Wednesday, March 6, 2013

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love International

In the eery way that cold, cybernetic eye of YouTube has once it gets to know you, it sent me this oddly appropriate video -- just at the time I was preparing to write my post for the Dog Agility Blog Event - "Internationalization". It's called 10 Jahre Agility (1989-1999) - Teil 1 .

A look at the way we were (and might still be if agility never changed)

Ok, so there is something to be said for the laid back ways (potato sack races in clown suits anyone?) and old time fun and comparative civility of the way agility was many years ago.

What wasn't so great? Non-standardized homemade obstacles, unreasonably high jump heights and fuzzy, unclear handling to name a few.

All of these made the "fun" sport of agility a lot harder on dogs. In the early days it was much more common to see lack of connection and communication between dogs and handlers. It was much more common for careers to waste away before they even had a chance to bloom due to dogs checking out and becoming lost to stress related behaviors such as sniffing, zoomies and just plain refusing to run.

My career with my first agility dog, a rescued Toy Fox Terrier named, Shaunie, never jelled because -- at the time -- I really didn't know how to handle, at least in the smooth, consistent and supportive ways we have available to us today.

And that leads to the point of this particular blogging exercise.

That is, change isn't always bad. It is pretty much guaranteed to be uncomfortable, but usually, if you take the time and patience to adjust to it, you'll soon be very grateful of the lessons it allows you to learn.

Take my early days with Shaunie, for example. I really, really struggled to learn front crosses. I hardly ever did them and in the rare times I did, Shaunie acted as if I was a pedestrian popping up unexpectedly in the middle of the Interstate.

I later got better at them with my next dog, Taylor, and it helped open the door to a more liberated and proactive form of handling.

I first caught a glimpse of International style handling when I came across this jaw dropping slow motion video shot at the splendid horror that was the European Open 2010.

Mud, guts and the splendid horror of EO 2010

I mean, what the #%#$? 

In total, it's a view of what can happen when handlers drive for a prize regardless of cost, obviously. The blunt force of the slow motion makes the point in a way that is impossible to ignore.

But also wrapped within the frames are some moments of brilliant handling, the likes of which I'd never seen before. It opened my eyes to the possibilities of a more fluid way of moving. 

I've come to consider this video a pearl that exemplifies the best and worst of this thing we're uncertainly embracing as agility's future.

End of story? Hardly. 

I started shelling out money for seminars, reading blogs and cruising the net for videos that might carry clues to this whole "International' thing. I started doing flagrant blind crosses (even though I really never stopped doing them after they were "banned' years ago).

I asked questions on this blog about a move I uncovered in a Clean Run post by Mary Ellen Barry on something called the "blended cross". I got an answer in a characteristically crystal clear video produced by Linda Mecklenburg. I found and re-posted videos on all kinds of new training techniques.

But here's the rub: I'm not spandex- wearing youngster. And I don't run a big, fleet-footed dog. So what did all of this mean for me?

My current dog is an elegantly moving, yet reactive and not very drivey Papillon named Samurai. He's quick, but not really, really fast. Would knowledge of International handling be beneficial to our little team?

Samurai's happy (and hard earned) running dogwalk. YOLO!

My response is, "Yes."

Please be reminded that this post appears on a blog called View from 4 Inch and the opinions represented here are those of a toy breed handler.

From my grass-blades-high viewpoint, the main difference between how toy breeds run is that they must run more strides (with advantages AND disadvantages), and most significantly, many more strides in extension. I think that's why so many small breed dogs run out of gas halfway through their runs. And why so many big dog training and handling techniques -- with their greater need for training collection -- tend to cause many toy breed dogs to check out, run slow or poop out.

Because of the tight angles of International courses, many of the International tactics are heavily focused on cuing collection. That means I had to adapt the theories I learned to the way my dogs like to run.

So here's some thoughts I've considered in making the transition, and some ideas on how you might start on the journey yourself:

  • Do try it even if you don't plan on running International style courses. Many techniques, such as the Ketscher turn and blended cross can help you offer clearer collection cues for tight wraps. This gives your dog a better chance to collect in advance of takeoff resulting in a safer landing and turn. Much preferable to shouting "STEP!!" as a dog is landing and it's too late for them to set up a safe and efficient landing.
  • Do use the International trends as an excuse to get yourself and your dog in better shape. It's not just to be stylish, it's better for your health and your dog's safety --  even if you never set a foot on an International course.
  • Do find knowledgeable instruction. Already newbies (at least to International handling) are rushing onto the scenes and into classes offering uninformed instruction. Without understanding the mechanics of something like blind cross handling, students come away with misinformation such as:  a blind cross is an equal substitution for a front cross. Or they might teach "running contacts" without a full exploration of the techniques and effort needed to really build and maintain them. 

  • Don't be a lemming. You know those little furry creatures that jump off a cliff because all their friends did? Yes, try International style, but realize that everyone and every dog is different. For big or fast obstacle focused dogs, a really definite stop gives the best turning cue for the Ketschker or blended cross. However, this didn't work well for my little guys, so after searching out examples of some great little dogs running these turns on YouTube, I discovered that many times, the handlers often continued to show motion while approaching the jump...only backward. I'm not coordinated enough to be a competent backward runner, but I did find that "throwing" the dog backward did make for a nice collected turn -- while still giving him enough of a motion cue to scoot behind the wing.
  • Don't be afraid to experiment. Here's the thing. Many of these "new" handling moves were born spontaneously by great handlers trying to adapt to a situation on course. That the move hadn't been "invented" yet didn't stop them. They did what came naturally and it worked. I've found lately that I've gotten more adventurous about how I communicate with my dog. I'm less likely not to try something because it's not an "official" move. If I feel I have the tools to safely communicate it and it looks like a workable solution, what the heck. YOLO! (Translation: You Only Live Once)
  • Don't stress out. International style handling puts you in close contact with your dog. It's like going on a long car ride with a co-worker. If there's any friction, you're both going to feel it. Be patient with yourself and your team mate during the learning process -- or be prepared for an uncomfortable ride. Once again, don't feel it has to be this or it has to be that. The true beauty of International handling is that it gives you the freedom to improvise in a calculated way. It's kind of like the joy of playing in a jazz band after spending time learning your scales. 

In other words? Damn the torpedoes and bombs away!

So that's my story. Bottom line? Samurai actually prefers and works more consistently with the newer methods than the ones I relied on before. Is our story over? No, I'm not an expert, just an avid learner! 

Let me know how International style is working for you. Especially those with dogs running at 4, 8 and 12 inches. Please share this post if you liked it. If you've got a thought, suggestion or a great video example, leave a comment below!


Elayne said...

That first video has got to be the most horrifying, hilarious, painful, surreal agility video I've ever seen. Poor dogs. And those creepy clown suits ...

ViewFr4Inch said...

Yes, the sport had all the charm of a meat packing plant.

minnow said...

What a great post!! Looking forward to seeing you at more events and we can practice our snazzy steps together. :)

Elf said...

I love watching videos from those early years of agility. It's amazing to think how little anyone knew of the potential stored within both human and dog. I've sometimes wondered what those early handlers would've thought if they'd seen, say, that EO 2010 vid! I can imagine their jaws just hanging open, saying, no WAY!

Thanks for the thoughts and the videos.

afinstrom said...

I run 12" with my girl. It's so true, the running style are totally different from even the 16" dogs. I really can think with the idea of European handlers having to thnk on their feet and imporvise more. And I've run into places on courses where I can see that I could have done that. Instead I went front? Rear? What the heck do I do here! Too stuck into the rigidity of the forms of the things. I think I will be mroe adventurous in future!

Muttsandaklutz said...

Great post! Thanks for sharing those videos too. My sides are still hurting from laughing out loud at the first one! (Of course I know full well that that's exactly what *I* was like too with my first agility dog!)

So interesting to hear your toy dog perspective. My new dog is a little guy -- haven't started agility with him yet but I'm learning there's a lot to learn running a little guy after having run big dogs.

ViewFr4Inch said...

Yes, it brings up some painful memories and kind of makes the point that "fun" of "just for fun" agility (I.e. uninformed handling) isn't especially fun for the dog. Apart from the one point I made about little dog handling, you'll also find that certain obstacle discriminations that a larger dog would stride past will present a bigger target for a little dog. They just have more strides to "notice" it or for a handling bobble to make an impact. They usually have a later point of commitment and so it's often easier to pull them off a jump and harder to get them to send. These are generalizations and some little guys run much like big guys, but it is true for most.