13 Months- Getting Ready for the Specialty

Jul 28, 2005 | Stitch's Story

And now it HAS been months since we worked. The little hooligan has basically been allowed to wander through life like any “ordinary” pet dog. As Life slowly recedes from Hysterical (Red Alert, no time to think, do NOT discuss anything complicated with me) towards Normal (Yellow Alert, several hours a day of actual possible thought, try to keep yourself to one subject at a time, hmmm?), I start thinking about where she is, what training has stuck, and what training hasn’t. Since I have very little memory – and considerably less during Red Alerts than Yellow – I feel guilty about how little she knows. I’m starting to feel the pressure of the PWD American National Specialty coming up in – holy cow, 9 weeks – during which I’m planning to enter her in conformation, obedience, agility, Rally-O, CGC, and the water trial, and I suspect she knows nothing.

The first thing I do is look at her Levels checklist, and I’m shocked to discover that she was last working on Level FIVE, having successfully completed all the Levels up to and including Four. Well! Isn’t THAT a nice surprise! She can’t know NOTHING! Time to take stock.

Things she does NOT know: how to Heel. A solid retrieve in the face of distractions. Being In The Game with distractions and low-value treats (kibble). A solid on-cue first-time every-time retrieve of her dish. How to walk through a room without picking up everything she passes. How to love strangers touching her. To swim without following Scuba. How to greet people without appearing to be trying to bite them (she greets me by holding my wrist in her mouth. I think it’s cute, but several people have recoiled in alarm when she tried it on them).

Things she does know, shocking as it may be: How to ride politely in the car. How to go from the house to the car, and car to house, off lead and without taking off after the cats. How to stay in the car even if I leave the door open while I go back in the house to get whatever I inevitably forgot. How to stay on the grooming table even if I leave the room to get the scissors. Loose Leash Walking. How to be shaped (she’s not as good as Scuba is at it, but she’s willing to work at it). Staying in the crate without whining. To love the agility obstacles. To stay with me and/or come back to me even if other dogs are running around nearby (was that me frantic about her running off on the agility field just a couple of months ago? We went to a new dog park and she demonstrated astonishing self-control and teamwork).

I’ve been working on the hysterical greetings this week. When I let the dogs out of their crates in the morning or when I come home, I ask each one in turn to Sit, and then slowly and gently massage her ears, her neck, her shoulders, and down her sides. If, in her enthusiasm, she breaks the Sit, I turn and ask the other one to Sit and do the same with her. Each dog gets two turns. In four days, this regimen has dramatically reduced the noise and enthusiasm of letting them loose – and to my surprise, Stitch is better at it than Scuba is. I’m glad it’s so effective, I was starting to get a little frantic myself as they barked and spun and grabbed things to parade with every time I was out of sight for 30 seconds or more. That way lies separation anxiety.


We’ve also been to a lake several times. Stitch and I worked first in her water bucket, then in a wading pool, and her Underwater Retrieve is superb. She has no qualms about putting her whole head underwater to get something, gently blowing bubbles to keep the water from going up her nose. At one point in the wading pool, I tossed her bumper and she missed it, thinking it had gone underwater. She was down for a LOOONG time trying to find it. She’s thrilled to follow Scuba as Scuba chases a ball or bumper out into the lake, and she’s a strong swimmer, but she’s not yet confident enough to voluntarily let herself float without Scuba leading her out. Here’s where her retrieve breaks down, her enthusiasm for it decreases as the water gets closer to swimming depth. I need to really concentrate on getting her retrieve back up to speed.


I spent this morning training llamas. After lunch, hot, sweaty, and tired, we set off to spend an hour in the park in the shade. I took four wieners, planning on using them for four different training situations, depending on what Stitch gave me when we got there. There’s a big party in the park this weekend, which they’re setting up for – tents, trucks, chairs, etc. Also kids running “loose”, big guys playing hacky sack, joggers, walkers, and bikers. I’ve got my hands full from the car to a bench, but we don’t meet anyone walking by us and Stitch keeps the leash loose brilliantly. At the bench, I use the first wiener for some shaping practise. I put my book on the ground and shape her to touch it. That’s quick and easy, considering how long it’s been since we worked together – maybe 20 clicks. I pick up the book and shape her to go to a garbage can a few feet from one end of the bench. Even quicker, maybe 12 clicks’ and I’m thinking about getting her to go around it, but we’ve used up the first wiener.

We spend the second one on remaining sitting while being petted by kids (not difficult, kids aren’t scary, but I wanted to reward it anyway), and giving me her paw (which we have apparently worked on in the past, since she starts shoving it at me almost immediately). We get to putting a cue on it, and the second wiener’s done.

All the kids have left the playground equipment, so we go to explore it. The first thing we find is a little slide about 5′ high with wooden steps leading up to it. I lure her up the steps, and I’m getting ready to bring her gently down the slide, maybe holding on to her to keep her from sliding too fast, when she takes one too many steps forward and slides down – good form, front feet leading, back feet tucked, weight back – but I’m horrified, shove half the wiener in her mouth, and hope to heck I can get her up the stairs again. While I’m busy being shocked, Miss Adventure runs back around to the stairs, climbs them, and launches down the slide again. Eight times before I drag her off to some pause-table-like equipment. Did I mention she loves her agility equipment? She should learn to love swimming since she isn’t afraid of yaw, pitch and roll any more. A far cry from the pup who wouldn’t roll over!

The fourth wiener discusses Heeling around the park and back to the car. Better than I expected it to be, by a long shot, given the lack of practise putting it together. She’s a bit wide, and a bit forward, and not aware she has to sit when I stop, but definitely passable and an excellent place to start working it up. We work Chutes & Ladders Heeling and get up to 6 steps with excellent position and attention. An excellent day!


I spend the weekend at a llama show, working hard, and have no time for the dogs, who spend three full days alternating between riding in the car (4-hour drive each way), lying in the expen in the shade under the overhang of the fifth-wheel trailer, or stuck inside the trailer wishing something more interesting was happening. Zero exercise.

Ron’s been taking them out to pee in the evening (he’s got more stamina than I have – I work all day and then crash for 11 hours). In the morning a friend knocks on the door. As I open the door, Stitch squeezes past me and out the door. She jumps on my friend and… WHAT? PEES ON HER FEET! Good grief! Then… ohmygawd! She runs away! Around the side of the barn and out of sight. In the next barn over there’s a bunch of horses getting ready for competition, and cattle in the one after that. I’m frantic, and I go peeling around the corner of the barn in my pjs to discover… Stitch pooping. When she’s done, she comes ripping back as fast as she can to greet my friend again.

A young llama friend asks if she can take Stitch for a walk later. I warn her that Stitch will pull her around, but when they come back, she reports that there was no pulling at all.


When we get home, I start working on the buoy-line retrieve and discover that retrieving has deteriorated more than I thought. Sometimes Stitch thinks she’s supposed to target the item and come right back. Sometimes she forgets what she’s doing entirely. Sometimes she picks it up but it’s heavier than she thought or it gets snagged on something, so she drops it and comes back to get her cookie. Remember, this is the pup who carries Leroy – a stuffed toy almost as large as she is – around everywhere she goes and regularly tries to sneak my husband’s workboots (size 12) out the dog door, so I know she CAN work through retrieving problems when her mind is in the right place.

I spend a couple of sessions on retrieving various items – a dumbbell, an empty plastic pop bottle (a favourite toy), a small plastic bumper with a long line attached, and one of hubby’s boots. I shape her to pick up the pop bottle and bring it to me – she knows how to do this, the shaping is to tell her that’s what I want. Then I toss it around the room. She has no trouble with this, nor with the dumbbell. She runs right out, picks them up properly, brings them right back, sits, and holds them until I cue the release. Then I toss the bumper. That’s good until the rope snags on a stair, and she abandons it. I sit and stare at it. She wanders around the room, pokes my hand, sits and tries to make eye contact, lies down, folds one paw over the other, and finally goes back and tries again. This time she manages to bring it all the way back but drops it when she gets to me. I continue to sit and stare. She stares. I stare. She picks it up, sits, and holds it until I ask for it. We work that until she can sit at Heel, watch the toss, run out to get it, bring it all the way back without encouragement, sit, and hold it until I ask for it.

Then I toss the boot. She has less trouble with that than she did with the bumper. Then I tie the boot to the bumper line. That’s OK too, she can bring back the boot whether the line is snagged or not, she seems to understand that she’ll have to work harder to bring the boot. Finally, I take the boot AND the bumper off the line and just toss the line. That throws her for a loop. She searches the entire room for the boot or the bumper. She comes back to me and stares. She sits and downs, then gets up and stands over the line staring at me. Finally she picks up the line and brings it back. Clever pup. And we’re done.

Starting to panic about some graduation ceremonies – her American National Specialty, where I hope to have her entered in agility, obedience, Rally, and water trials.


Well, I guess it’s official – 7 weeks until the American National Specialty. Her real official Portuguese Water Dog water harness arrived in the mail today, along with a lovely soft bumper. She glommed onto the bumper immediately, retrieving it with more enthusiasm than I’ve seen for anything except empty plastic pop bottles. She did so well, in fact, that I tied it to an upside-down kitchen chair and had her retrieve the bumper AND the chair. On the down side, she’s been gulping for several days. I thought she had a bit of grass or something in her throat, but Scuba started gulping tonight. I’ll talk to the vet about kennel cough in the morning.

We also practised some heeling, and while it isn’t wonderful yet by any means, she was pulling it together well enough that I stopped panicking about it. If I actually do some work, we can pull this off. Her attention is wonderful – she even tried to stay heeling when visitors came in the door. She still doesn’t know she needs to sit when I stop, but she started thinking about that tonight when I asked her to sit every time. Her worst thing is that she’s still drifting forward and off to the left. I’m solving that by starting each session with “doodling” – one step forward and a 90-degree left pivot, sit. One step forward, 90-degree left pivot, sit. This means that every single step we take forward, she has to pull herself to her right to stay with me, and it’s starting to make her think about the correct position. I’m working in the kitchen so far. Tomorrow I’ll work it outside, starting with the doodles and working up to more than one step forward at a time.


Five more days. We’ve been working hard, and things are looking good. She’s pulled the heeling together very nicely. She’s still wobbling wide, especially on about turns and fasts, and still a bit forward. I put a buckle collar and short lead on her and try bumping the collar lightly to tell her when she’s out of position. With my first clicker dog, I could not possibly have trusted myself to do this without turning it into collar corrections. With my second clicker dog, I would not have trusted myself. I’m 12 years down the road, though, and it works a charm. She takes the bump as a clue that she’s out of position and immediately hugs in tighter. Just before I click, she looks up at my face to be sure that’s what I wanted, so she gets clicked for coming in AND for making contact. Three sessions later, we’re up to 15 steps of actual fairly-precise heeling, I’m thrilled, and she’s having a super time. She’s also figured out the automatic sit, though it isn’t QUITE automatic yet. Every time I stop, she stops, stands, startles, and sits. It’s very cute.


We’ve been working more on retrieving. Not emphasizing any part of the retrieve in particular, but trying to run through everything – the sit, stay, go out, pick up, return, sit, hold and deliver – while really increasing her enthusiasm for the job. As we move toward more hot dogs and roast beef, the quality of her nutrition has definitely gone down as her enthusiasm goes up, but that’s OK. We’re aiming to make the retrieve so much fun that it becomes a very good reward in itself.


Her sidestep, front, sit- and down-stay, recall and stand-stay are all excellent. Her finish is nearly finished. Sometimes she gets it all, she just needs to add another couple of inches ALL the time to make it perfect.

Besides heeling, swimming is our other priority. She not only has to learn to do it, but she has to learn to enjoy it. We’ve been to the beach 6 times. She likes the water, likes to drink it, likes to wade in it, likes to run in it, and likes to chase Scuba through it. Unfortunately we’re still at the stage where the only time she wants to swim is when she’s chasing Scuba who’s chasing the bumper.

We’re having the classic teach-your-dog-to-swim problem. She’s comfortable standing on her back feet and pretending she’s swimming. This means her butt is always down, and dogs don’t swim with their butts down, they sink.

This is my answer. It’s a simple swim noodle wrapped around her waist and held together with cable ties (the purple harness is her Water Trial harness that she wears every time she gets near water). I let her run around the yard a bit wearing the noodle (talk about fashion accessories!). If she has nothing better to think about, she feels rooted to the spot, but as soon as she’s thinking about where she’s going, or where there might be a cat, she forgets all about it, and it stays in place better than I expected it to.


We go off to the beach. I back the car up to the shore, take Scuba out of the crate and leave Stitch to watch while I throw the bumper for Scuba to retrieve. She’s not happy about this, it’s the first time she’s yapped in the crate for months. When Scuba’s cooled off, I bring Stitch out and put Scuba back in the crate. I start by tossing her bumper on land a few times to get her in the mood, and she’s revved. She wades in to retrieve as well, but won’t go further.

I wade out almost to my knees, and lure her around me from shallow to deep and back to shallow. She’s reluctant, but finally does it. Better the second and third time since she’s realized she doesn’t have to actually swim, but unfortunately for her, every time she comes around, I’ve taken half a step further out and on the fourth circle, she has to swim. She’s a little awkward with the noodle, but the fifth time, she’s starting to look like she knows what she’s doing. At that point, I go out past my waist and she’s swimming! She’s swimming! Rather than have her head for shore when she gets tired, I let her swim around me four times, giving her a treat away from shore each time around, and then grab her around the ribcage and lift her up a bit out of the water to rest for a moment before putting her back to swim again.

She actually goes up on the beach and then turns around and comes back out to me. Twice! And from the beach later, she ALMOST actually went in and retrieved the bumper from swimming depth. Maybe tomorrow.


Once in a while (one day a year?) things come together, and today’s the day. Everything we’ve been working on meshes perfectly. We start with Heeling. Yahoo! On- and off-leash she’s excellent (not perfect yet, of course, but wow!) In spite of being able to see a cat ‘way over THERE, she glues herself to my leg, keeps her head turned in, and only forges a little. She keeps up on the outside corners, and pulls her tail in to stay with me on the inside corners (of everything, this is the worst today, and still pretty darn good). She sits every time I stop. Wahoo!

Then we work on retrieving. I can’t find her new purple bumper that she loves, so we use an old orange canvas one. She’s bright and eager to get it (blows two SitStays in row, which at this point is great, meaning that I have to work a bit more on Stay and she’s starting to love her retrieves!). Finally she settles enough to do a SitStay and I ask her to Look at the bumper before I release her to get it. For the first time, she seems to know what I’m talking about.

I’ve left the buoy rope on the driveway behind me while we work with the bumper. When we’ve moved 15′ away from rope, I tuck the bumper under my arm, turn around, and ask her to Sit in heel position. I ask her to Look at the rope. Holy cow, she does! Locks right on and raises her butt about an inch off the ground! I tell her to get it, she gallops over to it, picks it up, and brings it back! We’ve done them cold a couple of times before, but never further away than 4’. I try it a few more times at 20′ and she’s still eager to get it. A couple of times she steps on the dragging part and drops it, then keeps coming toward me a step or two. Then she stops and looks at me, turns around, picks it up again, and finishes the job. Excellent!

We finish up with some Recalls, Fronts and Finishes. F&F a little sloppy today, but present and accounted for. If she gives me this at the Specialty, I’ll be very pleased with her.

Scuba’s turn. She’s practising for a Draft Test. I harness and hitch her and we do some manoeuvering. Then I need a weight, 30 to 40 pounds would do it. What would be the easiest… or I could start working on teaching Stitch to stay on a boat platform even if it’s bobbing up and down a bit…

so that’s what we do. I ask Stitch to Go To Mat in the cart. She jumps out a couple of times when it starts moving, but quickly figures out that it’s a “mat” like any other and she’s supposed to stay on it. And away we go! What a great day! What great dogs!