Thursday, July 17, 2008

What I learned from Stuart Mah and Mary Ellen Barry!

I was thinking today about my first agility trial and my very first competition run. I was just two days over my 18 month birthday. It was a Gamblers run in USDAA, indoors on astroturf.

Mum had a great plan even though she had never run Gamblers before. She timed out the opening as best she could. It was a big 'ole wide circle of obstacles, very flowing and very fast. Jump, dog walk, jump, teeter, tunnel, frame, jump, then a front cross into the weaves (which was very nearly right next to the gamble - three straight jumps down the line, to a curved tunnel way out that came back toward the line to a table).

At the buzzer, we ended up in the 8th pole of the weaves, Mum turned me out toward the three jumps and as I was going over the second jump said 'go tunnel'. I went into that tunnel like I was born to do it, and when she called me through to the table, I jumped up on it and she picked me up like I was the best present she had ever received in her life. Why? Because I was!

We love agility, live it, breath it, read about it, talk about it, run it and don't know what we'd do without it. I came away from that trial with 7 ribbons, 4 first places, 3 second places and 4 Q's. We knew it was the sport for us.

Along came the injuries, the slow downs, the speed ups, the winning streaks and the losing streaks. But we never gave up, always thought through and worked on the down times, savored the good times, and kept on, keeping on.

When Mum and I attended our recent seminar with Stuart Mah, some of the old, beginner feeling started to surface again. The good runs, the ones where I was running full out, working away, being a young pup and having a blast.

At the end of the seminar, Mum really felt she could get me back...all she had to do was get me more confident and get me obstacle focused instead of handler focused. Because over the couple of years I've been running and competing, that's what I've become - I've become handler focused.

This is the key to what Stuart helped us understand. There are obstacle focused dogs and handler focused dogs. And they are just as they are, either focused on the obstacles or focused on the handler. Not one is any better than the other - and there are challenges with both.

Now, I'm a pretty good gamble dog, when I'm confident and moving. I got a few Masters Gamblers Q's that we're pretty proud of. And we've worked on gambles in practice and in training class. I know what 'go out' means, I know what 'go to a specific obstacle' means. But by letting me loose and getting me focused on the task at hand throughout an entire course, rather than Mum, I'm encouraged that I can be better.

At the very beginning of the seminar, we ran a full course, with half weaves and no table. I ran it with pretty good speed, but I was wide, wide, wide on many of the jump sequences. Mum knows I've been running wide and has tried tightening me up, but never really felt she had a complete handle on how to do it, even though we worked on it at practice and training class. Sometimes it's like marketing, you have to hear it dozens of times, in a variety of ways, before it soaks in.

With Stuart Mah's and Mary Ellen Barry's seminars we found some keys. But remember, these are my interpretations of what I learned at both of their wonderful seminars. So if I got it wrong it's my fault!!!

Stuart talked about accelerating and decelerating, a lot like driving a car. You accelerate when your taking off, driving though fairly straight lines, and when you have to turn sharply, you decelerate, make your turn and accelerate again. Makes perfect sense, don't ya think?

Timing on accelerating and decelerating are kind of difficult and need practice work, but once we started getting the hang of it, a big wow came over us. After those dozens of times, Mum was getting a clue!

At the end of Stuart's seminar we ran the same exact course we ran the beginning of the day. About 2/3 of the way through the course, Mum started getting the accelerating and decelerating timing down with me, and dog was I tight! So tight that Stuart said Mum's eyes about popped out of her head when she saw me turn - she knew she had to move, and move fast to get me to the next obstacle. It was a very cool moment.

Another big aha moment was when Stuart talked about turning your handler focused dog into an obstacle focus dog. One way is by giving them direction to move ahead of you, by verbally calling out the obstacles. So when Mum walked the courses at the Regionals just the next weekend, she paid attention to when she would call out the obstacles, go tunnel, go frame, go walk, etc., in relation to her body movements and arm movements.

And I have to tell you we both think it made a huge difference in my speed over Regionals weekend. Duh! If I know where to go, I can go and not have to worry about where Mum is and rely on her body or arm movements to tell me where to go next, right?

Mum caught up with Stuart near the end of the Regionals weekend and thanked him again for all he taught us at his seminar. She shared with him that we got the gamble that day (even though we didn't have enough points in the opening because of my DW contact), and he was impressed, because not many dogs got that gamble that day. Made them both smile.

A couple of other tips for turning me into an obstacle focus dog that we picked up from Stuart are:
  • Use going out body cues
  • Cue the obstacle ahead of time, as early as possible
  • Look at the obstacle not at the dog
  • Have your dog work ahead of you as much as possible
  • A dog that's behind you will be slower than a dog that's ahead of you
  • Move fast
  • Use a louder voice
  • Give your dog as much information as possible throughout the course, through body, verbal and movement cues
  • Teach your dog to work away from you using out cues and obstacle cues (use a target in the beginning, then wean it away)
  • Make your cues clean and simple
  • Teach your dog to ramp up and ramp down
  • Don't ever demotivate for distance, always reward for it
  • Teach turning cues - left and right - use it on courses and your dog will pick it up easily
We also picked up some tips for a more obstacle focus dog - which Gracie is more like than I:
  • Move more slowly
  • Use a softer voice
  • Teach bringing in close body cues like 'here' and reward for it
  • Look at the dog
Well, you get the idea they are a lot of 'opposites' of a handler focused dog.

At the MEB seminar the Monday after Regionals, Mum and Gracie had a great time. One of the big, big things that they learned was about movement. Pulling (the dog toward you on a course, like for a turn) by shifting your weight on your leg nearest your dog and taking off with the outside leg; for a push, shifting your weight to the outside leg and taking off with the leg closest to the dog. Duh! Never thought of it that way.

A few other great things we got from MEB were a few practices of Linda Mecklenburg's Direction Cues (articles in Clean Run, May through July 2008) exercises. It was great for Gracie and Mum to get that practice with one jump. Very cool. Gracie did great at the entire seminar.

Other tips Gracie and Mum got at the seminar:
  • Always get eye contact with your dog coming out of a tunnel (Mum needed that lesson at Regionals with me, so we wouldn't have gotten that E in Team Standard)
  • If your dog runs off (like Gracie does) stand your ground, call them firmly, and reward, reward, reward for coming back to you
  • Your dog should never pass your 'plane' and get around behind you
  • 2o2o - use a plank if you don't have a DW, release word is independent of motion, teach your release while moving, simulate trial situations, reward for staying, make a game of sticking the contact, make your release very clear and don't make it motion - make it verbal
  • Move the correct direction (on the course) as early as you can
  • Reward dog if you make the mistake, because it is most probably certain they did what you cued them to do :) Know the difference between your mistake and you dog's.
BTW - Mary Ellen has a really nice series of articles in Clean Run about Foundation Fundamentals - April through June issues. Check 'em out!

So with two seminars and the Regionals, we had a wonderful agility vacation. Couldn't have asked for a better time. We are really grateful to Mary Ellen and Stuart for taking the time out of their busy schedules to have these seminars around the Regionals. They were kind, supportive, fun, and very educational. If you ever get a chance to participate in their seminars, we highly recommend them! We sure hope they come back again, maybe in time for those Halloween invitations! And thanks to both of them for letting me write a little about what we learned.

Here are the two runs from my seminar with Mr. Mah. The first part of the vid is my first run of the day with the wide, wide, turns. That run occurred at about 8:30AM. Then the second part of the vid is when we utilized many of the tight turn tips from the seminar. Even though that run took place on the same day at 6:00 PM, and I was a little slower, look I was tight - DOG!!


  1. You are a true winner! Loving a sport is the important part but coming home with a bunch of ribbons must feel really good just the same.

    Levi's mom

  2. Hi Johann!

    Thanks for blogging about your seminar experiences! We always learn a lot from reading about what you are doing and learning. Sounds like you got some really good advice.


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