First things first, this week’s Three Dog Blog will be featuring Trouble as our stand in third dog to give you some insight into how the end of an agility career does not mean that brain training and learning new skills has to stop. Secondly, some exciting news this week, with Lexi receiving an invitation to the Team GB pre-selection qualifier in February 2021. For those of you who are unsure about what this actually means, our place in the British Open Final at Crufts earlier this year, has gained me an automatic spot to compete in this qualifier, where the agility Team GB management observe the partnerships in action and may select new dogs for the development squad. This is a huge achievement and everything I have ever wanted for Lexia, but I am waiting to see how I feel about actually competing in an event where she will have to jump at Large rather than Intermediate. In either case, I have filled out the form so the option is available, and even if we go no further than this event, it would be an incredible experience nonetheless to run her on what I’m sure will be fast, flowing and challenging international level courses.
At present, Lexi’s training is still being centered on short sequencing and body conditioning, with particular attention to rear end awareness. This is hugely important for any active or competitive dog and I often try and encourage my students to follow it up outside of lessons as a way of ensuring an understanding of control and balance on obstacles like the dogwalk and seesaw, where it is really important that the dogs are fully engaging their whole body. What this has entailed in my training at home is revisiting Lexia’s existing skills, such as the trick of walking backwards, but trying to increase the distance, having her rotate with planted front feet, forcing her to use the back legs to drive the turn, as well as slower exercises through the ladder that encourage her to split her legs. The leg splitting is particularly important as I continue to push her for a faster dogwalk, so that when she’s running it properly, she shouldn’t be putting her back feet together and pushing off the contact in a small jump, but travelling all the way through to the ground. Those of you looking into running contacts with young dogs or older dogs, should definitely investigate and put some time towards gaining a better understanding of how dogs need to use all their legs and the benefits of feet splitting. Additionally, I have followed through with some more surface enrichment, which essentially comes down to her performing a standing stack using items that are less familiar, and thus may be slightly deterring. As a dog who has always been funny about her feet, her progress in this area is what I am most proud of. In terms of agility, this week I have focused on distance handling, which has been a strength for Lexi for many years, though she hasn’t always been so attuned to listening to the commands. Using a couple of challenges that I found from Russia and Sweden, I ensured that she was still driving away from me, whilst maintaining enough verbal contact to successfully guide her through the more difficult aspects of each course. This was huge amounts of fun and I would challenge any of my existing students of grade 5 or above to give them a go.
Meg had a crack at the layering challenge, and both Lesley and I were hugely impressed by how she picked it up. In general, I tend to run closer to Meg, working myself quite hard but still utilising sending and collecting methods so that she does drive away from me, but I had never before tested how much verbal independence she could cope with. While it took a couple of tries to piece the exercise together and a small amount of added assistance in one area, after about five minutes she was able to fully commit herself to the course without my being right on top of her at every obstacle. This is a massive victory for a dog that can be relatively argumentative when lacking assistance from the handler. To see how her comprehension has grown so much in the short time that we have been back working together is wonderful, and it means I can continue to push her forwards into more complicated training. Her weaves this week have also gone up another level. While she still has a small amount of overzealous bouncing towards the last couple of poles, we were able to take her up to twelve and send her through to the end, with minimal assistance from the handler. Her speed continues to increase, which I hope will encourage her to keep her head down and look for the next pole, but I am still searching for options that I can utilise to encourage that behaviour by itself. Still, we may make a real agility dog of her yet.
For those of you who don’t know him, Trouble is my Shetland Sheepdog, who I have had since I was nine. He retired from agility relatively early on due to an issue with his back that I think he picked up on his grand misadventure into the world. Still, at twelve years old, he is very much enjoying his life of relative luxury as a dog of the house. Trick training Trouble can be relatively difficult as he is VERY food oriented and will not hesitate to try and mug you for any treats, making his displeasure known at the withholding of such goods in a particularly unwelcome shrill vocalisation (read: classic sheltie behaviour.) But, after last year when he had a minor stroke that has left him ever so slightly lopsided and unbalanced, despite the pain it causes my eardrums, I like to take some time every now and then to test his coordination and try and regain some of his old balance. This week, I used a small box that he had to get all four feet into, and propped the yoga ball against stationary surfaces for him to balance on. The latter was far more difficult for him, due to the issues with his head tilt, but it is more beneficial for him to work through the wobble, try and get his head straight and engage his core. Despite him being an old dog, these are all skills that I recommend teaching to young dogs, puppies, or those currently competing. You may have seen that Trouble featured in a couple of our lockdown training videos and does remember some of his agility skills which was lovely for me, and I’m sure, entertaining for you, so he is still very much happy, healthy and physically fit despite his multitudes of mishaps and I think I can easily say that this has been due to a life as a working dog.
In next week’s post I will get into more of a discussion about what agility actually means to me, and how I’ve come to adapt with the sport and grow to really love it in the past few years, alongside how this is reflected in the kind of training that I do for myself and for my students.
See you soon!