Friday, May 14, 2010

"think harmony with dogs"

As folks who read this blog know, while I have been blessed with the external success that comes with good dogs earning titles and ribbons, I am still struggling to get The Mominator's feet absolutely still while he is in a 'stay' (or when I walk up to flush a bird when he is on point).

I have been doing a little yardwork every day -- and sometimes he is a dream. Other times he will step as I walk up to him to pet him; other times, he will step because he thinks he's going to get a treat. Part of my general approach has been trying to minimize the negative pressure and, instead, upping the positive reward -- whether in the form of a biscuit treat or stroking his back. And I am embarrassed to say that this very-quickly learned behavior (of expecting a treat) drives me bats*&^t -- because he clearly understands what he was supposed to do, and is therefore trying to preempt his reward. This is a similar behavior to his creepy feet on point -- he wants to try and preempt the reward that comes from retrieving a bird. In the case of his recent yardwork, I am embarrassed to say that I have lost my temper -- it's not like I'm beating him, but I hate to raise my voice and I hate to see his anxiety come when I can't control my own frustration. And I know it is primarily a frustration with myself, for the inability to communicate that (ironically) all I want is for him to do nothing when he's stopped.

However, I have been trying to internalize some of the advice of legendary horseman, Ray Hunt, who sadly recently passed away. And so, following my line of trying to be honest about my mistakes in the hope that others might not make them, I share some of Ray's wisdom from his book Think Harmony With Horses (1978):

"When you ask your horse to do something it should be his idea... As you work with your horse, see how much of this is the horse's idea, or how much of it is your idea and if he is forced into it. If he's not forced into it, you'll see a great attitude. Your idea should become his idea, and when it does, then there will be no drag." (pp. 1-2)

"The way to do it is to work on yourself, to recognize and understand the situation... You make the wrong things difficult and the right things easy as you adjust to fit the situation. If the rider is alert and aware and in a learning frame of mind, the horse can be the same." (p. 2)

Ray outlines some great examples for how to put a horse in training 'in a bind' -- to make doing the wrong thing more difficult -- and then giving it an opening -- to make the right thing easy, as if it were the horse's own idea. The challenge, of course, is that standing still is not something that comes entirely naturally to either a domesticated prey (horse) or predator (dog) species. But reading Ray later in the book talking about anticipating a horse's move gives me some new ways to think about how to undo what is a minimally two-year learned behavior for The Mominator. For example, though, I realize that Momo loves to retrieve almost as much as he loves food -- and he knows that he can't break when a bird is thrown (or shot) out in front of him. So I have been making him stop and stand still for his dinner -- and, in an effort to reward his keeping his head faced forward even when I'm close to him, tossing a frozen quail from 2' behind him and making him stand to go get it.

And it reminds me that I need to be willing to learn -- arguably more so than to teach.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

numerous highlights

It's been a busy two weeks here at the Regal Vizsla -- and I am looking forward to summer so I can hopefully recover a little!

First of all, we had our Connecticut Valley Vizsla Club Spring horseback field-trial up at Flaherty Field. This is the second year I have been on the organizing committee and it makes a huge difference to be part of an experienced team, all focused on keeping a busy event running smoothly. Which was entirely necessary bearing in mind we had 150 starters to run -- including folks from as far south as VA and as far north as Ontario. I had entered both my dogs, as much as anything to reward them for their patience -- and to see how each of them was progressing. Momo will likely never be a field-trial contender, but he is also no boot-licker and he loves to run in front of a horse; Jozsi is a locomotive who I wanted to see how his tail was coming along and whether he was developing patience; I had also offered to run Ottla in both Amateur Walking Puppy and Open Puppy to see how she, too, was coming along.

In short, I had a ball with Momo -- he was one happy dog, got his 30mins in, had two clean finds, and slept like a baby. Jozsi had roughly 12mins of glory: in which time, he had explored most of the backfield and Tobacco Row, and had two finds -- the second of which was a fur + feather combo. Sadly, as I was conferring with the judge as to how much effort he needed me to make on his second find -- a clearly visible, wet bird -- Jozsi decided to take three or four steps. And so, he came to understand the vital lesson that a dog with fancy feet becomes a dope on a rope -- and his big happy running comes to an end. With two others of her littermates present, it was interesting to note that Ottla's desire to play with her bracemate appears to be a characteristic of her litter. She has fantastic ground-speed and threw a wicked point on a hotspot during her AWP run -- but in both stakes was too easily distracted by the other handler's whistle and would then run with her bracemate. This is hardly terrible news, that a 7mos old might not be quite able to distinguish between a bracemate and a playmate, but it would have been great to see her apply herself fully forward.

I spent the first two days almost entirely on a horse -- Travis, to be exact -- planting birds. While even a good wrangler's horse like Travis can be a pain sometimes when it comes to planting birds, he and I spent 25braces together in the first two days. My own personal highlights from the first two days were watching Greg Ritching's Huck win the OLGD stake (Huck also won the OGD stake and finished his FC) and Dave Pomfret's setter, Specter, take 2nd in the All-Age. By the time Sunday came around, I was slated to run my two dogs, Ottla in OP, and to help my field-trial fairy godmother, Joan Heimbach, as her scout and horse-tender while she ran her two dogs, Octane and Geena, in both the AGD and ALGD stakes. And it had started to rain. The dust of the first two days became the mudfest of the third. I get almost as much enjoyment out of supporting Joan in my role as 'chair-man' as she does continuing to run her own dogs from a horse -- although by Sunday afternoon, trying to figure out how to hold her dog, hold her horse, get the mounting stool and give her a boost while standing in sloppy mud was making me feel like a contortionist. Happily, I had arranged to borrow Larry the Wonderhorse from my friend, Kim, for the day... a horse who will happily stand still in one spot with his reins dropped while guns are fired and birds are flushed. And as frosting, Geena took 3rd in AGD! This picture is of my lovely Whites boots (complete with some lovely spur straps from my friend, Kent, at Snow Canyon Outfitters) trying to recover from the slop.


In other news, we headed up to Cape Cod this past weekend to attend the Mayflower GSP Club hunt test at Crane WMA. I was scheduled to finish up my SH/MH apprenticeship on the Saturday and then run Momo in MH on Sunday. It was great to meet up with a bunch of old friends -- Jeff +Val, Bill, Manny + Steph, Mike + Kim -- and have a nice time camping out. I love the grounds at Crane and was especially grateful to Jen + Dennis for bringing their horses over to the grounds so we could run the two hotshots, Jozsi and Tucker, once the hunt tests were done.

And it was a real pleasure to watch the two youngsters rip out for the edges. Jozsi held it together for two finds (the second of which had Tucker backing like a champ), interspersed with an honor of his own, before lighting out for the horizon, skidding to a halt, and then taking steps on a running quail. At least he stopped to flush... and then became a dope on a rope once again. I have a training plan for both boys that starts tomorrow.

It was a good weekend for friends and their dogs: Kyler earned her third MH leg, Cedar his second and third SH legs, Raven earned two legs of her SH, Kevin Smith's Clay earned another JH leg, and Jose Roman's Heidi earned a couple more JH legs. And Momo earned his fifth MH leg... and so, pending official AKC recognition, he is henceforth to be known as Widdershins Momchil MH VC.

I love this dog, as stubborn as he can be. There would be no Regal Vizsla blog, no two-dog box in the truck, no trips to Maine to chase grouse, or trips to VA to watch other people's red-dogs run, no chaps, spurs, and Packer boots, and so many other things without this dog. He has his flaws, but his strength of character and the strength of his genes have meant that we were both able to get this far together. And while thanks certainly go to all the judges who watched him run and saw all the great things about him, here's a raised glass to 'The Mominator.'