Category Archives: pets

Fun Dog Sport: Flyball!

What is Flyball, you ask? It’s a relay race! Each dog in turn races over four hurdles, triggers a box that releases a ball, and then carries the ball back over the four hurdles to the start/finish line. Two teams of (usually) four dogs race against each other at a time. Makes sense? Here’s our team (not Loki, he’s still in training) during a tournament this past weekend:

It’s fun because there are a ton of training/focus challenges for the dogs, and there’s a strong sense of camaraderie among the humans on the team. Training-wise, getting a dog to do anything on command while there are seven other dogs off leash in the immediate vicinity is a challenge right off the bat. Then there’s the difficulty in getting a dog to run away from you and perform a specific task at a distance. (One of the Flyball rules is that the human handlers have to stay back behind the start/finish line, so once you release your dog he’s on his own until he gets back to you.)

Generally when a dog starts learning Flyball you start him at a distance from you (being restrained by another human) and you just get him to run straight to you when you call him. Then you start upping the ante by having other dogs around (that he has to ignore) when you call him, then you start adding hurdles for him to jump over as he runs to you. Loki made slow  but steady progress at this, and now he’s almost always very good about ignoring other dogs and jumping hurdles when he’s focused and knows it’s time to be in “Flyball mode”.

From there you can have the dog run away from you, grab a ball, and bring it back to you. For Loki that was a big challenge at first because he’s not really a ball-motivated dog. He is however very strongly motivated by treats, so we started out having him touch the ball, get a treat, then mouth the ball, get a treat, then spit the ball into my hand, get a treat. After several weeks of this slow progression we worked up to a point where he will chase a ball and bring it back, but he expects a reward of some kind at the end! This is actually pretty useful because he’s not attached to the ball at all, he’s bringing it back and immediately giving it up because he wants the treat. It still boggles my mind slightly that it took weeks to train a dog how to play fetch!

The second big challenge is teaching the dog to trigger the box. It makes a loud clang as the mechanism releases the ball, so at first we just had to desensitize Loki to the loud noise. Easy enough, just have him sit near the box and give him a treat every time there’s a clang. 🙂 But if you want the dog to have a pretty good race time, you want him to be able to trigger the box, catch the ball, and spring off of it as quickly and efficiently as possible. Here are some of the dogs with the best box turns on our team:

And here’s Loki:

Sigh. He’s just not very coordinated. Ideally when you’re teaching a dog the box turn, you first shape the movement without a ball. So in this case you want to dog to land on the box with all four feet, already halfway turned, and then push off with all four feet to complete the turn. (It’s often compared to how a swimmer turns and pushes off the wall in the pool, if that makes sense.) It takes a bit of extra motivation, but we can get Loki to perform this swimmer’s turn decently when there is no ball. But when we try to add a ball in he runs straight up to it, comes to a full stop while triggering the box, and then oftentimes has to chase the ball down since he doesn’t always get his mouth in the right spot to catch the ball as it flies out.

But that doesn’t keep him from running the race correctly, it just makes him very slow. The other big challenge that Loki is working on right now is passing other dogs. Like with most relay races, the closer you can get each participant to pass at the start/finish line, the faster the overall time will be. But it can be quite intimidating running towards a hurdle with another dog running full speed seemingly straight at you. This angle shows a little better how close the dogs pass each other:

Loki did get to try running in two heats at the tournament, but both times he got intimidated by the dog running at him and veered wide, skipping the first hurdle. But both times he then got back on course, retrieving the ball and jumping over the rest of the hurdles, which is pretty impressive even if it doesn’t count! We’ll be working on that pass with Loki for the next few weeks for sure, I know he’ll get it figured out eventually.

The current world record for a four dog flyball team is 14.768 seconds, but my impression from watching the races at the tournament is that a decently fast 4 dog team at our competition level might finish the course in 19 seconds. Or at least I saw some pretty experienced teams, but I don’t think I saw any team go below 19 seconds at the tournament. The tricky part is that you generally want a short dog to run with 3 other tall/fast dogs, because the height of the jumps is based on the height of the shortest dog (aka the “height dog”) on the team. I’m sure there’s some optimization that goes on, but theoretically if you could get a dog that stands 12″ at the withers (which gives you the shortest possible jump height of 7″) and 3 speedy bigger dogs, you could get splits of something like 4 seconds for each of the tall dogs and 5 seconds for the short dog. Even if there was zero time lost on the passes, that would still be a 17 second race time, which makes the current world record even more impressive. Then again that world record team had 2 whippets on it, and I imagine they have very fast splits. 🙂 We do have a whippet training on our team, but he’s even newer than Loki, so we’ll have to see how he progresses. Our team is actually a bit short (no pun intended) on height dogs at the moment, so Loki definitely has a good role on the team if we can get him trained up the rest of the way.

Most of our team is made up of border collies, but at one point we had quite a few Danish Swedish Farmdogs (all of whom were related to each other) and Belgian Tervurians (I think at least some of these were also related). There were also quite a few Belgian Malinois that I saw across the various teams at the tournament. I guess when you hang out a lot with similarly-minded dog owners and you’re thinking about getting a new sports dog, it makes sense to keep it in the family, so to speak. 🙂 But there were tons of really cool mix/rescue dogs that were awesome at Flyball too.

I didn’t manage to get any video of the two heats Loki attempted at the tournament, but here he is at practice a few weeks ago. For practice we use training gates to either side of the jumps to make it really really obvious to the dogs where they should be going. Loki isn’t exactly a speed demon, but he’s running the whole course!

Love it! what  trooper. 🙂

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Just another Loki post

While we theorize that Loki is a corgi/border collie mix, we won’t be 100% sure unless we give in to our curiosity and send off his DNA to get tested, which may never happen. One thing is for sure though, he has different length fur in odd places. Most noticeable is his tail, which has some super-long strands interspersed with short strands all along its length.

And this just in from Obvious News headquarters: it’s really hard to get a good picture of a dog’s tail, those thing never hold still!

Another place with longer fur–behind his ears–is pretty characteristic for that border collie look. I noticed the other day that the fur there was looking a bit matted… oops… We don’t really brush him ever, because it hasn’t really been an issue in the past. Anyway, I attacked the poor guy with a comb (luckily he’s used to people playing with his ears) and cut off one hopeless tangle; the rest was actually salvageable.

Much better. He’s still not really a match for the full-blood border collies or australian shepherds when it comes to ear tufts though. I think he lacks the poofy undercoat, which is why we can get away with barely ever brushing him. He looks pretty silly with those super-short legs though. No border collie can compete with him there. 🙂

The Cat Situation

We have three kitties. They’re indoor-only. This creates a bit of a challenge in a house the size of ours… especially considering that we have a dog who thinks everyone wants to be his friend and play with him.

An early decision before we even closed on our house was to make one room dog-free and one room completely pet free. We’ve had occasions when we’ve had friends who were mildly allergic to pets find themselves very unhappy when spending the night at our place. It’s also nice to have a room to go to for various projects and not have to worry about the cats getting into everything… especially straight pins, which they have a strange fascination for. I guess it’s because they’re small and shiny. Yarn is a problem too, cats and balls of yarn are cliche for a reason.

So our “guest room” (3rd bedroom) door will stay closed… just as soon as it isn’t filled to the brim with boxes. The dog-free room is the “office” (2nd bedroom). That’s where we feed the cats and where we have the litter boxes set up. To keep the dog out we employ this baby gate:

It has hinges and a (somewhat aggravating) latch, so we humans don’t have to be experienced hurdlers in order to enter and exit. To make it easier for the cats, we cut a hole in the hallway linen closet:

Can you tell Pollux is still pissed at me for grabbing him by the ruff and stuffing him in a cat carrier during the move? Good thing he’s all hiss and no bite… Anyway, the hole is on the second shelf from the bottom, so Loki can’t really get to it. It leads straight into the closet in the office…

… where we keep their food dishes. We’ve removed the closet doors since we want this space to be open to the rest of the room anyway. We also have their litter boxes in the room:

We keep them pointed at the corner so that the gleeful kicking of kitty litter is limited in distance. This is a temporary solution for now. We’re planning to build a custom box with a switchback (to prevent projectile litter) and a hinged lid just as soon as we’re done building our bed frame…

We also have this cute little cat tree that we nabbed on clearance a few months ago.

(Unlike Pollux, Castor likes having his picture taken. Sorry for the weird lighting little dude!) We’re undecided as to whether we want to leave it in the office or bring it out into the living room. on the one hand, we want to provide the cats a comfy space without having to deal with the dog. On the other hand, when we’re out in the living room, the cats generally are going to be out there too. We’re leaning towards eventually building some shelving along the living room/dining room wall and making it pretty cat-friendly, so probably the cat tree will stay in the office. I guess we’ll see what happens when we actually set up the office furniture…

I’m just including this picture of Callie since this is a post about the cats and I didn’t want to leave her out. 🙂

Graduation Day

That’s right, Loki has officially made it out of high school. I guess this means now he’ll have to go out and find a job. Haha, I kid, he’s totally going to be a sports star, which is why his next class will be “Obedience for Dog Sports”.

He still hasn’t gotten a lot of the tricks he was supposed to learn in high school (“spin” and “roll over” both freak him out. It’s kinda weird.) but he heels fairly well, and his sit-stay is getting really, really good. Dave actually managed to get him to stay while Dave backed up halfway across the dog park and then called him over. Now granted, this was after Loki had gotten tired of playing with the other dogs… but still, pretty impressive!

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I figured I’d actually try to get a good picture of him for once… Poor dogs with black fur don’t photograph so well.

Meet the kittens

We have two new additions to the household, as of July 2009. Pollux is the gray and white:

Castor is the black and white:

Callie seems to mostly tolerate them:

We love the boys very much, and they seem pretty happy to be with us. 🙂