Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Living green

Since we've actually gone three whole days without rain, the Farmer has been able to mow hay again. I took the dogs for a walk yesterday evening while he was mowing the bottom field. Not sure why it's called the bottom field. It just is.

Say what you will about living in the country. No high speed internet. No cable TV. Sometimes we're doing good to have electricity! Living on a gravel road means my van is never clean and sometimes it can be impossible to get to the highway in the winter.

But nothing compares to walking in a hay field that's just been mowed. You can't get that wonderful smell anywhere else.

I love the sunlight on summer evenings. Winter and spring sunlight is all fine and good but it's not the same. Mid to late summer and autumn have the best evening sunlight, like liquid gold poured over long green shadows.

Wish I could bottle up evenings like this to open up in January and February.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Raccons vs. recalls

Okay, time for a training post. Today’s topic: recalls. I'm always a little hesitant to start writing about training because there are so many other folks out there who have way more experience than I do but what the heck. I've had some successes and some disasters with my dogs and I'm happy to share what I've learned from both.

Building a reliable recall has been one of Phoenix’s and my biggest training issues. Everyone has a stumbling block and for us, it’s the recall. It seems like all my other dogs came with recalls imprinted in their little brains. Not Phoenix. He was just too busy. All through puppyhood and adolescence, I battled the, “Hey, yeah, I hear ya but I’m kinda busy right now so I’ll get back to you on that” attitude.

I’m not talking about his formal obedience ring recall. That’s been fine. I’m talking about the “Come back in the house because it’s time for bed and I don’t want to chase you around the yard in my pajamas!” kind of recall. In other words, the recall when there are more interesting options.

I started Phoenix’s recall training when he was a baby. We did all the silly puppy games. I gave him treats when he came to me. I ran and let him chase me. I let him catch me. I had the bloodied limbs and ripped clothes to prove it. I worked hard and — I thought — successfully to build a recall that was happy and reliable.

So it was doubly frustrating when I thought we’d come to an agreement on how this worked (I call, you come), only to have him change the rules this summer.

It started with the critters in the garage. I use the word “garage” loosely. It is a garage/machine shed, home to C3PO, the big grain truck and an incredible collection of farm junk. Until recently, it was home to at least one raccoon. Maybe there were more. I don’t know. They all look alike and quite frankly, the darned thing freaked me out when I happened to look up and there it was, hanging out in the rafters, staring back at me and thinking, “Is that the same human I saw earlier? They all look alike.” Phoenix made a point of going on raccoon patrol every time he could get out there. It wasn’t like he was ever going to catch the thing. He just liked to bark at it. The raccoon was not impressed.

The Farmer eventually dispatched the raccoon but Phoenix didn’t give up his critter patrol. In fact, he got so obsessed with it, I had to bodily haul him out of the machine shed when it was time for him to come back in the house. He just plain quit coming when he was called. This gradually bled over into the agility ring, which was a bad scene. Malinois amuck. (Actually, he had some great course design ideas.)

Okay, my bad for letting it get to that point. This didn’t happen over night. It was a progressive disintegration of a recall and I was firmly in denial about it until I realized while standing in the rain in the backyard one night at home, “That blankety-blank dog does NOT know how to come when he’s called.” Here’s what I’m doing to fix it.

No more standing on the patio, yelling at him to come “because he knows what I want.” Duh. And he knew how to ignore me, too. I’d been outranked by a raccoon that might or might not exist. Ouch.

No more getting mad when I had to go fetch him back to the house. That didn’t solve anything and probably made him even less likely to listen to me. (“Mom’s a scary freak.”)

No more using a cookie and trying to lure him to me.

Basically, what I did was go out to the machine shed and take hold of his collar. He wasn’t trying to run away, was just busy SNIFF SNIFF SNIFFING for the phantom critters. When he looked at me, I said “Come!” in happy, non-confrontational voice and ran out of the shed all the way back to the house. I had hold of his collar, so he HAD to come with me but I kept my hands gentle, no jerking or dragging, just insisting he come with. He loves to run and chase (and still occasionally nibble) so this was fun for him. When we were at the back door, he got a cookie and I turned him loose. If he stayed there, we went inside. If he went back to the machine shed, no big deal, I went after him and we did it again.

I think the key was that I took the big scary “correction” element out of the correction. It might not even be perceived as a correction by some but it’s making my point and neither one of us are angry, scared or demoralized by it. Some trainers will tell you your recall correction should “show your dog who’s boss,” but that’s just not my style. Don’t use a sledge hammer when a fly swatter will do.

We’ve been working on it for a couple of weeks now. Ninety percent of the time, I still go to him, take his collar, call him and run. He’s getting better. About 10 percent of the time I stand a few feet away and call him and he’ll pull off his critter pursuit. (I swear there is NOTHING out there but he insists otherwise.) He gets cookies for this and I’ll turn him loose again.

That was probably the biggest mistake I made with his recalls: I effectively taught him that coming when called meant the end of the fun. Too often, I called him and then took away his toy or put him in a crate or made him go back in the house. Somebody just shoot me. Even though he wasn’t being specifically punished for anything, he still viewed coming to me as the End Of The Fun. Lesson learned! So now I do a lot of “catch and release” recalls and let him go back to whatever he was doing before.

Will this method fix everybody’s recall problems? Maybe, maybe not. Every dog is an individual.

The journey continues.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The boys of summer

I was going to title this "Boys and their balls" but had second thoughts.

I got the dogs one of those squishable Jolly Balls. The thing is blueberry scented. It makes the back porch smell kinda weird but the dogs don't seem to care (believe me, this is NOT an indoor toy). I got it from and they didn't give me a choice of colors, which is really no big deal until I started trying to take pictures of dogs playing with a blue ball in a blue pool.

A new ball! A hot day! A full pool! This is awesome.

Okay, how do you get the d*mn thing out of the water?
My mouth's not big enough.
(I felt sorry for him and gave him a smaller ball to play with.)

Ooooh, ooooh, lemme try!

I will bite it like a snake. See, my jaws don't hinge.

Score! Got it!

Phoenix: Mine's bigger than yours.
Jamie: Dude, hasn't anyone ever told you, size doesn't matter?

Sunday, June 27, 2010


Entry fee: $25.00

Gas to drive to trial: $2.69/gallon

Returning after group exercises and finding your dog exactly where you left him: PRICELESS!

Phoenix did a lovely job at the Hawkeye Kennel Club trial today for his first CDX leg. His individual exercises were okay and the thing I'm most proud of were his sits and downs. He didn't scoot on the sit and had minimal paw fidgeting. He was solid on his down, which was our big sticking point earlier this year. 

The icing on the cake was our 195.5 was good enough for 4th place. The silly boy hit ALL of his finishes, which is unheard of for us. Fronts are now apparently a mystery. 

Overall, a splendid day and I'm VERY proud of my skinny little dog. 

Friday, June 25, 2010

Odds and ends on a Friday

Wow, where has the week gone? All of a sudden it’s Friday, not that I’m complaining!

Tonight Phoenix and I are going to an obedience match at Muscatine. I’ll use our Open run as a dress rehearsal for Sunday’s trial, but with some strategically planned jackpots. I’m still working on moving the jackpot away from the immediate ring but we’re not quite there yet. Our Utility run will be purely training.

Tomorrow morning, I’m going to Iowa City to drop my crate off at the show site, then out to Kay’s to teach a lesson and run some errands around town. It’s supposed to be super hot again. The National Weather Service is predicting a heat index of 100 to 105 for the area. I’m not going to train Phoenix at all tomorrow. He can have the day off. I’m just not a big fan of training a lot the day before a trial. Too many times I’ve tried to “fix” something at the last minute and ended up making it worse.

Sunday, we’re jumping back into the AKC Open ring, first time since our ill-fated Open debut in April. It’s a small trial and a quiet two-ring site. I’m feeling much more confident about his stays. We’ve put in three months of training time on them since April, now it’s time to test and see what's working.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Shh . . . it happens!

Ain’t no rhyme or reason
No complicated meaning
Ain’t no need to overthink it
Let go laughing
Life don’t go quite like ya plan it
We try so hard to understand it
The irrefutable, indisputable, fact is
Shh . . . it happens

— Sugarland —

That pretty much sums up our agility runs last weekend. After showing steady improvement in handling and teamwork over the last year, Phoenix and I had an absolute trainwreck of a weekend on the agility course.

Not only did we go 0 for 4, we weren’t missing the Q by just one little thing. Oh no. It was many, many things. BIG things. Multiple big things. It was a flashback to the days when we first started running in Excellent and were all over the place. He did multiple tunnels in spite of clear instruction to do otherwise, had a spectacular teeter fly off, biffed weave entries, sent bars flying, ignored me in general and quite honestly ran amuck.

After ranting and raving for awhile, I realized a couple of things:

1) I have gotten sloppy with maintaining his 2o/2o contacts. I work heeling 4-5 times a week but the only time I really worked contacts was once a week at class, in spite of having a lovely contact trainer sitting in my back yard. The result: fly-offs, run-throughs, self-releasing and the let’s-stop-half-way-down-the-dog-walk-and-act-like-I-don’t-have-a-clue-where-bottom-is behavior.

2) I have allowed him to ignore me when I call him at home, which undoubtedly fueled the fire for his 48 tunnel-sucking off courses. Okay, maybe there weren’t that many. Maybe there were only 28. If I have given him permission to ignore me at home, why should he listen during an agility run?

3) You mean we need to practice weaves?

In other words, BAD HANDLER! As our teamwork had improved, I made the mistake of getting over confident and not backing it up with training to maintain obstacle performance. I would never do this with obedience, where I work to maintain every exercise no matter how sure I am that he’s “got it.” But obviously I didn’t transfer this to agility. Duh!

In order to reduce the chances of having another amuck-amuck episode at our next trial in two weeks (over the 4th of July weekend in a non-air conditioned livestock area, so it may be too hot to be naughty, we’ll see) here’s the solution:

Train the dog.

No, wait, it’s never that simple. Problem solving requires a specific plan.

1) I drug my contact trainer around the house to the back gate where it is easily accessible from the dogs’ yard. That way, I’ll actually use it, not just look out the window at it.

2) Phoenix is on a modified “work for your meals” plan. Contacts and/or weaves for breakfast (this is new). Obedience for supper (this isn’t). There’s power in food if the handler has the dedication to use it.

3) Recall boot camp: Phoenix WILL come when he’s called. Every time. No second chances. Ever since the Farmer has been trapping critters in the machine shed, Nix has been obsessed with critter hunting in there. Never mind that he hasn’t caught anything, he’s still hunting. And when he’s hunting, he’s “deaf.” So I need to fix my recall in real life before I can expect to have a good one in agility.

I love training dogs. There’s always something to do.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Weirdness at the cardiologist's office

Last spring when I was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, I got the pleasure of becoming the patient of two different cardiologists. One is your garden variety cardiologist (if there is such a thing). We’ll call him Dr. A. The other is an electrophysiologist, a cardiologist who specializes in heart rhythm problems. We’ll call him Dr. B. Over the last 15 months, I have seen Dr. B probably seven times to adjust the meds that keep my heart from doing the funky chicken and beating 180 beats per minute, give or take a beat here or there.

Both Dr. A and Dr. B agree that some people have this condition without ever realizing it. I do not know how that is possible. Every time I had a “spell,” I was very much aware of it. Believe me, the only thing weirder than your heart beating too fast is when you start counting the beats and realize sometimes it’s not beating at all.

Doctors may be brilliant in their field of medicine but that is not a guarantee that they have a personality. The first time I met Dr. A, I was laying in a bed in the cardiac critical care unit, hooked up to a heart monitor and wondering what the hell was going to happen next. He walked in, introduced himself, looked at my chart, asked me a couple of questions and told me I was a Type A personality and was having a panic attack.



That’s me, the ol’ Type A personality. Although I’ve had my share of “Oh, sh*t!” moments, I’ve never had what I would call a panic attack. I wasn’t having one then and I told him so.

That was a year ago and I hadn’t seen him since, as he’d foisted me off on Dr. B to figure out what exactly was going on with my ticker and how to make it stop. Well, not stop. Not entirely. That would be bad.

Dr. B was better in the personality department although I suppose when you’re busy saving people’s lives you can’t be expected to have a charming bedside manner, too. He is relatively personable, however, and has found the chemical cocktail that keeps my heart beating the appropriate 68 beats per minute with lovely blood pressure.

But Monday morning found me back at Dr. A’s office for a one-year check up. This appointment had been scheduled and re-scheduled three times, all at the whim of the office where Drs. A and B practice. I would come home to find a letter in the mail announcing my appointment was June 4, no, wait, now it’s June 15, no, wait, we’ve changed our mind again, now it’s June 21. Okay, whatever. I also had an appointment with Dr. B scheduled for June 23.

The weirdness started at the check-in desk.

“Who is your family doctor?” the receptionist asked, filling out paperwork.

Aww, geez, here we go with this again.

“I don’t have one.”

Seriously, I don’t.

“You don’t have a family doctor?” the receptionist looked at me like I was denying the existence of baseball, apple pie and Chevrolet.

“Um. No.”

“Where do you go when you get sick?” she asked, determined to fill in something on the form.

It sounds totally arrogant to say I don’t get sick. I do. But I don’t run to the doctor every time I get a cold and I’ve been blessed to enjoy basically good health.

“I go to the local family clinic,” I said, “but I just see whoever is available, it’s not like I have one specific family doctor.”

She looked very disapproving but filled in the name of the clinic, sans name of doctor. I got the feeling that my failure to possess a family doctor somehow labeled me as unsatisfactory.

It continued when the nurse took me back to the room to get blood pressure and pulse.

“Did you have a good Father’s Day?” she asked, all cheerful and chatty.

Hmmm. Awkward pause. Was that a holiday I was supposed to celebrate?

Let’s see, I’m not a father. My father died six months ago. Yeah, actually, I had a great Father’s Day at an agility trial but it certainly didn’t have anything to do with fathers. What the heck do you say? I’m never good at lying just to make small talk with strangers.

“My dad died recently,” I managed.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” the nurse said. “Did you have a good day with your husband and kids?”

Awkward pause number two.

“I don’t have kids.” Not even going to try explaining the dogs.

She gave me a pitying look and left.

When Dr. A appeared, he shook my hand and spent the next 15 minutes checking my treatment records with Dr. B on the computer. Yep, Mr. Personality was true to form. Apparently actually TALKING to the patient is no longer a good way to gain information.

When he said he wanted to do an EKG, I mentioned that I had an appointment with Dr. B the day after tomorrow and Dr. B does an EKG every time I go there so did he want to double up on the EKGs.

“Why do you have two appointments scheduled in the same week?” he demanded.

Because your freaking office scheduled them that way! Okay, I didn’t quite say that. But close.

He looked at me like I was an irresponsible idiot (let’s not go there) and told me insurance would not pay for two appointments on the same week for essentially the same condition.

Okay . . . so knowing that, why did your office schedule them that way? And, Point Two, why did I need to continue to see two doctors who were treating me for the very same thing? I wouldn't even say Dr. A was actually treating me for anything, all he did was review Dr. B's records. There's another $50 specialist's co-pay I won't get back.

Seriously, the problem with health care in this country is not entirely the fault of the insurance companies.

Having finally determined that the appointment with Dr. B could be rescheduled, Dr. A’s parting advice to me was, “You need to cut out the caffeine and alcohol.”

I sat and stared at him with my mouth open. Did I look like a buzzed-up lush? The irony of this is I don’t drink caffeine. I essentially decaffeinated myself about two years ago. And alcohol? Maybe two drinks a month. Maybe. I told him that. He told me to cut out chocolate.

Okay, that’s NOT going to happen. Besides, I did some research on the amounts of caffeine in your average chocolate candy bars and you’d have to eat something like 12 Hershey bars to equal the caffeine in one cup of coffee. If I’m eating THAT much chocolate every day, I’ve got a bigger problem than just caffeine intake.

The EKG was done and my heart rhythms were totally normal. I love it when someone tells me I’m normal. I could have hugged the nurse in spite of her earlier determination that I celebrate Father’s Day with the same fervor some people reserve for Christmas and New Year’s.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Happy Summer Solstice!

I didn’t dance around any ritual fires to welcome the arrival of summer to the northern hemisphere this morning but it arrived nonetheless. Today is traditionally considered the “longest” day of the year. Well, yeah, all days are 24 hours long but the solstice usually brings the most sunlight hours.

It’s a little different this year, as Wednesday and Thursday of this week will actually have the most daylight hours, with 15 hours and 15 minutes between sunrise and sunset each day. (Info courtesy of KCRG TV9)

The only bummer about the arrival of the summer solstice is that it means the daylight hours will start to dwindle by the end of the week, only a minute at a time, but by September it will be getting dark early again and those long, golden summer twilights will be gone until next year.

So get out there and enjoy them now!

Which is easier said than done since we are under the threat of severe weather (again) with heavy rain (again) and high winds (again) for the next three days. We are now mowing our lawn every 72 hours or whenever the sun comes out, whichever comes first.

Lots of things to blog about this week, including another look at our "ohmygodthewheelsfelloff" agility weekend, why it was maybe a good thing and what I'm doing to reduce the odds of it happening again, plus prep for our return to the AKC Open ring this coming Sunday. Plus maybe a recap of the weirdest cardiologist appointment ever, which was this morning. (I would rather have been dancing around a bon fire, believe me, not nearly so many WTF moments).

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Cloud spotting & agility

As promised, round two of yesterday's severe weather blew through in late afternoon and early evening as a line of heavy duty thunderstorms rolled from west to east across our part of the state.

From our vantage point south of Cedar Rapids, we had a good view of the edge of the thunderstorm complex as it moved down from the north. This pic was taken looking northwest of our house. (That's not our house on the right, that's the hoop building.)

Here I'm looking straight north, across the oats field the Farmer has been trying to chop for about two weeks but can't because it never seems to stop raining long enough. This is a continuation of the same thunderstorm cell.

And finally, a view to the northeast that captures the leading edge of the shelf cloud. Those clouds are so cool, even if they are kinda freaky looking, like some alien spaceship hovering above the ground.

I went in the house shortly after taking this pic because the lightning really kicked up as the thunderstorm spread south to include us in its party. The lightning was intense, kinda like a strobe light at times. Who says disco is dead? I kept waiting to hear the BeeGees break into the theme from "Saturday Night Fever." (Great, now I won't be able to get THAT out of my head.)

I went inside and spent the evening storm tracking along with the TV meteorologists. Much safer. No lightning. No BeeGees.

Round three hit just as we went to bed. Jamie decided he was going to sleep on the bed so we could save him from whatever it is that scares him so badly about storms. For once, being on the bed seemed to calm him down and he did curl up and go to sleep so we let him stay. Big mistake. Then Phoenix wanted on the bed, not because he was scared of the storm, but because everyone else was on the bed and he wasn't about to stay on the floor like a common dog. So I let him come up, too. We need to get a bigger bed. 

Today Phoenix and I ran at my club's first ever summer agility trial at the QC Dog Center. It's such an awesome facility and so nice not to have to unload the equipment trailer because all the toys are already there. Instant agility trial, just add workers!

The courses were fun but trappy. Unfortunately my handling was not up to the challenge and Phoenix managed to  fall into pretty much every single one of them. He also did some spectacular free-styling. At one point, I'm not even sure we were in the same zip code.

We'll go back and try it again tomorrow. Having been allotted our one day of sunshine today, heavy rains are again forecast for tomorrow.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Another day in paradise

A line of strong thunderstorms just blew through the town where I work. Here's a shelf cloud on the leading edge of the storm, taken right outside the front door of the newspaper office.

I don't know what kind of clouds these are. I just call them creepy Harry Potter movie-type clouds. Yeah, that's me, the meteorologist wannabee.

Lots of heavy rain and wind with this storm but nothing truly severe. Quarter-sized hail was mentioned but it didn't happen here. Lots of lightning, though, and reports of 70 mph winds. If the skies clear after this line of storms passes through, we may be in for Round Two this afternoon and evening.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Spotter activation is likely

The National Weather Service is predicting potential doom and gloom for us later this afternoon and evening. We are in the moderate risk bullseye for heavy rain, large hail, straightline winds and tornadoes — or we may get nothing. Storm spotters haven't been activated yet but we are in "activation likely" status.

Predicting the weather is not an exact science, in spite of all the modern technology. We're talking about Mother Nature, after all, and like any independent-minded woman, she will do as she pleases.

It was almost 12 years ago that we got hit by the worst summer storm I've ever experienced. On June 28, 1998, a straightline wind storm blew through the area and destroyed barns, machine sheds, silos, fences, a windmill and grain handling and storage equipment at our farms. Cattle were killed when the barn fell on them at our place. Machinery was damaged by falling buildings and flying debris. We lost windows in the house and too many trees to count.

We spent the rest of that summer cleaning up, burning, repairing and rebuilding. It's not something I ever want to do again.

So far, my career as a National Weather Service storm spotter has been relatively uneventful. As much as I love watching violent weather, it's never something I would deliberately wish for.

I should probably just go home and check the predictions of my furry storm-o-meter, Jamie. He will tell me what's coming, when it's coming and how bad it's going to be. Phoenix is fairly worthless as a forecaster. He just thinks everything is exciting.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Phoenix, critters & miscellaneous

Went outside to train last night and Phoenix caught another bird before we ever got started. That makes three birds and one ground squirrel for the Skinny Little Dog. Apparently the birds around our place are flying too low and slow. The ground squirrel was quite an achievement though. Those li’l critters are fast. (I have it on good authority that Dustin and Abigail the Dobermans excel at ground squirrel capture. Maybe I should send Phoenix to live with them for a week to hone his technique. I’m sure Carol really wants 2 Dobes and a Mal in her back yard. Her ground squirrels would probably stage a mass exodus.)

Anyway, the thing that set this bird apart from his other kills was that he actually brought it to me when I called him. I’ve learned that calling him when he has gone over the top into prey drive is pretty much worthless. He simply can’t hear me. I’m sure I’m nothing but background noise while he’s chomping happily on whatever it is he’s caught. (Gross, sorry, but that’s life with dogs.)

So mostly when he catches something, I just keep an eye on him and keep my mouth shut and pick up the pieces later, if there are any. No sense screaming and chasing and acting like an idiot. He’s faster than I am and I’d like to avoid deliberately creating a no win situation. But last night for whatever reason I felt compelled to call him even though I had absolutely no way of enforcing the command (yeah, stupid, I know, couldn’t help it, just one of those dumb human gut reactions).

But Phoenix came racing across the lawn, tail up, ears up, looking totally goofy with bird feet sticking out of the side of his mouth. Where’s a camera when you need one!

Then the next crisis ­— what do I do with it? I mean, here he is, bringing me his prized possession. I couldn’t just fling it into the cornfield.

He spit it out when I said give and I rewarded that pretty heavily, then decided to just leave the darn thing laying there and deal with it (fling it into the cornfield) later when he wasn't looking.


I belong to the Ring Tested Obedience e-mail list but admittedly do not spend a lot of time tracking it. I’m sure there a tons of great ideas on there but there’s only so much time I have to spend on a computer each day.

Anyway, one of the recent threads has been about how many different places you should have your dog do go-outs in before showing him. The consensus is 50.

Holy cow! I know for a fact I’ve never had my dogs do go-outs in 50 different places before they showed in Utility. A dozen maybe. Possibly 20 tops. But not 50. In fact, I’m not sure I could even find 50 different places to do go-outs but it’s an interesting challenge and I’m going to start making a list to see how many I can realistically come up with.


The only good thing about not mowing your lawn because it never stops raining long enough and now the freaking grass is so tall it needs to be baled is that you can work great blind retrieves in it. Phoenix and I enjoyed a wonderful early morning pre-summer solstice training session today at 6 a.m. We worked mostly AKC and UKC gloves and I’ll be darned if I could barely see the gloves once I’d placed them, so I’m sure he couldn’t see them at all.

All went well. The dog who couldn’t figure out a mark last summer was doing blinds like he’d done them all his life. What a good boy! He’s even got a good grip on fetching the center glove from the second UKC directed retrieve exercise. We’re a long way from putting the go-out with it but he’s getting the concept of fetching a glove that’s NOT in his line of vision and ignoring the two gloves that are clearly visible to the side.

Or would be, if we would ever mow the lawn.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A soggy weekend review

These are jackmanii clematis. They sure are pretty in the rain.

Ah, the best laid plans of mice and dog trainers (with apologies to John Steinbeck).

This was supposed to be my “totally free, nothing to do but spend quality training time with my dog” weekend. Since I was going to have all that lovely time on my hands, I was looking forward to taking Phoenix to some local parks to train Friday, Saturday and Sunday. After all, I would have lots of time to set up ring gates, jumps, etc. and stay as long as I liked without being on a tight schedule.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

Friday night was our only successful “training away from home” night. The Farmer even went with me! He went with me to our agility class last week, too. Hmmm . . . wonder what he wants. Maybe it was the allure of me paying for his supper at McDonald’s. I am not above bribing kennel help!

Anyway, I set up at the Conroy Park (home of the unexpected 5K run last spring, crazy people driving skidloaders and the idiot with the Dukes of Hazard car horn). Had a great session in spite of high heat and humidity. The Farmer walked around with Phoenix’s favorite squeaky ball, squeaking it and tossing it around and just generally being a distraction without even trying because Phoenix loooooves his papa and was quite fascinated that he came to train with us. So was I, for that matter.

Then a tractor pulling a hay rack full of little kids drove around the park twice. I think it was the vacation Bible school group from the local church. Wow, those little kids made a lot of noise. Phoenix only needed one reminder to watch. I was so proud of him! If he could ignore his papa with his favorite squeaky ball and a hay rack full of screaming children, really, staying focussed in the obedience ring should NOT be a problem. Probably. Maybe.

Saturday morning, we woke to pouring rain and some pretty spectacular cloud-to-ground lightning. So much for going to the Amana Park. We did train in the machine shed for a bit, but because of the heavy rain and the threat of severe weather, the Farmer had pulled all the tractors, hay rake, baler, etc., into the shed, which didn’t leave a lot of room for me and the Skinny Little Dog. We went out later in the evening and worked UKC gloves in the back yard. They kept disappearing into the grass we haven’t been able to mow because it never quits raining, so lots of good blind retrieve work.

Sunday, guess what? More freakin’ rain. Every time it looked like it might clear up, it would start raining again. Squeezed in another quickie session on heeling and recalls/drop on recall in the back yard after supper. I’ve been working jackpotting, especially on heeling, and think the idea is starting to click with Phoenix.

The weekend wasn’t a total washout. Got a lot of stuff done around the house, which is a good thing since I have agility or obedience trials the next four weekends in a row so being domestic really isn’t going to be a high priority. I really need a house elf.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Confessions of an obedience addict

This picture has nothing to do with today’s post. I just thought it was knock-out gorgeous and had to share. The peonies are toast by now but they were stunning while they lasted. The yarrow is going strong and will be until frost.

Okay, back to the topic at hand.

It has been suggested that I am not normal.

I’m one of those people who trains obedience nearly every day.


But I love it. Obedience training is like air and food to me. And you know how seriously I take food!

The “How often should you train?” question comes up a lot with newbies to the sport. They are curious about how long it will take their dog to learn a given skill or be ready for the ring. Of course that depends on a variety of factors, including but not limited to, how often you train. Everything else being equal, the more you train, the faster you progress. At least that's the way it's supposed to work.

Everyone has different demands on their time with work, family, etc. but making it a point to train on a regular basis will go a long way toward finding success with your dog, no matter what your goals are. Right now I’m really driven to have Phoenix ready for Utility late this summer or early fall. Utility is my favorite class to train and show in, so that makes the training even more enjoyable. Looking forward to moving on to the next step of each exercise gives me the motivation to work hard on laying a good foundation.

I train obedience so much because — in order of importance — A) I love spending time building a working relationship with my dog; B) I love going into the ring with a dog who is prepared and confident and C) I want high scores. None of that is going to happen if I don’t train.

I really enjoy group training sessions with friends but it’s hard to find a time when we can all get together, so mostly I train by myself. It’s a real treat to have a group session. During nice weather, I make it a point to go somewhere other than the back yard at least once a week. Session lengths usually range from 5 minutes to 30 minutes, rarely longer. I want to leave my dog wanting more. In other words, leave the party before it's over.

I thought about trying to organize a group training session for this weekend but the weather forecast looks hideous, with high rain chances, temps near 90 and humidity that would melt the hubcaps off a Buick.

We’ll still train, just not for very long. Sessions will be extremely condensed to focus on 2-3 skills and we’ll be training first thing in the morning or later in the evening, probably at a nice shady local park because I’m actually HOME this weekend and have time to haul jumps and ring gates to a park and set everything up. It may take me longer to drive to the park and set my stuff up than it actually does to train, but you’ll have that.

We’ll spend the rest of the weekend eating ice cream and splashing in the baby pool.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Go-outs, Part 1

Okay, here’s the start of the “Everything You Need To Know About Teaching Go-Outs With Food” series. Not sure how frequently it will occur but I will try to post about this subject regularly throughout the summer as Phoenix and I get ready for Utility.

Again, big thanks to my friend Renee for taking the time to organize her thoughts and write down the details of her method. The following info is MY interpretation of HER method. Any mistakes or misunderstandings are entirely my fault. Yes, I’ve taught go-outs with food before but there’s more to it than just letting the dog eat cheese off the gate and if you don’t lay a foundation with ground rules, you’ll run into trouble later when the food disappears. And like any other exercise, it has to disappear before you can go into the ring and reasonably expect the dog to understand his job.

Here’s a quick overview of the teaching sequence (this whole picture could take months to achieve):
• Dog learns to mark stanchion on cue (all cues are verbal, no hand cue is used)
• Dog learns to run to desired spot quickly, eat treat and then sit quickly (on lead)
• Dog progresses to above off lead
• Food becomes random, target is still there
• Food goes away completely, target is still there
• Target goes away
• Corrections are made for short or crooked go-outs

What you need:
• a way to stick food on the gate (butterfly clip with a zip tie or poster putty)
• small pieces of soft food
• a minimum of 2 10-foot ring gates and 3 stanchions (it’s great to have a full 40-foot set up, if you can swing it).

Here’s the butterfly clip with a zip tie stuck through it and cut to a length that allows the dog to grab the cookie off the zip tie. I chose this option over poster putty because the putty I initially bought was the Putty From Hell. Whatever I stuck in it wasn’t coming out. Seriously. It was like roofing tar. Since I wanted the food to be easily accessible, I went with the butterfly clip instead. The idea here is that the food is OFF THE GROUND. The dog needs to be able to grab the food easily, without knocking it on the ground and starting a sniff-fest.

The size of the clip doesn't really matter;
it just needs to be big enough to fit the stanchion.

* NOTE: if you choose to use poster putty to hold the food, the food needs to be long enough for the dog to grab it. Renee suggests Pupperoni cut into about 1” lengths. You’ll stick it in the putty like a cigarette sticking out of someone’s mouth.

* NOTE: if you have a high and bar jump, go ahead and set them up like a regular Utility ring. It helps the dog put things in perspective. Yeah, I know I’m using two bar jumps. I was too lazy to drag the high jump and all the boards out of the garage.

Training for Utility can mean making
an investment in ring gates and portable jumps.
It's worth it!

The first thing you’re going to do is teach the dog to look at (mark) the food/stanchion. Do this with a cue word. It can be any word you choose, just make sure you don’t use it for any other context. The goal is not to create confusion!

You will need cue words that tell the dog to:
1) look at the stanchion and mentally prep the dog to run out
2) run out
3) eat the food
4) sit

Got your words ready? Let’s go.

Put the butterfly clip on the stanchion at eye level for dog. Stick a treat on the zip tie. Start with dog on a 6-foot leash, approximately 3 to 5 feet from gate. Leave dog on a stay and walk to the stanchion. Point at stanchion and give your cue word for looking at the gate. Walk back to dog and stand in heel position. Give cue word again and the second the dog looks at the food, send him to it with go-out word.

Go with dog and say “get it,” which is permission to eat the food, the second he arrives at the target. Initially, with the dog on leash, this will take about 2 seconds so you’ll give your cue word to look, immediately followed by the cue word to go, immediately followed by the cue word to get the food. Soon as he’s eaten the food, tell dog “sit” (requiring instant response, no sniffing around looking for more food). Reward with smaller piece of food as soon as dog sits. (Eventually there will be no treat on the clip and dog will not be given permission to eat. At that point, no sniffing of gate is allowed, because you did not give permission to eat non-existent food.) Never send dog on go-out unless he has marked it first.

Target locked!

Repeat as many times as you want. If dog is not hesitating on the cue word for looking, you may back up one step each time. Do NOT send dog unless he marks the stanchion when you give the cue word. If he does not mark, then leave him, walk to stanchion and remind him by pointing at the treat and giving your cue word.

Within 2-3 sessions, you may be able to be 40’ away (still on lead), providing the dog is marking well and running fast to the go-out spot. Every single go-out at this point gets a food treat on “get it” and a smaller treat after the sit.

Next, move back close to stanchion, about 6 to 10 feet from it and take lead off. Repeat steps as above, but most likely this phase will go VERY quickly (as in 1 session and you’re 40’ away). Remember to never send dog unless he marks on cue and if he doesn’t, then walk out and remind him what the cue word means by tapping the food.

The butterfly clip allows the dog to grab the food without
knocking it onto the ground. A sit follows immediately,
no time for sniffing!

Follow the dog out so you are almost on top of him when he gets to stanchion. This stops any forward movement when you tell them to sit and you are right there to enforce and/or reward a fast sit. Do NOT be a lazy trainer and just stand and watch while your dogs run out. FOLLOW HIM so you can support the sit. Failing to do this can cause the dog to turn and take one (or two or three or four) steps back toward you before sitting, which is naughty and will cause no end of problems in the ring.

Continue to follow your dog out after you send him but gradually decrease the distance you go so eventually you only take a step or two toward the dog as they hear “sit.” Then run out and still give a treat as a reward for a fast sit.

Stay at this phase for many weeks, more likely months. Take it “on the road” and go new places, always putting the clip and treat out on stanchion. Stop moving forward when dog is sitting quickly after eating the treat and is not moving forward one inch before the “sit.”

When the dog is confident on the concept in most new places, it’s time to move on.

Whew! Phoenix and I will be at this stage for AT LEAST a month, until he is confident not only at home but in several different places and with mild distractions as he goes out to get the cookie.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Ames video

Ames video has been located, thanks to ace videographer Jeff H. He says he's sorry he didn't tape our JWW run on Sunday, which gave us the QQ, said he was too busy praying to think about videoing. That's okay, we needed the prayers!

Here's our JWW run from Saturday. It was our woulda-coulda-shoulda run, clean until the very end when the last bars fall mysteriously. Was it a tail thump? A wind gust? Some nasty little agility gremlin who woke up on the wrong side of bed? Clearly I pulled up too soon as Nix took the final jump. Gotta keep running for the imaginary final jump!

Here's our Std. run from Sunday. Watch the body language when Nix gets on (and almost off) the table. I had hold of that invisible string and was pulling it hard! He finds the table an annoying waste of his time. I foresee many table cookies in his future.

Thanks, Jeff, for taping us. And for invoking the deity of your choice on our Sunday JWW run!

Monday, June 7, 2010

The weekend agility report

Is it totally dorky to take a picture of one’s agility ribbons and score sheets?

NO! Not if you’re as proud of your dog as I am. I’m totally wallowing in the most successful agility weekend Phoenix and I have had since we started running in Excellent B. He Q’d 3 of 4 runs at Ames over the weekend and got his very first double Q. (Yeah, I know there should be a 3rd score sheet in the photo but I have no clue where it is. Go figure.)

I think video evidence of this feat exists, although not on my camera, thus strengthening my superstition that if anyone is videoing my runs on my camera, we will NQ for sure. If I can track down our videos, I’ll share them.

Suffice to say, running Phoenix in agility has come with a steep learning curve. We have spent a lot of Sunday afternoons driving home from trials empty handed for ribbons but richer for “experience.” I think maybe some of that is starting to pay off, but I’m sure there are still a lot of new mistakes I haven’t “experienced” yet. No doubt the learning curve isn’t done with us yet.

I think Nix and I are starting to read each other better. I’m figuring out what cues he needs and how they need to be timed for us to be a successful team, as well as what I’m capable of in terms of my own speed and often-questionable lung capacity. He’s figuring out what the heck I mean when I’m flinging my arms around. Or maybe he’s started reading the course maps ahead of time. Either way, it’s a great feeling.

It was a super fun weekend outside the ring, too, good time spent with friends and Hickory Park was delicious as always. Glad I got a motel this year instead of camping. I got to indulge my Weather Channel addiction for three hours both Friday and Saturday night. Seriously. This probably needs to stop.

We had the M*A*S*H 4077/Red Cross tent sitting ringside at the trial for the injured members of Team Orange: Tammy (recovering from wrist repair surgery) and Cider (recovering from ACL surgery). It’s probably a good thing no one who needed serious first aid actually showed up there.

This week’s training focus: go-outs, stays with tempting proofs and blind retrieves for gloves. From the looks of the forecast, I will do these things in between my work on building an ark.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Go out! Go back! Go away! Just go!

I’ve gotten enough comments and e-mails about go-outs to warrant exploring how to teach them (preferably without cats involved, but to each his own). Today’s post is an overview of the exercise, what has worked for me in the past and what hasn't.

Teaching go-outs is fun! Some people would argue that it is fun like a root canal but go-outs are one of those exercises that fascinate me. Maybe it’s because there are so many different ways to teach them and every trainer swears by her successful method. The beauty of training obedience is that there really aren’t any “wrong” methods, it’s just a matter of finding the right fit for you and your dog.

Over the years, I’ve seen people use food, toys, retrieving sticks, target boxes, treat bags, long-lines, broad jump boards, long dowel rods, a pulley system and even a bungee cord chase toy to get their dogs to perform go-outs. (The bungee cord toy — courtesy of Linda Koutsky — was the coolest thing ever and Phoenix really, really wants one but given my history with bungee cords, that’s probably not going to happen. I do not need to be on a first name basis with the folks in the local emergency room any more than I already am.)

Using a food target has been an enduring method over the years, as well as having the dog retrieve dowels off center stanchion. Some trainers teach the dog to run out and sit on a target platform box or on a mouse pad or whatever. “Destination behaviors” also currently enjoy a lot of popularity around here, with the dog touching or even biting the stanchion.

Keep in mind, here in the Midwest, 99 percent of the time, go-outs are done in rings formed by baby gates with a center stanchion in the smack dab dead center of the go-out end of the ring. Occasionally you’ll end up going to a blank wall but most clubs are accommodating enough to throw some baby gates across that, too. I know the folks in California and other crazy places where they actually hold trials outdoors with ropes on metal poles for ring barriers don’t have this advantage and I don’t know how in doG’s name they teach go-outs.

So anyway, my shelties Jess and Connor ate pounds of squeeze cheese and hotdogs stuck to the gates. With Jamie, I turned the go-out into a retrieve. Jamie had to go get a stick off the stanchion and bring it back. It was stuck on with that sticky tacky putty stuff to keep it off the ground. (The only go-out method I really don’t like is putting food on the ground, which can lead to a lot of sniffing and searching by the dog who is frantic to find his cookie. If you use food, make it easily visible at the dog’s eye level.)

Anyway, if Jamie pulled up short on a go-out, I could give him a failure-to-retrieve correction — taking him by the collar and walking him out to the go-out spot and pointing out his stick and reminding him that 40 feet earlier, I’d told him to fetch that stick and he hadn’t and I was so terribly disappointed that I could just cry. (Yes, that’s a correction.)

He very rarely pulled up short. He loved his stick. The stick equaled food. Return the stick, get the food. Remember, Jamie was raised in a house with two shelties. He is not a normal tervuren.

So he got his OTCh. doing lovely go-outs that I cued by asking him “Where’s your stick?” and he would get a target lock on that center stanchion because he always believed there was a stick out there and he knew how important it was to get it and exchange it for food. He also knew how important it was to sit when he was told and figured his crazy mom had just changed her mind and now she didn’t want the stick. It was a great system and it worked.

So of course I didn’t do it with Phoenix.

He did some baby dog go-outs to cheese on the gate as a puppy but I didn’t think I wanted to use the food method again because — and I admit it — that method lends itself to random sniffies if you get sloppy with your training and don’t fade the food so the dog doesn’t get obsessed with getting his cookie off the gate EVERY SINGLE TIME before he sits. I played around with a few other things and actually taught Phoenix to bite the stanchion at one point but decided the only thing that was going to get me was a pile of splintered stanchions.

I finally decided to teach Phoenix to go to a target box, which he learned easily. It was a fun thing to teach and I’m glad I did it, although I’m going to revert to training the go-outs with food and pay closer attention to preventing the sniffies. (More on that later, I promise.)

Here’s why the switch: Phoenix understands what to do when he gets to his go-out spot (sit in the box). But he’s a little vague on how to GET to his go-out spot in the first place. In other words, although he totally gets the sit-in-a-box idea, he doesn’t get the “where” idea. He doesn’t mark the center stanchion on cue (yet) because it currently has no intrinsic value for him. In his little malinois mind, he has not connected the stanchion (going) with the target box (sitting). So when I line him up and try marking his spot, he may or may not pay any attention to it . . . which leads to some really funky go-outs. Of course it’s taken me HOW LONG to figure this out? Bad trainer. Bad.

But he loves his cookies. So teaching him —at least initially — that food grows wild on the center stanchion should help him focus on WHERE to go, as well as WHAT to do when he gets there. Plus it should give him a speedier “go,” since he’ll have a definite destination in mind with a definite reward when he gets there.

Bear with with me. Next week I’ll get around to the initial steps of teaching go-outs. I have to give a lot of credit (like, ALL the credit) to my friend Renee because she was OCD enough to write down all her steps for me. Sure, I’ve taught go-outs with food before but I didn’t give the why’s and wherefore’s a lot of thought. Which is why my shelties occasionally did massive power-sniffs up and down the gate, looking for non-existent cookies, before they sat in the ring. It's a problem I see a lot with Utility A dogs and not a few Utility B dogs, as well. Following her steps should prevent this and I’ll be happy to share her ideas, Phoenix's progress and my own observations in general with you as we go along.

This weekend, we’re off to play agility at Ames. This is one of few outdoor trials we do each summer and the weather does not sound promising. Much rain gear has been packed.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Dogs, cats, cheese & go-outs

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about go-outs lately. I mean, really, doesn’t everyone?

This is the result of realizing Phoenix’s go-outs are not quite as solid as I thought they were and need some tweaking if I realistically expect to show him in Utility in the fall. Glad I figured this out now, in my own back yard, not after dumping a lot of money into entry fees and discovering my baby dog is clueless.

That got me to thinking about how I’d taught my previous dogs to do go-outs and that trip down memory lane inevitably brought me to these pictures that still make me laugh after all these years.

Connor was my first OTCh. Hard to believe he’ll be gone a whole year in August. Sigh. But anyway, when I was working to finish his OTCh. in 1999, one of our farm kitties was, well, very interested in obedience training. I guess that’s a polite way of saying that cat was a pain in the arse! Whenever we went out to train in the back yard, he came running. Every single time. He was right in the middle of everything. He wouldn’t go away. So I gave up and let him participate.

He helped with articles. Remember Diane Bauman’s controversial "Beyond Basic Training" book cover photo of a dog working articles with little turtles in the pile? We don’t need no stinkin’ turtles. We got us a cat!

He helped proof jumps. Would your dog take a jump if there was a cat sitting on it? (I’m pretty sure I know SOMEONE who wouldn’t. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to find a cat who wants to be within 100 yards of him, let alone sitting on a jump.)

For the life of me, I can't remember this cat's name. He was either very brave or very stupid. But he sure was cute.

Not only did I train Connor to do go outs to cheese on the stanchion, I also trained the cat to do it. Getting the turn and sit was a little bit harder but he had a great GO!

It’s little wonder Connor’s go-outs were brilliant. If he could do them with a cat chasing him out to the cheese, they must have been ridiculously simple to do in a cat-less show ring.

I’ll write more about go-outs, sans cats, in the future.

Today I'm thankful for scrapbooks and happy memories.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The malinois point of view

Phoenix would like to share the following bullet points with mal owners everywhere. He feels it will make life easier for everyone involved. I sure wish he would have told me some of this stuff 3 years ago.

* If I want it and I can get it — I will. You might as well just give it to me now and save yourself the headache.

* If you don’t want me to get something, don’t leave it where I can get it. Ever.

* Putting something behind a closed door does not mean it’s safe.

* Just because I didn’t eat the cat yesterday doesn’t mean I won’t try it today.

* The best way to keep you from taking something away from me is to swallow it. Works every time.

* Anything I catch in the yard with my own paws and teeth is MINE. Go catch your own bird if you want one.

* Someone needs to teach the vacuum cleaner a lesson. Since I don’t see anyone else doing it, I’m volunteering.

* I really don’t see a problem with biting at the towel while you’re drying off after a shower.

* Just because you wouldn’t eat that, doesn’t mean I can’t.

* Explain to me again why, exactly, you want me to sit still for 3 minutes. And the point of this is . . . what?

* As a matter of fact, the shortest distance between you and me IS straight through the flower bed.

* Everything I do is calculated to elicit a response from you. So I will continue to nuzzle, poke, lick, air snap, cuddle, nibble, push, paw, squeak, bark and steal things until you do what I want. You can pre-empt all this by just doing what I want in the first place. Boy, you are slow some days but I love you anyway. You have thumbs and can open the refrigerator. And throw the ball. And scratch my itchy spots. I'll keep you.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

What's for dinner?

Want to start a spirited discussion among dog folk? Ask people what they are feeding their dogs, then sit back and enjoy.

Choosing dog food is a very individual thing. It depends on how much money you want to spend, what brands are available in your area, whether you want to commit the time to making a homemade diet (raw or cooked), how supportive your vet is about anything that doesn’t come out of a bag and of course, what your dog will and won’t eat and any health issues he might have.

Obsessing about dog food is reserved for people like us, not “normal” people who never think twice when they grab a bag of “Ol Barfy” off the store shelf. We have books on the subject, visit Web sites on the subject, belong to e-mail lists on the subject and occasionally interrogate each other about what we’re feeding and do we feel our dogs are doing well on it. It’s not that we don’t have more important things to thing about — we just think dog food is one of them!

Believe me, over the years I think I’ve fed EVERYTHING: umpteen different brands of kibble, homemade raw, commercial frozen raw, dehydrated raw, pre-mixes where you add your own meat and a home-cooked diet. What I fed has varied over the years, according to the individual dogs’ needs.

About 10 years ago, I took the plunge and went to a total homemade raw diet. I loved it. The dogs loved it and did great. My vet thought I was a freak but since my dogs were obviously healthy, she couldn’t argue with me. Well, she tried. I refused to argue so that was pretty much the end of that.

I quit feeding raw in 2006. Why? It’s probably more of a psychological thing than anything else.

I came home from a show weekend to find out my big upright freezer had quit working.

Apparently, about five days earlier.

In August.

YUCK doesn't even start to come close.

I had to clean out and dispose of between 250 and 300 pounds of rotten meat. It was one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever done in my life and when it was over, I had absolutely zero desire to restock the freezer and have another go. We did get the freezer fixed eventually and yes, you can get the smell of rotten meat out if you work hard enough and yes, I happen to know an excellent place to dispose of a body if you should ever need one.

Since then I’ve fed kibble supplemented with fresh food (muscle meat, organ meat, eggs, cottage cheese, canned salmon, etc.) and the occasional commercial frozen raw patties when I’m feeling rich. I love the Nature’s Variety frozen raw diet but for dogs my size, it’s pretty unrealistic unless I win the lottery.

I’m currently flirting with the idea of going back to raw. I guess time is gradually erasing the rotten meat mental scarring. The kibble I currently like best is a grain free formula, CORE by Wellness. Around here, it runs about $70 a bag. Without factoring in the cost of my time, I can buy a lot of fresh, unprocessed food and make a lot of meals for $70, especially since we always have beef on hand.

Jamie is a very sensible chewer but Phoenix will never be a candidate for raw meaty bones. He is a gulper. Give him something to chew and as soon as he thinks it’s “small” enough, down the hatch it goes. This, from the dog who chews each kibble three times before swallowing. His idea of “small” and my idea of “small” are definitely not the same and he has taken years off my life by swallowing things that I think have no business being swallowed. So he will either need to have bones ground or have his raw meat supplemented with calcium. It’s cheaper to buy a bottle of calcium than it is to buy a food grinder but I haven’t ruled that out. We’ll see.

I love making dog food the same way I love cooking for people. Yeah, I’m weird that way.