Wow, an amazing weekend. I'm a bit exhausted, and there is so much to tell, so I thought I'd break this up into parts - and try to blog a bit more consistently! This first bit is going to focus on the Rally side of things - some of the technical stuff I want to get down while its still relatively clear in my head.
First of all, big thanks to the Albury & Border Kennel Club for putting on such a great trial. They have great facilities, friendly folks and their trial consisted of two days of Obedience, AND two days of Rally. Lots of folks commented on how their own club doesn't have the same level of commitment to Rally, but they had so much fun that they are planning to do a lot more Rally. Which made me really happy, because Rally is where I've really enjoyed Obedience.
On Saturday Czar and I arrived in Albury about 10am and helped set up with my friends H (aka Milo, Flash and Sophie's mum) and JB (also known as Enya and Nancy's mum) - we had a gazebo, five dog crates, three camping chairs and a random collection of bags, leashes, treats and other bits and bobs for our six dogs.
At 11am we signed in and started looking at the course. A Rally O course is made up of a series of stations, that we get to walk through, firstly individually and then with the judge, so we understood all of the instructions, before the competition started at 12. I was really relieved to see that I'd already practiced almost all of the stations at Knox, and the only new one was #13: Fast Forward From Sit, which was pretty clear and easy anyway.
Prior to the course, Czar was watching me, following instructions, wagging his tail and looking really happy. Mind you, I had a handful of sausage pieces and devon cubes, and he was very happy to perform for treats. Two, three stations at a time between treats, no problem. But, once we got into the course, we were not allowed to be carrying/giving any treats, any corrections on the lead, any intimidating commands... the dog was expected to perform. Guess what Czar did?
One of the sayings about huskies is that their ears are "painted on". And once we got into the ring, that's exactly what Czar looked like. I became invisible to him, and in every station, he stared off into space and ignored me.
The judge, Ms Looker, was very helpful, with encouragement while we were in the ring and great feedback verbally and in writing afterwards. I absolutely agreed with her assessment that we didn't meet the Minimum Requirements, even though I was dying to show her how Czar would perform for rewards.
The upshot was that I ended up hauling Czar around on the lead. In seven stations, the judge marked me as having the lead tight or checking the dog. Often this was because Czar walked past me or didn't follow me into a turn. His beautiful heeling behaviour had disappeared completely.
And when I asked for a sit or a drop, he stared past me, and it took at least three requests to get a behaviour. In stations #2, #6 and #13, the judge wrote "slow to sit". The only sit that was prompt was station #9, and then the return to the right was "slow to finish". We failed (had all ten points deducted) stations #2, #8 and #11. The only station that didn't get deductions from was #4, a 90 degree left turn that I think I nudged Czar through with my knee, in sheer desperation!
Several people had told me to remember the do-over, and I did, but we were told we had a limit of two do-overs. #5 and #8 were the ones I picked, because they were longer exercises with several components to work on. I'm now wondering if that was a good choice, since the repeat seemed to reinforce the bad behaviour? Something to ponder.
After we were done, it was a pleasure to watch other people do it - so many dogs with lovely heel work, prompt sits and happy wagging, alert demeanors!
I'd had several conversations with trainers and dog friends about the dangers of getting too frustrated or disappointed in obedience. Several friends had pointed out that I am a very harsh self-critic and expressed concern that I would be very upset and discouraged by a first run that hadn't met my ridiculously high standards. I had ignored some very good advice to wait until my obedience skills were better, and I knew I needed to find the positives and learn from this experience. For the rest of the afternoon and the next morning, I did little bits of work with Czar (after regaining some composure!) and had several people watch and discuss the pros and cons of different methods, get me to try different techniques and even learn a new trick.
From one of these discussions, I felt a lightbulb moment about the difference between treating and luring. (I'm sure several of my instructors at Knox will grown at my denseness, since this is something they've been trying to explain for ages.) Luring the dog into the correct position is one of the ways to teach a dog to associate a particular hand gesture and/or command word with a particular behaviour. However, once the dog understands the command, luring needs to cease and treating needs to begin. This means keeping the treats in the other hand or in a pocket, and only giving them to the dog once they have completed the behaviour. I realised immediately that I'd been luring far too long, and Czar hadn't learnt to complete the behaviour without being shown the treat. At home, he understood that the treat might come after a delay (I'd been leaving the treats on the dining room table and fetching them every couple of exercises) but at dog school, I'd been dealing with the high distraction environment by returning to luring, when I should have been getting his attention through games or other means, and then rewarding the focus.
I felt like I needed to go away and work on this for another six months, before going through the public agony of a trial again. I felt that if I got that frustrated and upset again, I'd be very close to losing my cool. I stated several times to several different people, including J back in Melbourne, that my intention was to scratch from Sunday's competition. However, H and JB needed me to help with the other five dogs, so I stayed on. The Obedience competition on Sunday ran on and on. Suddenly it was 11am and my early start back to Melbourne had pretty much been lost. But was it worth the agony again?
H dragged me out to the carpark to harass one of the obedience trainers from Bendigo. To demonstrate my concern, I handed my treat bag to H and took Czar through the exercise from station #2. The trainer pointed out that I wasn't using my voice very well. In Rally, you are allowed to talk to the dog, and encourage the dog. I tried again, this time using a higher voice and using his name a lot. I secretly hate this "baby talk" approach - I find it cute when other people do it, but I feel silly doing it myself, especially in front of people I don't know. Given the time, and the fact that the Rally course kept drawing my eye, I gave up. I really wanted to have another go, knowing that sled racing was going to take over the next several months. I'd come all this way. I could at least try the advice I'd been given. I could reward Czar when we came out of the ring, regardless of his performance, and see if he could understand that the ring could be a fun place to be... if you can defer the reward til the end.
The second course was very similar, but added in a simple sit #1 and a reverse 1 step, 2 step, 3 step at #12. There was a walk from the edge of the ring to the start marker, and I took it at a jog to see if I could rev Czar up. It didn't work as well as it had in the carpark, but this time I got a sit at the start marker. This time, when the judge asked if I was ready, I had a big silly grin on my face and answered yes confidently. I might be out there with a deaf husky, but I was going to enjoy myself, dammit!
We still got an NQ, and still failed two stations. But we improved by over ten points. This judge didn't give as much feedback, but his notes included no penalties for stations #2 - #4, #8 or #11. Yay! We moved at a faster clip, and there was definitely some improvement in the weaving at #2. We only lost 5 points at the spiral in #6. Both of these had been full deductions the day before. Double yay!
The faster pace didn't help with stations #10 (repeating our full ten point deduction at #2 the previous day) and #12, which was the same concept, but walking backwards and asking the dog to sit in front. For these, really good focus is the key, with the dog watching the handler's body language, and sitting automatically when the handler stops. At home, Czar performs these very well. In the ring, his focus was on the horizon, and I had to repeatedly check him with the leash to stop him surging past me. He did sit the four times for station #10, but with a little whine each time - "mum, whyyyyyyyyyy?". By the time we got to station #12, he was refusing to even sit. I tried to restart, re-focus him, but without success. Oh well. We moved on to the end of the course, and got a round of applause from the stewards' tent.
H handed me the remaining treats, and Czar suddenly switched on. I got his happy face, wagging tail at last, too late, but better late than never. I had my happy face on too. I had managed to keep my cool, laugh at my mistakes and celebrate our improvements. One day, I might even be brave enough to look at H's video!