Dana Pike, Jen Pinder and Rhonda Carter "2006 Spring Maintenance Camp"

13 Jun 2006Steve Schwarz

I attended the “Spring Maintenance Camp” Dana Pike held at her place in Wilmington, IL this past Memorial Day Weekend. Like last year, the instructors were Jen Pinder, Rhonda Carter, and Dana. There were three rings setup and you spent a day with each instructor. This year one ring was inside Dana’s new building and two rings were outside.

We had August weather come through three months early! We went from highs in the 70s the week before to highs in the mid to upper 90s with 50% humidity. We were spared the worst of the thunderstorms; they just seemed to split around us. But if the wind died down you could feel the heat and humidity coming off the grass like a sauna. All the campers and the instructors did their best to stay upbeat and keep themselves and, most importantly, the dogs cool.

I hope you’ll forgive your “reporter” for not having a detailed report this year. This post is more about my experiences at camp than the great handling and training tips I learned.

So this year I brought Milo to run in the camp and Meeker to acclimate to another dog-filled environment. So I was pretty busy minding them both this year. Meeker did surprisingly well, he got to meet a lot of people and we worked on the skills he knows in a new place. Unfortunately, my guy Milo didn’t fair as well.

Within the first hour of the first day Meeker gave me a real scare. We were setting up in Dana’s new building and I had just put Meeker in his soft crate. As I was zipping up the flap he squirted out and ran out into the building. He kind of looked around, spotted the door, and immediately shot right out of it! The building is in the middle of a large unfenced alfalfa field and Meeker was heading out at a good clip. I was hot on his heels panicking calling “Meeker, Meeker!” then my brain engaged. I stopped and ran the other way and called “Meeker Come!” He spun on a dime and rocketed right toward me. Once I had his leash I shovelled the contents of my treat pocket into his mouth as fast as I could telling him what a clever boy he was! It was one of those simultaneously heart stopping and adrenaline pumping moments. We’ve practiced recalls every day since I first got him and it was great that our practiced paid off. Now I think staying in his crate in exciting circumstances will have to be another thing we work on…

Since I’ve worked with all three trainers I was familiar with their approaches - although it does help students new to these trainers that they have similar views on many handling and training issues. It is also helpful that they have different ways of presenting information and analyzing handlers and their dogs; so you may find one instructor’s approach that helps you better understand a concept. For me these instructors really helped solidify some concepts and helped me work on course analysis.

Day One - Rhonda Carter

Rhonda focused on evaluating the pros and cons of different handling approaches for different teams on several courses during the day. I felt pretty good that I had considered almost all the variations Rhonda and our group of handlers came up with. It was great to hear the analysis Rhonda brought to the process and the sometimes unexpected benefits of various handling approaches to some segments.

Rhonda’s courses contained some jumping sequences contained in the current international competition courses. These included full course length jumping sequences with Pull and Push throughs ending in 180s and 270s into contacts or weaves.

Unfortunately, Milo is not good in the heat and humidity. The sudden change in temperatures didn’t help him acclimate either. He still had a full undercoat that ultimately took Nancy almost two weeks to get out using a comb each day. She just about filled a paper shopping bag with his soft fur. So I was spraying his underside with water and he was laying on his cool bed. Unfortunately, that rubber bed kept his pads moist and after running half a day on the hard dirt the large pads on his front feet had the top layer of pad come right off. With all the flyball we’ve done with Milo and his pads on hard surfaces I really should have known better!

So after cutting the torn skin off his pads I wrapped up his feet and put Milo in his crate with the soft cool bed. In typical Milo fashion he was happy to sit in his crate and chomp on his tennis ball while watching the other dogs run.

Rhonda was kind enough to let me run her girl Blast for the rest of the day. Blast is a Comebye Border Collie who is the sister of the former local agility and flyball family the Montagano’s Chaz (who is another great agility and flyball dog). I was really honored that Rhonda would entrust me to handle one of her dogs.

I don’t have too much experience handling other people’s dogs and even less experience with fast and superbly trained agility dogs. So I definitely felt some pressure stepping to the line with Blast. It was good to know Blast would be completely honest in her reaction to my handling (and she was). So there would never be a question that any problems we had would be due to my handling. But I also have the years of running with Milo and Mr. Peabody and my default handling is based on their skills which do differ from Blast’s!

Anyway I did pretty well running Rhonda’s courses with Blast. It was great to be able to send her laterally to an obstacle and really know that she would go there so I could move on to the next point on course where we needed to connect. One unexpected thing was, I was able to get to some locations quite far away due to the additional lateral distance Blast gave me. So I was actually in position earlier than I had expected. Rhonda pointed out this meant I didn’t need to use as much of my speed to get into position so I could be more sure and clear in my directions to Blast and be better positioned on course. So it really was a blast to run with Blast (you knew I had to say it). However, I did feel kind of like a “traitor” to my Milo to have him on the sidelines while I played with Blast.

Rhonda is a straight shooter who stays upbeat even in the heat and humidity (she said the weather was just like her home in Texas). She works intently with each team to give them concrete suggestions to help their game.

Day Two - Dana Pike

I’ll plagiarize myself from last year because I can’t say it any better:
“I take a class every week with Dana so I “get” and enjoy her approach. But when Dana has the time to work with a group to run a course, discussing/running/breaking down individual sections, and running the whole thing again you can learn even more. Dana always has great courses that allow for multiple handling styles and team abilities. Her courses for this camp were challenging and tested each team in many ways.”

Most of Dana’s seminar was about course analysis and team appropriate handling. Dana isn’t just interested in a handler using a particular maneuver, but that it is best for the team, correctly located relative to the dog, and correctly executed.

Due to the group’s interest, Dana also demonstrated her contact training methodology. It was interesting to see how her approach has been further refined over the few years I’ve been training with her. Since I started with Milo and Mr. Peabody in her advanced classes I’d also never seen her give a full presentation of her approach. I’ll try to put together an article as I train Meeker to do his contacts. I’ll also be going to Dana’s Novice Agility seminar at the end of the month with Meeker and hope to document how I’ll use her approach.

Due to Milo’s continued sore pads I left him at home with his Mom to recuperate. Dana was kind enough to let me run her retired BC Ticket and later on her red BC Bang. I’d run Ticket at last year’s camp when Milo had smacked his wrist and enjoyed running with him. Bang is one of the dogs Dana regularly competes with and is another “hi-test” BC who really knows the game. Interestingly, Bang tested me a couple times on his contacts, but I didn’t let him off the hook :^) Just like running with Blast there weren’t any handling approaches I couldn’t take as long as I was clear in my cues and stayed aware of Bang’s abilities. It was great fun!

Dana is clear, upbeat, and positive in her approach to handlers and their dogs. I especially like that she’ll give you her analysis in a straight forward unvarnished manner.

Day Three - Jen Pinder

Jen had courses set up for handling discriminations, but we also spent a lot of time on international style jumping sequences including Pull Through handling. Her course sequences for our group were pretty technical and put our analysis and handling skills to the test.

Dana let me run with Bang again and he saved my bad handling a number of times. Jen didn’t let me get away with it though, so I still had to go back and fix my mistakes :^)

Jen had a method for visualizing handling for Pull Throughs that really sounded a chord for me. She said to imagine a jump being placed in the location where you are pulling your dog between the obstacles. Then plan your handling as though you also need to handle the imaginary jump. Obviously, you don’t need to account for the dog’s landing room for the imaginary jump but any lead changes (and their locations minus the landing room) are still valid. This also helps handlers who normally aren’t patient enough to wait for the dog to be in position for the next obstacle in the Pull Through.

Jen also “beat us up” a little about not using Post Turns Post Turn/Shoulder Pull/Pivot TurnLearning the Post Turn in some handling situations where we looked to get in a Front Cross over the obstacle. I know I can be very Front Cross-centric in my handling in order to find any location on course where I can get/stay ahead of my dogs. Sometimes it is riskier to Front Cross (due to dropping a bar) to get ahead of your dog than Rear Crossing and then catching up or handling from behind for a short sequence.

Jen was happy to discuss her handling system but she didn’t impose that system on her students. She had her students offer their handling ideas and also discuss how she would handle a sequence. Then we discussed the benefits for the teams for each type of handling. She stretched our skills by helping us use the handling our teams already understood to better handle difficult sequences.

Just like Rhonda and Dana, Jen stays positive in her treatment of handlers and their dogs. Even with the intense heat, and the wear and tear of three days playing agility, Jen was keen to help each team and was out in the heat helping us all until we all called it quits.

Conclusion

So I guess this year’s spring camp was my camp to “run the dogs of the agility stars” :^) I had a great time and Milo’s feet have recovered fully (he was happily charging around at Flyball practice last weekend). This year my “executive summary” is the same as last year: seek out these great trainers any time you can. If you can find them all together you’ll be in for a great time.

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