Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Day 4: What Fun We Had!


Dancer's first (long) weekend at Patty's Camp Flyball was a great success, if I do say so myself.  By Day 4, her retrieve was pretty solid, and with lots more speed on the run back (I mean, very nearly pants-o-fire!)  She got along well with Neena and Raffy, and she learned to stay out of Wyatt's way b/c he is absolutely no fun.  And she wrapped my husband securely around her little paw (like we didn't see that coming, right?)  She heads home tomorrow, having made some new friends and taken a few beginner steps down the Flyball lane.

Meanwhile, here is her Graduation Video, from our round of fetch this evening...all the throws I could record--there were actually more than what you see here (so she's apparently okay with repetition...which is something many Kees can't abide):
video


I'm not sure when she'll be able to come back--Judi and I will have to work out that schedule.  But when she does, we'll work on dead ball retrieves (I got lazy and didn't progess to that this weekend), jumps with no height, and turns off the training board on the flat.  Can't wait til she's a year old so we can start the repetitive jumping stuff (wall work, actual box work, u-turns over boxjump, and actual flyball jumps, etc.)
Dancer with green fig, booty from the backyard.

And so, to wrap up this round of blog entries, I'd like to list out what I call:

INSANELY CONSISTENT KEESHOND TRAITS

Dancer is the 5th Keeshond in 16 years to take treats under our roof (granted hers is a temporary stay), and both my husband and I were once again struck with the funny little ways that most Kees possess.  Things like....

1) Vertical leap:  Keeshonden are said to be good dogs for living in small spaces because they "exercise vertically".  And boy, is that ever true.  In the kitchen, bouncing straight up and down in excitement when treats are being dispensed; in the living room, bouncing right over the back of the couch and onto the unsuspecting human's stomach; in the backyard, bouncing up on backlegs to fling chest-first at the opposing dog.

2)  Climbing:  Got a rock wall?  Back of the couch?  Anyplace where the Kees can get higher than the rest of the creatures in its presence?  Well then, the Kees will go there, nimble as a little mountain goat.

3)  Perching on human heads/shoulders:  This is part of #2, I suppose.  When a Kees gets tired of prancing around on the back of the couch, they're likely to perch on the head or shoulders of any human sitting there.

4)  Sleeping on cold, hard surfaces:  If there's a lovely dog bed sitting right next to the cold stone hearth, the Kees will invariably choose the hearth.  Or the linoleum floor.  Or the wood floor.  Even better is to lie frog-dog over the A/C vent when it's blowing cold air.  I suppose when you carry your own fluffy bed wrapped permanently around your body, you have little use for additional padding and warmth.
Dancer "snuggles up" on the hearth.

5)  Licking human feet:  Okay, so what in the heck is up with this one?  This is not just a "oh, look, your foot...lick, lick...done."  This is:  "See foot--must lick--can't...stop...licking...nom, nom, nom."  This one drives me crazy because I just don't like soggy toes, plus I'm ticklish!  So stop already!

6)  Fast Twitch Muscles:  These guys have the quickest reflexes I've ever seen.  They're like rattlesnakes (only fuzzier, and not scary).

7)  Laughing:  Kees do that loud panting thing that some say is dog laughter, and they do it A LOT.  These guys are almost always smiling and laughing, and when they're not, it's just because they're getting ready to smile and laugh.
Raffy says, "Mom, I like this pretty girl a LOT!"

So until next time, Dancer and I wish you lots of Keesie laughter and Keesie kisses (except, not to the feet...nope, nope, nope....)

Monday, May 27, 2013

Day 3: Solid Retrieve, a Bit More Enthusiasm

Day 3 of retrieve training brought even more success!  Dogs like this little girl make me feel like I'm a better trainer than I really am.  I know this to be true, trust me.  Just because I know HOW to train a dog in this sport doesn't mean I'm always successful.  (Ask me about Boca sometime.)

And it's no wonder she's doing so well.  Dancer is a Kidkees puppy, bred by Kathy Gray and co-owned by Kathy and Judi James.  Her parents are mama Sprite, CH Kidkees Makes Me Giggle RN and dad Ash, CH Cascadia Once in a Blue Moon RA NA NAJ.  Kidkees has dogs who perform in agility, obedience, and rally.  Dancer's great-gran Bonnie is a therapy dog and crisis response dog.  So I think it's safe to say we can expect great things from this little girl!

My hope to get her running back to me with a little more speed was realized.  I did tweak the reward a bit--both Terry (my husband) and I noticed that she loves the cut up pieces of "dog log" treats, so I put those in the treat ball and used them to reward her.  Well, what a difference the right reinforcer makes!  Whereas the day before she was kind of just phoning it in, this kicked things into a bit higher gear.  She began running back with more speed and enthusiasm, plus she was hanging onto the ball the whole way and dropping it at my feet.  Score!!!
video


Since Dancer's retrieve is coming along far ahead of schedule, I'd like to take up the rest of today's blog space with some of my thoughts on...

PLAYING FETCH WITH FLYBALL DOGS.

I've heard that some of the top trainers in Flyball discourage people from playing fetch with their Flyball dogs because it makes for a lazy return--the dog dashes out after the ball, and then lollygags its way back.  And yes, in ball-loving dogs that pattern does happen.  Watch Wyatt playing fetch, and that's exactly what you'll see.  However, I have never experienced this causing a problem with my dogs in Flyball.  The dogs who don't love balls are getting a reward for fetching the ball in our backyard game--the ball isn't the reward, the cheese is the reward. The sooner they get the ball back to me, the sooner the cheese happens, so it doesn't take them long to figure out it's in their best interest to get their fluffy butts back to me!

What about the ball-lover?  Well, Wyatt's return run to me in the Flyball lanes has always been just a hair faster than his run to the box, despite the opposite performance in our twice daily games of fetch.  I believe there are two reasons for this:  1) Dogs don't generalize.  For Wyatt, the fetch we play in the yard is a completely and totally different game from the Flyball we play in the lanes.  2) When playing Flyball, I reward Wyatt for running back to me, and that reward is always something he likes just slightly more than the ball he gets from the box, so yeah, he gets his fluffy butt back to me as quickly as possible!  When we play fetch in the yard, I allow the thrown ball to be his reward because he just loves it so much.  And since the fetch game is being played for fun (and exercise) for the dogs, I'm happy to let him play it in whatever way he prefers.

On the other hand, I do believe that our fetch games can help lay the foundation for some other important Flyball skills.  Obviously, the RETRIEVE aspect of fetch is a good Flyball skill.  Flyball is, at its core, just a fancy dead ball retrieve, which is why the first skill I wanted Dancer to learn was a retrieve.  Granted, she doesn't have a dead ball retrieve yet (by dead ball retrieve, I mean the dog drives out to get a ball that's not moving--that hasn't been thrown), but it's pretty easy to transition from a moving ball retrieve (fetch) to a dead ball retrieve.

In our backyard fetch games, the dogs are also learning NOT TO CHASE the other dogs who are fetching their balls.  Obviously, this is not something that a single dog playing fetch with its owner will learn.  But when we play, there are three or four dogs involved.  Each time I introduce a new dog, if it seems inclined to chase the others (and let's face it, they ALL are so inclined), I restrain them until I can trust that they'll wait their turn.  When all the dogs I'm playing with are familiar with our fetch rules, you'll see me throw the ball for the first dog (Wyatt), and you'll see the other two or three dogs staying by me, barking and hopping around with excitement, but still waiting for their ball to be thrown.

The final foundation skill that I believe starts in our fetch games is PASSING.  In Flyball, dogs have to pass right by each other, as one dog exits the lane and the other starts its run.  Both dogs are running at full speed, running past each other virtually shoulder to shoulder, but completely ignoring each other in the process.  We spend a lot of time working with dogs to get them to the point of being able to do this completely unnatural behavior, and for many dogs it's the single hardest part of their training.  But in my backyard, Neena runs right past Wyatt as she races to get her ball, then on her return, she runs past Raffy as he races to get his ball.  And now Dancer is running straight past Raff, as she runs out and he's running back.  They learn that the game being played has nothing to do with the other dogs--it has everything to do with that ball and with getting back to me.

Having just stated that "dogs don't generalize", how can I now claim that behaviors in fetch can transfer to the Flyball lanes?  I guess I should revise my comment to say, "Dogs don't generalize, people do."  That is to say, with deliberate effort, we get our dogs ultimately to generalize all of the time.  The retrieve is a skill that we will deliberately transfer to the lanes, just like we can deliberately transfer a "sit" from the kitchen to the backyard to the Obedience ring.  But no, dogs don't typically generalize all on their own.

In terms of not chasing and passing, I look at fetch as part of the overall process of desensitization that we do with our Flyball dogs.  And doing that twice a day in a distracting environment can only help the dog's performance in the lanes, in the long run.


Sunday, May 26, 2013

Day 2: Houston, we have a retrieve!

What a lovely combination of things went into the success we had yesterday, Day 2 of Dancer's retrieve training.  First, she's smart AND clicker-savvy, extremely well socialized, and still has a good amount of puppy toy drive (for a Kees).  Second, she really likes the treat ball that I made for her, so it's no trouble keeping her interested in it.  Third, I was able to capitalize on the serendipitous retrieve she gave me at the end of Day 1, and given her clicker-savvy-ness she was apparently able to figure out pretty quickly why I suddenly threw her that champagne party, and she was happy to make it happen again!
video
This was the only video I could get yesterday...it's hard to throw a ball and run a camera at the same time! Not her best effort, but if you look closely, you can see she carries the ball for maybe 10 feet.

We went out to play fetch, and again I restrained her while I threw for the other dogs, then I threw her ball and she brought it back about 2/3 of the way.  Whoot!  Another champagne party.  With each successive throw, she brought it back a little further.  Because she's still so young, occasionally she would just forget the whole thing:  run out after the ball, hear the neighbor's dog bark, lose her train of thought, and run back to me empty-handed.  Empty-mouthed.  We'd come far enough along that I did not reward those puppy moments.  Just ignored them and set up for another throw.  By the end of our morning session, she was bringing the ball about 3/4 of the way to me and even threw in a couple of recoveries from puppy moments:  get distracted, lose track of the ball, but before running back to me, stand completely still for a few seconds (smoke pouring from her ears), find her ball, and come trotting back with it in her mouth as if to say, "Yeah, I got this!"

At that point, she was getting 5 little bites of cheese for bringing it 3/4 way back to me, nothing for nothing, and one or two bites of cheese for stuff in between.  I was also noticing that she did far better if I stayed very quiet and almost completely ignored her while she was getting the ball and heading back to me.  If I called or cheered her on, it seemed to break her concentration and she'd drop the ball completely.  And once she dropped it, there was no recovering, no recuing...it was over for that round.

I didn't bother with any bathroom sessions because we were coming along so nicely, and because I'm LAZY.  Instead, we sprinkled a few play sessions throughout the day, like this one with Neena...and may I just say hooray for another way to wear out Neena!!!
video
These chase games actually go on for 3 minutes or so at a time, and usually occur in clusters of two or three, so they really do wear themselves out.  So awesome.  She and Raffy have been playing, too, but I haven't been able to get that on video yet.  I'm going to keep trying--two Keeshonden playing together is very fun to watch.  Lots of butt-fighting, much more vertical play, and all very muffled by their fluff.

In our afternoon fetch session, things only got better.  I still had to be "vewy vewy qwiet" while she was doing the work, but in no time she was BRINGING THE BALL ALL THE WAY BACK TO ME.  Plus, I was able to stop rewarding anything less than 1/3 of the way back.  And she was recovering faster from her puppy moments, so I knew that the retrieve was actually deliberate, albeit a little slow and tentative. 

The plan for the rest of the weekend is to solidify this retrieve, and see if I can make it strong enough so that I can make a little noise and/or make other efforts to speed up her run back.  I'm fairly sure a better reward would help a lot, so I might need to pull out the big guns:

Raffy's Chicken Parmesan Re-Treats
(when you need to get Mr. Bubblehead back to you in a hurry!)*1 chicken breast, boiled, then pureed in a food processor w/enough broth to make it the
consistency of canned dog food
*2 eggs
*1 t garlic powder
*2 T parmesan cheese
*1 1/2 c whole wheat flour (more, if needed, to make the dough stiff)
Mix together well. Press into greased 9" x 13" pan. Bake at 250 degrees for 30 - 35 minutes. Cut into desired size pieces and refrigerate or freeze.

But all in good time.  I'm also, on the side, going to see if I can get her tugging and do some rear-end awareness games.  Can't hurt, right?  I'm really trying to take what I learned with Raffy and build on it.  Raff would only run for cheese, and never really knew how to use his back legs.  Wouldn't it be a kick in the head if I could train up a Flyball Kees who ran for a tug and who had a solid 4 paw swimmer's turn, driving off the box with her strong back legs?  A girl can dream.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Day 1 - Assessment and Making a Start

Every morning and afternoon, I play fetch with my dogs.  It's great exercise, and they love it.  So to determine our starting point, I took Dancer out with Wyatt, Neena, and Raff to see what she did.  I threw Wyatt's ball first, and no surprise, Dancer chased after him when he ran for it.  In the next round, I restrained Dancer while I threw for the other three, and then I tossed a ball for her.  She ran after it with enthusiasm, sniffed it where it landed, and then ran back to me--no retrieve.  We repeated this for the remainder of the morning round, same pattern each time.

This exercise told me two things:  1) we could have a chasing problem if I'm not careful; and 2) I'd need to start with Retrieving 101.

My version of Retrieving 101 is based on Shirley Chong's excellent article, Shirley's Retrieve.  I've modified it for my own purposes, of course.  Because I'm training for a ball retrieve, I use a ball.  And because I'm a lazy cheater, and I'm dealing with a dog who didn't come out of the womb believing that tennis balls are THE BOMB, I cut open a tennis ball and put treats into it.  This makes it a ball even a Kees will love!
I make a straight cut so that it can be pinched open like an old fashioned coin purse, and then I take a notch out of one side so that it's easier for the dog to smell/hear/access the treats inside.

Then, armed with my clicker, I take the treat ball and the dog into a very boring place.  I want this ball to be the most interesting thing in the room--I don't want to fight to gain her attention.  So Dancer and I headed into the bathroom, of course!

Because I'm ultimately working toward a dead ball retrieve, I started by training Dancer to pick up the ball from the ground (Shirley's article has you start with the dog taking the object from your hand.)  And because I wanted to emphasize the awesomeness of the ball in the beginning, I rewarded her with treats from the ball itself.

My criteria heading into the bathroom for our first session was to click and treat any interaction with the ball.  So I set it down in front of her, and of course she nosed it, and she got a treat.  When she was deliberately and reliably nosing the ball (after about 10 reps or so), I started delaying the click a little bit, to see if I could frustrate her into being a bit more aggressive with it.  And it worked!  By the end of our first session, she went from quick nose touches to open-mouthing the ball.  We were in the bathroom for probably less than 5 minutes.

That afternoon, we went back for round 2.  This time, I wanted to see if I could get her to pick up the ball, even for a second.  She did very well!!  Here's video of that second session (the barking and whining you hear in the background in Neena, upset at being left out.)  Later that afternoon we went out for our second round of fetch with the whole gang, and boy did I get a surprise!  You can see that surprise at around 3:31 mark on the video.
video

 
She brought the ball back to me about 2/3 of the way!  Huge jackpot, big party!!  I felt really good about our first day.  She's a little smarty, and being Judi's dog, she's already clicker-savvy, so that makes things ten times easier.  And it doesn't hurt that she's cute and very fun to have around!


Friday, May 24, 2013


On October 31, 2012, our 8 year old Keeshond, Raff, ran out of the backdoor and straight into a tree trunk (no doubt with an assist from his loving Aussie brother, Wyatt), exploding a disc in his neck and severely bruising his spinal cord--nearly ending his life, and utterly destroying his Flyball career.  In the months following, he has come back from paralysis to being able to run and play, but he will never run Flyball again.  So while I am beyond grateful that he is still with us, that I did not lose my Raffy on that day, I do still mourn the loss of running a Keeshond in Flyball.  At the time of his accident, Raff was the #3 active Keeshond in the North American Flyball Association...a distant 3rd, but still!  Considering that there are usually no more than 5 Keeshonden doing Flyball in all of North America at any given time, having a Flyball Kees is a rare and special thing, and I enjoyed that silly little status.

Raff wasn't my only Flyball dog, so his accident did not end MY Flyball career.  Wyatt, my 9 year old Australian Shepherd, is what many would consider a REAL Flyball dog. 
He has his ONYX, his best time ever was a 4.01, and even as he approaches retirement, he can run a full-time position on a team, and his times are consistently below 5 seconds.  But given his age, I did adopt a new little girl to be my next REAL Flyball dog. 

Enter Neena, the ACD JRT mix, psycho girl, who learned a rock solid swimmer's turn in about 4 weeks.
 
While I'm apparently all set to have many more years of Flyball happiness ahead of me, neither Neena nor Wyatt (as you may have noticed) are Keeshonden.  Not even close.  Both of them have a natural ball drive (not too much, not too little...just right), both of them love running and playing, both of them find playing with ME to be the best thing ever.  They're both smart and up for a game of, well, pretty much whatever I've got going on at any moment.  These are herding dogs.  Break two of their legs, and they'll still keep running.  Getting them to stop is more of a challenge than anything else!  But is that really a challenge?  Not in my book.

Give me a dog that could care less about a ball.  Give me a dog that would rather go play in a swimming pool on a hot day, leaving his handler alone in the lanes, embarrassed and ashamed.  Give me a dog that presents every Flyball training issue known to man (won't retrieve, prefers to go around the jumps, wants to chase the other dogs, won't hold up their swimmer's turn without props, etc.), and will make up a few new problems while their at it.  Meet Dancer!
 
Dancer belongs to my friend, Judi James, who owns the training facility where my Flyball team trains.  She is also Raff's breeder and a long-time Kees fancier.  She is generously allowing Dancer to stay with us this summer for a series of Flyball Summer Camp weekends.

Now, I should qualify those previous statements. I have no idea if Dancer will present me with all of those problems--just because that's what I faced with Raffy doesn't mean that Dancer will do the same. However, she currently does not retrieve balls, so we're off to a good start. And given the Keeshonden are known for embarrassing their handlers in every dog sport they've ever participated in (Kees people refer to this as the Keeshonden sense of humor...yeah, freakin' hysterical it is), I think it's safe to say that Dancer will give me a run for my money. Am I the trainer I think I am? We're about to find out!

Let the games begin!