31 January 2012

Jumping at the Chance - Greyhound Agility

I've always quite liked the look of dog agility. I've seen several demonstrations at Crufts, set up a PR stunt with Chris Evans having a go at dog agility (you can see the video here) and have even had a go at some greyhound-sized fun agility with Stevie.

As part of my university studies and the 'Advanced Dog Training' module, I have to choose a doggy discipline to train Mina in and I'm toying with either agility or scent work. I really do love the idea of agility - it's a great way to keep both me and Mina fit - but as most people will know, Mina's a bit of a canine catastrophe, she's getting on a bit now (she'll be 10 this year) and as a greyhound isn't a breed you'd automatically associate with agility! (Though, the fabulous Jen at Never Say Never Greyhounds disproves this time and time again).

However, we're not ones to let any obstacles stand in our way and today we had our first ever 1-2-1 agility session. I didn't really know what to expect. I didn't think we'd be haring around a course in the first session but I was itching to have a go on the equipment and I had a feeling that Mina would love it too.

So, at 11am we found ourselves in the 'Field of Dreams' - an agility school run by Bob Sharpe.  Bob has competed at Crufts and is well known within the agility world. He's straight talking and, as you would expect, really knows his stuff.  We'd had a long chat before I booked the session and had gone through Mina's age, breed and why I wanted to try agility.  Bob explained that our first session would really be a chance to see how easily we could motivate Mina and that this would be the basis of the lesson.

Thankfully, Mina loves to tug and play ball - all of which really helped. Once she'd had (several) chances to go off and sniff all the pee-mails, she really did show that you can motivate a greyhound and keep their attention. By the end of the session, we even managed a few jumps (including a rather spectacular long jump!)

I'm really proud of Mina and I think I may have been bitten by the agility bug. We've got to work on motivation training for the next week or so, but we've already booked our next session.

We've a long way to go but I'm sure that together, the journey will be worth it. I'll be updating the blog with Mina's progress in the coming weeks.

I've also got a great February giveaway coming too - the chance for 2 people to win a pair of tickets each to Crufts. So do come back in February to see how you can win.

If you've got any great agility tips that you'd like to share, or would like to comment on the video please do add a comment - I love reading them.

08 January 2012

The Wall of Sound: Signals, Praise, or White Noise?

I was listening to a radio interview from my friend, Muriel Brasseur from the Oxfordshire Animal Behaviour Centre, the other day which was about the subject of how dogs communicate with humans. 

The interview was about a newspaper article which focused on some research into how dogs pick up on our ‘intent to communicate’ with them, not just through our voices but also the visual cues we give too.  Many of us working with and living with dogs already know how adept dogs are at reading our body language and that our hounds take in the whole package of verbal and non-verbal communication signals we give them.

One of the things that Muriel said in the interview was about training herself out of chatting with her dog when undertaking obedience training and helping dogs avoid just hearing a wall of sound.  This really got me thinking about how I communicate with my own dogs.

I'm the one in the crown (being very quiet)!
I’ve always been a chatty and talkative person for as long as I can remember.  Even from the age of 7, I remember a teacher betting me the princely sum of 2 pence (well, it was 1970s) that I couldn’t remain quiet whilst presiding over the Mayday dances in my capacity as Rose Queen (an old English tradition at the school I went to. A girl was voted for by the school to be dressed up in a white frock, wear a crown, sit on a throne and watch all the Mayday dances).  On that occasion I think the lure of 2 pence and all the sweets it could buy me proved to be a suitable motivator and I managed to stay quiet and collect my ‘stake’ at the end. (An early example of lure and reward training at work!)

Anyway, you get the picture: I like to talk.  I’ve moderated how and what I say as I’ve grown older, particularly in a work situation, however I do find myself chatting to the dogs and cats on a fairly regular basis.  When I lived by myself I chatted to them rather than doing a ‘Shirley Valentine’ – chatting to the wall.

In my training classes I stress the importance of only giving the voice signal once and not repeatedly saying, for example, sit, sit, sit, sit, SIT (normally getting progressively louder, as the dog doesn’t comply).  And explain that repeatedly saying a signal without the desired behaviour from the dog can lead to learned irrelevance.  Overusing the word/cue without the dog displaying the wanted behaviour means the word loses its relevance and ‘sit’ doesn’t really mean sit anymore.

What the interview got me thinking was: does this and can this apply to praise? I like to praise people and dogs when they do something right and because I can be quite effusive when I talk, I wonder if I sometimes go over the top.  Does this mean, like repeatedly saying a voice signal that the praise starts to lose its meaning and the dog tunes out?  Should I be using praise like I would use a high value food reward?
'Ear 'Ear says Mina

I’ve looked back at some of the YouTube footage of me and Mina in some training sessions – in some I praise effusively and a lot, in others I still praise but not as much.  It’s certainly got me thinking though. Silence can be golden – I’ve noticed that if I’m calmer both in tone of voice and what I say, Mina is calmer too and it doesn’t affect her responsiveness to me, but then again when I’m excitable and praising, Mina reacts in a similar manner. 

There are so many stimuli for our dogs to pick up on – all the interesting smells to investigate, all the interesting things to see and all the things (to potentially) taste and sometimes I wonder if  adding our voices on top of all the other sounds may just add another layer to filter out?

I’m sure this differs dog to dog and owner to owner but I’d be really interested on what you think, so please do share your thoughts.

Susan & hounds.

03 January 2012

Cooking for Canines - Lovely Liver Cake

Over the last few weeks there seems to have been a demand for my liver cake recipe; so much so, I thought it was time it had a page of it's own rather than being hidden away in a separate post!

It's really easy to make and if ask your butcher for liver off-cuts it can be quite an inexpensive way to make treats that have no hidden ingredients and are nutritious for your dog.

However, if you're a bit squeamish and liver isn't your thing, I've also got a 'greyt' recipe for sardine squares which are equally as easy to make and don't involve seeing chopped liver whizzing around your food processor!

So, here's the recipe in all it's glory.

500g (1lb) liver
400-500g (1lb) organic porridge oats* (or 400g rice/potato flour - if making it with flour)
2 large free range eggs
2 cloves of garlic** (crushed)
3 tablespoons natural yogurt

1. Pre heat the oven to 180 degrees C (Gas Mark 4)
2. Grease and line a 30cm square ( 12 inch square) baking tin (it's really important to line the tin - as I've found out to my cost!)
3. Whizz the liver in a food processor until smooth 
4. Add the crushed garlic, egg and oats and continue to whizz until well mixed together
5. When mixture is smooth stir in the natural yogurt until it's a thick cake-like consistency
6. Spoon into baking tin and bake in oven for around 30 – 40 minutes
7. When cooked the liver cake should be firm and light brown colour
8. Remove from oven, allow to cool slightly before turning out of baking tin
9. Cut into small bite size pieces and keep in fridge for up to a week or up to 3 months if frozen.

'Maybe if I'm patient the liver cake
 will levitate in my direction'
I've also experimented and added in fresh chopped parsley along with grated cheese and every time the hounds have loved it. Cut into really small pieces it makes a fantastic training reward - especially when there are lots of distractions and you're calling your greyhound back to you across a large field!

Mina just loves the liver cake and remains in a fixed position in the kitchen when I'm baking it...

If you've got any other greyt home-baked training treats or tips do let us know by sharing them in the comments.
Thank you

Susan n hounds x

*The more oats you use, the crumblier the cake will be.  If you use flour, use less, or your cake will be too dry.
**Garlic is part of the Allium family, such as onions, which are toxic to dogs. Small quantities of garlic, such as in this recipe, should be fine.  If you are worried, omit the garlic and add in some grated, smelly cheese instead.

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