Monday, January 01, 2007

SHUT DOWN!

I have had a lot of ups and downs with Wyatt in agility and this weekend was no exception. Wyatt is about 10 Q’s away from his CPE agility championship. During the competition this weekend, he did not want to run; something I have never experienced before at a trial. He has typically been a very high drive, high motivation dog especially for a whippet. He has always been a fearful dog but his desire to work with me and to jump has seemed to overcome his fear. He tends to be a bit of a kamikaze and I worked with him for years to get a good 2 on, 2 off contact.

Looking back, I see that there were signs that we might be in trouble as team; signs I minimized or ignored. It is a terrible feeling to see your teammate not want to play with you. I do have faith this will be one of the many things I have worked through with Wyatt. However, one always fears the worst case – that his career could be over.

THE WEEKEND

We went up early for run throughs Friday night to a new beautiful new facility near Saratoga Springs, New York. I wanted to do everything I could to make Wyatt feel comfortable in a new place. Our first run was a little tentative but not bad. On the second run, he started to show some signs of stress and slowed down and may have stopped before a jump until I coaxed him over. On the third run, I really increased my praise after every jump and obstacle and we had a much better run. He used to be a dog I could run very quietly with. So it seems like he needs more praise and encouragement right now.

For the first run on Saturday, he hesitated going into the ring and I gave a little leash correction to get him moving. This has been something I have also been seeing in class. Typically, I can both take pressure off the lead and encourage him to come with me or give a little tug and encouragement at the same time to get him going in class. This is a new behavior though and one I was worried about. I believe it started early fall of 2006.

In any case, he started running out of the ring when I took off the leash or would refuse to jump over the first jump and would run back out when I turned around and/or started moving back towards him. I ran out and grabbed him and kind of tossed him over the first jump but he still ran back. On the next run changed to For Exhibition Only (FEO) and ran him on leash and was very positive when he went over a few jumps. I kept it short.

We also tried having Dawn run him on Saturday and she experienced the same behaviors of running out of the ring.

I then tried taking his leash off partway through the run but he would not go over a jump off leash. On another run, I got him over the first jump but he stalled on the A-Frame and I could not get him off. When I moved towards him, he headed back over the A-Frame. Heading outside on Saturday, he even ran away from the practice jump and I had difficulty coaxing him over the practice jump. I could get him going eventually by leading him close to the jump on leash and then using treats. I also did a bunch of deconditioning around the ring entrance where the biggest stress seemed to be occurring. But I am wondering if my picking him up and tugging his leash may have exacerbated the problem on Saturday. I also wonder if I may have forgotten to release him. I have worked with Wyatt on not releasing until he hears the specific word OK. I will occasionally forgot and expect him to go, which I am sure confuses him. And then having me really stress out and carry him into the ring may have made the problem much worse.

On Sunday, I was hoping that he would be OK but had the same issue. Though he seems fine warming up, he again stressed out when crossing into the ring. So I changed him to FEO and did a couple jumps, tunnels, and obstacles on leash and left on a positive note. After the run, he did not show signs of stress on the practice jump, which was encouraging. On the next run I did the same thing but tried to get him to run off leash again without luck. On the next run, I though I would get him away from the start and take him off leash at the end of ring heading back. Sure enough that worked, and he has nice obstacles and jumps off leash on the way back. We got a big cheer since folks knew I was struggling all weekend especially friends that have seen Wyatt “smoke” many a course. I was still seeing stalling on contacts, which clearly is a sign of stress as I have done a lot of retraining of contacts at home.

THE WARNING SIGNS

Wyatt crashed into a triple jump at the National Whippet Specialty April of last year. He limped off but appeared fine for jumpers when I tried him on the practice jump. He crashed into it again in jumpers. He tends to take off early and will very occasionally knock a bar especially on a triple jump. I bought an AKC style triple for home which he has been fine on. I added the word “big” before “jump” to indicate a double or triple jump.

We adopted a baby boy in June. Wyatt seems to adjust fine. We still practice obedience, rally, and agility every day.

At a summer trial, I remember having a stressful weekend with the baby and having a tough weekend especially on the first day. Wyatt crashed into a jump when I was wrapping him around it tightly during a snookers run.

This summer, Dawn dropped a hardcover book on Wyatt. He was sleeping under a blanket on his dog bed at the side of our bed at the time. He panicked and ended up stepping on Patriot on an adjacent dog bed. The exact details are unknown but they ended up in a fight resulting in 5 stitches for Wyatt. Wyatt was upset for quite a while though seems fine with Patriot now. He took off a week or more of agility but seemed OK after that.

Sometime in the fall, I started seeing him resisting starting agility. I remember this starting before he fell off the dog walk in November. However troubling, I could easily get him going with a little rug, relaxing the lead, and/or doing a little cheerleading/moving forward. I have noticed him heading towards the exit on occasion during class especially if I am stressed about something.

At the Conway CPE trial (our home ring) in mid October, he has a great weekend with 6/8 qualifying runs and lots of high placements but I did recall that seeing the resistance to going into the ring. At a trial a few weeks later, he did stop running at one point during jumpers (I was shocked because he loves jumpers so much) but attributed it to a very late run in a dark, damp barn. I did coax him over the jump he stopped in front of. All in all, we had a pretty good weekend as I recall. I do remember feeling stressed with the baby on Saturday.

In November, he fell off the dog walk during a routine practice. We shook it off and ran the dog walk again but it was a good fall. After that, there was a definite resistance to going to the yard to practice. He has previously shown some resistance to the front yard after a Frisbee fall he appeared to work through that. I started to have to bribe him to play. I developed a “find it” game where I throw a treat for him to find. Typically once I get him down to the first field (jumpers and weaves), he is fine and wants to do agility. I would also lure him down to the field with a treat sometimes but this did not work as well. I am wondering now if I inadvertently was reinforcing his fears. Did I train him to not work without a specific bribe of the “find it” game first? I did notice initially even more resistance to going down to the lower contact field. Gradually, I worked with him so that less and less of a bribe was required to get him to do agility so I was pretty confident going into this weekend’s trials. I was did a lot of contact work so that stalling on the A-Frame was down to a very occasional occurrence. I also worked a lot of tunnel/contact discrimination. He was getting really drawn to contacts probably due to all the contact work we have been doing. This too was very much improved in the last few weeks.

One side note is that I have resorted to blocking him from going up contacts a few times in the last few months (once especially in class on a particular start). This seemed to really cause some stress. He seems to stall right away when he see I am not moving towards him. I have been unsure of what to do in this case; I have sometimes had to bribe him down with by showing a treat. I have tried not to treat him for being off course and have improved with this but used to sometimes treat him by mistake when he went up an unwanted contact. I also have realized recently that have inadvertently trained him to go right back up over a contact. When training him to drive to the end of contacts, I used to rapidly switch directions and head right back over. I did use his release word but he got very used to going up and down and was heading right back over contacts if my body started turning anywhere backwards towards the contact again.

In early December, we went to some run throughs at a new facility in Connecticut. His first run was tentative and he crashed the final triple jump. I took him back over it but his next run; he did not want to run. I recall using treats to get him started again on the second and third runs but seeing the jump refusals. I attributed his initial tentativeness to the lack of gates on the side of the ring and some barking dogs close to ringside. Now I wonder if there was more going on.

I also recall during November that Wyatt had trouble starting a rally run. He would not sit and then would not initially start heeling with me at the start.

At runs throughs during class last week, I don’t recall any special issues or problems.




QUESTIONS

• Should we take a complete break from agility? If so, for how long?
• Should I take him to class this week and see how he is? I probably will.
• What should I do if he resists starting his run?
• If I trial with him (FEO), what should I do if he runs out of the ring?
• Should I not use treats during warms up and only reward after a run?
• I wonder if the extra stress of trialing with the baby is increasing my stress enough to affect Wyatt’s stress level? Ironically, he seems less nervous at trials than he used to be but the stress may be showing up in the ring and not on the sidelines.
• I have been, at home, class, and at trials, been “making” Wyatt go all the way to the end of the contact since he tends to start stopping higher and higher up especially at trials. However, this seems to be a stressor so I am wondering the best way to handle it and if I should relax this criterion (for now) at trials.
• Should I crate him at class? This would be just like a trial and would bypass some of the avoidance behavior I see when I walk courses with him at class.


TENTATIVE PLAN

• Cut back on agility practice, classes, and trials and/or take a complete break from agility for a while.
• Put a jump close to the cellar door and only treat after he as gone over the jump. Just work with that one jump for a while. Be very positive for coming out to play without a bribe. Set up gates in the yard and make sure he is OK going through the gates to a faux start line without having to treat him.
• Make sure he is warmly dressed before doing agility in the winter.
• No more “find it” game with treats to get him to play agility.
• Cut back on obedience until he is into agility again and/or only do obedience after agility.
• Do as many run throughs and possible. Do trials FEO until enthusiasm is restored. Use the leash to start him and try to wean off the leash until he can start again without it.
• Eliminate or cut down on warm up treats especially at trials. Increase value of treats. For Wyatt, cheese and steak are the highest value treats.
• Consider using toys more. Use the rabbit skin on a string as a reward instead of food sometimes.
• Play with Wyatt in the yard around the equipment. This consists of throwing toys, which he chases, takes a victory lap around with, and retrieves. I have been doing on this on occasion but could do more.
• No triples at runs throughs or trials unless I can practice it first or lower the bars.
• Continue to practice the triple at home.
• Always warm up with the practice jump before a run.
• Try trialing him without the baby.
• Do not run when I am stressed.
• Change my goal from a C-ATCH (or whatever) do my dog having a good time.
• Reward releasing more strongly in obedience and agility.

FOOTNOTE

I placed a jump close to the cellar door yesterday and Wyatt went right over and it the agility fields without a need for a bribe, game, or treat. He then ran very enthusiastically even though the weather was cold and wet.

2 comments:

chinabound98 said...

Sorry to hear you're having a rough time. The first thing that comes to my mind is that I'd want to have him checked out by a chiropractor. Agility is hard on dogs and no doubt, he has some subluxations (normal for any athlete). Might be that the wear and tear has taken them to a point where it's not super comfortable for him -- not enough that you'll see lameness, but he may be feeling it nonetheless. Get him in for a good adjustment. My performance dogs go 4x a year just to keep them properly aligned. All the chiropractors I've worked with all say that when a performance dog starts refusing jumps, etc. that's a big sign that something is out of whack orthopedically. Just some food for thought. Hope it all works out for both of you.

John Heffernan said...

Thanks... I forgot to write that I did have him checked after the November fall but maybe I should try again with someone different... My feeling is that this is mental but I could be wrong...

Thanks again for the comment!