Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Mysteries of Sketch

I am going to share with you some history on "Sketch" (Westurn Solitary Man). Sketch has been quite a 'different' dog through his growing up and learning from an early age. Here I will take you from his very beginning on this earth to just recently ... including the good and not so good bits in this journey ...

Westurn Solitary Man aka "Sketch"

Born June 2005 by cesarean section. The first delivered was a little black and white boy, who was decidedly “blue” due to lack of oxygen. Ticket, the mother had been in labor for several hours and given up. Fortunately we elected to do the Caesar just in time, Otherwise Sketch would never have survived.

There were another two boys and one girl delivered and Sketch was still not breathing … eventually we managed to revive him and he survived, to be one of the sweetest, yet most frustrating and challenging dogs I have ever trained!

The mother was "Ticket" (Maghera Fan the Fire) and the father "Denver" (Borderfame Heart and Soul).

Ticket decidedly did not want to be a mother … she ignored the puppies from day one. We had to wake her and them every few hours and put them on her for a feed. After a few days they went on to bottle feeding as Ticket had no interest in caring for them whatsoever. She wouldn’t even clean them - basically dis-owned them. Therefore, they were handled an awful lot and we took it in shifts to feed and toilet them as they grew into strong, healthy puppies.

As a litter, these puppies did not seem to interact, either with each other or with people. Looking at them at six weeks old I didn’t really “like” any of them … none of them “grabbed” me. Of course, they were gorgeous little cuddly puppies but on a personal level, they were just another litter of puppies! Sounds cold and calculated doesn’t it? But that’s how it felt. We kept two of them … “Kota” and “Sketch”.

Sketch began his foundation training for agility and obedience almost immediately. Once he was old enough, and once we knew that the other boy, Kota, had both his testicles and his hip/elbow scores were OK we would sterilize Sketch.

We began our journey …

Having previously had great success with clicker training and free-shaping behaviors for agility performance I started Sketch off with the clicker. He seemed to be a happy, content little puppy … not “over the top” but a happy little trainer and he appeared to enjoy the training.

He was more interested in food than toys. We still played with toys to maybe develop some interest however, Sketch preferred to play with toys on his own, not sharing with or bringing them back to me. So they became a permanent part of my reward, only when with me, he was not allowed to have them without me being part of it. His interest in toys never really changed. He still prefers to play with them on his own!

When he was 3 months old we had the Agility Nationals 2005 in Perth. We also had the pleasure of an international guest, Jo Sermon from the UK, conducting agility seminars here at the time. Jo spent some time with us and also some time showing me how to teach a quick response with accurate clicker and timely rewards. Jo demonstrated this by teaching Sketch a very quick “down” … he basically goes “splat” on the ground when you ask him to “down”. We worked this for a number of other behaviors and Sketch enjoyed learning tricks and short duration behaviors … we were still getting to know each other.

Sketch learnt all the necessities of sit, down, stand, short bits of heeling (on both left and right). He could run through ladders with ease, contact behaviors were accurate and fast, he quickly learnt the difference between the see-saw and dog-walk. He learnt to “scoot” – where he would lay down in front of me and shuffle backwards in a down – very cute! He could even jump from the ground up into my arms … he was so agile in many ways and I enjoyed teaching him … I was looking forward to our future together.

As time went on we started jump training – a fairly structured program based on Linda Mecklenburg’s articles in Clean Run magazine. Sketch was almost 12 months old and we progressed to full height, single jumps fairly quickly. Single jump training lasted a couple of months and Sketch seemed happy with it all, progressing nicely, and developing his own “style”.

We free-shaped the weave poles. It took him a long time to work it out on his own but we got there eventually, not too many repetitions but regular sessions slowly adding the number of poles to the line. He struggled with speed thru the poles, he tried, but seemed to get all tangled up … it was like he really had to think about where his feet were going and where his body was going next. He looked like he was trying to weave poles that were too close together but he is no way too long to weave with speed … I assumed he was just a little un-coordinated and, given time, he’ll work it out himself. After all, his ladder work was brilliant!

We progressed the jump training to introducing lead-outs, turns after a jump and additional jumps over the next few months. I probably didn’t proof the start line stay enough and Sketch wasn’t real happy being left as I lead out to a jump. Looking back now, I should have known better and proofed stays much better first – but it was fixable.

At this point, Sketch started to slow down in a way that he was very cautious jumping and not keen to jump. I stopped jumping him totally at this point and concentrated more on other fun things we could do in obedience.

His heelwork was never intense … he heeled, and that was it. He was always checking out the surrounds as he heeled, his eyes flicking back and forth, and he was easily distracted. We did minimal heeling, just perfecting 100% attention for 1 step, 2 steps, 1 step, 3 steps, and so on. Progress was slow.

Sketch was favoring one of his front legs, with a slight limp and this came and went over a couple of weeks. It was the same leg he had hurt at around 6 months old when playing rough with another puppy (at that time it only lasted a day). We took him to visit Liz Franks, Trigger Point Therapist, who worked on him over a period of two months. He improved and seemed OK, actually he seemed a little happier.

By this time I feared that I had somehow “broken” him … Did I over work him/ask too much of him? Did I miss something important, that I shouldn’t have? Did I do something wrong??? Have I ruined his chances for a performance future? I don’t know the answers but I do know I was feeling quite to blame at this point … maybe I should have read this dog better and known that he couldn’t or wasn’t coping? I am so self-centered? … Should have I known my dog better!?

In January 2006 we were lucky enough to have Stacy Peardot-Goudy visit for agility seminars and I asked her advice on Sketch’s jumping issues and why it had changed so quickly. I explained the history. By this time Sketch was 18 months old.

Her first suggestion was to go back to very basic single jumps and build it up again slowly … so we did.

I stopped training obedience for a while, to ensure he was not under too much pressure, plus he didn’t seem to enjoy it anyway.

He didn’t seem to enjoy the jumping much either … he would do what I ask him twice, maybe three times then he would run to the back door of the house or run over to the side of the yard and eat the grass. This was becoming more regular and I wondered if he was in some sort of pain.

We took him to see Tracy Hockley, Bowen Therapist. The muscles around the shoulder he had hurt earlier were quite sore, and the thoracic part of his spine and opposite back leg also needed some work. We had a follow up visit with Tracy who felt at that time he should be OK now. He was happy and looked comfortable in himself.

Sketch slept in my bedroom in a crate, although he never had freedom in my room. At around 20 months old I went into my room to let him outside … he seemed to be in a daze, I called his name a second time and he lifted his head, got up, stepped outside the crate and fell to the floor on his side. He seemed to be having a fit or seizure of some kind … his eyes rolled and his breath was short. His legs moved slightly like he was running … I called Rene to come quickly and help. By the time she got there he had stopped and slowly lifted his head and looked at us as if to say “what are you all staring at?” … I don’t think he even knew that anything had happened.

For a while there I also thought he had a sensitive stomach and he often had vomited or had diarrhea for no obvious reason … this came and went and at present is OK. After checking with vet’s we still don’t know what caused/causes it.

Sketch had a break from any serious training … I didn’t know what to do and I certainly wasn’t going to “make” him do things just to make me happy … we just played around with things that didn’t matter …

At times I would explain him as depressed. I’m not sure dogs can get depressed but he seemed sad a lot of the time. Otherwise, he seemed healthy … eating well, coat looked good, good muscle tone, and socially calm around the rest of his pack. He did not display any dominance towards other dogs and mixed well when meeting other/strange dogs, usually offering a play bow or such.

Sketch learnt to retrieve a Frisbee. This was quite an accomplishment, seeing that he preferred to take toys away and play with them on his own … so we traded treats for the Frisbee and he soon learnt that bringing it back earned a reward. When I threw the Frisbee he would only trot after it, wait till it landed and pick it up but he would run back to me with it. Obviously chasing it was not very exciting to him but he liked the reward. Sketch still can’t catch the Frisbee … he tries to – snapping at the air nowhere near it and then it lands on the ground where he doesn’t expect it to land. It’s a game and he seems to enjoy it in his own, laid-back way.

We introduced the dumb-bell … thinking this was more of a “trick” to him than “work”. Taking Shirley Chong’s method of the shaped retrieve we started from the beginning. I managed to shape a nice “pick up the dumbbell and roll it around in your mouth” behavior. Closely following this was the tossing the dumbbell up in the air and flicking his head backwards! Very funny but definitely not the behavior we wanted!!! I was unable to get a solid “hold” on the dumbbell – either my clicking was too slow or Sketch didn’t know how to hold something without mouthing it. We stopped training this exercise until I could work out how to fix the problem!

I talked to lots and lots of people, still feeling like it was my fault, and feeling like a failure that I couldn’t train this dog. After talking with Jill & Amanda Houston about Sketch they asked me to bring him to the next trial to see if they could help me with his obedience.

Amanda has been most encouraging and always seems to find the glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. She showed me how to change my approach and put a whole new light on heel-work. Sketch showed some signs of enthusiasm and actually looked like he was enjoying himself … almost like he was saying, “why didn’t you tell me what you wanted?”

We started practicing some agility again, with multiple jumps but simple lines, nothing too hard. He was still not overly keen to jump, almost like he had to think really hard for each jump, and he often slipped over when trying to turn after jumping. I tried to keep turns at a minimum.

We were enjoying our obedience training and he was gradually improving. He learnt slowly, and I had to keep it interesting without showing my disappointment if he didn’t do what I wanted him to do. All we worked on was large, right about circles … lots of them!

Whenever I could I would take him along to the agility trials and Amanda always took the time to check out what we were doing and where we were at, and regularly offering advice to help us progress. Sketch seemed happy and his duration heeling was growing.

In this time he had also learnt to weave thru my legs, in a figure 8 while I stood still.

We slowly built up our duration of heeling with focus, and slowly it was. In the meantime we added some returns, worked on our stays and recalls and just easy, simple stuff.

Sketch seemed to be enjoying his obedience work so we started to do some agility again … he knew all the skills so we just did novice sequences, and not too often … just once or twice in each session and we stopped before he stopped enjoying it.

Now nearly 2½ years old I thought it time we had a go at entering a trial so we entered our first agility and jumping trials (Sketch’s first time, not mine!) I thought it might give him a bit of confidence and maybe help him grow up a little more … no pressure on him, just the chance to expose him to the formalities of a trial and give us both a sense of achievement (I can find an achievement in every agility run – regardless of the end result) … so it would be good for both of us.

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