Thursday, May 26, 2011

Accumulation of Failure

I heard an interesting interview on NPR the other day with a man called Salman Kahn. He's an educator who uses You Tube to tutor students in subjects as diverse as arithmetic and the French Revolution. In explaining why he started this service, he mentioned that since everyone learns at his or her own rate, in a typical classroom setting that could mean that one person misses out on learning, say, 5% of the material and another may miss out on 20% because he or she doesn't learn at the same rate as the rest of the class. So, as those people start their next class they already have a 5% or 20% gap in learning which means they'll probably increase that learning gap as they go along and most likely drop out of class. He called that "an accumulation of failure" and thought it happened in almost every classroom.

This made me wonder about agility group classes and how they're taught. As instructors, are we losing people from the sport because they don't learn at the same rate as the majority of students? I would hate to think that anyone in my classes is dropping out because I can't accommodate their style of learning and yet I know how common it is to have a group class where every team has a different foundation and a different level of experience in dog training. It can be extremely challenging to design a class that will meet everyone's needs.

I also think that it's up to the student to make sure the instructor knows that they feel they're being left behind in some way. Sometimes I'm so focused on getting my point across that I may miss the non-verbal signals the student is sending and I hope all of my students know that my primary interest is in helping them learn the most they can in my classes. And even though I'd want to know if they were having any kind of trouble with my presentation of the material, I also know how hard it is to feel like you're the only one in class somehow "not getting it".

I used to feel that way quite a lot in my college organic chemistry class and when I approached the professor to tell him I was feeling lost, he told me that if I felt that way I probably shouldn't be in the class. At the time I was a returning university student so I was older than most of my classmates and I already felt at a disadvantage due to the lapse of time between my high school chemistry classes and the one I was currently taking. I also knew, because I had had quite a few years in the work force by then, that what he was saying was almost certainly a bunch of bullsh*t :-) I had already learned by that point in my life that if there's something you want to learn, you can learn it given the right teacher.

My next step was to attend the common tutorial sessions offered free of charge by the university. They were some help but there were many students and only one teaching assistant. It really wasn't much help. So I scraped together enough money to hire a tutor and she really tried her best to help me but I still just wasn't getting it so she referred me to another tutor and I will always be grateful she did.

The new tutor was so good at explaining things to me that I actually started to enjoy the class and looked forward to the homework. After several sessions with this tutor I had my second exam of the semester and got a B rather than the D I'd gotten on the first exam. With continued tutoring by this young woman, I was able to start solving problems on my own and I think ended up with an overall B in the class. Of course, what I really got was much more than that. What I really got was the belief that I could learn anything if it was explained in the right way.

That self-confidence has been very useful over the years and I attribute my eventual career in clinical laboratory science to learning that it's all about finding the right teacher. Sometimes you might have to go through several teachers to find the one who can break things down into understandable bits for you and not everyone has the option of choosing between instructors but I'm convinced that the right one is out there if you can just find her.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Agility Handling Class/Turning Cues

Last night my awesome Agility 101 class knocked out a bunch of sequences designed to teach them how to figure out the timing and execution of turning cues. I found these sequences in the April 2010 issue of Clean Run but I first saw them many years ago in a seminar given by Stuart and Pati Mah.

First we talked about the various ways to signal your dog that you're turning and then we discussed the timing of the cues and how it would depend on when the dog was committing to the obstacle (in this case the jump) before the turn itself.

Here are the first two sequences we practiced:

First we did the white numbered sequence which was designed to allow the dog to move in a mostly straight line and then we did the black numbered sequence designed to start to teach the handlers and dogs the differences in handling between running straight ahead and turning. In between doing some of the other sequences we occasionally ran the white numbers to give the dogs an easy sequence to keep them from thinking that every sequence was going to be about turning.

All the handlers did a great job of cuing their dogs by either moving laterally toward #4 as the dog committed to #3 or they used a deceleration cue combined with the dog's name to let their dog know something was different from the previous sequence when they charged down the line to the tunnel.

I love this set up for teaching turning cues because it can be used to alternate between running straight and turning which allows both handler and dog to identify the differences in when they should charge straight ahead and when they should ease of the gas and prepare for a turn.

We also did the mirror image of the black numbered sequence so that both handlers and dogs could practice turning in either direction. Often either the dog or the handler (or both) will have more trouble turning in one direction and it can be really helpful to know which is the "weaker" side so that you can practice a little more on that side.

The next sequence was the one with the white numbers (and its mirror image):

Now the turn is quite different and the cues are different, too. The dog is running much closer to the tunnel for one thing and for another the turn is only about 45 degrees off the dogs straight path. How do you balance needing to turn, being near the tunnel entrance and only needing to bend the line slightly? Well, that takes practice. Every team is different and you need to do these kinds of drills many times with your dog until the moves are automatic and need hardly any thought.

Make sure to balance the sequences when you turn your dog with a sequence where the dog gets to blast straight into the tunnel to keep it fun and to make the handling differences very clear to the dog. When I run fast and hard for the tunnel and give the commands in an excited way, then go as fast as you can. When I decelerate, turn into you a little as we approach the turning jump or move laterally, pay attention and jump round so you can be ready to move in the new direction.

The class was doing so well on all of these (I feel a little like a proud parent when I see how far they've all come in just a few months), we moved on to the last two sequences which were far more challenging due to the wraps and the number of obstacles that the handlers had to remember.

The black numbered sequence came first and didn't pose much of a problem for any of the dogs. the handlers did a great job of showing deceleration between #5 and #6 so the dogs had no trouble wrapping #6 and following the handler over #7 and #8.

Our final sequence was the white numbered one and the handlers all chose to lead out and do a front cross between #3 and #4 followed by another front cross after the tunnel so they could put the dog over #6 and #7, wrapping #7 and then setting a nice line over #8 and then into the tunnel.

I think everyone left feeling like they had a better idea of the differences between how to communicate that a turn was coming and how to tell their dogs to charge ahead at full speed. I thoroughly enjoy teaching this class because everyone in it is so motivated to learn to be a better handler and trainer and that motivates me to be a better teacher.

Thanks, guys!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Thinking About Stress

Seems like lately I'm reading stuff about how hard it is for some dogs to keep their focus and motivation in agility while trialing or in other high distraction situations. Sometimes the dog is just young and so hasn't learned about how much fun agility trials can be but many times it takes some time and effort to get the dog to really love the game. If you think about it, that's not so different from what we experience when we start entering agility trials.

I remember how nervous I was for the first several years after I started trialing. I hadn't had a lot of experience in any kind of competitions (when I was in school the only sport offered for girls was cheerleading and it wasn't the gymnastic sport that it is now, it was quite literally just cheering for the boys' teams. This was before Title 9 and schools weren't required to offer sports for girls.)so I would get so nervous that I couldn't work up enough saliva to swallow and my legs felt like rubber. Although I've been trialing now for 17 years I still get nervous at even small local trials and I doubt that I'll ever be much different.

It makes sense to me that dogs are much like us in that some dogs rarely get nervous while trialing while others get nervous every time they step in the ring. And some dogs are good at hiding it, like me, even though inside they're unfocused and jittery. Unfortunately, we'll never really know for sure how our dogs feel so it seems like it would be wise to assume that they may be more nervous than they appear and give them lots of opportunities to just have fun without any pressure to perform.

But even after they're seasoned agility dogs and have been to lots of big trials, how do we know that they won't develop some stress along the way just because performance is stressful no matter how careful we are to make it fun? It's really hard to deal with all the mental and physical challenges as the handler much less keep your focus on how your dog is feeling.

And then there's the stress of travel which some dogs never get to like no matter how long they do it. I like to travel, I like staying in motels and going to new trials but I have to admit that it's not without some stress. Especially when I'm going to new trial and I'm not sure where it is or what I'll find when I get there. I'm distracted by wondering where I'm going to be able to park or set up. Will I be late? Miss my walk through? Do I have the right clothes for the weather I'll encounter? All these things really detract from my ability to focus on running the course well.

When you really think about it, it's amazing that our dogs are able to focus as well as they do. We aren't aware of all the things our dogs are noticing as we engage in this sport of ours because we aren't walking in their--er--paws. We don't even seen things from the same vantage point or in the same colors. We also don't know what those other dogs are comunicating to our dogs. Maybe our dogs are picking up on the stress of other dogs and other handlers.

I think I'm going to try to be a lot more understanding of my dogs' performances. Not just at trials but also in class and at practice. I think I'll try to cut them as much slack and be as understanding of their mental state as I hope they are of mine :-)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Zodi's Poles

I wanted to post some video of Zodi's weavepole training. It's taken about 20 sessions (each less than 10 minutes in length) to get from no poles to weaving 12 poles with all kinds of entries, crosses and even a jump to those entries and crosses. I've never had a dog that learned 12 poles so easily with that kind of independent performance right from the beginning. And I've never taught weavepoles using 2x2's before but I'm sure I'll use this method again. My next step is to help her figure out her footwork, I think she's going to find single-stepping easier than jumping through but first I have to figure out how to get her to try it. I plan to switch to a set of channels and see if that will get her reaching out a bit. Stay tuned.....

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Training Plans

Now that I've finished trialing for awhile (my next trial won't be until mid-January) I'll have more time to focus on training my dogs. I have lots of plans for each of them.


I really want to re-work Devon's A-frame and dog walk. I think it's too late to teach him a true running contact since he's been doing a stopped one for so long, but I do want him to run through the yellow on his a-frame and possibly his dog walk, too.

To do this on the A-frame I'm going to throw a toy out for him as he comes over the top and use a stride regulator to help him relax and extend as he comes over the top. If he does that, he'll land further down the down ramp which will mean that if he takes just one more stride he'll hit right about in the middle of the contact zone.

For his dog walk I'm going to just encourage lots more speed and drive and not give his "touch" command until he's just starting the down ramp. If he doesn't stop at the bottom, I'm not going to mark it much, just ask him to wait while I lead out and then start running from there. That plan will have to change if he starts leaping off but hopefully he won't get quite that carried away with himself :-)
I'm going to change the teeter from a 2 on/ 2 off to a "go to the yellow, ride it down and come off straight when it hits". That's sort of what he does now except that sometimes he pops off the side, especially if I try to front cross it. I'll be practicing a lot of crosses, both front and rear as well as pushes since those are the easiest for me to do.

I'm also going to be doing some jump grids with Devon in an attempt to help him with his ETS on spread jumps. I also need to work on being able to send him further to tunnels. Because of all the AKC courses we've been doing, he's gotten used to being able to run very close to me which will be a problem on USDAA courses and also means he can only be as fast as I am which ain't that fast :-)

I'm sure I'll think of other things as well, these are just the things that stand out the most. My goal for Devon is to have him running a good bit faster by this Spring. I want to increase his Standard yps by at least 1.5-2.0 seconds right now he's very slow because of his stopped contacts. His Jumpers yps I'd like to increase by 1.0-1.5 secs. If I can get him to work away from me more, I think that should be within his capabilities.


My goals for Zodi are to continue to train her weavepoles so that she's doing 12 and single stepping. She's already doing 6 poles with all kinds of entries, crosses and even allowing me to layer jumps while she weaves. I can't believe how easy and quickly this has been to teach her. I can only assume it has to do with the method I used (Mary Ellen Barry's version of Susan Garrett's 2 x2 method) because this is the first time I've used it and I've never had a dog learn so quickly or well.

I also plan to do more jump grids with her. She really needs a lot of help figuring out where to put all those legs and how to collect. She's very good at extending, though, that shouldn't be a problem. I also need to work more on teaching her the turning cues. She's not bad but it takes her so long to get going in another direction that she's going to need to get those cues pretty far in advance. I'm guessing that learning how to collect will need to go hand in hand with this so that once she knows the turning cues, she can respond appropriately.

I think Zodi should get more trial exposure, too, in easy peasy classes like AKC Novice. I want it to be so easy that she has nothing but fun and positive experiences so she'll learn to love trialing. I may intentionally send her off course just to prevent her from qualifying into Open too soon. It's too easy, in my opinion, to wind up in Excellent with a dog who just isn't ready to be there and that can take a lot of the fun out of it for the handler and the dog. I think it's better to take the time to teach the skills they'll need in Excellent/Advanced/Masters while you're still trialing somewhat below the dogs's abilities.

I'm really looking forward to this break from competing. It's really taken a lot of energy to keep going to trials every weekend on top of a full 40 hour work week plus teaching plus household duties. I know some people who thrive on competition but for for me it's more fun to only trial about once a month. And if I'm not enjoying it, how can I expect my dogs to have fun? So we'll be doing stuff like hiking on the weekends which is my favorite winter activity.

I know many people who get depressed in the winter but for me it's a time of rejuvenation and relaxation. A time to reconnect with family and friends after the busy Fall. I find the cool air exhilarating and love coming in to a warm house after a brisk hike on a cold day. And with fewer trips and trials, there's more time to spend just enjoying the company of my dogs and my thoughts.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Thoughts on Trialing

I've been trialing just about every weekend for the past couple of months so I should probably write an update while things are relatively fresh in my mind.

My goal with Devon this Fall is to qualify him to go to AKC Nationals in VA in March 2011. I've never run a dog in any national competition so I thought it was something I'd enjoy and it's only a 3.5 hour drive at a location I know well from having attended three Clean Run Camps there.

In order to qualify, I need 6 double Q's, one of which I got back in August. My next trial after that was a local USDAA trial so my Q's there didn't contribute to the 5 I still need. Last weekend I trialied at a small outdoor trial in VA and didn't Q at all. I'd like to blame it on the poor footing and unlevel rings but I'm not sure I can. And this past weekend I attended just one day of a CPE trial as a way to test out what would happen if I just ran really hard with him and gave him a lot of forward motion cues. I did see him run faster and happier but I also saw him pop off his contacts and actually bail from the upside of the A-frame.

It's no mystery why he's doing this; it's because I've been quick releasing his 2 on/2 off stopped contacts in an effort to reduce the stress I feel waiting for him to get into position and/or pop off them. The quick realease worked for about 4 trials and then started producing their own stress since he now really has no idea what I want him to do. I thought I could squeak by with this band aid approach to his contacts just long enough to get my 6 QQs and then I was going to take some time off and retrain a managed but moving contact (not a true running contact but not a stopped one either).

But now I don't think it's going to work and I'm in the position of having entered a whole bunch of trials hoping to get the QQs which puts a lot of pressure on me to qualify in standard which isn't good for our contact performance. So now I'm really not sure what to do other than to try to reproduce what I do in trials in practice which is really hard to do unless I can go to drop in classes which is the only time he gets excited enough to pop off the contacts and allow me to figure out if I can mange them somehow.

I'm pretty mad at myself for doing the quick release thing. It's not like I don't know better and couldn't have predicted this happening. It's really due to the pressure I'm putting on myself to get these QQs for the AKC Nationals. I wish they didn't base their qualifying on QQs but they have to have some way to keep the numbers of entries down or you'll have week long Nationals the way USDAA is doing this year.

On a happier note, my Dobe, Zodi had her agility debut this weekend at a CPE trial. I entered her in Jumpers and Standard and was very happy with her performance in Jumpers and about half as happy with her performance in Standard.

Edited on 11/15/10 to add:

I've trialed several times since I first wrote this post and have acheived three more QQ's, not a great success rate but not surprising considering how much pressure I feel to get the Q. I have two more trials to get two more QQs but I don't think I'll be too disappointed if it doesn't happen. I've learned a lot this fall and feel a lot more comfortable trialing than I did. Part of that is just getting more practice and being able to predict what Devon will do as a response to my handling.

And it's not like I was expecting to be really competitive at nationals, I just wanted to go to my first nationals as a participant rather than as a spectator. I think it would be fun and I know Devon would enjoy seeing all those dogs and people. He's such a sociable dog and loves making new friends. But truthfully, I'm not sure I want to spend the money just to get the t-shirt, if you know what I mean. I do think it would be a good experience for me to go and see how I react to that kind of trialing situation--whether or not I actually enjoy it--and to learn first hand how it feels to step to the line at a Nationals.

I've considered withdrawing from the last couple of trials but that was mostly when I wasn't running very well and getting nervous. Now that most of our runs are pretty good, I feel like I'd like to face the challenge of this type of pressure. This weekend I'm going to Charlotte to a large indoor trial and the following weekend I'm flying to Springfield, MA to run in the big Thanksgiving cluster there. Since my sister lives only a couple of hours away and because I can actually stay with family, it's something I've thought about doing for several years. So, I've decided to go for it and let myself committ to trying right up to the last possible run. I think the worst thing that can happen is that I spend some money I don't really need to be spending and the best thing that can happen is that I have a great time and feel successful.