Last week, I gave an update on Tesla’s training in the past year, detailing what we have accomplished in terms of her basic behaviors, with the simple goal of making her much easier to live with in our family environment. Here, I detail her more advanced training, and how we hope to achieve the goals of a truly competitive sports dog.
Flyball training – For those who don’t know, flyball is a competitive dog sport whereby a relay team of four dogs and handlers send their dogs over four hurdles to retrieve a ball out of a spring-loaded box, to return with the ball over the hurdles before the next dog in line goes.
When I got Tesla, she had absolutely no interest in the ball. She would chase it when thrown because it was moving, but had no concept of the retrieve. This was actually a good thing, since exceedingly ball-obsessed dogs are sometimes less than motivated on the return of a flyball course, since they already have their prized ball. So I took this slowly. First, I encouraged her to play lots of tug with me. Then I gradually introduced her to the ball, first chasing it, then picking it up, and eventually retrieving it, and working up to retrieving it when it was not moving. Now, she readily retrieves a ball, running full speed both outbound and on the return, which is exactly how we want it. She is bringing the ball all the way to my foot 95% of the time on the flat, though we are still working on the full retrieve to me in flyball over hurdles. With all of the distractions and added tasks, including jumping the hurdles, turning on the flyball box, and ignoring the dogs in adjacent lanes, she still has challenges with the full course.
Tesla at the Dog eRaces Tournament in May 2014
Speaking of hurdles, I got lucky with the jumping – she loves to jump, and once we lined her up in front of the hurdles (first jumping to me over 1, then 2, then 3, then 4 hurdles in a row) it has never occurred to her to go around the jumps instead of over them. The only time she’ll miss the hurdles on course is if she bobbles the ball and ends up completely off-course.
We have entered a couple of tournaments, but she was primarily only successful in warm-ups, with just two successful in-race runs at our tournament in May. Still no flyball points due to her distractibility, which I discussed last week.
Agility training – Although I originally thought she would compete in Flyball before Agility, I may be proven wrong. While she still barks at running dogs when she is waiting her turn, her focus when we are working together has improved dramatically. I am more than fortunate to have an amazing agility instructor in Sam Cohen, who not only understands that different dog/handler teams have different needs, but who also has the patience to allow a dog training colleague (me) to do what she needs to do in class for her dog to succeed. I spent many an hour in the early days of foundation courses just turning and leaving the classroom because Tesla was about to lose her mind amidst the distractions. And it has paid off! She can now perform sequence drills in class and (mostly) ignore the other working dogs, as long as I have her focused on me and working.
We have, thus far, entered one fun match, and it went well, after initial distractions. Not sure that we’ll be quite ready to trial before the end of this year, but by next season for certain.
As to equipment and handling, well, that has been the easy part for her, and more of a challenge for me. In private training sessions, she is wicked fast when sequencing equipment, and has forced me to work hard to improve my timing and positional cues in order not to drive this race car into a wall, so to speak. Trialing with her will be SO much fun!
Class Assistant (Demo Dog) – This is her actual “job”, if you want to call it that. Considering that, when I first got her, she was not able to stay inside a classroom with moving dogs for even a few seconds without screaming, I’m absolutely pleased with her progress up to now. The adoption of Tesla allowed my old girl, Claire, to finally take a well-earned retirement. She was ready. The best news is that Tesla seems to enjoy the work as much as Claire did when she was younger. And now Claire gets to enjoy hanging out on a blanket and being brushed, chasing her boomer ball around the yard, and playing with the occasional water spray from a hose.
Ah, but the road to Demo Dog has been a challenge! Thanks to wonderful colleagues and friends (my “village”) who worked her through my classes, gave her treats for being quiet in her crate between exercises, and took her out for Time Outs whenever she barked in class, I now have a canine training partner who vocalizes minimally, mostly when I’m working with another dog in class. (We’re working on resolving this, too, of course.)
She is learning all of the necessary behaviors to assist me in demonstrating lessons to my class students, while not reacting to the other dogs in class when they bark at her. (This is also still a work in progress, but oh so improved!)
After over a year of training, including an initial three months of frustration and hard-core work with her, I can say with confidence that Tesla is becoming a really nice working dog. Of course, this didn’t happen by accident. And the lessons that I have learned while teaching her are among the best that I could have hoped for.
If you think you have a young dog like Tesla, and you are at your wit’s end with the reactivity and crazy energy, don’t despair! Contact a local force-free trainer to assist you. In the long run, it will be more than worthwhile.