An Unlikely Performance Champion

Wally's World

Agility: Week 3

Posted by shana on March 30, 2011 in Agility with No Comments

Tonight we worked on the weave poles. Weave Poles are probably the hardest obstacle for a dog to learn. Even the Teeter isn’t as hard, although its probably the second hardest. But Weaves are very technical and are something a dog wouldn’t naturally do. The ones we learn on are set 22″ apart, which was the old standard across all agility organizations. Today, most use 24″ weaves, including both CPE and AKC agility. Learning on 22″ weaves makes running on 24″ weaves much easier for the dog – its not so hard to manage an increase in size, but going down in size is hard.

Wally was a pro at them! We have done weaves at home a few times, but its been months. After 8 tries, 4 in each direction, he already had excellent rhythm. We start weaves with them off-set from a straight line by 6″, this gives a narrow channel for the dog to visually see as they move down the row. We go slowly so the dog can think about how they are moving their body and placing their feet. In the beginning most dogs exaggerate the movement so they are curving their body around each pole. In time they learn rhythm, some dogs do a single foot step forward, angling past each pole with each step, while others do a two footed hop. You usually see the two footed hop (picture a dog jumping forward with front feet together, between poles) in the smaller dogs, while larger dogs do the single step, and either is acceptable though the single foot forward method is more efficient for most dogs.

As a point of reference, it took nearly a year for my Dane to learn any degree of rhythm with off-set weaves. And here is Wally, an uncoordinated goofy puppy, and he already has it. He still has a long way to go on weaves, but I am very excited to see his ability so quickly come together.


Agility: Week 2

Posted by shana on March 23, 2011 in Agility with No Comments

This weeks class we worked on the a-frame set slightly higher and introduced the teeter. The teeter is a tough obstacle for dogs, it requires them to be comfortable on a surface that moves out underneath them, makes a loud sound when it comes down, and has a jarring impact. Any one of those three can be very scary for some dogs, and cause a lot of problems with the teeter. Some dogs don’t seem to ever get comfortable with it. I’ve been lucky with Pixie, she loves the teeter, she’ll go to it on her own if given the chance.

Wally wasn’t too bothered by it, just a bit of normal hesitation after the first time he did it and it lowered beneath him. We hold the moving end so it doesn’t crash down suddenly and its a nice controlled motion down. He naturally lost his balance, and slipped off. The board is narrow and the motion makes it hard for large dogs to stay on at first. But he kept trying, and while cautious about it, wasn’t scared or inclined to refuse the obstacle, so that is a great sign. Over the coming weeks and months we will continue to work on it – decreasing the degree to which we slow the decent, which in turn increase the sound and force of impact. Everyone in our class did very well on the teeter.

Agility: Week 1

Posted by shana on March 16, 2011 in Agility with No Comments

Tonight was our first agility class. We have tinkered on a few obstacles at a local training barn, but for the most part he hasn’t done anything on equipment. Our first class is a 7-week Intro to Obstacles class where we teach the dogs the basics of how to do the obstacles safely. There are four other dogs in our class, an Aussie, a Springer, a Viszla, and a heeler mix. With the exception of the Aussie, who Wally knows from obedience classes, the other dogs are new to him. They also are reactive to dogs. So we all must be mindful of where our dogs are at. The beauty of agility is almost all dogs learn to focus on the course and forget the dogs on the sidelines, even when they aren’t good with other dogs.

We worked on the tire jump, the tunnel, and the a-frame set at about half height. We need to jump the tire jump at about 12″, higher than I want him jumping regular jumps, but because he has to jump through a 24″ hole its easier on his body to jump a bit higher so he doesn’t have to duck down. And since he won’t be jumping it very often, its not a big deal. He leaps off furniture and through the yard, jumping higher than 12″ to do so, a few times in class every couple of weeks won’t hurt him. The tunnel was done short and straight. And the a-frame set with the apex roughly 3 feet off the ground.

Wally was amazing at it all. And the most stunning part was how focused he was on me. Never in all the time I’ve worked with him over the last year, in classes, at home, on walks, has he ever been so completely engaged. He loved it! At the end of every obstacle he would look up at me with such joy, and what seemed like amazement, if I could put into words what he was thinking, I imagine it was that this stuff was so fun and so cool and he couldn’t believe he was going through tubes and over tall objects and through round jumps. He was tired by the end of class, but so happy, I nearly cried! I had expected him to have fun, but I had not expected the connection we had. I’ve had little glimmers of that in obedience and conformation, where his brain turns on and he engages with me, but it lasts, if I’m lucky, a few seconds longer than a minute. To go a full hour long class with him engaged was amazing. Simply amazing. I think he is going to be an awesome agility dog. He’s taking to it like he was born for it!

Why Agility? And what about Obedience?

Posted by shana on March 15, 2011 in Uncategorized with No Comments

I got into agility with my deaf rescue Great Dane, Pixie. So why not try a TM? Wally’s breeders, Dan and Lois, are very supportive and enthusiastic about my plans, they may secretly think I’m crazy, but on the other hand, how cool if we are successful?! My experience with Pixie has encouraged me to try with a very non-traditional agility breed. A deaf dog is both easier and harder than you might think. I haven’t found her challenges any worse than the challenges my friends with hearing dogs have faced. Agility is all about teamwork. You compete against the course, and yourselves. Your dog rarely makes mistakes, failure is almost always handler error. Signal too soon or too late, and you are likely to drop a bar on a jump or send the dog off course. Every dog is different, some need a lot of space, others like to run right next to you, and both have their downsides. Some dogs are fast, some slower, some are more agile than others. Some get stressed and you loose them to stress sniffing or mindless zooming around. Other dogs are quick to frustrate and will leave you far behind, making up their own course for 60 seconds, if you aren’t on top of your game. Every agility competitor has bad days, sometimes you are furious at yourself (or your dog – bad handler!) or frustrated, and emotionally drained. Performance sports take forever to train, and there is always room for improvement. Every one of my agility friends has left the course in tears or nearly so at one time or another – sometimes out of joy, and sometimes out of sadness. But we keep coming back because when its remotely run well, agility is a blast! I may change my tune when I get into competition Obedience, but for now, I don’t think there is any sport that requires more depth in teamwork than agility. You have seconds to complete a course, with your dog off leash, in a highly distracting environment, moving around a course that you have one shot at and not a lot of time to memorize. Its a testament to the human-canine bond that two different species can navigate the course successfully. Can you tell I love the sport?

I knew I wanted to try agility with a TM, and have been eagerly waiting for him to be mostly old enough to start training. To be ready to compete at the novice level, you really should expect to spend about 6 months in weekly classes. Some dogs get there faster, others slower. TMs are massive dogs, not tall like a Dane, but heavier than other dogs their height. They grow slowly and its important you don’t stress their growth plates until they have closed. Wally is 14 months old, way too young to start jumping still, but training agility isn’t about jumping, its about handling. So for the next 6-12 months he will be learning to safely do the non-jump obstacles, and learning to move through jumps set low, at 8″, mastering the handling maneuvers we will need on the course. Turns, u-turns, front and rear crosses, and other handling moves are vital for early agility training. Jumping can come later. There are many opportunities for us to practice competing in a trial environment at fun matches around the area, where he can jump 8″. My hope is to be ready to compete as soon as the vet signs off on jumping him full height. Earning a MACH will take us years, so I want to get started as soon as he’s done growing, so we can retire from agility with his body still in good condition.

But what about competition Obedience? Well…I’m intimidated. That sport requires a lot of precision, a lot. I’ve never trained for it, and I’m intimidated. We are working on it, but its more or less on the side. We will be doing an occasional private training session with our agility instructor, who has competed in obedience in the past. But its not my focus right now. Agility is hard on a dogs body, especially as they age, so I really want to get as far into that as we can as soon as possible. Obedience is not as physically demanding, so waiting to focus on that is ok. In the meantime, we will work on obedience behaviors, and keep obedience in mind while training so he doesn’t pick up bad habits. But its not the focus. Wally is in an Obedience Drill Team with our friends Lindsay and and her Dane, Bess; Kennedy and her Dane, Vegas; and Pam with her Pembroke Corgi, Jewel. Its quite the group, and our routine has yet to feel remotely seemless, but we are getting there. Its a nice way to keep us working on obedience while we focus on agility.

And who can forget Conformation? Wally has been entered in many shows and has an upcoming National Specialty with the American Tibetan Mastiff Association on April 1, 2011. He has 6 out of the required 15 points towards his CH title, including one 4-point major. We will continue to show in conformation locally when possible. Wally has a great time bounding around the ring and generally being unruly, I wouldn’t want to deny him his limelight. Although he says he could do without the hairspray, which he lets us know he hates with howls of protest. Yes, TMs use hairspray, but at least you don’t have to shave their whiskers off! He is about to blow his coat, so we may take a break from shows if he looks awful afterwards. Naked TMs don’t generally show very well, especially the young ones who have yet to develop a good adult coat of guard hairs they retain year round.

Here is Waldorf winning his first Major, and Best of Winners, in Albany OR on February 13, 2011. Special thanks to our judge, Mrs. Pat Hastings.

An Introduction

Posted by shana on March 9, 2011 in Uncategorized with No Comments

My name is Shana, and I live in Portland, OR. In 2005 my husband, Andrew, and I brought home two Great Dane puppies. I grew up admiring the breed, having a few neighbors over the years with the giant dogs. Danes are lovely dogs, with hearts as big as they are. As a child we had a Springer Spaniel, who lived to be almost 17 years old. My Danes were my first dogs as an adult, and I admit I made plenty of mistakes, starting with the breeder we purchased them from. But you live and learn. Through my Danes I have met many great people, some of whom have also had to learn the hard way about choosing a good breeder of purebred dogs. Choosing that good breeder isn’t easy either; its easy to be deceived, misled, and in the end, I don’t think there is a single long-time breed fancier that doesn’t find themselves burned by someone they thought was an ethical, responsible breeder, and even a friend. But that’s life, isn’t it?

In 2006, just a year into owning our first Danes, Andrew announced one day that he wanted a Tibetan Mastiff for his next dog. You have to understand, I’m the dog person, the one who has spent countless hours obsessing over dogs, learning about different breeds and dog activities, medical care and feeding, etc. My reaction to his statement was “A Tibetan What?!” I had never heard of this breed, and was sure Andrew must be referring to some designer mutt. But I looked them up and was immediately spell bound by their appearance. Huge, hairy beasts, ferocious and bold and they intimidated me, just reading about them. But we decided to check out the breed at the next big dog show, the Portland Rose City Classic, held every year in our hometown. The TM was a brand new addition to the breed listing having just been accepted into the AKC in the Working Group. In January of 2007 we sat in the stands watching the few entries trot around the ring. None of the dogs seemed to look the same – different colors, sizes, coat types – but they all were more amazing than we had expected. One bitch stood out, Drakyi Aura of Simba at Dawa. She was unlike the other bitches, a beautiful light gold, her proportions just right. Andrew announced he wanted one just like her. After the breed judging was over we hovered around, hoping to find out who this TM was. Her owner handed us a business card as he and her handler left the area. We filed it away, keeping them in mind as the years passed. Andrew and I talked off and on about TMs, and I visited the Rose City shows again over the next couple of years to see the TMs.

I admit I was very hesitant to bring one of these dogs home. They are, as one Dane breeder said “Very sharp dogs!” and gave me a look like I was crazy to even consider them. I had similar comments from people active in other breeds, like Cane Corsos. I was starting to feel even more concerned about the breed. Are they vicious? Dangerous? Untrustworthy? I had read, and re-read, the info at a million times. The information there explained they are a tough dog, strong willed, strong bodied, independent and fiercely protective. But also very kind to people they know, and safe around accepted strangers. I also knew, from experience training dogs, that even hardwired instinctual behavior can be curbed through consistent training. I spoke with a vast network of dog training professionals, some with experience in the breed and similar breeds. They all agreed, find a breeder with sound temperaments and socialize the heck out of the puppy, and I would be just fine. I was still concerned.

In the fall of 2009, Andrew once again made a dog proclaimation, “We should get a TM puppy soon.” Andrew and I are a good match, I would be inclined to have 10 dogs, while he thinks more moderation is necessary – he helps keep me in check. We had two Danes at the time, one of the original puppies, Mars (the other one, Minerva, unfortunately died from bloat at 3, and suffered from other health related issues), and a rescue Dane, Pixie, from the Deaf Dane Rescue in Eugene, OR. Three dogs, Andrew? Really? I was game, and surprised he was. But who am I to say no?! There were a lot of breeders to choose from around the country, but I wanted to stay close to home. After all, these are difficult dogs, I may need my breeders’ hands on support if we have trouble. I was also interested in showing in conformation, and having never done that before, was hoping to find someone close to mentor me in that area. So, remembering the beautiful Aura, we contacted Dawa Tibetan Mastiffs about a puppy. Amazingly, Aura was scheduled to be bred that breeding season. We met with one of her owners as a local show to talk about the breed, show puppies, and anything else I could think to ask. We met the stud, another local dog, CH Chario Bohemia Bal-Jul of Sierra’s Tibetan Mastiffs, whose personality was to die for. A fierce protector at home, out in the world he was down right playful! The breeders hoped for happy puppies like their daddy, and in January of 2010, they got their wish in 12 adorable, happy puppies. Wally was one of them.

I should have started this blog a year ago, and I did try, but new habits die fast and I just didn’t take the time to write it all down. Instead Wally has a Facebook fan page where he “talks” to his fans about his life. But now that he and I are about to start the long, long, did I mention long?, process of earning AKC performance titles in Agility and Obedience, I felt I should document this process more fully. Many supposedly good sources on TM ownership claim these dogs can’t be obedience trained. Agility? Sure they are physically capable of it, but any kind of off leash activity is beyond them. They make their own way through life, I’m told, choosing not to follow the petty whims of mere humans. But if Orcas can be trained to perform on cue, if Tigers can be trained to willingly comply with blood draws and injections in a zoo, then a dog, even an independent, strong willed dog, can learn to work with people. With that in mind, its time to keep a record, so other TM owners, and owners of independent dogs, can see what it takes to train a champion, and to see it can be done. I hope you enjoy following Dawa’s Where’s Waldorf, “Wally”, and I on our road to a MACH title, and if we are lucky, even an OTCH (though admittedly, Obedience competition intimidates the hell out of me!)

A Note From Shana:

This blog is a journal to record my progress in training a Tibetan Mastiff, known for their independent and untrainable nature, to compete at the highest levels of AKC Agility and Obedience. Succeed or fail, my hope is our journey is inspirational to my fellow TM owners, as well as a source of humor and humility for dog lovers everywhere.

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