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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Judge's Gifts - Necessary or Nice?

I was recently at a table where an AKC Agility Judge announced that they would never return to judge for a club if they didn't receive a judge's gift to thank them for their services. Another judge at the table had the opposite opinion and felt their fee was more than sufficient.

It has been my experience that judges, exhibitors and clubs each have a pretty clear opinion on the topic.

I've noticed that those who come from Conformation generally believe a judges gift is tradition and a must. On the flip side some clubs such as the Board of the Puget Sound Labrador Retriever Club firmly believe that agility judges make enough in payment and they won't authorize a judge's gift (except for club merchandise).

While I don't agree with PSLRA's reasoning, my personal belief is that a gift for judging isn't a requirement. But I will admit that it is a NICE surprise and has never failed to put a smile on my face! Ironic since the last sentence in Wikipedia's definition of Gift is "By extension the term gift can refer to anything that makes the other happier...especially as a favor, including...kindness."

I have to admit, I have all of the gifts I've received over the years. For my very first assignment, they gave me a beautiful handmade wood clock with a hand painted picture of a Dalmatian - I love that gift and it has sat prominently in the living room of every house I've lived in.

There are many treasured gifts throughout my house and the cost of the item isn't what makes a gift great.

For example, a club that Dan was judging for contacted me to get pictures of his dogs. Their timing was great because we had just received professional photos back of Burton. The club used the picture to create a personalized coffee mug which Dan uses every day (and I'm not allowed to touch ). The thoughtfulness of a gift is what makes it so special.

So, I'm curious...what do most people think?


Rouge's First Agility Trial

Video of May 29, 2010 - Nov Std Run

Today was Rouge’s first ‘official’ agility trial and I was a bit nervous. 

The problem with being a dog trainer and a perfectionist is that I’m always thinking “I should do more work on (fill in the blank)”. I’m also keenly aware of the areas I haven’t trained completely (i.e. weave poles) and our potential weaknesses (i.e. her healthy curiosity).

But for once I followed my own advice and thought it wise to pick and then focus on just one goal to execute during our runs. In this case, I decided that our goal would be to stay connected and work together as a team throughout our run. 

Rouge is very knowledgeable on the equipment (yes, I do need to finalize my weave training which was temporarily put on hold when her love of life disabled her ability to concentrate), and she has wonderful sit stays, an automatic down on the table, an amazing 2-on-2-off contact performance, great collection work over jumps and she reads rear-crosses like a pro. But like a lot of young dogs, her exuberance can elicit visions of a crazed mad-woman dashing around the mall on a timed shopping spree!

So  our goal of working together as a team during our run was not only fitting for her, but also for me. It recently dawned on me that as her trainer, I needed to touch-base/check-in/be aware/stay connected with Rouge at a specific point between each obstacle as well. Additionally, I also needed to take a step back on the drivey portion of our run and focus on quality when in new environments.

As much as I like to run at full-speed, I had to also be aware that for the moment, the adrenaline rush that comes with running in a new heightened environment was overtaking Rouge’s ability to think clearly about her job(s) in Agility. So, I toned my running down a bit and made sure I had her attention at each point of the course, whether that was on an obstacle or between an obstacle.

For us, this was the winning formula that enabled me to keep her on task and to share continuous ‘good job’ rewards to enforce all of the positive behaviors she was offering.

Sure, we had our technical faults (a run-by to a wrong course), but what I am most pleased with was how quickly Rouge collected, returned to me and got back on track to continue the course. I’ve always said that how fast a dog recovers when a plan goes awry can be an important indicator as to where they’re head is in the game and how far they’ve come (or how far they need to go).

Let’s talk brilliant moments because Rouge had one that nearly blew me out of the water. Our Standard run (in the rain) used the short chute to the broad jump to a ‘C’ shaped tunnel. To the left of the tunnel was the dog walk (have I mentioned how much Rouge LOVES her contacts?). I was behind her and so she was left to make a choice between her favorite (a contact obstacle) or the tunnel and she did an AMAZING job of checking in and correctly choosing to drive to the tunnel entrance. I was stunned. Happily of course!

Another brilliant moment occurred on both courses when Rouge checked in with me and chose to correctly take my forward movement cue (again, I was coming in from behind) and actively sought out the last jump on the course and drove to the obstacle. Yeah for her!

After each run, multiple people asked “Did you qualify?” Gosh, I felt like I’d just climbed a mountain and our achievement was far bigger than a Qualifying ribbon. Today's runs have increased my confidence with her and have motivated me to move toward finishing our weave pole training. 

Our next trial will be at the end of July at the Chuckanut show and I'm really excited to come out even stronger and better trained there. It's nice to have a clear cut goal to work toward!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Criteria - How To Train It

This is the 4th Blog in the Criteria Series. Below are links to the previous Blogs.

Thanks to the worksheet in Blog 3, you should have your criteria established and are excited to start training. There's just one question left to to train it! 

The question of 'How to train it?' is sort of like asking 'How to loose weight?' There are a ton of options, theories, myths, opinions, science and experience out there and deciding a course of action can be a head-spinning challenge.

I like to keep things simple, so personal experience has taught me:
  • Agility should be fun for me.
  • Agility should be a game for my dog (fun).
  • Ultimately, I want my dog to be responsible for performing the trained action/goal automatically or with one cue from me (consistency so the dog knows how to earn rewards, which equals fun).
  • I want to focus on rewarding the correct behavior (fun) instead of managing or threatening them if they don't do it (not fun).
  • Life is hectic and I want to be efficient and have quality training time with my dogs (fun) vs. inefficient quantity time (not fun).
The Art of Rewards
As a dog trainer and especially a dog trainer in Agility, I've taken the luxury to train all sorts of ways and have tried almost every method out there. 

When it comes to training a new skill, hands down, I can say with confidence that a reward for correct/wanted behaviors works the absolute best in a criteria-based training program. The best part? It fits with a simple, precise and successful training/showing lifestyle!

In Blog 3 I mentioned that our job as Trainer to The Dog is to:

  • Teach our dog the skill or job
  • Impart information
  • Instruct to improve performance
  • Attain a required level of  knowledge or skill

How we do that is purely optional. 

However, when I think back on the mentors, teachers and trainers I've had in life, those that supported, encouraged and had my best interests at heart are the ones I remember the most and the ones who taught me the most (or was it that I was more willing to listen more?)...after years of success, trial & error, I've learned that it IS simple to be all of those things to our dogs.

Dear Dog - Criteria is GOOD!
Remember when I mentioned in my last few Criteria Blog posts that dog training is about the dog? Well, a reward system of training embraces that mantra. When I'm training one of the criteria steps defined in my worksheet, I start out using:

  • Treats for...
  • Rapid reinforcement as a way to tell my dog "Now THIS is exactly what I want and when you do that step, GREAT things come your way." My time at Chicken Camp (Day 3) really helped to reinforce this.
  • I spend a ton of time reinforcing (i.e. making a positive impression) 
  • I'm NOT stingy with treats. Actually, as fast as I can hand 'em out, I do.
  • I don't move to the next step until my dog is doing the current behavior, independently, 80-100% of the time!
Once my dog is solid in the behavior I've reinforced, if appropriate I work to quickly:
  • Take myself out of the equation by adding movement (of my position) while feeding/rewarding my dog.
  • Look for an opportunity to toss food between my dog's paws so I don't have to walk to/from my dog.
  • Add a release word.
  • Make reinforcement variable.
  • Often I won't jump in to help my dog because I want them to think things through and take responsibility and pride in their actions. Why deny my dog the feeling of accomplishment and pride when they figure out and get rewarded for a task? However, I may help them follow through when they make a move in the right direction and I will always reward in position and default to rapid reinforcement to help celebrate with them.
  • I don't move to the next step until my dog is doing the current behavior, independently, 80-100% of the time! (Sound familiar?)
For each step in my Criteria Planning Worksheet I start all over with Treats For....(see above) and progress through the steps listed above as appropriate. It's really that simple and my dogs love the game that I've created.

It's good old Operant Conditioning at its best. It's proven, easy and works GREAT with a criteria-based training program.

Please don't hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.


    Criteria - Planning Worksheet

    Welcome to Criteria Blog #3. 

    This is a continuation on a discussion about the use of criteria in dog training. Here are links to the two previous blogs which will bring you up to date for this entry.

    Blog Discussion 1
    Blog Discussion 2

    Here is some great advice:

    Make a goal you can be confident in and invest in the steps that lead to criteria.

    To help myself and my clients, I created the Agility Criteria Planning worksheet* to the left. But before I talk about how to use the worksheet, there are a few important points to remember in order to make a criteria based training plan successful.

    CIDT (Criteria in Dog Training) should be:
    a specific and consistent standard for a particular action/goal
    a clear yes/no judgment as to whether the criteria was fully met. Criteria is very clear cut. The dog either does the expected criteria or it does not. There are no excuses, no points for ‘but he tried’ or ‘it was my fault’ and no worries if they don’t do it. With that said...

    Remember, our job as Trainer to The Dog is to:

    * teach our dog the skill or job
    * impart information
    * instruct to improve performance
    * attain a required level of  knowledge or skill

    Criteria - Plan It!
    I'm a huge subscriber to the theory that a little bit of planning goes a long way in time management and training efficiency. So when it comes to planning my criteria, I use the worksheet* attached as a way to guide me through the thought and training process. While I'd love to share all of the details and tidbits of the worksheet in this blog, I've chosen to focus on just a few highlights. (For information on how to view the full 2-page sheet in detail, please e-mail me.)

    Planning - Where to Begin (at the end...)
    In my last Blog post, I mentioned that the place to start criteria planning was by deciding exactly what the end behavior was going to look like - from the dog's point of view. This is the information that goes in the top box of the worksheet.

    Once the end behavior is known, I go to the next section where there are several lines available for planning each SMALL physical step a dog will do that will ultimately lead to the final goal/action listed in the top box.

    A couple of tips:

    • Focus on the physical actions of the dog during planning & training
    • Think small steps the dog will do and be rewarded for (and don't be stingy with treats!)
    • Start with a sterile environment. Once the behavior is solid, then you can move to proofing (another form I've created)
    • Don't move on to the next step in training until your dog is offering the current step 80-100% of the time independently
    • Are you Shaping or Back Chaining? As the worksheet indicates, if you start training at #1 you're shaping. If you start training at #8 you're Back Chaining
    • Did I mention don't be stingy with treats and to reward, reward, reward?

    Have Criteria...Now What?
    Now you train it. But how do you train it? Stay tuned for the next Blog post.

    * While I have made considerable additions/changes on its relevance to dog training, the base of this worksheet (sometimes seen as a stepping ladder via Terry Ryan of Legacy Canine) has been around for decades and used by scientists, students and researchers. (I wish I could specifically remember the exact resources, but I at least wanted to give a nod to those unknown authors).

    Sunday, May 23, 2010

    Quick Update on Training w/ Toys

    I wanted to give a quick update on how the toy training is going with Rouge and Zulu, my two test dogs. To sum it up in one word - AWESOME!

    I like to pair my blogs with pictures and I have to admit that I haven't figured out how to include a video in my blog yet! To add insult to injury, I videoed Zulu on my fancy cell phone and can't figure out how to change the orientation of the video so it's sideways on YouTube. Yes, I'm technologically challenged!

    However, the video is worth watching as it is a great summary of how my 2 on 2 off contact training with toys is going. Here's the link of Zulu self-rewarding. Just turn your head to the left for the full effect...

    As for Rouge, I've laced her toys are laced with food (turkey sausage to be exact) and that gets her soooo excited to work. The other day I pulled out the toy to go do some basic box work (so we could practice our front and rear crosses) and when she saw the toy she started jumping all around and was so flipping excited. 

    I was a little surprised at her enthusiasm (Dalmatians do tend to be more food motivated), although I guess if I'm playing the game right, I shouldn't be 'cause it just means I'm training correctly! Any way, it was fun to see her motivation for agility, our interaction and play.

    It's very rewarding to see these leaps in development!

    Dog Beers - Yes, These Are For Real...(and not for the dogs!)

    This past weekend in OH we not only judged, but did a few fun things as well.

    We went to this amazingly HUGE grocery store called Jungle Jim's where they have every specialty item you could ever dream of. We seemed to be stuck in the wine, beer and cigar section (one of Dan's hobbies) and being the dog enthusiast I am, I took the opportunity to take pictures of the dog-themed beers.

    Here were some of the names we saw:
    * Ellie's Brown Ale - featuring a chocolate lab of course!

    * Garde Dog
    * Tire Bite Golden Ale
    * In Heat Wheat Hefe Weizen
    * Raging Bitch
    * Labrador Lagar (from Thirsty Dog Brewing Co.)
    * Old Leghumper (also from Thirsty Dog Brewing Co.)

    The only one we were able to try was the Ellie's Brown Ale (in honor of Dan's Chocolate Labs Sadie and Burton).

    On a slightly different note, we were able to take our beer, wine and Dan's cigar selections back to the hotel and picked up some great take-out from Olive Garden. We plucked a large blanket from the hotel room and nabbed a shady spot in the grass under a tree behind the hotel for a little picnic.

    Within minutes, several exhibitors joined us (they're always welcome!) and soon we had a crowd hanging out on the blanket, enjoying wine, beer and cigars (the men...). The weather was gorgeous and I think it was one of the most amazing evenings I've had in a very long time.

    I told my hubby he needs to plan a picnic for us in the future. It was a simple luxury and I highly recommend it. 

    Courses - Hamilton Dog Training, OH May 21-23, 2010

    This weekend Dan and I were judging for the Hamilton Dog Training Club in OH, just outside of Cincinnati.

    I judged for this club about 8-9 years ago and have fond memories of their outdoor location. As time has gone on, they've moved to an indoor soccer arena like most parts of the country. It seems the outdoor trials are becoming a thing of the past and I'm a little sad about that.

    Yeah, I understand inconsistent weather makes for some worries and that setting up equipment and rings is time consuming. But there's nothing like a beautiful sunny day outdoors and a lush grass field to run on. These types of trials always afforded me a cozy nap under a tree or canopy with a soft breeze and birds singing in the background. I know my dogs prefer the outdoors and miss those cool grass naps too.

    But back to the trial at hand and the beautiful indoor facility...

    On Friday and Sunday I judged Standard. The courses were pretty straight forward and are attached.

    However, on Saturday I judged Jumpers in a narrow ring that more than challenged my creative and design flow capabilities!

    The ring size was 60 x 135 and the challenge is the width, or lack of width. Since there is a minimum distance a jump must be from a ring barrier, we're often left with less than 60 across to design with. For example, if a jump is facing a wall (so the dog is jumping toward the wall) we must have a minimum of 15' so now the 60' wide ring is narrowed to 45' of usable running space. Each time you add a piece of equipment, the spacing becomes smaller and smaller.

    Given the above, it's no surprise that courses turn into a 'run up and down' type of design with a small circular something in them to facilitate the necessary change of directions or side-switches. Regardless, of the spacing, I thought my course made the best of a challenging situation and below is my Excellent Jumpers course.

    As always, I want to thank the club for a wonderful time and beautiful weather.

    Monday, May 10, 2010

    Northwest Obedience - Sun Std Course

    Today was an awesome kick-butt day at the Northwest Obedience Club Trial and I really loved watching my Standard course being run.

    Okay, it seems like I say that a lot (and I do), but it's really giving credit to those competitors who do the course justice with incredible handling and to the dogs for their amazing athletic ability.

    There's nothing like watching a course come alive in the 3 dimensional world. When courses are first created they are on a flat piece of paper that is a snapshot from an aerial view. There's nothing exciting about them and they're in the concept stage.

    But then when a course is setup at a trial, it's like adding water to a sponge, it just magically grows right before your eyes.

    Then add a 'live' dog and handler team to interpret your design and the whole thing becomes magical.

    The best part of being a judge is to watch handlers & dogs run my course creations. In those 40-65 seconds when a team is interacting with my concept, they unknowingly give my design the final character and heartbeat needed to become something worth remembering. When things are nicely clicking along for a team, my course momentarily gives back by providing an addicting rush of FUN for both the human and the dog.  As an added bonus, that addicting happy feeling resonates and is contagious so everyone watching has an opportunity to get that momentary high as well.

    Then, after the run is complete and a team is done, my course goes back to being just a bunch of metal or wood obstacles waiting for the next team to contribute that necessary heartbeat of life...and so the cycle continues throughout the trial.

    Today's course was one of those moments where you could feel the rush of FUN in the air. Later when I was showing my hubby the course on paper, I was disappointed that it just didn't exude the feeling (of FUN) it had at the trial. My treasured course once again looked flat, lifeless and boring. That's when it dawned on me exactly the power each course I design potentially has and how powerful the exhibitor's contribution is. At that moment I realized we couldn't create FUN without both parties contributing a small, but momentary part of themselves.

    So when I say the course was fun to watch, I'm really saying thank you to each team for adding life to my design and an even bigger thank you for creating the feeling of FUN.

    Happy Handling everyone!

    Saturday, May 8, 2010

    Northwest Obedience - Sat Std Course

    OK, lots to talk about from today.

    First, in MN the AKC World Team tryouts. I don't normally pay too close attention to this type of thing, but I have to say this year the caliber of teams who also happen to be truly nice people has me hooked because I want them all to win!

    At any rate, I did want to send a hearty congratulations to those who have already won a spot on the team and to those who are close behind and looking to win the remaining places. World Team winners or not, there are some pretty spectacular folks competing this year.

    On to today's JWW course. As the official spectator in the ring, I really enjoyed watching teams on this course. The surface here is field turf so dogs can dig in, land softly and get in some amazing speed.

    There are two sections I specifically want to focus on.

    First, from jump #6 - 9. I drew a solid red line which shows the actual average dog path. Running Dalamatians in a Border Collie jump height has forced me to pay close attention to the most efficient path and when I look at the solid red line, I can't help but think there are a few places I would have loved to see tightened up a bit.

    For example, the landing after the #6 jump. It seems wide to me. After thinking about it, handlers were racing up the line (from #5 and squarely facing the double) and just ran off toward the landing side of #7 without giving their dogs notice that they had changed direction ever so slightly. It wasn't until handlers were in place at the landing side of #7 did they call their dog to come in toward the #7 jump.

    Next was the dog's path from #8 to #9 which tended to be the most yardage area for dogs. I would have loved to have seen someone collect their dog's stride before #8 to shorten up that path quite a bit. I just can't help but wonder if that would have shaved a second or so off off the majority of the dog's times. Yeah I know this is nit-picky, but what the heck else am I going to think about while watching 300 plus dogs today? : )  So anyone out there willing to give this a comparison try and let me know what the difference is since I'm short an Excellent level dog?

    (I'm secretly hoping someone takes me up on the above challenge...hint, hint)

    On to the next section which is the dotted green handler path. This represents the most common path handlers took after the weave poles. If folks were in place (i.e. hauling down the line!) it worked great. However, if they were even a step behind at th #14 jump, the dog was likely to curl in and take the off-course tunnel.

    After watching the dogs, there was one specific way I would have liked to try and lucky me, one handler did it and did it well! Below is a diagram and the red dotted line is the path I would like to try.

    Basically the handler did a front cross on the take-off side of #13 and easily put in another front cross on the landing side of #14 which gave him and his dog a nice flowing path. Now granted, he was a tall guy with long legs and independent weave poles would be a must before attempting this exercise.

    It's times like this that I really miss my BC Spot. He was up for ANYTHING agility related.

    Any way, this is another place I need a volunteer to give this a try and let me know how it goes....anyone?

    Fri - Northwest Obed. Club, IL, Courses

    Day one back in the Midwest at my favorite former 'home' club, Northwest Obedience Dog Training Club.
    It was so darned good to see my old agility pals. I really do miss them a ton. : ) 

    Tonight Dan and I (Okay, mostly me) steered the club toward taking us to Portillos, which is a Chicago favorite and about 2 steps above fast food (although they do have one heck of a drive thru!). Portillos has REAL Chicago Vienna hot dogs and I had the roast beef with Italian sausage and mozerella cheese on French bread (called a Combo) which I like 'dipped' or 'wet', (they dump the whole sandwich in the au jus). Very, very nummy.  Dan thought the hot dog was great and that my combo was amazing. I think we're going to have to get more before we leave : )

    We sat and chatted with old friends for quite a long time about subjects that were just plain funny, goofy and simply good-humored. It was so much fun!

    OK, on to today's course!

    I judged Standard today and overall, I was very pleased and enjoyed watching the dogs run the course. It was challenging, but there was a ton of room between obstacles and as always, I would love to set this course up in my yard to train on. Moving on to the course analysis, here it goes.

    After the #2 weave poles, some handlers were attempting a front cross and were moving straight ahead (mostly in a backward walk) toward the unnumbered off course jump. At least 2 handfuls of dogs took this jump, believing their handler was signaling it in some new cryptic maneuver. It became even more interesting when the handlers stared at their dogs like they'd lost their mind for taking the jump. I wonder if those handlers had the run on tape so they could review their motion which I'm sure, they were unaware of.

    The big trap on this course was from the end of the #5 dog walk to the #7 tunnel. Specifically, a large portion of the dogs went up the off-course a-frame rather than go to the #7 tunnel. Handlers who went to the end of the dog walk with their dogs were left trying to manuever around the #6 winged jump and forced to push out to the #7 tunnel. Most dogs didn't buy into the cue and went up the a-frame despiste desperate pleas from handlers.  I also think the winged #6 jump forced handlers to plan their path carefully as well.  Diane Snaders did a great job of working this line by supporting the on-ramp of the dog walk and then allowing the dog to work the down side of the dog walk independently while she went to the landing side of #6 so she was in an optimal position to support the tunnel.

    The other trouble spot on the course was from the #16 tire back to the #17 jump. Most handlers were on the left side of the course (as you view the map) and assumed their dog was going to naturally pull in to the #17 jump toward them. While some dogs did, most handlers were surprised at how they had to work the #17 jump.

    It was a fun course to watch run and as always, I enjoyed watching the various handling strategies.f

    Wednesday, May 5, 2010

    Criteria - What Is It? and CIDT (Criteria in Dog Training)

    Welcome to a discussion on Criteria - Blog 2 
    (Here is a link to Criteria Blog 1)

    Last week I did a blog post introducing the concept of criteria in dog training. Today I’ll talk about some of the specifics of Criteria.

    The general definition of Criterion according to Wictionary on-line is - A standard or test by which individual things or people may be compared and judged.

    Ah, compare & judge…for me, those are scary words that conjure up bad memories from high school (icky). However, lucky for me and you, we will be our very own criteria makers (yeah!) and the best part is that the criteria we decide upon will be from our own ultimate agility dreams!

    If during a discussion about agility I asked you “What ONE thing could your dog do that would make you feel more confident, secure and positive?” What would you answer? Would it be a stay at the start line? A perfect 2-on-2-off contact performance? An instant down on the table?

    Until you can identify what it is you want your dog TO DO, you’re going to be stuck dealing with whatever haphazard action they give at that moment. So, before you go out and train, make a firm decision as to what you want the end result, or criteria to be. Now is the time to ask yourself, “What do I want that end action to look like?” I encourage you to dream, dream, dream and to think beyond what you may believe are ‘limits” (within yourself, a dog, the environment, etc.).

    Once you've got the vision, write it down!

    Now that you’ve got a dream, you need a plan…to move you toward the criteria.

    A plan without criteria is the equivalent to winging it. It’s hoping for the best and waiting to see what really happens. It’s like rock climbing for the first time without safety gear. You’ll expend a lot of physical energy and mental worry about the ‘what-if’s when all that was needed was a lesson on how to use the safety gear (or criteria) for peace of mind.

    Why have Criteria? Mainly because they are confidence builders that let handlers and dogs say “I recognize this and I know EXACTLY what to do!”

    There are criteria, and then there are Criteria in Dog Training (CIDT).  In dog training the definition of criteria is altered slightly to encompass the end result, the end behavior or the final product – from the dog’s point of view.

    Specifically, criteria will generally be based on the dog's body position relative to...well, something! Sometimes it's the handler, sometimes an obstacle, sometimes it's a verbal or physical command, etc. The possibilities are endless.

    Successful Criteria in dog training is focused so:
    1. The criteria are relevant and relates to the DOG
    2. The criteria are kept simple. After all, a laundry list of wants for one behavior usually isn’t necessary or realistic for handlers to train and maintain.
    3. Ultimately, the dog (and not the handler) will be responsible for independently performing the criteria presented in each agility scenario (and yes, depending on the scenario the handler may give cues to initiate predefined criteria).
    To summarize, while I like to joke and say "It's all about me", the truth is in the land of criteria, it's all about the dog and I am the mere translator.

    I've created some Criteria Planning Worksheets for my clients to help in the mechanics of deciding on and working toward their predefined criteria. I'll be sharing some of that form in my next blog.

    Criteria Blog to be continued....