Category Archives: Sweet Ginger Snap

Sweet Dreams, Sweet Ginger Snap, Part 2

Sweet Dreams, Sweet Ginger Snap, Part 2

MACH!

By Katherine Dattoma

We were ready ! Early that agility trial morning, with the car packed full of family and dogs, we headed into sunrise and a day full of promise. After years of strategizing master level gambler and snooker courses with Oreo, I should have no problem navigating a Novice level course. Why then, did my nerves tingle and my stomach clench as I set Ginger up before the first obstacle? Much to my surprise and elation, Ginger qualified in her first few classes – and then disaster struck. A fast moving non rubberized teeter had her sliding to the bottom of the contact, where she froze before getting struck in the bum with the rebound. Ginger never fogot a fear or an injury! Agility trials were immediately transformed into terrifying events, and teeters could no longer be negotiated past the tipping point. In subsequent trials, Ginger exhibited a host of reactions. She barked at the judges and bar setters, leaped off the table when a bar setter got up to fluff the chute, fled from the sun glinting through a panel jump slats, fell off the contact equipment if the judge crowded her, lost concentration in the weaves when a bird flew overhead, refused any obstacle that looked scarily “different”, stopped to eat dirt, lost a face off with a horse and her fright levels rose off the meter when a well shaded canopy chair “turned” into a human. Flapping flags, a truck in the ring being loaded with agility equipment, glimpses of movement in the distance through open doors were all potential Ginger eating monsters. My big red girl was still afraid of the world.Ginger Dogwalk cropped

There is an agility subset of stressed dog/handler teams, struggling to complete each course they run, trial after trial, with little improvement. Either I would become a permanent member of this group, or have to quit, unless I found a way to change Ginger’s attitude about agility trials. Clearly, I needed to come up with a new tactic that went beyond dogged persistence, or else I would have to give up all thoughts of making Ginger into that partner I needed to continue competing in agility. Much as he loved agility, Oreo’s career was winding down and I knew his time in the ring was going to come to an end. Making the decision to continue agility with Ginger, I shifted my goals from earning titles and ribbons to simply getting Ginger to enjoy competition.

My strategy to eliminate all stress for myself, and limit it for Ginger was simple. Avoid qualifying! While others were carefully planning their courses during walk thrus’s, I was planning just as carefully with a different purpose. My routes became simple U shapes, avoiding the judge, bar setters and the dreaded teeter . My goal was to complete a small number of favorite, easy obstacles successfully, without giving Ginger time or the opportunity to lose focus. I was relaxed, and for Ginger, the short time in the ring was amply compensated for by the huge jackpot of treats that awaited her. When possible, I introduced Ginger to the judge, walked her around the ring so she would know where to expect the bar setters to be sitting, asked the photographer to step back for her runs, and developed pre run routines that allowed Ginger to filter out distractions by getting up close “in my face”.

She occasionally began to show eagerness to enter the ring, even barking a bit with excitement. It was time to add a few more obstacles, until we were completing entire jumper courses- and qualifying! However, a full standard course continued to elude us due to the inclusion of the teeter. Ginger’s initial teeter training had been a slow and methodical process, beginning with rewarding her for being in the vicinity of the banging sound while other dogs performed on the equipment. A very gradual increase in height and movement had kept Ginger comfortable and confident on the teeter until that first fateful trial. How could I get Ginger back on the teeter when it had proven, after all that early work, to be an object of fear? It moved, it made noise, was unpredictable and every teeter felt just a little different. I knew that a retraining effort would only succeed if I could change how she felt about the obstacle. Somehow, I would have to make it an object of desire- something Ginger wanted far more than she feared.Ginger tire- kayla

My thoughts turned back to the tumbling tower of tin cans, that clanking representation of psychological persuasion, and Ginger’s strong desire to join in the fun. Oreo would again be my ally. He loved running over the teeter numerous times, and all the extra treats and frisbee play included. Ginger was initially only allowed to watch. Eventually she was offered one try, and if she chose to bail, training stopped for her while Oreo had another turn. Like a kid, she didn’t want to be left out. At some point, Ginger began to bark and beg to get on the teeter- denial increased the desire! We traveled, learning to enjoy teeters of various surfaces, materials, weights and in different settings.

I was afraid. I still feared a refusal in the trial setting. How would it be possible to retrain after retraining? Ginger finally took the matter into her own paws. The now desirable teeter lured her into an “off course” as I tried once again to run her past it. I had been half a year since our first misfortunate trial, and Ginger earned her first qualifying score in a standard class. Ginger repaid my patience by becoming a very reliable agility partner, qualifying at a prodigious rate. She was still cautious in public, but her consistency was amazing. She never missed a contact or took down a bar, and all off courses were a result of my addled middle aged brain misfiring. Refusals resulting from her trademark startled reaction that we called “skitzing” were becoming rare. Finally, I could shift my own focus towards training myself to become a better handler.Ginger

The seasons changed, Ginger’s agility career blossomed, and I faced the painful necessity of retiring Oreo at the youthful age of almost 9. Setting a goal for Ginger no longer seemed impossible and I dared to reach for a big one. Oreo had earned his full share of agility honors, but for many reasons, the AKC Master Agility Championship had eluded us. I had enviously fingered the huge, beautiful MACH ribbons supplied by the Nutmeg Border Collie club at their inaugural trial, and dreamed a dream of possibilities for Ginger. In December, two weeks past Ginger’s fourth birthday, we headed to the last trial we had scheduled trial for the year, prior to an agility time off necessitated by my upcoming knee surgery. In her last run, of the last day of the trial, Ginger soared over the final jump as a champion. We brought home that beautiful big ribbon!

Reflecting back on my travels and travails with Ginger, from a terrified pup to becoming MACH Sweet Ginger Snap, I realize that a relatively small portion of training time was actually devoted to agility. The majority of my focus was on convincing Ginger that the world is a safe, fun place. The bonus was that in some mystical way, I believe that Ginger came to me so that not only could I save a discarded pup’s life, but that she could teach my family and myself lessons about how to find misplaced joy. The many heartaches and tough times my family has experienced these few years past, cannot retain the same power if we avail ourselves of our dog’s special gifts of reveling in the moment. When I picture my Ginger flying like a bird off my brother’s Virginia lake house dock, caught in a snapshot moment of pure pleasure, I know that she has opened a window giving me a little peek into heaven here on earth. Ginger has so much more to teach me, certainly a great deal about patience, but primarily that goals have little value if we can’t make the process of achieving them joyful. Humbled by the love and trust that enabled Ginger to overcome whatever trauma that had trapped her in a debilitating emotional condition, I have been made just a little more human by a mere dog. Striding into the new year on the strength of Ginger’s long legs, I allowed the delight of our agility journey to make my newest dreams sweet.Ginger & Katherine, Mach!

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Sweet Dreams, Sweet Ginger Snap, Part 1

 Over My Husband’s “Dead Body”!  

By Katherine Dattoma

It was time. That little itch had grown into something bigger and more persistent. The guilty pleasure I had secretly been indulging in, of sneaking peeks at internet photos of beautiful Border Collies in need of homes, was morphing into a serious search. It was time to add another dog to our household, albeit once again over my husband’s “dead body”!

Puppy GingerOreo, my first rescued Border Collie was enjoying a full agility competition schedule, but I began to discern subtle signs of trouble before he had even reached the age of six. My eye, uneducated in correct canine conformation, but knowledgeable in evaluating the equine, could see that Oreo’s hind end structure was somewhat, well, odd. All the other wonderful Border Collie quirks and attributes possessed in abundance by Oreo had compensated up to this point, and enabled us to enjoy some small successes undreamed of since my first bumbling attempts at agility. However, I knew my dog’s normal, if somewhat funny way of traveling, and something was off. At that time, the cause of his intermittent, subtle hitch in stride remained undiagnosed, though many opinions and treatments were offered. Sadly, I had to admit that Oreo’s agility career would most likely be cut short.

To the uninitiated it may have seemed like an obsession, but to an ever growing dog sport fraternity, agility is a healthy, wonderful passion. My addiction needed to be fed. I needed another agility dog. Because Oreo had also instilled in me a passion for the Border Collie breed, and our whole family, daughter included, had been formed through adoption, there was never any question as to where I would be looking. References were solicited, home photos taken, and adoption applications sent.

Glen Highland Farm’s Sweet Border Collie Rescue in Morris, New York rehomes a huge number of abandoned and abused dogs each year, and Lillie Goodrich seems to have a knack for placement. On a sunny morning in March of 2008 that glittered with excitement and a late winter frosting of snow, I loaded up husband, the kid and dogs for a visit to the farm. Upon arrival, Lillie took special note of my daughter’s bossy terrier mix bitch, Kimmy, and her controlling antics with long suffering Oreo. She immediately dashed my hopes of meeting a particular handsome young male that had gazed soulfully out of my computer screen. Our little Kimmy was destined to be the limiting factor. Instead, the first dog brought out was a one year old classic black and white female, friendly, agile and altogether lovely in every way. Whoa…. she’d make a great family and agility dog was my first thought, my mind immediately entertaining a fantasy of fame and international events…. Then, presented to me was a red and white, four month old bundle of fur, dangling limply from the assistant’s arms, blinking fearfully at the world. This ragdoll of a pup stole my heart.
The trip home did not auger well for my new choice of a future agility prospect. How was I to successfully integrate a petrified, puking pup into my little agility travel team? What happened to one of my basic requirements, dutifully checked off on the application form, “must ride well in car”? Being lax in my criteria could explain something about those agility bloopers with Oreo. My Sweet Ginger Snap was looking less and less likely to fulfill my agility dreams as the full extent of her fears was soon revealed. Ginger was a textbook case demonstrating that missed social opportunities during the first few months could have a lifelong impact on behavior. Ginger’s reactions to ordinary things fed our imaginations in building a picture of what her first four months on the Maryland puppy mill farm may have been like. And was it genetics, or something far worse that caused her skull to appear misshapen and her face crooked? Men, men with hats obscuring their faces, men carrying objects on their shoulders, people suddenly “appearing” all triggered intense fear reactions. Ginger constantly alternated between leaping away from and attempting to appease human feet with incessant licking, a trait that earned her the first of many nicknames, “Miss Lick”. Any object that moved or looked different from when first observed by Ginger provoked a reaction. A pillow falling off the couch could send her flying out of the room, and she would peer out the upstairs window, barking hysterically every time a package was left on our neighbor’s porch across the street. One of our neighbors inadvertently frightened her as a pup, and because of her fear reaction towards him, he referred to her thereafter as “The Wolf”.

Ginger and KimmyI needed an agility training plan very different from the trial and error path taken with bold, confident Oreo. My training methods had always been positive reinforcement based, and I knew any attempt to force a behavior with Ginger would be unsuccessful. Clicker training and shaping were a natural fit, both for my ideals as a trainer and for persuading a fearful pup that my goals were really her choices. Because her startle reflex was so easily triggered, Ginger needed to become less sensitive to noise and movement if I ever hoped to get her on agility equipment. She needed to be able to come towards her source of fear to investigate instead of running away. One of the training games I played involved my other two dogs to help motivate Ginger to join the fun. In my basement training area, I set up a tower of tin cans and metal cooking pots. On a push cue, Oreo and Kimmy would happily tip over the clanking pile for a reward. Barking, laughter, treats and curiosity finally drew Ginger from upstairs to the middle stair landing where I would toss a treat. Using the principles of incremental training, I waited for Ginger to choose to dart closer and closer to the action. It was a moment of triumph when Ginger finally offered a nose touch to the offending pile of noisy objects! These early lessons were something I was able to build upon, and today Ginger will often offer an automatic nose touch to an object that initially frightens her.

Surprisingly, at home and in class, Ginger’s agility training progressed very rapidly. She flew through the foundation exercises and fought for her turn when the clicker came out, signaling a training session. On both the plus and minus side, Ginger never forgot anything. Her education on the agility equipment began to follow a pattern of fits and starts, plateauing while we worked on overcoming a fear, and leaps forward evidenced by a desire to correctly repeat any action or obstacle with which she had grown comfortable. She grew rapidly as well… and grew and grew…. Was this the embodiment of having BIG agility dreams? Meanwhile, those long legs just kept getting longer. In spite of too straight shoulders and hindquarters, Ginger outgrew her awkward stage to become an elegant and effortless jumper, who as described by my daughter, ran like a cheetah when streaking across fields in play.

My redheaded fur rag was also growing into a striking, comical teenage drama queen. To the family, “The Wolf” was more of a red headed “Lucy”. The slightest knock had her exaggerating a limp until something else caught her attention, and she would get the sillies each morning, yipping and talking up a storm as she rolled herself in the bed blankets and pillows. She became a master at slinking off with cardboard boxes to shred in private, and would repeatedly catch and bring through the dog door a firefly to play with until she had to, ah….replace it. She could look majestic while burping loudly in our faces, and took over the job of household security by making the rounds checking all the doors, windows and rooms each night before settling . Best of all, Ginger fit seamlessly into our little dog pack, becoming wicked Kimmy’s partner in crime. I brought her everywhere dogs were allowed…into the bank, pet stores and a local book store. While competing with Oreo, I spent countless hours introducing Ginger to all the sights and sounds of agility trials, and frequently introduced her to many fellow agility competitors in an effort to reduce her general fear of humans.

Ginger In the early summer of 2009, Ginger was age eligible to enter agility events. The perfect opportunity for an agility debut arrived. The trial was local, held at a site she had visited several times before as a spectator. I sent in the entry, though unsure if Ginger was ready to enter the ring and make her public appearance as an agility competitor. She enjoyed playing agility at home with me, was extremely consistent in her execution of the obstacles, even showing some typical border collie abandon, but remained shy and uncertain in public. It was with nervous anticipation, that I waited for the big day to arrive.