An Unlikely Performance Champion

Wally's World

The Golden Gorilla

Posted by shana on May 5, 2011 in Agility, Obedience with No Comments

This is Wally’s nickname, those that know him fully understand it. He’s only a bit more than 100 pounds, but when he puts his weight to full use, you would think a 600 pound gorilla was in his place.

Monday night, the Golden Gorilla was a maniac for our obedience drill team practice. Its amazing I didn’t face plant 100 times with him darting everywhere. He tried to kill a girls soccer ball – her own damn fault for coming over to meet him! Then he tried to kill me on accident as we attempted to move away from the truck – loose leash? What is that mom? I thought we were doing a weight pull? Thank goodness Bess the Great Dane wasn’t there, as she just went into season. I can’t imagine my sweet Gorilla would have been able to think for the few moments I was able to eek out of his tiny tiny Gorilla brain had Bessy been around. And as I complain about my Gorilla, I do need to keep things in perspective. In the past, during our drill team practices, I might get 15-30 seconds of work out of him at a time before I loose him again. This time, in a new place – Gabriel Park in SW Portland, full of grass, dogs walking by, people playing tennis and tennis balls flying all over the place, and skateboarders zipping past – he was really no worse than normal (which is an embarassing thought to express outloud) and he completed both sections of our routine at least once with both enthusiasm and a decent level of correctness. This is a vast improvement over the level of effort he has been able to pull together at any one time outside of the house in the past. The Golden Gorilla may frequently have a tiny, tiny brain, but even tiny brains are capable of a few moments of coherent thought on occasion.

Tiny brain attacked on Wednesday night as well, only this time I think it was due to shrinkage. You see, it is spring, and even in Oregon, in the spring, when it stops raining for a few days the temperature starts to rise and we had a high in the low 70′s. Wally is ok when its 66. He starts panting when its 67, and completely melts at 69. I’m not exaggerating here, my thermostat can confirm, as soon as the house temp goes from 66 (no panting) to 67, he starts panting. At 69 he is pacing and collapsing in various parts of the house, melting. He is a very melodramatic Golden Gorilla with a Tiny, Tiny Brain. The agility barn where we practice is very warm in the summer, and even on comfortable spring days, it gets a bit stuffy inside. The barn is in a rural location, and to keep the neighbors happy, and to legally have a dog business on farm use land, our trainer had to jump through hoops and build a barn fully insulated to keep noise inside, and can’t open a window or door during classes. Wally, er the Golden Gorilla, melted. He planted his butt, whined and panted and refused to eat chicken. Cheese was ok though, go figure. He paced, wouldn’t look at me, couldn’t muster an ounce of motivation. When I could get him up, he walked instead of running. Now again, I should temper my complaints with what he did right. While most of the 35 minutes (short class due to us all being able to work at the same time) he sat and panted and looked tortured, I was able to get a few moments of great engagement and slightly faster than a walk movement out of him as we practiced front crosses through jump standards. So yes, most of the class was a bust, but he had a few moments when he tried and had fun.

I’m hoping he will adjust some to the increasing temperature so we can continue classes until the real heat of summer hits. But we may need to take a hiatus from agility until the fall if he continues to melt when its over 69. I’m a bit disappointed, but perhaps he will surprise me and be more engaged when we are more active in class as we all progress. And there is always obedience work we can do this summer if in fact he can’t handle the heat.

My Golden Gorilla with a Tiny, Tiny Brain really is a good boy, a smart boy, but he’s also turning into a big boy Tibetan Mastiff, presenting me with all kinds of new challenges. I feel about 10 steps behind him in terms of training and where we need to be in order to tackle these challenges, but I wanted a challenge…right?

Agility: Week 7

Posted by shana on April 28, 2011 in Agility with No Comments

For our final week of the Intro to Obstacles agility class, we reviewed the obstacles we’ve learned, and were introduced to the Table. In agility organizations, the Table can have many uses. For Wally and I, we will see the Table in both CPE and AKC agility. In CPE agility, the table is used to stop the timer in games courses – you send the dog to the table once you have completed the course, if the dog goes to the table early, your time ends and if you haven’t completed the course requirements, you are out of luck. So, in training the table for CPE agility, you only want them to understand the cue “Table” means jump up on it, and you don’t want to overly reinforce it to the point where your dog will bee-line to the table every time they see one. For AKC, the Table rules have changed. The Table is used as a pause point in the middle of a Standard course. In the past your dog had to do a 5 second down-stay on the table, an action that is not easy for large or giant dogs as the table isn’t really big enough for them to do this without hanging off one side or multiple sides. Now your dog must stand, sit or down on the table, for 5 seconds, so it gives us big dog people more options.

The Table is an easy obstacle for the most part, and Wally enjoyed lounging on it and observing the room from his perch. We worked on a down stay, and we will see what works best for him in the future.

While we reviewed everything else, I realized the agility honeymoon is over. Remember how I mentioned he was giving me such wonderful attention in those first classes? Yeah, that’s gone. Its still better than normal, but he really wants to play with the other dogs, or go do something else. Until class is almost over he’s rather hyper and unfocused. That will improve with time, but its important for me to remember he has a long way to go and I can’t relax on working with him on the basics. He also seems to have forgotten some things. He tipped right off the teeter, in a very cartoonish way reminding me of those fainting goats, and seemed entirely baffled by the weave poles. He stopped at the exit of both the chute and the tunnel, and looked around the room like he didn’t know how he got there. What a nut.

Now we start the long road of weekly classes. We will begin with short sequences of 2-3 obstacles, and continue to improve our skills on the more complicated obstacles. I realize I may need to take a break during the summer, as the barn becomes very warm and he probably won’t enjoy working when its 80 out. I am hoping it won’t put us back too much, and maybe we will have a cool summer, spring hasn’t exactly been warm. I will need to come up with a good plan to get us through July-August when it heats up.

Agility: Week 4

Posted by shana on April 6, 2011 in Uncategorized with No Comments

Tonight I failed Wally big time. I forgot treats for class! He was appalled that all I had was a baggie of dog kibble, stale no doubt, that I found in the car once we got to class. Luckily another classmate was able to loan me some treats, which Wally approved of.

In addition to continuing to review the other obstacles, tonight was the first night with the a-frame at fully height. Wally needs more of a running start than I gave him, poor guy, so he had to really scramble to get up, and in the process scrambled right off the top onto my head. I survived, and so did he considering I broke his fall. Note to self – give a head start to the huge gorilla. Luckily he wasn’t traumatized by it and had no problem trying again with a better running start this time. He is also getting better about his down at the bottom, as long as I cue it in time. Handling a dog that can hear seems to be presenting me with all manner of new challenges, it makes working a deaf dog seem downright easy! Moving, thinking AND effectively talking are remarkably hard.

We are moving along with the teeter, allowing it to come down harder with more impact and sound. So far he’s doing well, although he has a hard time keeping his feet on the board and maintaining his balance as it falls. Its not easy when your natural stance puts your feet at least 12″ apart, and the teeter board is 12″ wide…

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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