a Taj MuttHall Dog Diary: Agility Rituals

Monday, August 27, 2007

Agility Rituals

SUMMARY: Patterns that we fall into.

I believe that some patterns in agility are good. These are rituals that let the dog know what to expect and give the handler something to be aware of and to focus on before and after a run. Some of mine have come about deliberately; some not. Here's what I do with my dogs before and after our runs.

For both dogs, I like to arrive at the ring about 3 or 4 dogs ahead of time (or 3 or 4 minutes). I want my dogs' attention on me when we're preparing to run, and I want to keep them excited, and I myself cannot keep up that level of attention and enthusiasm for much longer than that.

For both dogs, before taking them from their crates, I make sure that our Riot Tug (actually a soft version rather than the original) is nearby and that our competition slip-lead is in my hand.

Boost Before

Boost must sit when I put my hand on the zipper of her softcrate, and wait until I release her. Originally I thought I'd always put her leash on before letting her out of the crate, but between my back and my knees, I've mostly given up on that. Instead, I release her to come out and jump up into my chair where I can more comfortably reach her. I put on her lead and take off her collar.

Then I release her from the chair and present her with her Riot Tug, and we play tug all the way to the ring. I don't have to do much except hold on. While waiting to run, I'll try to keep her engaged with the toy, in particular after a couple of recent trials where she started getting spooky for no apparent reason if we just hung out. Just standing there and holding the toy won't work for that long. We practice sits and downs with a release. If there's a place where I can plop my backside, or if my knee is happy enough for me to kneel, I'll just play little games at ground level, where she's mostly lying down to just put paws and her mouth on the toy. We intersperse more tug.

One dog before we run, we play tug over to the vicinity of the ring exit, where I drop the riot tug. Then she gets to play tug with the leash back to the ring entrance. She walks next to me into the ring, where I stop ten feet back from the first jump and tell her to sit. When the timer says "Go," I step away from her with my opposite foot (a trick from obedience) and lead out to where I need to be.

Boost After

At the end of the run, she knows that she gets to play tug and is starting to look for her Leashie or Riot Tug, although I haven't taught that specifically, so she doesn't know (for example) to look for the leash hanging up. We'll play leash tug until we close to the Riot Tug, then I say "Wheeeerrrees yoourrrrr RIOT TUG?!" and she drops the leash, looks for the tug, and pounces on it.

We play tug back to our set-up, where I let go of the tug and she runs to and jumps into my chair. I have her do some nose touches, lefts, rights for treats, exchange her lead for her collar (I don't like my dogs being without visible ID for any length of time), and, if I have time, do a little snuggling, some light play, maybe a little walking around to cool her down before she goes back into her crate.

Tika Before

When I put my hand on Tika's crate zipper, she hits it hard with her foot. I tell her to cut it out and stop zipping each time she hits it. This was NOT my plan, but it has gradually decreased from digging frantically at the front of the crate every time I put my hand near it. She never quite completely broke through the soft crate material, but parts are very thin. (This has proven to be a hard habit to extinguish in the soft crate, as I have no way of rewarding her without opening the door. A soft crate with an opening top would help.)

When I get the door unzipped, she streeeetches with front feet out through the door, takes a step out, and streeeeetches her back legs. She's now partway out of the crate because I haven't maintained criteria of not putting the head out until released. Oh, well. I slip the lead around her neck and release her from the crate with my hand in her collar. I remove the collar, and she shakes herself thoroughly. It's amazing how predictable her own rituals are.

I verbally rev up excitement about the Riot Tug before presenting it to her and immediately go into interactive playing until she's holding tightly and growling. Otherwise, she disengages and goes about sniffing for scraps of food or treats in the grass. I run and play with her, doing whatever I need to to get her to regrab the tug, because she often lets go, until we're ringside and I release her from the toy. By then, we're both warmed up.

Then I do let her sniff around on a short lead. Who could imagine how many thousands of little tidbits of food are in the grass near the start line! I never knew until I got Tika. For all I know, she could be eating grubs or rotting grass. Any tasty little morsel like that.

About two minutes/2 dogs before our run, I work on getting her attention off the lawn and onto me. Just not with great excitement yet, because I can't maintain it. But I keep her head up out of the grass, scritch under her chin, massage her back, that sort of thing.

About a minute/1 dog before our run, I again get her engaged in the Riot Tug, and tug to the ring exit and, for her, drop it as close to the ring rope exit as I dare. Then I jog her to the ring entrance and get her to "give me a hug", which has evolved into her gently putting her front paws on my chest and really streeeetching out. She walks next to me into the ring, but, perhaps from stress or excitement, she's back to sniffing the grass as soon as we start to walk in, and I often find myself tugging on the lead or even putting my hand in it to hustle her along.

I put her in a Down as far back from the first obstacle as I can. (I need to see about determining an ideal non-bar-knocking distance for her like we just did for Boost and see whether it helps.) I struggled with getting her to stay in a Sit for years; her preference would be to stand up and start slowly moving forward, or to lie down. It finally dawned on me that it's perfectly OK for her to lie down, since she still blasts off with enthusiasm when released, and she's more likely to stay there. In fact, her start-line stay has become remarkably more reliable since I started Downing her right off the bat.

Again, I step away with the foot opposite her. I can lead out a long way with her, but I had better be prepared for her to take off as soon as I turn around. Usually she's good and waits, but that is not guaranteed, and I have decided that I can live with her waiting for me to turn around. If she takes off before that, I take her out of the ring.

Tika After

At the end of the run, she is so revved that she dives in at my feet with a great show of growling and yapping, grabbing at my shoes. My goal is to get my hands under her neck and hustle her out of the ring, running as fast as I can while hunched over with my hands around her, until I get to the leash or Riot Tug (whichever is closer) and can shove it in her mouth in place of my feet. Then we play tug briefly.

Then she's released the energy and is ready for treats. We trot back to our set-up (if I have the energy), where she gets treats for doing lefts, rights, high fives, and so on. More treats after the collar goes on. She has learned that she gets treats when I send her into her crate, so when I stop dispensing treats, she dives into her crate and looks hopefully at me. She might come back out and try it several times, as I don't give her the treats unless *I* tell her to go in.

If I can convince her to stay out of the crate, again, I'll do a little massage and petting, just some hanging out and cooling down. Then I tell her to go into her crate, toss some treats in, and go on my way.

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