Sunday, July 26, 2009

back to the drawing board

Quinn and I ran our FH yesterday and did not pass. Initially I wrote that we were "unsuccessful" but that isn't true. Quinn approached his track in a happy state of mind and the judge commented that he was a "dog who likes his handler". He did not pay any attention to the cross track which was layed to cross the first and third legs, apparently contrary to the rules but that was the best location. Jessica Levin, who is a waif of a thing, laid the cross track so it is entirely possible Quinn dismissed it as a bird walking across the track! I also experimented with feeding him prior to tracking (Science Diet ID, since he tends to get "loose") in the hopes having something on his stomach would prevent grass grazing, and that apparently was a good choice as we had none of that occur.

Tracking was held at a sod farm near Sun Prairie. The area we were in was a harvested area, with strips of weeds and bare, hard ground and then strips of grass. The other schutzhund dogs had tracked in the lush, squishy grass. darn!!

None of the three FH dogs passed, but frankly, that doesn't make me feel any better about our own failure. It just means none of us were properly prepared. One of the other competitors dismissed her dog's performance to the fact that he had been bred the previous night. But unless it ruined his sense of smell, that is a silly argument. If I say "track" then we "track". I have trained my dogs around bitches in heat and they understand that a snootfull of girl is no excuse not to work.

At any rate, I had high hopes for our track. Quinn started nicely, and crossed the expanse of harvested sod and onto the next piece of grass. However, the track made a right turn in that hard soil and continued and I had not trained properly for this. I had practiced crossing stuff like that, so of course, Quinn continued straight ahead and then check back and forth on the grass as if to say "okay, so where did it go??". He completely missed the turn. Judge Nikki Banfield was extremely patient and granted me more time and help than I probably would have given someone else. Quinn searched and searched and finally came back to me. My heart sank there as that is one of my biggest pet peeves; a dog who quits. But I could tell, he was totally lost. Risking the consequences, I took a couple steps in the direction of the turn and encouraged him to keep working. He did!! He followed that track but although I could see it, he did not seem to be committed to the scent as I was keeping him more on track than his nose was. He then missed the next right turn. He gave no acknowledgement and just did not pick it up on his search, once he recognized he had no scent. It totally surprised me.

I had made arcs in the deep, plowed dirt where I practiced but never turned on the harvested area. Contrary to my instinct to rest Quinn for a day before the event, I ran one last track on Friday because I was worried about the dirt. I made it very rewarding and figured he would certainly be able to work his way across it in the trial. arrgghhhh.... poor planning= poor training.

The judge called the track at that point, which I absolutely understood. She said that I could finish the track if I wanted, for the experience, and I did that. That was very nice of her. I kept a close line and offered alot of verbal encouragement and we worked our way to the end, where he got a well deserved belly rub! I had opened his can of sardines for our ending and although I had intended it as a celebration, he still earned it, and so he was treated for his hard work when we got back to the van.

So it's back to the drawing board for us. Accomplishing the FH and FH2 is my goal, and Quinn is a good tracker. I do need to work on making his corners more precise, and making turns in difficult cover or surfaces. He has ignored cross tracks, but I won't neglect that aspect. One thing that I like to do when I have other people along is to have them walk 5-7 feet to the side of my track and cross it randomly. I know where it goes straight ahead and so there isn't a question and especially if I have them walk up-wind of us, it teaches him to always follow the scent he is started on and not just follow a wind borne scent. I also have people walk with me when I run the track BUT this judge walked almost next to the dog and that did throw some of them. Quinn rolled his eyes at her once at the start but after that didn't seem concerned, but it is one more thing to add to our tracking regiment. With consistency and practice, we WILL earn our title. But Quinn is already a success, in my eyes. After all, he puts up with me!!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

T- 1 to FH

Today is today, so I'm not even counting it. Which means there is only one day until Quinn's FH. WOW! Now I'm starting to get nervous! Frankly, once the track starts the only thing for me to do is to follow my dog, so I actually have the easy part on trial day! Tracking is going to be on sod and dirt. The conditions we have trained in have been much more difficult than sod and I haven't been able to get him into much dirt, so I hope we negotiate it successfully.

There aren't any lesson plans that I have found on preparing for an FH, but I pieced together other words of wisdom to come up with a plan:
Al Govednik once said to make excessively long legs when training for an FH and head for the next farm.
Greg Doud said to train with more difficulty so that on trial day the dog has a cakewalk in comparison.

From my own trial experience, I have found that when I have trained for standard, regulation-sized tracks, in the national level and even regional trials there are so many entries that the tracks suffer in length and so you have to exercise caution in having the dog *assume* through repetition that a track will actually proceed the regulation length. More than once, I have been surprised by articles not where they should be, by turns just after an article, etc. I think it tends to throw the handler more than the dog, but that can run right down the leash, especially if the handler believes the dog must be wrong!

I find that diagramming your track is critical, so that you can follow your progress and also ensure you don't get lazy with your turns and article placement and become predictable. Mix it up. Right angle turns, scent circles, 5 step, 3 step, serpentines. Place an article after a turn. Make a turn from an article. Linger on the track and create a hot spot where there is no article. Alternate your reward locations and your reward sources.

Despite these "best laid plans" I have found lately that the tracks I intend to be fairly simple, have, through circumstances, become the tracks from hell. I only hope that makes Quinn a stronger tracking dog! I have had to trust him in more instances, and allow him to problem solve to find success. I think that if a dog is taught with force he may not trust himself when he gets into trouble on a track. I want Quinn to think that HE can search and be successful without my help. Anyway, I digress.

Since I am aging Quinn's tracks for 3-4 hours that means I usually lay them, and then go to breakfast. Then Sue returns with me and lays her track and finally I run Quinn's. We returned to run one to discover that someone else had apparently been there while we ate and laid a track across mine. Quinn has been good about ignoring cross tracks, but in this instance he turns onto this superhighway of ground disturbance and I had to encourage him to get back to work on his own track.

Another day, I laid was was intended to be a track with multiple turns and a road crossing, but not aged as long and not challenging other than that. It was at a local county park. I knew there would be plenty of scents from the weekend activities but as I started out, I discovered a hearty game of football or catch had occurred as the grass was smashed and turn with imprints of bodies. I simply baited a little more to make sure Quinn was rewarded for working through all the scent. I found a pair of sunglasses lost in the glass. Then a beanie baby. Clearly, lots of activity had occurred there! Moving out of that area, I crossed the outfield of the baseball field, making a sharp double back turn. At the far end of the park I crossed the main gravel road of the park, crossed some grass, and then crossed the walking path several times.

Well, the track had been down about 1 1/2-2 hours when a family pulled up at the far end of the park near by road crossings. Two children, a dog and a mom got out and proceeded to walk over my track. The children raced each other back and forth across my track. The dog ate his way along the bait left to reward the successful crossings. As if that wasn't enough, the mother decided she had to use the bathroom and walked across the entire remainder of my track to the shelter building and back again. I pointed out that her dog was eating my bait and explained it was for tracking, in case she wondered what it was doing. Even as I explained, she denied that HER dog would eat anything from the ground. REALLY??? I guess when she saw what it was actually doing, she packed up the kids and dog and left!! I was now worried about what ugliness I might encounter, but the tracking gods weren't finished laughing at me. It must have been lunchtime, as a parade of heavy equipment and an ATV made two passes down the gravel road, once again decimating my road crossing. But do you know what? Quinn worked that track like a champ!! I couldn't believe it! He carefully worked through the plethora of other scents, following mine and made all the turns and road crossings! At that moment, I had the greatest confidence in his ability to do an FH.

Yesterday we worked at the sod farm. My goal was to lay a cross country track negotiating multiple terrain changes. Not terribly difficult other than that and road crossings. It moved from short grass to plowed dirt, to harvested sod dirt (REALLY hard and dry) back to grass, crossing the road to grass, then through harvested sod, grass, plowed dirt and back to grass. Naturally, it couldn't be that easy. After I chased the sand hill cranes away, a flock of geese landed on my track. While we at breakfast, it rained. And it ended up being aged much longer than I antipated because Sue needed to get her track run first. Sooooo.... he worked through the first part beautifully. Oh! I forgot to mention that we also tracked through a burned area next to the ditch! Anyway, that was all good but he overshot the turn where I crossed the road. He did come back, search it out and make the crossing. Had some difficulty in the second plowed dirt area because I walked in an arc and the scent was carried down the furrows. I did have to help and encourage him to be successful there, which makes me a little nervous about our FH, but the track was so old and so long at that point that I could see he was pretty tired. We ended with a series of articles where he could get food reward on the grass.

I have tried to alternate complex turns with those long, long conditioning distances. Areas of food, and areas of no food but with opportunity for reward at the articles. I guess we will know on Saturday whether we are on the right track. Today he gets the day off and tomorrow I will do a short, rewarding grass track and be done with it. I WILL resist my impulse to lay some crazy cross country test and leave that for Saturday.

Wish me luck!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Tracking today

I have successfully completed the FH with two dogs so far, both Dutch Shepherds. (Sofie and her son, Digit) Now it's time to do the same with my malinois, Quinn. It is something I had planned to do this season, but a fire was lit when our recent judge, Ann Marie Chaffin, reminded me that I could seek to achieve a spot on the World Championship Team through tracking! To date there has not been the intense competition for a spot on the FH team, or in the FH Championship, that there has in IPO. It reminds me somewhat of Mondioring, where there are a handful of people competing. Nothing like the 90-plus dogs at the AWDF Championships. As tireless a campaigner Quinn has been, we have had our share of challenges and it is unlikely we will win one of the major events. A winning team is a combination of ability on the part of the dog, skill of the handler, availability of experienced helpers and training and a good bit of luck. I have a great dog. He has given me his all, and allowed me to grow as a handler. We are a team, and we fail or succeed together. So, now he is being challenged by the person hanging on to the other end of a tracking line.
My goal this season is the FH, and then hopefully the FH2. Quinn has followed three hour old tracks in the past. He did a nice one last evening, but this morning seemed to run out of gas at the 2/3 mark. I have a plan for conditioning and preparing him. His favorite treat is a can of sardines (packed in water, thank you!) at the end. It is going to be difficult to get the lengthy tracks in that this will require, both in location and in time. I don't know if anyone reading this is interested in what it takes to complete an FH, but as I proceed I'm sure I'll detail more. And, in the end, all that tracking sure can't hurt his IPO3 work. That track will be a walk in the park in comparison. Quinn and I will spend many hours for the next few months, walk many miles and wake up far too early on too many occasions. And if all I end up with is that dog when all is said and done, it's still all good.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Looking for Sploosh

Did you ever watch the movie "Holes"? If you didn't, I suggest you rent it immediately! It is a wonderful movie that is both entertaining and has a life lesson to it. I've been thinking about it alot lately. Mostly because I have been digging alot of holes.

It does make me yearn for some youthful offenders whom I could hand shovels and set them to work on doing it for me. Oh yes, and without the fear of being bashed in the head myself! You might ask why I have been so engaged and would be right to inquire. I went a little overboard on the purchase of fruit trees, bushes and plants for my garden. I feel abit like a botanical Noah, buying most of them in pairs. Some require this for cross-pollinations; others I thought would just appreciate the company of another of their kind! Needless to say, I have acquired apple, plum, cherry, chokecherry, currant, blueberry, raspberry, blackberry... and grapes! I think that's all. Of course, one more trip to the garden center and I'm likely to find something I lack.
I hope it is my common sense!

My gardens will look lovely when completed, I know. I will have an orchard and fruit area on the east side, and ten raised garden beds on the west. The birds are enjoying the bush I planted for them to perch on during their visits to the feeders, as well.

I only wish that in one of my holes, I would discover Sploosh. But all I find is more clay and rock.
Give me Sploosh!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Digit's Golden Birthday

Can you believe it? Digit turns 12 years old on July 12th!! It is hard to believe that the time has passed so quickly and that chubby silver puppy is now an older adult. Much like me, he is slower to get up, slower to run but doesn't like to miss a meal! Unlike me, he does not get to eat whenever he likes and so has kept his slim figure. But where do the years go?

Not long ago, I wrote about the passing of Hero vom Haus Kuhn, known as Harro to his friends. When Digit was but a wee puppy, Harro would lay next to the fence and try to touch him with his paws, or exchange kisses through the fence. Once the puppies were big enough to play with Harro, he became their babysitter. I think that early experience with a benevolent male helped to shape Digit's personality. Like Harro, he is a lover of all, dogs and humans alike. When his momma, Sofie, died, I thought I would like Digit to be my house dog but he did not enjoy living there. He constantly worried that I needed him to be alert to a command and if the door opened, he was outside in a flash. Being in the house was stressful to him and I had to resign myself that my wishes were less important than his happiness, and so he lives in the kennel.

In his prime, Digit would launch for a bite with a span of 10 feet. I don't think I exaggerate. His hips did not pass OFA but his heart is so big, and his drive so strong that he accomplished more than many dogs with excellent hips. I don't mean this to sound like a eulogy, because it is not. It is a celebration of his life. He is now 13x SchH3, DPO2, FH, STP1 and also a UKC conformation champion and has a CDX. He retired when he was 8 years old, if I remember correctly. I noticed he was no longer making the huge leap for a grip and when he lightly nicked the jump in trial, I decided on the spot that it was his last and he was retiring. He went High SchH3 and High in Trial that day, a grand exit.

Last year he was pulled from retirement to assist me with a police dog class. When the dog we had purchased was examined and found to have a broken canine it was returned to the seller and it was going to take a week for the replacement to arrive. So, I used Digit to teach the new handler how to lay tracks and handle the line, and how to teach an article search. I could visibly see Digit's chest puff out when I would retrieve him from the kennel each day. He was so happy being back at work again. At our fall trial, I elected to enter him for an STP1, the schutzhund article search test, and he came out of retirement to compete once again, adding another title to his long list. That day he was also called into service as the "alternate" dog opposite an unpaired dog in competition and we did obedience. Once again, I saw the proud boy of old, tail held high and tugging on the leash.

I saw that strong dog once again last month when he assisted with our helper certifications. Is he slower than he once was? Yes, but new helpers aren't ready for the rockets. Does he not launch as far? Yes, but the helpers also need to know how to handle a dog who doesn't make the big jumps. Does he have a broken canine? Yes, but he can still grip a sleeve fully and bark for more! Once again, he was biting at my wrist and tugging the sleeve as he does when he is excited for the work. The heart of a young dog was shining through the old skin. His eyes fairly glowed with joy, and mine did as well. Or maybe that was the tear that formed.

The reason all this came to mind now is that Digit's sister, Ayana, was euthanized earlier this week. Digit's registered name is A-Digit vom Foxtal, and they were my "A" Dutch Shepherd litter, along with 8 other littermates. Ayana's name means "most beautiful flower" in Swahili. She was having diffuculty walking and moving her rear legs at the end. It was with that in mind that I thought about Digit and how lucky I am that he is still in good health and spirits. He is grey, but has none of the telltale white hairs that even plaqued my malinois at an early age. His eyes are clear and except for the fact that he sheds in huge patches like a sheep, his coat is good. He will turn 12 years old next week and has the heart of young dog.

When I look at photos of Digit as a young pup, then young adult and finally, a seasoned veteran I can remember so many wonderful moments, stories of his willingness and success, and sometimes his stubborness. Like the time he decided that I had put too much pressure on him and he refused to track. I said 'such" and he stuck his nose straight up in the air, just so it was clear he had no intention of doing that! For the next four days, he had an opportunity each day to follow the baited track, and each day he stuck his nose up in the air. I would say "nope" and put him back in his kennel, with only enough food to keep him hungry. On the fifth day, when I gave the command, his nose went down and he followed that track!! After that, I knew he would never give up on a track and even in difficult circumstances, he persisted.

Digit is my sweet, grey boy and I adore him. Happy Birthday, Digimon!