Friday, November 1, 2013

Agility Training Challenges

Maya and I have been going to agility classes once a week at Zoom Room Belmont since May. She learned super quick and we got through agility 1, 2, and 3 in a breeze. Before I noticed, the classes were more about training me, than about training her. I had to put on my sneakers and tie up my hair in order to keep up with her.

However, about a month ago, the training took an unexpected turn. All of a sudden, she seems to lose all her interest. She would sit a the starting line and refuse to move, wonder off the course sniffing, or just stop in front of a bar jump as if she doesn't know how to jump over it.

Maya on jumping strike

Then the worse came when we got invited to an agility demo at the Strut the Mutt event. Though she wasn't enthusiastic, she was able to get through all of the courses halfheartedly while we practice in the gym. But on the day before the event, when we went to practice outdoors for the first time, she totally shut down. She refused to step on the wet grass, kept pulling me towards the parking lot, and eventually just sat there and stared at everyone. I was super nervous but all I could do was to go buy the most tasty treats I could imagine, and pray that she'd come to her senses the next day.

Refused to move at all on the wet grass

On the day of the event, she finally decided to be somewhat cooperative and was willing to move in slow motion. I ended up "walking" her through the courses on leash with a few tugs and pulls, as well as a lot of cheering. Though she performed worse than her second agility class, at least she agreed not to totally embarrass me in front of a huge crowd. (Nevertheless, her daddy took some good photos, and at the end of the day, that's what counts.)

Outdoor agility demo

After the demo, her allergies got worse to the point where we have to keep her in a cone, and not able to go to classes. During the three week break, I had a chance to reflect on the situation. I got a book call "Control Unleashed" (thanks to K, the Jindo owner, who recommended the book), and after a few minutes into reading it, I realized Maya is actually stressed, not bored, naughty, or just trying to give me a hard time.

Thinking back, maybe it was because I tied a balloon to her when shooting my dad's birthday video, or because I invited her Shiba friend Tachi to play at the gym with her, or because she was feeling funny when she had a swollen paw. She is a very sensitive girl and remembers things for a long time. Whatever made her uncomfortable may still be haunting her. (I remember one time we were playing fetch at home when she was still a puppy. She got too excited and peed on the carpet while fetching the ball. Not sure if she scared herself or that I made a scene, but since the accident, she refused to fetch at all for a very long time. I had to spend a lot of time and treats to re-teach her how to fetch, something she learned since 9 weeks old.)

I made a few adjustments since we went back to class 2 weeks ago. I tried making it more exciting when starting a drill. Instead of using "sit, wait, ok" to start, I changed to a new command, "ready? ready? go!". I use it not only for agility, but at home as well. At the end of the "go!", it could be a "touch" my hand, a "find it" game, or a "catch me if you can" chase, but no matter what, it always leads to something fun and rewarding.

I also avoid starting the run in the middle of the course. I realized she gets more stressed out when we had to walk to the center of the classroom, sit, wait, then start. Sometimes she would just sit there and start getting super itchy. So instead, I ignore the starting line and just start running from where we were waiting. If there's a table where we need to stop in the middle of the course, I also make the pause as short as possible. Once she gets all paws on the table, we start running again. I know I'm breaking the rules, but at this point, I think it's more important to keep her moving and not stop to think about the stress.

Maya would freeze up when we stop on a table

Another change I made was to keep her engaged while we wait for our turn. Instead of watching other dogs perform or chatting with other owners, I make sure to focus on her by playing various rewarding games, such as "paw", "leave it", "beg", or "touch". I am also very cautious about not saying anything negative in the classroom. When she makes a wrong turn or miss a weave, instead of saying "no" or "uh-uh", I just guide her back. And when she does something right, I make a big deal out of it.

With all the changes, Maya seems to do a bit better, but still far form the zooming Shiba when she started out. I am actually thinking about going back to take some Agility 1 classes, which allows her to have a higher rate of reward. She can get a treat for every single move, instead of at the end of the entire run. Maybe this can help build her confidence back up again.

I started agility training just to have fun and be able to do something with Maya. I don't have any interest in earning titles or attending competitions. I have been enjoying it a lot myself, but more importantly my partner needs to be happy too. I'll give it a bit more time, but if it's still too stressful for her, maybe we should find a different activity or take a longer break.

When she was still enjoying it