Sunday, July 31, 2011

Learning To Fly

I love planes.

I was originally going to infuse this post with some sort of fearful dog agility metaphor but instead I've opted to just tell it like it is.

It's not exactly a common hobby for a college-age girl, but I absolutely love going plane spotting.  It's something that Louie introduced me to and I can't get enough of it. I can seriously sit in a park near JFK for hours with Louie, watching the planes come in to land, excitedly guessing the airline and aircraft type from a distance as I watch the massive metal birds inch closer and closer, before they eventually pass only a few hundred feet in front of me.  I don't go very often, but I've been spotting for a year and it's just as cool as the day I started.

Yet if you try to get me to actually agree to fly on a plane, that's a whole different story.  The thought of it makes me sick to my stomach.  Nothing particularly traumatic has happened to me while flying, and I'm not afraid of terrorism or things like that. But, Louie has offered numerous times to take me on a flight to somewhere like Baltimore and I have backed out time and time again.  I won't let him buy the tickets, even if the plane being used on the route is one of my beloved Boeings (usually a 737).  I wish I would let my guard down, but I can't seem to.

What I did let him buy was tickets to tour a British Airways Concorde on display at the Intrepid Museum in Manhattan.  I was actually the one who suggested it.  Aside from the fact that Concorde has a really cool story that I was interested in learning a little more about, I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to sit in a plane with no threat of it lifting up off of the ground.  Of course, I'll just skim right over the fact that a trip to Martha's Vineyard on JetBlue would probably have been cheaper... sometimes you've gotta live a little.

Much to my surprise, I was actually slightly nervous as I climbed the stairs to board Concorde.  Despite the fact that I knew for sure that Alpha Delta was not leaving the ground, the emotional side of my brain told me otherwise.  Imagine how my stomach flip-flopped when I saw an elevator move through the window of the plane and momentarily had the sensation that Concorde was, without a single engine installed, gaining altitude!

All in all, I enjoyed the tour immensely and felt perfectly relaxed when I exited the plane.  The tour guide was extremely animated but kept the tour interesting and intellectual.  We got to sit in the cockpit and Louie was able to answer a question that the tour guide didn't know the answer to, based on the equipment in there.  Another tour guide asked Louie and I if we were airline pilots, which I found hilarious.

It perplexes me that I can enjoy watching and learning about something so much, yet be so afraid of it.  It makes me a little sad, too. Planes depart from and land at Kennedy Airport every single minute without incident. I know logically that air travel is one of the safest ways to travel.  But I still can't do it.

I know we now largely live in an age where flying is very often at best mundane and at worst unpleasant, but I have all sorts of silly little dreams of grandeur - the biggest of those being to fly first class on a Boeing 747 to Heathrow.  But I can't realize that dream, as well as my wishes to vacation in Australia or on the West Coast, unless I actually get on a plane other than one parked at a museum.

Still, I guess it was a start - before yesterday, I hadn't been on a plane since I was 5 years old.  So, though she didn't go supersonic this time, Concorde did give me an experience that I'm sure will last a long time, and hopefully one that will get me started on conquering this fear.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Black, White, and Wild

I am SUPER stoked to introduce this girl, who I'm likely going to have the opportunity to run part-time in competition.

I ran Arrow once in at a trial.  It came together pretty suddenly, and the run wasn't so pretty, but it was quite a rush and a lot of fun.  Border Collies really are their own breed of crazy.

Recently, Arrow's owner asked if I would like to start running her part-time at shows.  Basically, she'll enter Arrow in local shows and if I'm entered too with Marge, I'll run both dogs.  At trials I'm not entered in, my instructor will probably run her (she's been running her for years in Jumpers).

She's 10 years old and in Excellent B in both Standard and Jumpers.  I think she already has her MX, but needs a few more legs for her MXJ.

I ran her last night during practice at our field.  Aside from her weave entrance issues, we ran really well together.  It's only the third or fourth time I've practiced with her.

I feel like my handling really needs improvement - my handling errors really stand out when I run Arrow because of how fast she is.  One twitch of my arm, and she's across the ring.  I also need to be able to differentiate running Marge from running Arrow, which is a challenge due to the different strengths that each dog has.  But I'm getting there.

As much as I love running Marge, there is something really cool about running an experienced agility dog who runs agility because she finds agility itself to be the greatest thing in the world. I think she's going to make me a better handler.. which will make Marge a happier agility dog!

And, for the Marge fans, here she is with me playing on the same course.  We ran it clean earlier in the night, then I accidentally pulled her out of the pinwheel on this run. Our next trial is just a week and a half away!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Problem With Dog Training

I have now been in a very active role as an assistant instructor for my dog club's non-competitive agility class for over one year.  Along the way, I've met dogs and handlers who really had me scratching my head - not because their situation was particularly complicated, just that the time to explain and execute plans to help deal with their situation was too much for me to really spend without neglecting the other students in class.  Most times, I've been able to give them suggestions and/or the tools to help deal with their problems, and I frequently did see improvement.  But I still haven't had that feeling that I've really fully helped a problem.  I don't think my problem lies in a lack of ability to convey information or even demonstrate how to deal with an issue, but instead seems to lie in the fact that a huge gap between what I know and what they know needs to be filled, and there just simply isn't the time to fill it.

A current situation that I'm dealing with along these very lines is making me feel a bit frustrated.  Attempting to explain the emotional side of behavior problems to one handler while also attempting to override any previous and ill-suited suggestions to deal with it is a daunting task in a class with four or five other dogs present.  One could argue that the situation shouldn't be dealt with at all in this environment.  But what is an instructor to do in the sixth week of class, when money has already been paid, and a dog's behavior is embarrassing and disruptive for both the handler and the other students in class?

In that respect, I'm stressed out on several levels - trying to carefully correct misinformation that has been put out there without stepping too hard on any one else's toes, while explaining a more complicated but solid solution to the problem and ultimately balancing one student against an entire class seeking personalized attention. It's a situation I've been in before, but it doesn't seem to get easier with repetition.

Sometimes I really wonder: does the ability to understand classical conditioning methods require a genuine and whole interest in dog training and behavior, or even learning and behavior as a whole?  I don't say that disparagingly.  The fact is that we live in a society where it's largely accepted as OK to deal with dog misbehavior with a pop, a snap, and perhaps a verbal hiss.  Can people who just want a nice house pet wrap their mind around the idea of not JUST rewarding or punishing behaviors, but shaping emotions and associations?  Sometimes, the effort really feels futile to me.  It'd be so much easier to just say "show her who's boss!" or "she thinks she's in charge"... but I know better.  I know the dog's behavior is rooted in anxiety and overexcitement and needs to be dealt with accordingly.  How can I stitch up that big gap between what I know and what the handler knows in the most effective way possible?

I hear a lot of dog training people write off pet class handlers with misbehaved dogs as "not trying hard enough" or "letting the dog do whatever it wants."  But the fact of the matter is that dealing with behavior problems is not like teaching sit, down, stay, and come.  It's really hard to convey the right information and sometimes even harder to get a handler to stop resisting what seems like an unconventional training plan.  After all, it only takes a couple of episodes of a couple of dog training shows to see that using food or other high-value items while the dog is barking their head off or growling with its hackles raised is analogous to selling your soul to the devil.

I can only hope I'm making just a little bit of a difference right now.  I think I am.  In the future, if I ever get the opportunity, I want to teach smaller, more personalized classes that work on specific issues.  Fiesty Fido or Shy Dog classes sound great in theory, and that's because they are.  But they're not offered nearly enough.  Subsequently, those teams who need a little bit of extra help are thrown in with the teacher's pets and valedictorians.. and the result isn't pretty.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Walking The Plank - Or Not!

This past Saturday, Marge, Louie and I took a road trip to Hatfield, Pennsylvania, for an AKC agility trial. Though I was swamped with school work (and still am) and even at one point regretted entering, I had a great time.

The trial site was AWESOME.  The layout of the rings was really cool - two turf rings separated by an aisle with chairs and bleachers.  The crating area was huge and was in the back. I left Marge's crate at home and opted to just let her hang out for the day, thinking she might need time to adjust to the site.  Nope.. walked in and made herself comfortable immediately.  Always amazing me, this dog!

Outside the JWW ring.
Jumpers was our first course and it turned out to be pretty tricky.  I started the run off on a sour foot by calling a rear cross too early and pulling Marge right off of a jump.  She was just a tiny bit zoomy - maybe the surface, maybe not - and lightning quick.  I wound up having to layer a jump because there was just no way I was going to catch up to her.  The middle of the course went nicely, until she missed her weave entrance.  Then, at the end of the course she went flying over two wrong course jumps without any thought.  Not one of our best, but by no means terrible.

The Standard course was gorgeous and I was trying to convince myself that it wasn't (because generally, any time I like a course, I screw up on it).  Turns out *I* did everything right and handled it pretty well.  There were almost no crosses - I crossed behind the weaves (easy cross), in front of the A-Frame (another easy cross), and reared at the very end (the only tight turn, really), and that was it. The challenge, I think, lied in the fact that the course was very, very speedy.

Alas, our Q-less streak in Standard continued, due to a very early bail-out on the teeter.  Probably just a freak thing.

It's always something in Standard, it seems. Still, the run was lightyears better than our last Standard run, and since this was a new place, a new surface, etc., I was happy with her performance.  It was a great day out for all of us and I'd definitely trial there again.

We have work to do before our next trial on August 6 and 7... namely, weave entrances, teeter practice, and direction coming out of the chute.  We have NOT practiced nearly enough lately, due to both the heat and my crazy schedule.  I hope to get some quality training time in within the next few weeks to tighten things up and hopefully work on that pesky AX title.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Yes, You Can Actually Use This Stuff

One of my jobs as Teacher Assistant in the summer section of the Experimental Psychology: Learning and Behavior course is to go over principles of learning and behavior that the students just don't "get" on the first try.  Another is to serve as a liaison between the students and the professor, a sort of peer-mentor type figure who can explain things, talk to students one-on-one in a down-to-earth way.. oh, and turn on the computers and chambers and fetch the pigeons when they're ready to be used, of course.

I'm only removed from the class by less than a year myself.  However, I had a distinct advantage in learning the material because of my experiences using it before I set foot in the classroom.  For a lot of these kids, the order is reversed.  In their minds, classical conditioning is, at best, the image of a dog salivating in an old Russian lab, and operant conditioning is, at best, a food-deprived mouse in a little box pressing a lever to get some grub, as a white-haired spectacled man looks on.

Most times, the students in the class take the class to simply get through it, with no intention of learning anything that they'll ever use. Classical conditioning and shaping procedures and negative punishment may sound cool in the confines of the pigeon lab, but will any of them ever use it elsewhere? I'd like to think - and maybe I'm being too idealistic - that some of them really mean it and really take an interest in it.

It happened for me.  I took an interest in behaviorism and it blossomed for so many different reasons. Why can't that happen for someone else?

For the sake of all the dogs out there who live with owners who don't know how to to deal with fear or aggression or overexcitement, for all of the dogs out there who are given corrections that are unnecessarily painful, harsh, or outright ineffective, for all of the dogs out there who are described as "alpha" or "nasty" or "too damn scared of everything"... I can only hope that some of what I say sticks.  Because while the class is not at all about dog training, the principles that are taught would improve the lives of a lot of dogs out there in this world where we like to talk about how dogs are dominant, cunning and crude little creatures who live only to leech off of us, without looking at all into why they do what they do.

The class has such great practical applicability, even if only because it urges you to consider the impact your own behavior might have on others, let alone the impact that environmental consequences have on your own behavior and emotions, as well as the behavior and emotions of others.

You don't have to aspire to be a clinical psychologist or a dolphin trainer to appreciate, use, recognize conditioning in a productive way, in its simplest forms.

If just a few of the people see that, then I will have been successful.

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