional state of the dog as our biggest priority when training. Avoid errors by setting up the dog for success as much as possible.  "Failure begets failure" so if a dog fails twice in a row then stop what you are doing as the dog does not understand.   Hannah also avoids using non reward markers.  Some dogs are tough and can work through failure but many dogs get frustrated or deflated.  Stella is one of those dogs that deflates very easily.  Most errors are treated by the handler stopping forward motion, stepping out of position and restarting the exercise again quickly.  She also throws in things to soften that sequence.  For example when you stop and step out of position you can offer a hand touch which the dog will miss because it is out of position.  That hand touch has a huge secondary reinforcement history as we pair it with all sorts of rewarding when the dog is in the correct position so this "softens" the reset.  I've been experimenting with this in heeling with Stella and liking the results.

There were lots of other gems at the seminar and ways to break things down into easily trainable goals.  Training little pieces of things helps to keep things interesting and fresh for both the dog and handler and can give valuable information on where the trigger point might be in a problem exercise. When we worked the figure eight stuff I really developed a new appreciation for how many pieces of a chain that can be broken into.  Right circle, left circle, halt is expanded to train the little pieces like transitions from collection to extension and vice-versa, judge pressure, ring steward pressure, hind end awareness, handler eye and shoulder position cues, feet direction etc.  Things like the transition from "exercise finished" to the setup for the next exercise are just as important as the actual exercise and should be trained.    

Lots of things are still processing in my brain from this seminar.  Sometimes it seems like such a huge task and I miss those days where my goal really was just to go in the ring and get our novice title.  Now I want more!  I want to be a happy, confident and accurate team all the way from our Novice A debut through to a utility title and hopefully we will achieve that goal over the next few years.  I really do love this stuff even when it makes me crazy or makes my head hurt and Hannah is an excellent presenter who gave me lots to think about and work through.  Any errors in this information is totally my fault and I highly recommend everyone go to a Hannah Branigan seminar!   

Monday, 3 November 2014

September Beach Fun and Troubles

We had a lovely summer of camping with the dogs and topped it off with a last trip to Tofino to play with the dogs on the beach in September. 

Unfortunately Riley has been struggling off and on with his poor body since summer and things got worse on this trip.  One day while walking on the beach he ended up with spasms in his hind end.  The vet chiropractor later explained it as the area where his rib cage meets the hip joints was greatly out of line and would be compressing the nerves causing something similar to sciatica in humans.  We fixed that up and have made progress but it has been slow and other neurological difficulties are also suspected (possible scar tissue from his surgery two years ago pressing on the spinal cord or maybe even bulging discs).  The only real way to know would be an MRI but for now we are trying conservative management and hoping things settle down.  He is happy, still crazy and keeping comfortable but has very limited stamina before he shows signs of weakness so our walks are short.  Please send healing vibes for my wonderful boy.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Stella Trial Updates

Well it has been a busy spring for Stella and I.  Regular viewers might remember how we were robbed of our final conformation point due to an administrative screw up so in February we ventured back into the show ring and the dog-show gods smiled upon us and we got that last point (AGAIN!).    We also needed to take a new picture.  Probably should have had her standing on the ground as the platform makes it hard for her to be comfortable in a real stack so her butt is a bit wacky here but it is still evidence we achieved that goal!

CH Varazs Kedvesem Final Dance, PCD, RA, CGN
In May we headed out with a friend for a trip to Kelowna to attend a CARO rally trial.  This was the trial that last year ended in tears of frustration when my dog clearly expressed to me that she was not interested in working with me (see blog  Is-that-same-vizsla?).  That marked the start of a year off from trialing to develop a new training plan.  Well what a difference a year makes :).   I was super pleased with how the trial went.  My dog was engaged and we achieved our CARO Rally Advanced title with scores of 191 (my error), 197 and 198.  We also got another leg on our Rally Novice Team and finished up that title this past weekend. The video below is from the Kelowna trial.

I have a very loose goal of heading into the obedience ring to attempt our CKC Novice Obedience title in November.  That will depend on lots of things :).  Stella just turned three so we have lots of time and I am in no rush.  We are actively training the open and utility exercises while we also work on developing lots of ring skills, focus and confidence.   I plan to do lots of matches and attend venues like CARO rally that allow rewards to create lots of good associations with competitive settings.  Stella is not an overly sensitive dog as far as environments but she also is not a "high-drive" dog that loves to work and compete.   It will be a balance to keep her happy and engaged when competing at formal obedience and I want to make sure we are both as ready as possible.