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 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!

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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