Thursday, July 14, 2011

Training the Broad Jump

I've been working on Dustin's broad jump lately, as one of the Graduate Novice and Open exercises, partly because it's good for both our fitness levels and partly because he finds jumping to be fun. I like to be a couple of exercises ahead of our actual titles, so we'll go into the Novice ring pretty soon with some Open exercises already in progress. Besides, the broad jump is in the yard, nice and available, and we can work a couple of jumps a day.

We started with a couple of boards broad way out, so they didn't look like something to walk on, very narrow, so he could just hop over. We had a target in a straight line from his sit through the middle of the jump, and he went to the target, or I stood in that spot and had him come to me. He already has some idea that "jump" means "don't go around" from other work.

From there I started making the jump a little bigger and putting more of the boards in their flatter configuration. After a week or so, I now only have to put the leading board edge-up to remind him what to do, and he'll sail over the full distance very nicely.

If I put the leading board flat, though, he suddenly re-interprets the exercise. He's quite nimble and quite able to trot along with his feet neatly hitting the center of each board, and he's such a show-off he's very proud of being able to do this. I'm half-pleased. He knows where his back feet are, which is oddly rare in shepherds, and this means he spends a lot less time planting them on my toes. However, that's not a jump.

And I find myself saying things like, "On what planet is that a jump?" as I take him back around and put the lead board back up again. He, of course, has not answered me, and if he does, we have a whole new area of communication to explore.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Tracking on a Retractable

This morning I laid and ran a short track for Dustin -- it's getting too hot too early to do much work, but he had an eighty-pace track (plus bonus stretch) with several turns and a couple of different surfaces. I walked on a low balance beam for part, for instance, which gave him no particular problem. Some of the grass was short enough to be nearly bare earth, some quite tall, as the neighbor mows more religiously and more thoroughly than I do. Articles were cloth start; metal, plastic and paper in the middle; a leather/cloth wallet to end formally, and twenty more paces to a tennis ball -- which he also treated formally. This is, after all, the dog who will lie down and stare at a food bait instead of gobbling it.

He's not working perfectly footprint-to-footprint, but he is getting pretty clear on the concept of working closely. This is good enough for AKC tracking rules. He is gradually learning I don't like him to get distracted. He's weirdly sensitive to pressure on the tracking line for a dog who will merrily drag me everywhere on his leather collar and a walk. Right now I'm working him on a retractable leash, which puts very little pressure on his harness. If he is clearly dinking around, I can just give the handle a shake and convey just enough wiggle to let him know I've noticed, and that's just enough to wake him up and get him back to work. If he's feeling confident, he can get well out in front of me, and if he's not he can fall back without entanglement. We're both pretty happy with the retractable as a training tool.

I apologize for the lack of pictures. My hands are full, and the kid is still too young to take good ones.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Getting Motivated

Thanks to the German Shepherd Dog Club of Atlanta and its Versatility program (not to be confused with the AKC Versatile Companion Dog titles), I'm feeling motivated to get off the couch and work the dog now and again.

This copy is slightly out-of-date, I think. The copy for this year included the optional titles in Obedience. This turns Obedience into the great spot to get points, it looks like. It's not completely un-doable to charge in with the CGC, then pick up the full sweep of seven titles -- assuming, of course, that your dog can do all the exercises. It wouldn't hurt to throw in the Rally titles as an excellent place to practice heeling with lots of upbeat chitchat and fun.

Tracking and Herding are the big instinct outlets for German Shepherd Dogs, of course. Once upon a time, the forebears of the breed pushed the sheep out to pasture, kept them in line without fences all day, searched out and brought back any sneaky strays, then pushed them all home again and rounded up the children. Now we have to get formal. In an ideal world, C course herding (tending) would be easier to find, but we have to pretend our dogs are designed for chute-and-gate work instead. The other big outlet for shepherdy drives is Working Dog Sport, which involves tracking, obedience, and protection work. The national breed club still supports it, but the AKC does not.

The remaining AKC performance category is Agility, which most dogs love much as most children love a playground. It takes a solid, sound body, so it's a good idea to have the OFA certification on hips and elbows before getting too heavily involved. Puppies, though, are happy enough to learn the contacts and to step over a little jump. It's a good idea to teach as much precision as you can cram into your shepherd's head before you try to speed up, as most of them seem to want to run wild over every square foot of the equipment -- including parts that were never meant to contain a dog! Sunny, gonzo gal that she was, liked to jump between the tire jump and its supports rather than through the tire. You lose qualifying runs that way.

A huge portion of the Versatility program rewards health testing and responsible ownership. Microchipped? One point. Health test made public regardless of result? Point. Altering an animal you deem unlikely to improve the breed if it passes on its genes? Point. While getting the particular point profiles to match the club's title descriptions isn't easy, getting a decent point total isn't terribly hard if you actually do stuff with your dog. Your dog can even pick up a point by living past the age of ten. An altered ten-year old rescue with a microchip and a CGC qualifies for the club's Versatility Started certificate.

Dustin also qualified for a certificate, but I am feeling ambitious, or greedy, or motivated, or all three. I tell my husband titling the dog doesn't cost that much more than a gym membership. He tells me that he'd rather I had the gym membership, but I can carry the kid in a backpack while I lay and run tracks, or do obedience, or teach basic agility. He'd get squished if I did bench presses with him in there.

So, we're tracking. We're herding when possible. We're jumping at height, now that the hips and elbows are clear. And believe it or not, we're even working obedience, though the dog is in it for the cheese and it's not my favorite school subject either. My son is learning hand signals.

If you live in the area and have a shepherd, come join the club -- and me! We can get into a happy and productive title war.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Tracking Report

Today's tracks for Bruce and Dustin were about three hours old -- which I hadn't intended, but I was researching stud dogs. We worked in fairly hot sun for most of both tracks, and the garbage truck came through at the end of the first.

Dustin worked his track well from a flag with no article beside it, indulged in only a little dinking around, and did something interesting. Apparently at some point in the past we missed a plastic article (a discount card from Orschelin, if you happen to wonder) and I walked a few feet from it today. He detoured off the track and dropped on it. However, all the bitsies near the road, which I had never touched, he ignored. The scent on the thing had to be at least a week old, but he could still tell the difference. He did totally blow the end of the track, which was perhaps twenty feet from the garbage truck and the strange young man throwing large sticks around, so we hung out and watched for a bit. And, of course, being a boy, he had to pee at the man and the truck.

Bruce was somewhat distracted by lingering odor of strangers, but he seems to have the general tracking concept. He still hates to stop for articles, though. Even as food-motivated as he is, he'd rather SNIFF. This is a good thing if I can ever get it properly shaped.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The New Training Page

Hey, loyal readers! There is now a website for Sun Treader puppy training. It includes links to several other information sources, including Glendhenmere Kennels, the West Kentucky and Atlanta German Shepherd Dog clubs, and an informative article on dog breeding. On the Contact page is a link to Dekalb County Animal Services with a picture of one of their adoptable puppies. Enjoy!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Tracking and Herding

We're getting back to our instinct outlets at last!

Dustin's run a couple of 75-pace tracks lately, one with four articles, one with just one at the end. He's doing them well, and I think we're ready to start doing longer work at last. His concentration is better. He's also finally getting over his pine-needle hangup.

After Sunny died, the last place he smelled her away from home was at a local dog park, where she'd loafed on pine needles the week before. Since then, he wouldn't work them. Just wouldn't. He didn't mope the last few times I tried, but just wandered off dinking around. Finally I phooeyed him, put him back on the line, and gave him a really high-value treat for completing the track which had ended under the pines. Now I randomly use the higher-value treat at the end of some tracks and he works wherever I put him.

We're also going to get back to non-grass surfaces pretty soon. He's used to driveway crossings, but working along a sidewalk is something else again. Training Sunny, I gave her a couple of tracks laid barefoot with twig-sized scent articles in the sidewalk cracks, and that appeared to work. The best articles appeared to be foil gum wrappers rolled up to toothpick size, which slipped in well, were overlooked by local custodians, and weren't too hard to remove.

Bruce is also getting back to his tracking, to his delight. I'm still trying to get through to him that it's good to stop at the articles. He happily goes from footprint to footprint and keeps right on going past anything that might earn him a treat. It won't be a problem to take him to greater distances, but I'd really like to be certain he'll find the final wallet or glove and let me know about it, rather than carrying on through the tracklayer's subsequent motions and then barking furiously upon finding him or her.

And Dustin and I are also herding again. He's getting taken back to the very beginning of all things, in hopes of improving his outrun and getting rid of his overflanking, and in hopes also of getting him to stop working brilliantly for a puppy and start just plain working brilliantly. Besides, (confession time!) his handler has forgotten a lot.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Herding Sheep

Dustin and I went to work sheep for the first time in months and the second time in a couple of years -- poor dog. We used to go several times a week.

This time we went to a different farm with a different variety of sheep, smaller than we were used to and much, much faster. They wouldn't let Dustin work in his usual method, which resembles something out of the movie Babe, cuddling up to them and whispering his directions into their ears. We spent a certain amount of time racing up and down a very hot long pen before Dustin settled to his satisfaction that these were stupid sheep, he wasn't going to get near them, and he could still control them through action at a distance. Once he got the hang of being able to move them from fifty feet away, in fact, he seemed to rather like it. For the first time in his life, he could tell that "Walk up" meant, as I told him, "Not me, them!" because I wasn't anywhere near the silly creatures either.

Most people who try to trial on sheep use a lot of Scottish (or, given how German most German training commands really are, pseudo-Scottish) phrases like "Away to me!" and "Come bye!" when they're working. Most people then forget which is which, or stand there yelling out "Way! Stay! Lay!" and wondering why the dog isn't obeying those three loud Ay!s from a hundred yards off. Dustin and I do try to learn our ways and byes, but we do far better if I tell him what I want in plain English. "Bring 'em. Put 'em there," with a point of the stick, generally gets me a flock of sheep brought up to me and then stuck wherever "there" might be. Pushing the dog over this way, then over that way, as though the sheep are a little ball bearing I'm trying to trap in a hole by tipping the field, generally gets me sheep everywhere, an annoyed dog who figures it's all my fault with perhaps some justice, and a laughing coach leaning on the fence.

I say cooperation works best, regardless of linguistic origins. It's not like the dog cares whether I command him in English, German, or Choctaw. If he were herding German-style, there would be very few commands or large gestures. Too, if I'm just saying "Push 'em through there," I tend to say it calmly, which the dog and sheep all respond to. Come to think of it, so do herding judges.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Craigslist Pets: How (Not) to Re-home Your Pet

I posted a dog-training ad on Craigslist yesterday and made the mistake of browsing what else shows up in pet-related pages. And when I say mistake, I mean HUGE mistake.

Mother German Shepherd and her eleven puppies, $300 for all, must go now. Purebred this. Mixed that. Mixed this mixed with mixed that. "Ever occur to you to get her spayed, idiot?" posted elsewhere. Nine week old puppy needs a new home because owner moved to a place with no fence -- how much time did you have to do that? There's a shortage of houses for sale all of a sudden, and you had to take the fenceless one? In the space of a week?

If you need to "rehome" your purebred dog, call the breeder first. If you went to anyone worthy of the title, you signed a contract to do exactly this. If you don't call, then you're in breach of contract, and the breeder could conceivably sue you. Breeders who really are breeders care deeply about where their dogs end up.

If you need to find a home for anything alive, and you don't have someone to take it back, make it too pricy for snake food or pit-bull bait. Never, ever, ever, post an animal as free. Nobody else will assign a higher value to your animal than you did.

Try the newspaper. Yes, you have to pay for the ad, but the person reading it had to pay for the paper or visit a library. Call it a basic test for means and/or literacy of your intended purchaser. Try your friends -- they're friends for a reason, I hope.

If you think a dog needs a fenced yard, and you don't have a fenced yard, don't get a dog. If you have a dog and you think he needs a fenced yard, get a fenced yard. Don't have a big surprise on your hands because you didn't think.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Adventures in Raw Diet

Recently I visited a couple of friends whose dogs herd, show, and other such splendid activities. Their dogs looked amazing, and both friends insisted that I should try what they were doing – feeding their dogs nothing but raw meat.

I have four dogs. Three of them look fine: the old-as-dirt rescue McCoy, the ten-year-old rescue Tasha, and Bruce, the mutt from under the junk heap who is now two. The fourth is glossy, active, and underdeveloped, looking to be at that gangly foolish age when in fact he should be well-matured and storming the show ring and the herding trials. His Royal Highness Dustin is a picky eater, a chronic anorexic, and generally a fellow of strong opinions.

I had given all of them raw meat before, usually as a special treat or a toothbrush – raw chicken necks are supposed to be excellent plaque removers. Three of them buzzed through chicken necks at first sight. I put Dustin’s in the left front corner of his crate and a few minutes later found him crammed into the right rear corner, lamenting softly that there was something gross in his crate and his Mama didn’t love him anymore. He’s a bigger dog now, and more gastronomically adventuresome than he was, so I tried again today with some lovely meaty skeleton-hunks which had had the breast trimmed off.

Everyone but Tasha got these things in crates, as then I knew exactly where to bleach-wipe afterward: exactly on the spot which is already spit-shined. Tasha got hers in the kitchen, where the tile is easily wiped, as she is both too good-mannered and too arthritic to drag her chicken off under the bed. Today she moseyed in for breakfast in a most pitiful manner, as though her arthritis medicine was the low point of her day and really, nothing I could feed her would be entirely worth the trip. I checked her for actual injuries before feeding her, then put down the dishful of chicken.

She stared. She wagged. She went to town.

McCoy and Bruce responded similarly: Is this really for me? It’s in my bowl. Better gobble it down before the kitchen realizes there was a mistake!
I suspected that Dustin would have nothing to do with the thing, so I added kibble to his options, stirring in a little canned food and yogurt, both of which he loves. I tossed his breakfast into his crate with him and went back to check on Tasha’s progress.

Tasha was crunching contentedly on the last of the chicken. She hung around for some time, plainly hoping for more, as though there might be some on the counter that she hadn’t been notified about and if she stared long enough it would materialize in her dish. Usually she is my husband’s dog and barely offers me the time of day. Today we were good friends.

Dustin, on the other hand, did not eat his chicken. He did not eat kibbles touching the chicken. He did not eat kibbles which were touching kibbles touching the chicken. Now a fully mature dog, he no longer whines on the subject of love or of ickiness. His message was quite clear: Waiter! The kitchen forgot to cook this!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Canine Nose Work, Continued

The dogs have become big fans of sniffing birch, anise, and clove. Last night I worked the boys on not just sitting in the general vicinity but actually poking the scent source. Three iterations each, three pieces of cheese each.

This morning Bruce brought his ball in and dropped it instead of bringing it to me for a cookie. "Where's your ball, Bruce?" I asked. He disappeared.

I asked again. He popped back into the room, then disappeared. I followed him and found him in a sit a couple of feet from his ball. "Where is it?" I repeated, hoping he would bring me the thing as he usually does.

He popped up, poked the ball with his nose, and sat again, wagging furiously.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Canine Nose Work

Dog News had an article, and I chased down the website after being prompted by a friend, so here it is: National Association of Canine Scent Work, inventors of the sport of K9 Nose Work.

It's an interesting sort of thing: training scent detection without having to use cadaver, which is icky and often requires some legal reason to have it, or drugs, which require a DEA certificate of some kind (I've asked, and had no answer, how one gets certified). Instead you go to your friendly local holistic-goods store, pick up a vial each of sweet birch and clove and a scattering of aniseeds, and you're good to go.

Of course, all three scents are quite penetrating, and my house now smells of birch beer. Luckily I like birch beer. I have a gauze pad saturated with all three odors sealed in a baggie, inside a box, inside another baggie which also contains the original bottles and seeds. The dogs are enjoying the find-the-pad game.

According to the Dog News article, the organization trainers teach the dogs to hunt for treats first, then pair the treats with the target scent (they start with just birch), then remove the treats. They say "On average, most teams train for at least one year prior to entering their first NACSW sanctioned trial."

I'm doing it differently, teaching my dogs that when they sniff the baggie, and they are curious sorts every one, they should sit. If they find the open baggie, they should sniff and sit. When they do, they get a treat. As I said, the baggie contains all three scents. My logic is, you can train a cadaver dog on as complete a sample as possible, then expect him to figure out that just bone, just fat, or just skin also all count. It may take longer to get the dogs to alert on birch alone than with their method, but they'll be doing aniseed every bit as soon.

So far, all of them, even the old geezer whose nose and ears are both getting iffy, are getting the hang of sniff-and-sit. Bruce even chased the baggie on a fling across the kitchen and poked his nose in, then sat wagging like mad and waiting for his goodie. This is, mind you, after three weeks of erratic training. I think they'll be able to do all three scents separately or together in a fairly short time, and then we can take the show on the road, into the cars, into the sheds, and everywhere else we can think to work. For now we're just working on go, sniff, sit as though this is an obedience combination.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Shepherd Puppies in Atlanta

I have been asked several times since moving here, "Are you going to have puppies? Where can I get a shepherd like that?" I have a few business cards from Dustin's breeder, who has only bred one litter since, and a few from a pleasant local breeder who has his cousins. I send people to the Atlanta German Shepherd Dog Club.

At the meeting the other night, held at the Atlanta Humane Society, I happened to glance in a window at the puppies drowsing on the other side, and called over a couple of other club members. We agreed -- they looked like purebred GSD puppies to us. One tried to climb out the window to us while his two littermates slept.

I went back today and took pictures. There are more available at the no-kill Atlanta Humane Society website. I can't possibly take another dog -- four is more than plenty -- but I can try to get these little guys some attention. The male who tried to climb out the window tried to climb up my arm today; he's a cute confident friendly little cuss who reminds me very much of Dustin as a puppy. Apparently his name (at present) is Billy. I can't picture it fitting him for long, though he might grow into a William. He's the bold-looking one in the following picture; the other is a sister who looks slightly less shepherdy, either a product of an odd outcross or of a second breeding to a part-shepherd, but who knows?

The third pup in the litter is a "coat" by the look of him. I have not yet seen him awake, so his AHS picture is better; look for Bobby.

I also spotted two other female puppies, one mysteriously labelled male on her sheet and blue-collared despite the spay scar and other telltale signs of femininity -- and also the fact her name was Brianna. As soon as she realized I was looking at her, she began trying to climb between the bars of her cage. She's a pale black-and-tan cutie pie who spent every second she could licking like mad on my finger. She might not make a bad search dog, actually. She seemed willing to do anything to get to a person!

The one that sticks with me, though, is Scout, and not just because that's the official name of my son's toy puppy that plays music. I'm a sable junkie. Very few people know what sable shepherds look like, and tend to take them for mixed breeds; this cutie is labeled as a German Shepix. I'm pretty sure she's not a mix. Sables are cool. In strong sun, a clean and well-groomed sable shines like tigerseye. In shade, they vanish. Sunny's favorite game was to lurk ten feet away from me in the woods with her ears flat and her mouth shut to hide any telltale pink flashes. I swear, she laughed at me looking for her. Anyway, meet Scout. She was a little anxious about being held in the air, but was gravely sweet with her paws on a solid surface.

They also had an adult shepherd, with no "mix" on her label. Kelly moseyed up to the front of her kennel with a curious wag when I stopped to look at her, but didn't care for the flash. Her label said she had been treated for heartworm and would have to be kept quiet.

I'll try to post stuff like this every so often. It's not dog-training, but it's somewhere to send people who ask me where to find a shepherd for a pet.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Retrieving, Thinking and Philosophy of Mind

Quite a long time ago I read a philosopher's paper which I do not remember well. I think it was Dennett, and I think it was on decision-making, but what I do remember vividly is that he wrote about throwing two tennis balls for his Labrador. The dog would race back and forth between the two for quite some time, then choose one apparently at random when he was tired enough.

Now, what is surprising here is that I didn't try this on one of my own dogs sooner. I think this must be a paper from when my husband was in graduate school, when we had a dog who didn't care to fetch, or from my undergraduate program, when the dog was at home with my parents and school had nothing to do with my retreats there. However, Dennett was recently brought back to my attention by a secondhand social contact, and I tried to recall if this was his story.

Then I formed a hypothesis. Not all dogs are Labradors, bred to take directions. Some breeds, particularly herders, are required to make snap decisions on their own, and the German Shepherd Dog is one of those breeds. I expected that one object would bounce more or further, and that my dog would go after that one. Then, of course, I whistled for Dustin.

His current obsession is magnolia cones. They bounce and skitter tolerably well, and saved me the trouble of finding two reasonably well-matched balls in this chaotic household. Also, it's not too hard to fit two in one hand to throw together. And it turned out I was right: one cone always activated the naughty-sheep protocol by bouncing further, and he chose that one without hesitation every time. At first he would bring it to the less-traveled cone, good herding dog that he is, intending to bring both, but then he would switch to retrieve protocol on realizing only one would fit in his mouth. Then, of course, he brought the bouncier one.

I suppose the moral of the story is that before one generalizes about the simpleness or complexity of canis lupus familiaris minds, one must first examine multiple breeds. Labradors, as my friend Mary is wont to say, were bred to do what they were told, however it might be conveyed, by men who went to the training field with a six-pack and a gun. Those who stayed in the gene pool were the ones who could figure out how to what they were told, not those who made up new ways to do things. Herders, on the other hand, have to make snap decisions on controlling the individual sheep (or ducks, cows, reindeer, what-have-you) to conform to the large-scale directions given by their handler. Two or more lambs (see previous parenthetical) may take off in different directions at once, and the herding dog has to have a plan for that or devise one on the fly.

Of course, that does lead to an inventive streak the rest of the time. Sunny took to doing her obedience exercises with flair, and I suppose that the AKC guidelines don't say the dog can't walk from front to finish on her hind legs while whooping to the ceiling. At least, they didn't before she came along. I haven't checked the handbook lately. Dustin, asked to herd ducks, decided it would be more fun to push them into a group if he could then excite them into standing tall and quacking wildly, then do a sort of Evel Knievel routine over them. He seems to feel that it's rude to boss around such small and harmless creatures -- give him a good big rude sheep any day.

Or, of course, a naughty magnolia cone.