Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Dog Days of Summer and Training Cycles

There are peaks and valleys of disc activity for the Supernova team throughout the year. Many of them are weather dependent, as the extreme cold of January and February in Vermont drive our training indoors and our outdoor activities involve cross country skis and snow shoes. In late July through mid to late August, the heat of the season also affects our frequency and duration of disc play.

Last season, I made a conscious decision to avoid the intensity of competition during the warmest part of the summer. We did one or two shows a week and did a lot of swimming, hiking and running on wooded and shaded trails. The results were amazing as my pups were refreshed and performed in stellar fashion during the fall championship season. This is not to say that we did not have a couple of health issues. Fire developed a nasty hot spot on her hind leg in mid September that required some serious care and effectively ended her season. Stanley had 3 weeks between State Finals and USDDN Finals where he was nursing some front end soreness followed by some hind end soreness. Fortunately, lots of stretching, chiropractic, acupuncture and controlled movement fixed him up in time.

Despite these issues, I noticed that my dogs were FULLY engaged when the time came to perform in September and October. In the past, I frequently struggled to keep my dogs from flying into auto-pilot during late season events. It seemed that they had caught so many discs throughout the summer that the activity had lost some value. They still enjoyed playing, but the combination of too much repetition and my stressed-out attitude affected our teamwork and thus our overall performance. By building in a mid season break, my dogs had a chance to heal up from the rigors of show season and be READY TO GO when the results mattered most.

Moving forward, my strategy is to plan out the to or three times a year when I want my dogs to peak in their performance. It is not reasonable to expect your canine athlete to perform at peak levels at every event all year long. Decide what events you want to do your best at and lay out a training strategy that helps you and your dog go into those events feeling SHARP and REFRESHED. A couple of guidelines might include:

  • Peak your training a couple of weeks before your target event and then slow down so you and your pup can go into the event fresh and recovered from the training process.
  • Remember  that during qualifying events, your competitive goal is to qualify. Don't worry about being the best on the qualifying day. Be good enough to qualify and congratulate yourself and your dog if you are successful. Some qualifiers may require you to be at your absolute best in order to get a qualifying slot. Do your best and see where the chips fall. 
  • Training gains happen during recovery from training, not during the training sessions. Pay attention to details around nutrition, body work and mental rest in order to accelerate recovery.
  • Make sure your dog has lots of opportunity to just BE A DOG. This might mean playing with other dogs, hanging around the yard as you mow the lawn, going for walks etc. Being a  happy dog is foundational for being a great canine athlete.
As I write this morning Stanley is under my chair,  Mojo and Motley are laying to my right, Fire is on the porch keeping a watchful eye over her kingdom while Stella is walking around the house collecting tennis balls. Today's dog agenda includes a trail run this morning and trick training after work this evening, followed possibly by a swim. Gotta love summer in New England!!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Travel and the Great Disc Dogging Obsession

Since getting seriously hooked on disc dogging, I've spent MANY weekends on the road at tournaments and shows in various locations around the eastern US and Canada. This weekend finds us in beautiful Killington, VT preparing to run and compete in a weekend of events.This is the 4th weekend in a row that I've spent on the road doing some dog activity or another. So why do I do this? Why spend the time, money and energy driving around to throw frisbees for my dogs when they'd be just as happy playing in the back yard?

Well, for better or worse, I've always been someone who likes to dive deeply into the things I'm passionate about. My wife and I never had kids, so the dogs fill that space. Some parents spend their weekends travelling to soccer tournaments, I spend mine going to disc dog tournaments and demos. I'm sure if I had kids who played soccer or hockey or whatever, that I'd be one of those parents who gets involved to the point of even coaching the team. As it is, I've become deeply involved in this sport and have met some very interesting folks who I otherwise would never have known.

Having 5 dogs and driving around the country throwing discs is not a normal thing to do. I grew up in what many would consider a normal home. Go to work/school during the week, stay home on the weekends to relax, maybe play outside, maybe go out with friends on Friday or Saturday night. As an adult I find that normal is comforting in small doses, but I much prefer being different. Being different is where the flavor of life is for me.

There is nothing like taking the time and patience to work with a dog over the course of many months and years and feeling the rush that comes with jamming and being really connected as a team. The process of working out ideas of movement and seeing how they ultimately manifest and evolve over time is amazing. Listening to song after song looking for the right beat and feel to match a particular dog's energy and intensity level is a morning ritual as I drive to work. Watching youtube videos of other great teams play and looking for different disc releases or tricks to try is something I do more often than I care to admit.

I probably spend more time than I should thinking about dogs and discs, but life is too short not to be spent thinking about what one is passionate about. The bottom line - I'm happily obsessed with this activity that is such a joyful expression of life between human and canine. Bring on the sunny weather and the open field - TIME TO PLAY!!    

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Competitive Pressure

We've been competing again over the last couple of weeks. The event that I really wanted a great result in was last weekend in East Durham, NY - a qualifier for the Ashley Whippet Invitational Finals. The AWI finals are to take place at Purina Farms in Gray Summit on Oct 8th,  one week after the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge National Finals take place at the same location. As with many dog sport enthusiasts who travel long distances to compete, our travel choices are greatly affected by our personal budget and our ability to realistically take time off from work. Having already qualified for PIDC, I really wanted to qualify for AWI so that I could make the trip to Missouri and stay for 10 days while participating in both events.

There were 5 qualifying slots up for grabs in East Durham last Sunday. I knew that there were top teams coming in from the Mid West, Florida, Texas and New Jersey who would be serious challengers. I was also aware that I was coming off a previous weekend where Stanley and I had been less than stellar at another major regional event in Maryland. We had a delivered an very good first freestyle round in Maryland, only to score a very low 2.5 points in the distance and accuracy round which effectively left us out of contention. Our third round fell apart after the first minute. It was clear to me that going into the AWI qualifier I needed to prepare myself and my top dog to stay relaxed, focused and energetic for a full three rounds of play.

How to do this? Well, I can definitely say that the way NOT to do it is to set goals around winning. For me, going into an event saying "my goal is to finish in the top three" is setting both myself and my dog up for failure. What if we perform well and end up 7th? Is that reason enough to be disappointed? When I first started competing I was ABSOLUTELY disappointed and upset if we did not place well. As a result, competing became less and less fun. At one point, I even considered giving up going to contests because of all the perceived pressure.

Staying relaxed firstly means keeping what we are doing in perspective. It's a dog sport - fun, exhilarating, heart felt - but not life and death. The dogs certainly don't care what their placement ends up being. They want to play and feel that you are happy playing with them. Some of them (like Stanley) even tune in to an audience and like to hear cheering as they run, leap and flip for discs. Its fun for the dogs to play with a human that is light hearted and enjoying the moment. Tracy Custer - one of my favorite freestylers - always seems to have a smile on as she's playing with one of her many cattle dogs. Having fun is priority number one every time.

Setting goals around your dog's behavior on and off the field is the other half of the competitive dog sport success formula. Going into the AWI qualifier, my goals for Stanley were as follows:

  • reinforce calm behavior when in the proximity of other dogs
  • make sure that eye contact has been offered before the release of any disc during the throw and catch round and during specific freestyle segments.
  • reinforce calm behavior when resting in the kennel between rounds, particularly when taking other dogs out to play.
  • during throw and catch, place the disc high in the scoring zone so that he has to stop running to find it. Cue his look with the "UP" command and mark his looking up to find the disc with a clear "YES". Effective execution of this strategy should result in at least 4 or 5 catches during this round.
  • during Freestyle, follow through on two new releases and place then in a catchable zone.
  • shoot for an 85% catch ratio during Freestyle. 
By keeping personalized objectives like these in mind, a handler pays attention to the details that add up and create a successful result.

How did things turn out? We were lucky enough to secure one of the qualifying slots and will be spending 10 days at Purina Farms in October! What a privilege to have the opportunity to perform on some of the biggest stages available to disc dogs. So thankful.