Friday, January 29, 2010

What the . . .

. . heck is going on here?

Sheryl McC. gave me a CD of pics she'd taken of my kids over the last couple of years, including the official photo shoot for my new Front and Finish column header back in the spring of '08. This is one of the outtakes from that session. I have NO IDEA what Phoenix is doing.

I think he's biting something. And I think Rilda is involved.

Rilda was the official ear-getter-upper that day. She had a whole bag of toys and she was VERY exciting. Connor was all about lap time. Jamie was all about being a pretty boy for his picture. Phoenix was all about GETTING THE TOYS NOW!

We got through it all fine, no one got hurt or arrested and Sheryl got some great shots.

Today, I am thankful for friends who take pics and video for me. The year's first agility trials are this weekend, now I just have to remember to give someone my camera before we run!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Teaching in the winter

I’m happy to report the class I’m currently teaching actually managed to meet last night. This is practically front page news. I was starting to get paranoid because I had to cancel two of the first three sessions due to horrible weather. Next year if I volunteer to teach in January, somebody please smack some sense into me. What was I thinking? When it started snowing yesterday, I was having visions of yet another cancellation, followed by visions of this class not wrapping up until July.

It’s an “Obedience For Agility” class, which follows neatly in the tracks of yesterday’s post. Thank you to everyone who responded and shared your thoughts. The dog training community in general is very supportive of each others’ interests and very little is served by perpetuating a negative stereotype about any particular discipline. Plus I had to laugh out loud last night when I collapsed, sweaty and out of breath, into my chair at the training building while working Phoenix, that anyone in their right mind could think obedience training is boring.

In a perfect world, we would all master obedience basics with our dogs before enrolling in agility classes, even if we had absolutely zero interest in ever showing in a formal obedience ring. It goes without saying you cannot teach a dog anything if you cannot control him and get him to interact with you in a reasonable fashion. In fact, some clubs require potential agility students and their dogs to take “Obedience 101” before they can participate in any kind of agility training. Kudos to them. But due to availability of time and classes - or more appropriately, lack thereof - many people end up taking obedience and agility classes at the same time or agility without the benefit of any obedience first.

No problem. It’s all dog training and you learn as you go. But frequently what happens, especially with beginning trainers, is they are drawn to teaching the more “glamorous” aspects of agility, like tunnels, weaves and those oh so impressive long and flowing jump sequences that simple skills like stays and recalls (did I actually call them "simple?" Smack me again.) are undervalued and neglected. Oh, the problems this can create in the long run.

Thus, “Obedience For Agility” was born. I’m sure it’s not an original concept. The idea for this class was spawned in my brain last fall, when my club stumbled into renting an absolutely beautiful training building for the winter. We don’t have a permanent training facility and honestly, we don’t need one for about six months of the year. Two club members have private buildings they let us use year around for teaching obedience classes and one has generously fenced a lovely flat field at her home for the club’s agility use.

But training outdoors in the Midwest from November through April is a total crap shoot, so we’ve bounced from one rental property to another every fall, always to pull out stakes and return to the great outdoors come spring. It’s going to be downright painful to leave our current home in the spring and who knows, maybe we won’t. But I digress.

The idea for this class popped into my head when a lot of my friends got puppies last year. How much fun would it be to teach a class for puppies that built skills they could use in two disciplines? So I volunteered, set a start date of Jan. 6, enrolled students and promptly forgot about it during the holidays. The first week of January rolled around, I made lesson plans, got psyched to start class and Mother Nature knocked us for a loop with a monster snow storm. We managed to meet the following week, only to cancel what should have been the third session due to a thick glaze of ice across the area.

So we’ve managed to meet twice. I’d hoped to be over half way done by now! The focus is on attention games, recalls and stays, plus a little walking with attention. Hopefully it will help these young guys and gal (seriously, the class is 7 boy puppies and 1 girl puppy) start to develop a good foundation for teamwork and make teaching the technical skills of agility a bit easier.

I’ll write more about some of the things we’re doing and why in a future post.

Today I am thankful for friends who let me play with their puppies, so I don’t have to get one.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Them's fightin' words!

I’m blowing off a little steam today, maybe because it’s snowing AGAIN and winter seems endless and cruel. Or maybe just because I’ve always wanted to write about this but never seemed to get my thoughts put together until now. And perhaps they still aren’t put together as well as they could be but here they are.

“My dog hates obedience.”

“Obedience is boring.”

“We started in obedience but now we do agility because it’s so much more FUN!”

I cringe when I hear people say things like that. Unfortunately, for the people saying them, they are very true. I have no doubt the speakers and their dogs find obedience training very unrewarding.

Which is a total shame because obedience training is not only a blast, it’s a great way to improve your relationship with your dog. Agility training is, too. The difference - and herein lies the problem - is that obedience training takes more work (mental and physical) on the handler’s part to ensure the process is consistently fun and enjoyable, while also ensuring learning takes place. The learning process in agility provides natural fun for the dog (jumping, tunneling, etc.) that is not present in obedience, leaving a motivation/reward gap that has to be filled by - guess who? YOU the trainer.

What? You have to WORK to make obedience training fun? Really? That sounds like too much work for me. (Insert sarcasm here.)

At my club’s recent awards banquet, one of our members put together a fun photo show that played continuously during the evening. It featured pictures of members’ dogs in both the obedience and agility rings, as well as candid shots. It was a lot of fun to see the different expressions on human and canine faces and look at their body language.

Two photos in particular stood out to me and of course they were of Phoenix. The first showed the two of us during a heeling exercise in the Novice obedience ring at his very first trial. His head is up, eyes bright and ears are pinned back a little. He is trotting, his tail is carried slightly below level. It is a classic example of a dog concentrating fiercely on his job. I was very happy to see him working with that degree of focus.

Contrast that with the next photo: Phoenix airborne over a jump on an agility course. He has a totally wild look in his eye, his ears are forward and his tail is curved up and to one side for steering. He exudes energy and joy.

I heard someone comment, “There he’s doing what he REALLY likes.”

Ouch. That hurt.

Then, on second thought, the anonymous remark didn’t sting quite as much. Many casual observers of the obedience ring (or those who have become disillusioned with the sport and gone to the “more fun” allure of agility) fail to look beyond obedience’s veneer. Of course heelwork is not going to reflect the same body language as an agility run. Endurance runners do not have the same style as sprinters. But is one sport truly more “fun” than another?

Let’s look at this from another angle. Consider competitive barrel racers and Olympic-class dressage riders. One discipline is all about speed and maneuverability. The other, about precision, control and flexibility. Both require an incredible amount of physical and mental skill. Both require many hours of training and conditioning, as well as communication and understanding of animal nature. And the riders who excel in either sport are the ones who absolutely love what they are doing and transmit that delight to their horses not only during performances but during training. Two different disciplines. Two different performance styles. One thing in common: the riders find fun in the process as well as the performance.

Obedience got a bad rep back in the jerk and yank days of drilling and compulsion. Fortunately, the sport has changed tremendously since I got my first CD in 1977. Still, some folks are put off by a bad experience with an instructor or judge and flee to agility, claiming it’s more “fun” while dismissing obedience with a dramatic eye roll and “Boring!” I’ve seen lots of agility dogs who are scared of the equipment, who run amok in stress reaction and pay little attention to their owners. Is this the “fun” that was missing in "boring" obedience?

The point here is that training issues will plague every handler from time to time, no matter what discipline you chose, “fun” quotient not withstanding. Perhaps the trainers who dismiss obedience as unworthy of their time should look beyond the mere technical aspects of heeling and straight fronts and study the foundation of trust, respect and teamwork developed through regular, enjoyable traditional obedience work.

I work hard to make sure Phoenix's obedience training sessions are exciting, challenging, motivating and energizing for both of us. Yeah, it’s a lot of work because he’s a difficult dog to stay ahead of. My goal is for our obedience work to reflect joy, trust, teamwork, enthusiasm, drive, animation and precision. I'll do what it takes to make that become reality. That is never boring.

Humans, like dogs, move toward the area of highest reward. Those who find obedience training rewarding will continue to enjoy it. Those who don’t will either change their methods until it becomes more fun or leave it entirely to pursue a different venue they perceive as more rewarding. Whatever you do, do it with all your heart and have fun. It's okay if you truly don't enjoy one thing and prefer doing another thing instead. Just don't say the thing you don't enjoy is boring or stupid because you weren't willing to put out the energy to make it fun.

I have friends who do obedience only. I have friends who do agility only. I have friends who do both, plus Rally, Schutzhund, therapy work and other disciplines. The things you can learn from cross-training are invaluable.

Today I am thankful to have friends who show in a variety of performance venues and are always willing to share new training ideas.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Treadmill, lesson 1

Phoenix mastered walking on the treadmill in about 5 minutes last night. I was totally amazed.

Maybe this should not come as such a surprise. Phoenix loves to try new things. He is nosy, curious, pushy and impulsive, so jumping onto a moving treadmill was apparently no big deal. This is the dog who scrambled atop big round bales of hay stacked three high in the barn last summer before I put a stop to it (then went inside and took more heart medication). Honestly, I know why they use mals for police work: they are intelligent and crazy . . . or maybe just crazy.

After getting ideas from several friends whose dogs use treadmills, I decided to start with a click-and-treat approach. Phoenix understands this type of learning and is more than willing to experiment with new behaviors. He’d already sat and stood on the treadmill when it wasn’t running and gotten cookies for that and he’d laid in the doorway and watched both me and the Farmer walking on it. The noise didn’t bother him at all (unlike Jamie, who made it clear he wanted NOTHING to do with the whole idea.)

I decided, also, to start with the belt moving vs. having him stand on a stationary belt, then turning the motor on. That would be somewhat like having the rug pulled out from under you. And I wanted him to understand that he controlled the situation and if he wanted to get off for any reason, he could, so no leashes or cross-ties or anything like that.

Initially, Phoenix stood at the side and put only his front paws on the moving belt, with the predictable result that he flew off the back end. The treadmill was running at its lowest speed, 1 mph. This didn’t faze him.

It wasn’t long before he jumped on with all four feet, stood still and flew off the back end. “Flew” is perhaps too strong of a word. “Thumped” might be more appropriate.

He thought this was such a fun game I was starting to worry we would not get past that point. He thought it was like a reverse teeter-totter. You get on and instead of flipping it forward, it flips you backward. COOL!

But I could tell he was getting serious about problem solving. The cookies only came when his paws were on the moving belt. There were no cookies for thumping off the end, no matter how much fun it might be otherwise.

So he got himself back on (this was totally voluntary, by the way, I wasn’t telling him to do anything, just pointing at the belt) and managed to take a few wobbly strides. Click! Cookie! And he leaped off. Then leaped back on.

And so it went. After 5 minutes, he was willingly walking until verbally released. In fact, he HAD to be released since he wouldn’t get off by himself. We learned by trial and error that when I fed him, he stopped walking. Thump. That’s my dog, can’t walk and eat a cookie at the same time.

This morning we had another quick session which found him gaining confidence in jumping on and finding his stride. His top speed so far is 1.8 mph. I will slowly increase the speed until he’s trotting smoothly but don’t want to rush things until he’s confident and comfortable at lower speed.

Teaching behaviors by shaping is still a new experience for me. I’ve done a little with dogs in the past but am exploring it much more with Phoenix. Occasionally you get lost when you explore but you learn a lot of new things along the way.

Today I am thankful for my crazy dog who is willing to try new things.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Good Maligator!

Phoenix won the ICDOC Highest Scoring Dog of the Year award at our club banquet Saturday night. I’m very proud of my skinny little dog. He joins his brothers Jamie and Connor in having his name and score (199) engraved on the trophy.

I know it’s just a chunk of wood and metal that doesn’t have any real value but what it represents is priceless. It's part of our journey, reflecting all the hours of training, joy, frustration, success, disappointments, problem-solving, trainwrecks, teamwork and totally awesome WE DID IT moments. It’s fun to look at the names of my previous dogs on there and also to see the names of my friends who I have trained and shown and laughed with for years. I value them like family and in fact, the darn trophy is kind of like a family heirloom among the obedience folks in the club.

Plus the trophy itself looks super cool now since Joe L. refinished it and got rid of 20 years of scuffs and scratches. The finish is really pretty. Now the pressure is on - I have to return it in the same condition for next year’s winner!

Phoenix: I would rather have a big fat bone. Really.

The Farmer and I bought a treadmill this weekend, too, which is very exciting. I’ve wanted one for years and finally decided to just do it. Plus, if I ever needed incentive to get regular exercise in the winter, this weekend was it: I ate at Texas Road House Friday night, Taco John’s Saturday at noon, Brown Bottle Saturday night and Micky D’s Sunday noon. Moo-moo, buckaroo! Honestly, I do NOT eat like that on a regular basis but still there are days when I feel like I’ve developing my own gravitational pull.

I want to teach Phoenix to walk on it, as well. Several friends of mine have successfully taught their dogs to use their treadmills so I need to pick their brains. It would be great to be able to have him burn off some of that energy that builds up on icy winter days. Of course, all I’ll probably be doing is building endurance so he can be even crazier.

Today I am thankful to have garlic chicken and linguine leftovers from Saturday night's supper for today's lunch. See, here I go again.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Marengo, murder capitol of Iowa

There's been another murder involving a Marengo resident. Chris Vogt allegedly (they teach us in journalism school to always say allegedly, because he's innocent until proven guilty, only in this case I probably don't have to say it because he is dead now, too) shot and killed his former girlfriend on Friday, then shot and wounded her brother and another man in Cedar Rapids. Then he committed suicide.

I knew Chris briefly, in that small town way everyone knows everyone else. He worked at the auto service shop across the street from the newspaper office for a few years. His mom worked at one of the Amana wineries with my mother-in-law. Chris had served time in the correctional system several years ago, so was not allowed to own a firearm. There is much speculation where he got the gun.

This is the third murder in or near Marengo of current or former Marengo residents by Marengo residents since June 2009. Guess it's actually the fourth, since Chris killed himself. That's four people dead, all involving relationships gone wrong with spouses/ex-spouses/boyfriends/girlfriends in a town of barely 2,000 people.

That's the only saving grace. They were all domestic cases with very specific targets, not random shootings. At least there isn't a mass murderer running around Marengo.

But I'm not going to drink the water there anymore.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Mama said there'd be days like this . . .

When it comes to proper office etiquette and professional behavior, it is incorrect to shout obscenities in the workplace, even if you’re not shouting them directly at a co-worker or customer. Here at the newspaper office, we feel there are occasional exceptions. This morning from about 8 a.m. to noon was one of them.

The morning started out well enough but quickly deteriorated. I’d proofread a 20-page special section, found out the section had been “jumped” by 4 more pages at the last minute and guess who was responsible for its completion now? Had a quick council of war with the advertising and ad composition departments, generated more copy to fill the extra pages, laid out the copy, edited the copy and was nearly done - and then the power went out for no apparent reason.

I had no idea if I’d hit Command Save any time in the last few minutes and thought I’d lost the whole morning's work. (Turns out I HAD saved, it’s one of those things that has become so automatic over the years I do it without thinking about it, then can’t remember if I did it.)

Actually, I thought I showed a fair amount of restraint by yelling “SON OF A B*TCH!” as the office faded to black. What I really wanted to yell was a four-letter word that rhymes with duck. No, not truck, luck, stuck, buck, suck, muck or yuck.

But I didn’t. I’m not totally immature.

As it turned out, the office was plunged into instant chaos anyway (truly, the world comes to an end when computer screens go dark, no matter what department you’re in) and nobody even noticed my little hissy fit. Or maybe they did but were too scared of me to mention it. It’s not a good thing when the lifestyles editor starts acting bipolar.

And what was the topic of the special section that caused so much stress? Health and fitness. We called it “Fit For Life.”

I’ve since renamed it. It’s now called “Having A Fit.”

Today I’m thankful for co-workers who are polite enough to be occasionally deaf.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Another frosty morning

This is Clear Creek, which I cross on the way to work. The best things about driving to work on country roads are A) seeing cool stuff like this and B) being able to stop in the middle of the road to take a picture of it.

The reason we're having all this gorgeous frost is because we're fogged in both day and night, which, after five straight days of it, leaves a lot to be desired in the weather department.

Today, I am thankful for a fun training session with Phoenix at the club building this morning and for a new cookie recipe to try tomorrow if the freezing rain they are forecasting arrives and I decide to stay home from work. Again.

Monday, January 18, 2010

As seen on TV!

In all my life, I don't think I've ever bought anything that claimed to be "As seen on TV!" In the last month I have bought two of them. Ironically enough, I had never seen either of them advertised on TV. Maybe because I hardly watch TV.

The first came in a weak moment as I was strolling through PetCo to restock up on that Natural Balance semi-moist dog food, the stuff that comes in a big roll and looks enough like summer sausage than an unsuspecting person who didn't know any better might, just might, almost make a sandwich with it. But that happened a long time ago. The Farmer is a lot wiser now.

Anyway, I had just gone nine rounds with Phoenix about his nails the day before. Sometimes he is an absolute gentleman about nail clipping. Some days he is hell on four paws and he doesn't want any of them messed with. Which I can't figure out. He loves to cuddle in my lap and have his paws fiddled with. I can rub his paws and tug on nails and he gives me that sweet, sleepy-eyed look that just melts my heart.

But put him on the grooming table and get out the toenail clippers and it's the Malinois From Hell. Okay. Maybe it's not that bad. We usually have a little rodeo, which I eventually win, then he gives me the hairy eyeball and gives up. I'm just tired of having the rodeo.

So I thought what the heck, maybe this little gadget would be the answer. I wasn't holding my breath but what's another $12 in the grand scheme of things? (Yes, I had a dremmel-type nail grinder once upon a time but do you think I know where it is? Don't laugh. You've lost things like that, too.) I wasn't expecting much since it's been my experience that anything that advertises itself as INCREDIBLE usually falls short of the mark.

It works! The Malinois From Hell could care less about having his nails ground. He stands there and blinks and looks bored and doesn't fuss at all. I wouldn't recommend it for a Great Dane and it probably works better on a chihuahua than a malinois but still, it was worth the money. And to be honest, it worked a lot better after I unscrewed the "safety cap" and used it straight up bare. Yeah, we're livin' on the edge. This thing doesn't have the RPMs of a regular dremmel tool and I think it would be pretty hard to get hurt with it. If I find a way, I'll let you know.

Next came the EggGenie. We eat a lot of hard boiled eggs at our house. There are days when I think all I do is cook, wash dishes, train dogs and boil eggs. Seriously.

I tend to be suspicious of anything labled "Genie." That sounds an awful lot like someone else doing the work for you and while that sounds great in theory, it often ends up being more work than if you'd just done it yourself in the first place.

But if you've ever had an egg-boiling incident, you will appreciate the simplicity of not having to wait for a pot to boil, then . . . er . . . forgetting about it and going off and doing something else only to come back and find eggs exploded all over your stovetop. It weren't purty.

I was hooked. I had to have it. I brought it home, loaded it up (it holds 7 eggs) and fired it up. It took 13 minutes before the little timer went off. The eggs were perfect. They were so easy to peel they nearly jumped right out of their shells.

Do you supposed they make a ToenailGenie?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Frosty morning

Last night's fog and lack of wind created some very beautiful frost this morning. Here's the lilac bush in the dogs' yard. Honestly, I think it looks better here than it does sometimes in the spring. Poor little lilac bush.

Isn't this stuff spectacular? It reminds me of those crystals you could grow in a jar in water back in the '70s. Remember those? I think they were called moon rocks.

I think this is Jamie's pawprint, filled with frost. Or maybe Bigfoot was passing through and walked across our patio. At least it's not a mountain lion. Since that deer hunter shot Iowa County's first (and only?) mountain lion last month, everyone is still pretty wound up about mountain lions in eastern Iowa.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Philosophy and photos

I've gotten some interesting feedback on yesterday's post about perfection being unattainable and therefore, not a worthy or sensible goal when it come comes to training and competing.

Several folks pointed out - and I totally agree - that we should never use the "perfection is impossible so why bother?" excuse for not striving to do our absolute best with our canine partners. If your aspirations with your dog are to earn an OTCh., MACH, 200 score in obedience, agility world team member, etc., obviously you're going to have to train beyond what Susan Garrett referred to as "roughly right" to achieve those goals. Precision handling and training in both agility and obedience has reached levels we never would have dreamed of even 15 years ago.

I think perhaps Susan's overall point was instead of obsessing about achieving perfection in training and competing, remember that the process is more important than the outcome and never lose the joy that comes from training and learning new things with your dog.

I know several well-accomplished obedience trainers who view going into the ring at a trial as nothing more than a chance to see where their dog is in training on any given day. The potential for wins and placements don't enter the picture. It is this ability to focus on how their dog is working and recognize strengths as well as weaknesses that allows them to tailor their training to their dog's needs, which in turn leads to those wins and placements.

Terri Arnold (I think) said, "What you get in the ring is a byproduct of the relationship you have with your dog." How about that, all those titles and ribbons are just "byproducts." I love it.

Here are some pics from the Belgians' romp yesterday afternoon. The sun was already starting to set by the time I got home from work and we got outdoors, so the lighting isn't great and even at 34 degrees, my shutter finger got cold in a darned hurry. But a good time was still had by all.

Phoenix: It's MINE! All MINE!

Jamie: Respect your elders!
Phoenix: No! MINE!

Jamie: D*mn kid. It's MINE.

Phoenix: See! MINE!
Jamie: No respect.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Is perfection worth pursuit?

Once again I’m stealing from other people’s blogs. I need to stop this.

The following is from Susan Garrett’s blog ( on Dec. 16. She is quoting Anthony Robbins, a motivational speaker/life coach kind of guy. That’s probably not an accurate description of him but is the closest I could come. (Yeah, I really do write for a living. I get paid to use words correctly. Some days they just escape me.) Oh, wait. I just went back to her site and she calls him a life strategist. Okay. Now we’re clear on that.

Robbins says, “Perfection is the lowest standard a human could ever take on because it is unattainable, therefore you ultimately have no standard at all. You are preparing for failure, because that is your ultimate expectation.” Susan writes, “So aiming for perfection means you will never move forward. For some of you that may be what your subconscious expects and you will never achieve more than you think you deserve.” She also encourages her agility students to exchange “perfect” for loads of fun and “roughly right.”


Chew on that for a minute.

All my life as a dog trainer, since I was age 9, I’ve trained in pursuit of perfection. This has gotten me two OTCHs, multiple invites to the AKC NOI and I’ll admit, a lot of headaches along the way. It’s also made me look long and hard at what’s most important in this journey with my dogs and guess what - it’s NOT perfection in the show ring as determined by a judge with a clipboard. Each dog has had to remind me of this because I occasionally forget.

Believe me, if you train and show in competitive obedience in the upper Midwest (or anywhere else for that matter), you’d think perfection was the ultimate goal. Heel position is an exact science. Fractions of inches on fronts can separate first place from second place. If you want to run with the big dogs, you have to play the game and the name of the game is perfect. Unfortunately, it’s the judge’s opinion that counts, not yours, and there can be a great deal of variation between your standard of perfection and the judge’s.

Agility isn’t exempt either. Even after the most spectacular, time-smashing agility run, most exhibitors can watch their video and find places that could be improved. Turns could be tighter, cues given sooner, body language improved, etc.

So perfection truly is an impossible standard and having that as your #1 goal is what I call “crazy-making behavior.” You’ll drive yourself insane trying to reach it, because you can't.

January is a popular month for setting goals and figuring out what you want to achieve in the coming year. I have goals scribbled on scraps of paper tucked around the house, the van and in my training bag. Some are lofty, others not so much. But I believe in my heart all are achievable, and even better, none depend on any form of perfection to be deemed a “success.”

Go have some fun with your dog tonight. Phoenix and Jamie and I are going to play outdoors in the (melting!) snow when I get home from work, then play some obedience games indoors at home.

Today, I am thankful it is 34 degrees on the right side of zero.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Thought for the day

"In order to really enjoy a dog, one doesn’t merely train him to be semi-human. The point of it is to open oneself to the possibility of becoming part dog." Edward Hoagland

I borrowed this from Sara's Blog. She has adorable shelties. Thanks, Sara, I enjoyed your blog while sitting here waiting for pages to proof on what is becoming a very late night at work.

I've missed supper.

I've missed NCIS.

At this rate, I'm going to miss my bed time.

But my dogs and the Farmer will be happy to see me when I get home.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Thoughts on too much time off

Back in November, I started using vacation hours before the end of the year and took some time off. Then there was Thanksgiving and the office was closed for two days. More time off. The ICDOC agility trial was the first Friday/Saturday/Sunday in December and I took time off for that. Then we had the first big winter storm of the year and I stayed home a day because the roads were bad.

This was followed by Dad's funeral and more time off. Then here came another snow storm and Christmas. You guessed it, more time off. Followed by New Year's, which equaled time off. Then we got whammied by another snow storm and I took another day off.

Holy cow! I haven't worked a full 5-day week in nearly two months! This week may very possibly kill me!

I truly hope this has not come to the attention of my editor (Hi, Nick! You're a great guy, have I told you that?) because I would prefer he NOT realize I am doing my job on four days a week (and sometimes less). I am not doing it particularly well, just skating along, trying to keep ahead of the avalanche of crazy demands, and would like to be at work 5 days a week but that just hasn't happened.

Deciding to drive to work - or anywhere else - in horrible winter weather is a very individual thing. Some people will drive through anything. I used to be one of them. I'm not any more. Not sure when that happened. Maybe when I realized I am fortunate to have a job that does not demand I be available 24/7 and if I miss a day, the world is not going to end. Honestly, that's one of the reasons I'm still at this job. It's incredibly flexible that way.

Part of my job is writing obits. Every year I write obits for people killed in car accidents in the winter. Sometimes they were driving too fast for conditions. Other times, they were killed by other people who were driving too fast. Either way, it ended the same. You have to wonder what they thought was so important they had to venture out when road conditions were so awful. Sometimes I wonder if I'm finally getting good sense or just being lazy when I look out the window at howling wind and snow and say, "Forget it. I'm staying home today."

It's a lot easier to say that at the end of the week vs the busy production and deadline days at the start of the week. Those would be more likely to find me slip-sliding my way to the office, swearing all the way and cursing the gods, the DOT, the weathermen and the %$#@! idiot driving three feet from my rear bumper. Yeah, some days I still drive when I probably shouldn't but welcome to winter in the Midwest. If we all stayed home every time it snowed, the county would shut down from December through March. I'm just a lot more selective about those days than I used to be.

I was talking to our neighbor over the weekend and she said when her kids were living at home and wanted to go somewhere when the roads were bad, she always told them, "Go ahead. You might get there but you might come home in a body bag." She sure has a way with words.

Today, I'm thankful for a week with temperatures above zero and no big storms predicted. Jamie and Phoenix are, too. While my guys enjoy playing in the snow, they are most definitely not into the Arctic tundra/Siberia scene. They'll happily leave it to Jazz and Coach.

Friday, January 8, 2010

I didn't go to work today . . .

. . . here's one of the reasons why:

I sure wasn't tackling THAT with a shovel. If I didn't already have a heart condition before I started, I would have had one by the time I was done! The Farmer cleared it later in the afternoon with a blade behind the tractor. He spent most of the day moving snow from one place to another.

Here's another good reason to stay home. This is the road in front of our house, looking north. By the time I took this pic in the afternoon, the county had been through with the maintainer and opened it up. C3PO and I wouldn't have stood a chance this morning.

Here's another view from the end of our lane, looking northwest. Country roads will be a rodeo for the rest of the winter. 

This is our front lawn. I love Iowa. I really do. But this is a little excessive. Really glad I didn't leave any agility equipment out this year.

It was actually nice (and I use that term loosely) enough to let the dogs run outside for awhile this afternoon. They chased a toy out of the wind and ran and ran and ran. Air temp was 5 degrees, wind chill was about -10. Air temps are supposed to be -17 tonight, wind chill will be some ridiculous number I don't even want to think about. I'm having a lot of trouble with the concept of global warming right now.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Snowy day

It's another snowy day in Iowa. The really exciting part? It was 11 degrees ABOVE zero this a.m. and no wind! That's supposed to change later in the day.

Here's a picture of our church, St. John's Lutheran, yesterday afternoon.

The snow on our old front gate was kind of artsy
when I went out to shovel at 6 a.m.

Here are the evergreens on the west side of the dogs' yard. They were scrubby little ditch cedars we dug up and planted after the straightline windstorm in '98 took out pretty much our entire windbreak. Not bad for ditch trees.

Without any wind, the snow piled up on the top bar of the fence. A pheasant was cackling in the evergreens. Phoenix is thinking about having pheasant for a morning snack.

This is timber along Hwy. 6 on the way to work. Yes, I did actually stop in the middle of the road to take a picture. It was okay. There wasn't anybody else on the road.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Can you feel the love?

"Pa! Git a bucket o' cold water! Them dang dawgs is a killin' each other !"

This is what happens when there are below zero windchills for too many days in a row and the Belgians can't get outside to blow off a little excess energy. Not to worry, they find plenty of ways to blow off energy in the house.

Right after I took this picture, they stopped face-fighting, stood up, shook off, then launched into round two. Although they show the most horrible facial expressions and "I have advanced rabies" growls, it's all in fun. They constantly amaze me. I've never had two dogs who love to play together like these two. My Shelties NEVER played like this but the Belgians thrive on it. They read each other incredibly well and take turns being the chewer and the chewee. If Phoenix crosses the line, Jamie will put the smack down on him, 'Nix will be meekly humble for about 5 seconds and then they'll start all over again.

In an effort to relieve some cabin fever, I took both boys to the ICDOC building this morning to train. The wind chill was -24 when we left at 7 a.m. Enough already!

After a good session, I took the dogs home and went to work. I pulled up at the office and immediately realized I'd forgotten my lunch - homemade chicken and rice and nice fruit salad, dang! - at home in the refrigerator. A little later, I went to the bathroom, looked in the mirror and realized I'd forgotten to put in my earrings this morning. Not a big deal but enough to make me stop and do a careful analysis to see if there WAS anything else important I'd forgotten.

Fortunately, for everybody, I appeared to have remembered all the appropriate clothing. That is not anything to take for granted, since more than once I have tried driving to work in my house slippers.

This cold snap needs to end soon. It's making us all mental.

Monday, January 4, 2010

What winter is good for

I have finally succeeded in making yeast bread I am not totally embarrassed to be associated with. Seriously. I love to bake. I bake a lot. Pies. Cookies. Drop cookies. Bar cookies. Cut-out cookies. Cakes. Layer cakes. Cup cakes. Fudge. Candy. Quick bread.

But not yeast bread.

I don't know why. I tried it a time or two with very little success. I was getting a complex. So I quit trying.

Then I found this recipe and thought, "That sounds amazingly yummy and what could possibly go wrong?"

Well, apparently nothing! So here they are, my first two loaves of yeast bread success.

It's called English muffin bread. It's chewy. It has the most wonderful crust.

It has the most wonderful texture. All those little holes hold a lot of butter or honey or what-have-you.

6 C. all-purpose flour
2 packages active dry yeast
1⁄4 tsp. baking soda
2 C. milk
1⁄2 C. water
1 T. sugar
1 tsp. salt

Grease two 8x4 2-inch loaf pans. Lightly sprinkle pans with cornmeal to coat bottoms and sides; set pans aside.

In a large bowl combine 3 cups of the flour, the yeast and baking soda; set aside. In a medium saucepan heat and stir milk, the water, sugar and salt just until warm (120 to 130 degrees). Using a wooden spoon, stir milk mixture into flour mixture. Stir in remaining flour.

Divide dough in half. Place dough in prepared pans. Sprinkle tops with additional cornmeal. Cover; let rise in a warm place until double, about 45 minutes. (It only took 30 minutes for my dough to double in size and our house is not what most people would call warm. The next time I make this, I may try letting it rise a little more than double to see if that changes the texture at all.)

Bake in a 400 degree oven about 25 minutes or until golden. Immediately remove bread from pans. Cool on wire racks.

This has excellent flavor and texture. It was awesome hot with butter the first night, then toasted with jam the next morning, then I made grilled ham and cheese sandwiches with it the next night, then more toast . . . and . . . oh . . . it's gone. Bummer.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year!

I love this time of year (not the double digits below zero windchill part so much) because it represents a fresh start. I love hanging up a new calendar and filling in all the weekends with promises of trials, matches, seminars and training get-togethers with friends. I'm already looking forward to a Bridget Carlson seminar in March and my first American Belgian Malinois Club nationals in May. Who knows what else the year will bring.

Phoenix and I kicked off 2010 with a morning obedience session w/Michele, Kate, Jen, Paula and Tracy and all their fur-kids. When I count my blessings, I count my dog friends twice. 

I learned a long time ago that making resolutions doesn't work for me. Resolutions seem so black and white. Either you're doing them or you're not. And if you're not, you've failed and who wants to feel like a failure? So forget the resolutions.

I'll stick with setting goals for the new year. Goals are friendlier. They have wiggle room. They're flexible. Goals give you something to work toward and while you're doing that, you can look back over the months and see progress and think, "YES! We rock!"

I have what I call independent goals. What I mean is, my goals don't rely on someone else's evaluation or judgement to become reality. For example: I won't set a goal of earning a 200 with Phoenix because a perfect 200 score is a judge's opinion (and those opinions are frequently very subjective) and I have no control over that. 

However, I will make a goal of training for animation and precision and someday, if the planets align, maybe a judge will look at our performance and find it perfect. Even if that never happens, I'll still have reached my own goal of a happy, driven, focussed, confident dog in the ring and who could ask for more than that?

Having said all that, here are a few goals for me and Phoenix:

1) Be ring ready for Open by March. 

2) Teach more tricks. Because they make me laugh. I think they make Phoenix laugh, too.

3) Challenge myself as a trainer to become more creative and motivational. (Don't bore the malinois. Or else.)

4) Show in Graduate Open.

5) Be ring ready for Utility by fall.

6) Continue to improve my timing and cues in agility and always run like there's a million dollars on the line.

7) Continue to polish joyful, confident teamwork in both obedience and agility.

8) Above all, have fun and enjoy every minute of the time I spend with my dog and my dog friends, staying positive and open to learning and throwing all negative thoughts in the trash.

Have fun making a few goals for you and your dogs for the new year. Just think of the potential this year holds!

Today, I am thankful for warm socks!