Saturday, December 24, 2011

Speed, Control and Perfection

First of all I really hope you weren't expecting a xmassy type post from me.  I am not a very festive person, yeah yeah I can hear the chants of Scrooge and Grinch, whatever...  So at the risk of incurring the wrath of many bloggers and dog-people in general, I don't 'get' dressing dogs up in Christmas paraphernalia, taking pretty pictures and sending them to all your friends with festive messages.  Well this might partly be due to the fact that I don't own anything christmassy, it might also have to do with the fact that if I tried to dress up my dogs they would think I have gone insane or it might have to do with the fact that I am pretty sure The Nerd would finally have me institutionalised if I do something like that...  Regardless, I hope all of you are having a jolly time over the holidays.  Me?  I would much rather talk about agility.

Let's look at the equation:

Each dog is an individual, with a temperament and structure unique to them.  So let's call dogs X, where X = infinity .

Each person is an individual, there for we can derive that each agility handler/trainer is an individual.  So let's call handler/trainer Y, where Y = infinity.

The number of training methods available to train one behaviour already are at least double figures, and every day new training methods and tools are discovered.  Add to that the fact that there are endless behaviours that will aid our dogs in agility, whether it will be directly or indirectly.  So for the purpose of my argument let's simplify Training to:  Training (Z) = behaviours + methods, there for Z = infinity.

So the end product is  ways to get it right in Agility (well HOPEFULLY getting it right in Agility) and let's call that P (for perfection).

(X) x (Y) x (Z) = P

And seeing that X=infinity, Y=infinity, Z=infinity then P=infinity³

No wonder agility is so bloody addictive.

Anyhow, within all these infinites we can (and sometimes have to) generalise.

In the last while I  have been thinking a lot about some of these generalisations.

Now before I go on, I will state categorically state that I am not saying there is a wrong or a right and success can be reached either way, this is just my opinion.

I think it is fair to say that we all aim to train for perfection.  And by that I am not implying that we want to replace our dog's brain with a circuit board and get a remote.  I am just saying that obviously we want to get it right.  While our ideas of perfection might differ, I think somewhere in all of our definitions we will find the words 'fast' and 'reliable'.  How we reach these goals differ.  Specifically I have come across people that put the emphasis on perfection, right from the word go.  People that will not reward unless the behaviour is performed 100% correctly.  That is what they aim for.

I am very different on this subject, enthusiasm and speed is a lot more important to me and I will rather build towards that perfection.  To use a recent example, when Volt started doing his first full dog walks, I was not fussed at all that he overshot some of them.  He was happy and enthusiastic and doing them with speed (well enough speed for me to be happy, considering it was the first time he did them).  My foundation was 100% and he knew his job, if he overshot because he was a little over-enthusiastic, cool.  If he overshot because he had no clue what I was asking, it would have been a different story.  I am the same with turns.  Yes my foundation, with flatwork or just on wings I train 100%, but when I start stringing things together, I don't expect perfection immediately.  If my young dogs take a few wide turns, but they are running full speed and with enthusiasm, cool.  Personally I feel that if you only reward for perfection, you will sacrifice speed and enthusiasm.  It is at this point, I suppose that I have to duck for bullets.

Some will argue that if you don't expect perfection from the word go, you will never be able to achieve it.  I beg to differ.  As long as your foundation is in place, you can definitely achieve perfection.  Those that saw Chaos when he first started, will remember the wide turns on our first courses.  Now I can turn him as tight as I want.  The most important part is that he does it with enthusiasm and never slows down.  I have just seen too many dogs lose some of there core speed, because they are too busy thinking of perfection.  Not that these dogs slow down to a snail's pace, not at all.  But some of that pure instinctual 'drive forward' speed is lost forever.  I know of a lot of dogs trained according to this 'perfection' recipe that have done very well, so once again, it is not the WRONG way necessarily.

Personally I also think this takes away some of the value of whatever reward you are using.  I am not a huge fan of food based training, yes I use it for some initial behaviours etc, but I much prefer toy training.  And I play very rough with my dogs, from the word go.  We have wrestling matches, I push them away from there toys and encourage them to come back with gusto.  Not only to create a higher value reward, but also to encourage confidence and prepare them for the 'big loud outside world'.  My dogs KNOW that they will get rewarded at some point.  When training for perfection, you inevitably lower your behaviour to reward ratio, since your dog is bound to 'get it almost right' a lot more than 'getting it perfectly right'.

How many discussions have there been about 'high value vs. low value' rewards.  The advantage of the way I do things, is that the value of the reward is NOT up to the toy that I use, it is up to me.  I can 'just throw the ball' and my dogs will be happy, or 'just tug' and this counts as low value.  The more involved I (ME, as a trainer and handler) get involved, the higher the value of the reward.  Of course this means that the neighbours, the family and The Nerd think I have lost my mind, since I get very involved when playing with my dogs and I am pretty sure I must look like a clown on happy pills, but so be it.  I can do this with any toy.  I did a little experiment yesterday, I alternated between two kinds of tug-toys, two squeaky toys and two different kinds of balls.  The three dogs I was training (Chaos, Quake and Volt), did not bat an eyelid when I switched toys and each toy was met with equal enthusiasm.  I honestly believe my 'forgiving' way of training youngsters have something to do with this.

A huge part of perfection training of course is handler mistakes.  When training for perfection you are not compensating for your mistakes.  Let's say my young dogs pull of a jump, because I got too far behind, or I tapered, I will still reward or continue the exercise.  The perfectionist trainers, will re-do it.  Obviously, I start expecting more from my older dogs, I slowly but surely build the criteria and teach them to recognise lines.  I compensate for my own weaknesses when training my young dogs and over time I will teach THEM to compensate for my weaknesses.  Sigh, yes, I have many of those.  And let's face it, we ALL forget the challenges of baby dogs, we get into a comfort zone with our older, reliable, well-trained dogs and by the time a new pup comes along... eish.

Okay well the whole 'handler mistakes' issue is a different story on its own, I am thinking of 'The Blamers' of course.  You know the ones I am talking about, it is ALWAYS the dog's fault... even when you show them a freeze frame of them clearly showing the dog the off-course obstacle there is STILL a 'yeah, but...'.  I am pretty sure you are all thinking of names now.  Anyhow that is a different blog post on it's own.

Just on a different (but actually slightly related) subject.  I could never train one of my dogs with the others running loose.  I would say 'tunnel' and have five dogs competing to go in there first.  My dogs get... erm, very enthusiastic while I am running another dog, I love this.  The Nerd doesn't agree with me on this, since most of this enthusiasm is very vocal.  I know of people that do full training sessions with their other dogs in down stays.  And while I have to admire the self-control of the poor dogs, I just cannot agree with it.  I want my dogs to be TOO excited to exercise THAT amount of self-control.  By this I am NOT saying that I don't proof my own stays and expect self-control from my dogs, but only when it is THEIR time with me.  I love it when my dogs go nutter-butters for me, that is part of the game isn't it?

Anyhow, I will now await the rain of criticism... which by the way is not a bad thing.  A lot can be learnt from constructive criticism.  For now I will smile contently and be happy about the fact that my dogs (if only them) at least think I am the super-most exciting thing in all of everness.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Analysis, Videos and Technology

My statement a few posts ago that 'small dogs are easier to train than large dogs' caused some ructions let me tell you.  It was also very apparent that most people chose to ignore the added 'but both are equally hard to perfect' part of the argument.  I am just para-phrasing by the way, too lazy to go back and get direct quotes right now.  The small vs. large argument is NOT the theme of this post by the way, but it did get the train of thought rolling though.  Oh and by the way, I was also told, that 'large dog trainers can train small dogs, but small dog trainers can not train large dogs'.  Erm, really now?  Some people just really don't WANT to learn hey?

But let's start from the beginning (of my argument anyway).  I personally believe that the ability to analyse agility is one of the biggest tools to success.  Now 'analysing agility' is a very broad term.  There is the ability to analyse the causes of your training problems and coming up with a solution.  The ability to analyse a course and handle it optimally.  The ability to analyse your GOOD rounds and GOOD training and find the places where there is still room for improvement.  Yes, having a good trainer/coach around that can tell you all these nice analytical things is nice and handy and will get you far, but it is not a full solution.  See like me, most coaches are very opinionated and their analysis will be just that... THEIR analysis.  They don't live with your dog or train him every day, come up with those 'on the spot aha moments'.

Picture Courtesy of Melissa Wilson

Now that analytical part of my agility brain is what started my whole small dog/large dog comparison to begin with.  Please note, I am not fooling myself, I KNOW that what I am comparing is ONE large dog with ONE small dog.  I know they are completely different dogs, I am not trying to amalgamate them into some 'Alett Agility Recipe Dog'.  But comparing their strengths and weaknesses helps me WORK on their weaknesses.

I did a quick 3 minute speed circle exercise again yesterday.  Chaos really has to work harder to get over his jump height, but then he has never had the best jump style (although it has improved dramatically with a lot of work).  Volt has a lovely natural jump style, but then he jumps only 106% of his height, compared to Chaos that jumps 116% of his height.  Volt's ability to find good lines still suck, lots of work to do their.  Volt and Chaos generally use the same amount of strides in between jumps (on the uphill Volt still struggles a slight bit to catch Chaos).  Volt is a drive dog, he is happy running full speed away from me.  Chaos is a drag dog, he will always be faster when I am ahead.  Oh fun, fun, fun, I have so much I can work on.  I am serious about that by the way... I am insanely happy when I have plans and things to train.

My first instinct when watching any youtube video, round, show, performance relating to agility, is to start analysing, but then that is how we learn... That is the cool thing about agility and technology.  Back when I started, agility and the internet weren't really interested in each other yet, but these days, all this amazing information is at your fingertips! I love using it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Videos, Dog Walks and The Cat

Okay I have been doing a shizer load of video editing in the last while, so I will start off with the vids I made for other people and myself:

Friends and Training Partners' videos:

Helena and Chili:

Wayne with Bella and Roxy... very impressive for someone that started competing in August (and only a few months of training before that)

Jason and Jag... the Croatian BC.

Then of course my own little monster... just a November update:

And then my superstar, my heart and soul, Chaos... eish, I had to spend hours to select my REALLY favourite rounds of 2011...

Now, just on a catty note... if you watch the videos of Volt (all the videos of Volt I have ever made) I challenge you to 'spot the cat'.  It is very funny, but Volt's bestest friend in the world, his three legged tjommie (friend), Loki, can be spotted in almost all his videos.  Why do you ask?  Well every time I train the little man, the tripod joins in.  He goes over jumps, runs through tunnels, blocks the dog walk and generally tries to distract Volt, with no luck.  Oh my hat, the cat!

Today was a big day for Volt (and there for Loki too)... we did our first full Dog Walks.  A lot of work to be done still, but I am content with his first ever dog walks.  Yes there is some over-shooting (much rather that than creeping), yes, still a bit slow, but that is just confidence and it was his first ever session, yes his striding is not ideal yet.  Tons to work on, but still SO exciting.  I love this age (around 15-18 months), the progress is jaw dropping, they learn so quickly and so much LEKKER (good, nice, fun) fine-tuning to do...

I will leave you with that for tonight...

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Risk, Pink and Evolution

Soon, oh hopefully very soon, the new PINK laptop will arrive.  Trust me, I had NO choice in the colour, good price, good specs and NEEDING a laptop meant that I actually don't even care that is pink.  The new pink laptop, already nicknamed Pinkie and the Brain by the hubby (I prefer that he is implicating ME as the brain in that equation, but somehow I think I might be wrong), means VIDEO EDITING.  I have four and a half million videos to catch up with for my online students... and the blog of course.  I will be honest, I have become a bit of a spoilt brat to a certain extent.  Before I met The Nerd (think that will be the hubby's new blog nickname), I had a pc ja, but it was out of date and quite useless and I couldn't care actually.  If you don't know what you are missing out on right?  Internet connection?  If I could check my mail once a week I was happy.  He introduced me to the full extent of technology.  I am sure he wouldn't have done it if had realised exactly how much agility was on the internet.  It is not all spoilt brat though, honestly the blogs, videos, websites, e-books and ten million other agility tools on the internet has really helped me improved.  It has enabled me to start on-line training courses.  I love how much internet agility has evolved.  Well I love how much agility in general always evolves.

Just a shame some get left behind with this evolution.  The stragglers that just keep on living in the cave, because they can.  I was 'internet agility trolling' tonight.  It is kind of like on-line dating, except I don't look at hot topless pictures of who dudes claim they are.  Haha, just joking there, me and The Nerd met on a dating site, so it would be REALLY hypocritical of me if I judged.  Anyhow, back to agility trolling.  Every once in a while me and Google hook up for an evening to find some new websites/blogs/other random interesting s%$^ relating to agility.  Sometimes I find interesting/amusing/good/life-changing information, other times I just have to shake my head and laugh.  It is kind of like watching a movie where some nerdy, but cute hacker, with designer horn-rimmed glasses sit in front of an impressive flashy and very expensive computer monitor, types in 'UPLOAD VIRUS' and proceeds to cause a continental black-out.  That is the bane of The Nerd's world.  I feel the same about agility.  Sometimes it is like a B-grade, low budget movie, not only does it look stupid, but it really is stupid.  Other times it is a box-office hit, where some  famous director invested millions into a scene that looks impressive, but really is just bulls@#$%.

I am not (necessarily) judging these people, unfortunately in a world where there is no real international recognition body for training, people get duped easily.  And not everyone is as fortunate as me to have good internet access.  Or common sense.  Wait, this is coming across wrong, I am NOT sitting on a high horse (although training horses gave me a different perspective on dog training, completely different subject), I am not pointing fingers at any bad training or stupid ideas (although let's face it, there are some pretty silly ones out there).  Let's get to my actual point.  I have been in agility since 1997 and it is phenomenal how the sport has grown.  Yet there are still people that are stuck in the 90's (wearing 80's fashion by the way) with their training methods.  NOT because they don't have access to the information, but because they used to have success and work on the equation of past success (by past standards) equals good training (by past standards), therefor current success (by current standards) MUST equal good training (by past standards).  In the last month I have 'come across' four handlers, that publicly admit they want to be competitive, but their poles are about 1 second off the pace.  Why?  Well they still use the whole 'step into your dog, step out of your dog' back and forth training method.  Does it work to teach your dog to weave?  Yes, it does, my first dogs were taught like that, so I know it works.  But are there (a million)  more effective ways that have been developed by very intelligent and knowledgeable people?  Yeah pretty much.  And these methods are widely known to the people I am referring to.

That is one stupid little example, but judging by the improvement of dogs at every single major international competition on an annual basis, I think we all need to realise that there is NO perfect in the near future.  Innovative, creative and dedicated agility training leads to more spectacular competition every day.  Every day we have to try and grow in our training.  Especially when it comes to our pups.  I actually had a long conversation with a student recently.  She is taking one of my on-line courses and was asking if I would be training Volt exactly the same as I trained Spaz five years ago.  She was taken aback when I said that I often adapt to/add to my training program and therefor HER training program.  My fundamental principles in training are solid and set in stone (for now), but I think every trainer should strive to adding that 'little bit more towards perfection' every day.  I am not talk about change, just evolution.  Hopefully if you have common sense  you will know what I mean by that confusing statement???

Okay I tried to think of a nice flowing 'switch over' to the last topic of my post, but I failed, so I will just take a flying leap to the next topic.  I risky flying leap.  Getting ANY puppy, from ANY brilliant line, after a TON of research, after EVERY aptitude and health test in the book, is still a risk.  You never know what happens, you never know what the outcome (or the influences towards that) will be.  Even if you do everything right, something can still go wrong.  This risk is not a problem for me.  I commit to my dogs regardless, whether they will turn out to have issues (health or behavioural), they can live happy lives with me and we will deal with it.  It doesn't make the risk any less.  I think most agility people have the hope that their new puppy will be a 'little better' than their previous dog.  It is natural.  But 99.99% of use couldn't care less after the first week with our new addition.  Our boys (and girls) just crawl into our hearts and stay there.  Oh please, still do your research and your tests!  VERY important to try and minimize the risk as much as we can.

Arg, I still had this whole thing I wanted to write about people that just DON'T think and I mean in every day life and agility, but it is getting late, so think I will save that one for the new PINK laptop.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Achievements, Inspiration and Proofing

Well the Year End Function is all over and done with, it was hard work, but hopefully worth it.  It at least seemed like everyone had a good time... even J despite the fact that she could not get the damn bottle cap in the shooter glass.  Me and Spazo even came away with some lekker awards.  Chaos shared the Handler Voted Most Improved Award with H and Chili (whom coincidentally I voted for and felt deserved it more), we also shared best Show Attendance with two other agility nerds.... and speaking of nerds, yours truly was voted Agility Year of the Nerd... again... I  heftily protest that award by the way.... I am not a nerd, I am just very special and slightly too dedicated.  All these were fun awards, but nevertheless gives me that 'special warm feeling in my heart' for Spaz.  Did we actually achieve anything this year?  Yes, we did, he exceeded my expectations on some fronts, other goals we missed solidly.  Because of me, not because of him.  It is that time of year when I set my goals for the following year, but this time around I have to include the little man, the Voltenstein.  I love setting goals and I hate setting goals.  Actually achieving them is one of the most spectacular feelings in the world, like that moment today when I went to the post box and Chaos's Championship Certificate had arrived.  I did a very awkward but enthusiastic victory dance, much to the amusement of other unsuspecting people collecting their mail.  Oh but the disappointment in myself when I fail to reach those goals, THAT is hard to deal with.  I have honestly never been disappointed with my dogs.  The are all of the super awesomeness.  Yes occasionally they get a bee in their bonnet and make a mistake, but that is because they are dogs and not futuristic machines of mass success (or mass destruction).  I can live with that, but when I have a near perfect round (thanks to some good handling advice from a training partner) and 3 jumps from the end I lose it?  I have said it a million times before and I will say it a million times more... my mental game is my weakness.  It has been a New Year's resolution for three years running and a fourth incoming.  I am WAY too stubborn to give up.

Achievement is a relevant thing though isn't it?  I know many people for example in breaking new ground breed wise.  Those individuals that obviously have two truck loads more patience than I do, to train 'non-working/rare/non-agility' breeds and achieve great things in that context.  Those handlers with 'not so speedy' dogs, that set different goals related to consistency.  The very un-athletic amongst us, that 'just want to get there for THAT bit'.  The very courageous that take on rescue dogs with devastating histories, that actually get their dogs to function normally AND do agility.  These achievements mean as much to those handlers as a World Championship means to the competitive among us.  There are those handlers that have all the potential (as handlers) that just cannot find their dogs, or those amazing one in a million dogs that just cannot find their handlers.  But, boy, when it comes together it is a thing of beauty.  A different kind of achievement.  The despair and disappointment that hit us each in the nuts (male or female you know what I am talking about) is just the same for all of us.  Lisa Frick, with double World Champion, Hoss, stole our hearts this year for her amazing attitude and true enjoyment of the sport.  But those people exist at our local trials and training schools too.  Each to his own and please accept them for that.

My very bestest on-line student up to date sent me this inspirational video this week:

This is NOT my video and I do NOT intend any copyright violations.

Just a good principle.  Even though my dogs are my BOYS first and foremost and will always be, even I sometimes lose perspective and whether we like it or not (whether we consider ourselves THE humblest handler on the planet, or whether we tend to let our pride rule), we all need some perspective and inspiration every now and again.  A lot of people I know try to (or pretend to) not be affected by the amazing stories our dogs generate, but this is NOT the right attitude.  Everyone can do with some humility.

I know I am repeating myself, but since this is my blog... that is your problem.  I am loving my on-line students.  M and her Chaos that works SO hard and are so determined.  C and my god-child BC that understand that foundation is everything.  T and her SA Champ that will sacrifice many wins to get it right.  H and the Hungarian that think so carefully about everything.  I do have some slackers of course, that is normal.  But thus far my on-line students work so much harder than the normal 'weekly lesson' bunch, I suppose you have to really commit to on-line training or just lose your money.  Joining a class or a private lesson you get time on equipment, regardless of whether you listen to a coach or not.  Whether they like it or not, my good students inspired my new project.  Analysing Agility.  We all have our strengths in Agility.  We have to recognise those.  It is not pride.   It is reality.  Together with this we have to recognise our weaknesses.

Analysing Agility, the Analytical Solution to your Agility Handling System and Problems, including workbook, will be available in 2012 in e-format.  How exciting is that?  I will also be presenting another on-line course with the release of the e-book. Please contact me if you would like more information.

Proofing... oh hat, proofing.  The small little things we forget from one young dog to the next.  Messages to my dogs 2012 (from youngest to oldest):

Voltenstein, it is public, I am sorry.  You are so phenomenal, and I just forget to proof  the small things.  Just know, I will be focusing on building a relationship with you in the ring just as we have at home.  Sometimes I am bound to be a retard and expect unrealistic things of you, I ask you very nicely not to bite me (even though I deserve it), I know you will try to work with me, but just know sometimes I will fail.  Sometimes we might just not understand each other.  Sh%t happens, but I will try my best for you.

Quake, I know you don't see the world the same way I do.  I will try harder to see your (very warped and WEIRD ASS) perspective as well.

Spaz,  I know you give everything, so do I.  Your everything is just more than mine.

Delta, I will try my best not to get super annoyed when you chase the pizza delivery guy.  He is very friendly, I promise, and I am tired of giving him a 40% tip because of your antics.  And those birds in the garden?  I like having them there, rather chase the rats in the garage, just don't EAT the rats like you do the empty toilet paper rolls.

Echo, my first born boy.  You have not been doing well, I have spent days crying about you.  I hope you see 2012 with me, but I will understand if you can't.  You need to tell me baby boy.  At the moment I am here for you, you don't need to be here for me, you have done that your entire life, it is my turn now.