Thursday, September 30, 2010

Celebrate autumn!

It seems we are headed for the first frost of the season Saturday night as forecasters are calling for lows around 32. This is exciting. I absolutely love this time of year! I love the whole autumn scene: colorful leaves, frosty nights, harvest season, putting flannel sheets on the bed, digging out the sweatshirts, actually COOKING again (I have no idea what we ate all summer) and turning on the furnace.

Ah, yes . . . the furnace.

Every year, the Farmer and I play the “I can wait longer than you can to turn on the furnace” game. At some point, when we’re both shivering and turning blue and can see our breath in the house, we mutually agree that it’s time. I’m pretty sure we’re not there yet, so chances are the furnace will not be on this weekend when the mercury dips into the 30s. It’s only supposed to be cold like that for a couple of nights.

Although chances are the frost will not be a killing freeze, I need to take some cuttings from tender plants I want to winter over, just in case. These include the Coleus from Hell and the Stolen Birthday Begonia.

This is the Coleus from Hell.

It’s huge. It’s wonderfully easy to grow and thrives in sun and heat, making it a good candidate for living on our south-facing cement patio. Here's a closeup. It's darned pretty.

These are the Stolen Birthday Begonias.

They have bloomed non-stop in one form or another for over a year. This plant was grown from a clipping from the mother plant. I have two other pots just like it. They were blooming last September when I (okay, Paula, at my request) rescued the mother plant from abandonment at a dog show. Well, she asked a Boy Scout first and he said it was okay. Who’s to argue with a Boy Scout? So technically, they weren't stolen. Not exactly.

Finally, here’s my newest perennial, a Black Diamond hellebore.

I’ll have to cover it up Saturday night. Even though it’s up close to the house and probably sheltered from the frost, I’m not taking any chances. It’s from Marsha, Tammy and Michele, in memory of Connor, who’s registered name is Sunazie’s Black Diamond. It’s supposed to bloom early in the spring and will look like this.

I know autumn bums some people out because all the plants and flowers die, daylight hours are shortened and winter is just around the corner, but I always look forward to it as a break from the insanity of summer, when it feels like I’m doing 12 things at once. During fall and winter, that slows to maybe 5 things at once. I'll get cabin fever once winter actually arrives but right now, I'm ready for a slower schedule. Looking at the calendar, it doesn't look like that's going to happen for a while yet.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Several of you asked

The animal communicator who talked to Phoenix is Linda Thomas. She is from Moline, Ill., and her Web site is

I really should make it a point to have her talk to my dogs every year or so, kind of like a routine doctor's visit. With that in mind, I need to keep a running list of questions, you know, those "Wonder what he REALLY thinks?" moments.

Cuz heaven knows I won't remember them all in my head. I've already thought of a few things I wish I'd asked yesterday.

A couple of friends on my malinois list remarked they were a little afraid of what their dogs might have to say. I think dogs are very forthright. They say what they feel but they aren't mean or vindictive about it. Although Jamie did say he thought Connor was a stuck-up snob. Which pretty much summed up their relationship perfectly. Still chuckling about that and it was 5 years ago.

And I'm still chuckling that Phoenix thinks the leash is to keep ME from getting lost. He knows me pretty well.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Phoenix and the animal communicator

I have had an animal communicator talk to each of my recent dogs at some point in their lives. While I’m sure there are some frauds out there, the women who talked to Connor, Jamie and now Phoenix have told me things that went beyond simple generalities that anyone with a little information about dog training and dog sports could come up with. They told me things that were specific to the situation, as well as confirming some of my own intuitions about my dogs.

The process is not as simple as having the communicator instruct the dog you want him to heel with heads up attention every time you go in the ring or telling him to just “go where I tell you” when running agility. I ask the communicator the question, she asks my dog and receives a flow of images and emotions in return, which she translates into words I can understand.

Here’s the transcript of Phoenix’s recent conversation and the thoughts and insights he relayed to me through the communicator. I definitely tried to keep my questions as open ended as possible and not lead her toward one conclusion or another.

First, she had to make contact with him. After I told her where I live (general vicinity, not exact address) and what Phoenix looks like (reddish brown fur, black overlay), she checked with me to make sure she had the right dog, describing him as intense, high energy, very athletic, very buff, a dog who loves to run. She “saw” an image of him running in a big open field. (This could be the hay field behind our house where we frequently walk.) She said he loves to run and he runs so fast he thinks he’s flying. He would view being able to run as a good reward.

My first question was about our out-of-sight stay issue. She told me he is very concerned (not afraid of, just concerned by) small dogs in the line up. Some of them are not very nice. He pictured a small terrier-type dog. There is also a white dog who is not very nice but is okay as long as it stays put. (I worked stays with Kathy and her samoyed Jazz a few weeks ago. There is no love lost between Jazz and Phoenix.)

Phoenix breaks the stays to find me because I keep him safe and he keeps me safe. That’s how it is. She suggested I use lots of positive mental imaging to support him while I’m out of sight and cautioned me not to think “Don’t move, don’t move” because dogs don’t understand negatives, which would turn the thought into “Move, move.”

He said he did not understand that I would come back. She assured him I would and he seemed surprised.

When asked if anything had happened to him during stays to make him fearful, he said no. There were often a lot of disruptions outside of the ring but that didn’t bother him. If there were disruptions in the ring, they didn’t involve him. Then he returned to the image of a little terrier-type dog causing trouble. (I really wonder whose dog that is!)

When asked why he was frequently sharp with other dogs who got in his face, he said they needed to learn some manners and he would teach them manners. Besides, the other dogs don’t need to be that close to me.

He has a large personal space. She said he showed her an image of a bubble all the way around him. During sits/downs, the bubble elongates. He is fine with dogs on either side of him during stays but his personal space extends further in front and behind him and he does not want any dogs in that space, sneaking up behind him or approaching him head on. He likes people much better than dogs.

He wants to know where I am all the time. It’s important to always know where I am. How can he take care of me if he doesn’t know where I am?

He sees no reason to give me eye contact 100 percent of the time in heeling. He knows where I am! He can see my feet. He told me not to worry so much about eye contact.

He overthinks things and is always reading me and trying to figure out what I want. I need to keep positive pictures in my mind of what I want him to do, not worry about him doing the wrong thing.

When we are in the show ring, he sees me as the leader because the judge talks to me and not him. I am obviously the leader who gets respect. Outside the ring and in training, he thinks we have an equal partnership.

His job is to take care of me. Other dogs do not need to be close to me. If he can’t intimidate them non-verbally, he will intimidate them physically. Some dogs are okay to be near me but most aren’t.

Phoenix and my father-in-law have never gotten along, so I asked about that. She said my F-I-L doesn’t like Phoenix so Phoenix doesn’t like him either. Phoenix says whenever he is around my F-I-L, my F-I-L is thinking about a GSD that bit him several years ago and my F-I-L is sure Phoenix is going to bite him, too. (Yep, that would be the neighbor’s not-so-lovely GSD. He is no longer alive.)

When it comes to The Farmer, Phoenix said, “I’ll share her. If I have to.”

He had a question about weave poles. He wanted to know why he had to do more of them. We had to work on this one for a minute. I haven’t been asking him to do more than 12 poles but I HAVE been asking him to do them without me running alongside him. At the agility trials last weekend, I was able to leave him in the poles several times and position myself for the next obstacle. Phoenix was concerned that I had “left him” in the poles and wanted permission to leave the poles and come with me. I told him no, it was very important for him to do all of them, then he could catch me. He said okay but it seemed like the poles were “longer” when I wasn’t near him.

Then he asked about the “moving house.” The communicator explained that Phoenix calls anywhere he sleeps his “house.” He wanted to know where the “moving house” went. The communicator asked if I had an RV. I said no . . . but I had (had being the operative word, at this point) a tent. That was it! He wanted to know where the tent went after we abandoned camp and went to a motel last weekend.

He also said he likes staying in motels better because I am more comfortable there. He could tell because I enjoyed my shower on Sunday morning. He was laying at the bathroom door and knew I enjoyed all the hot water. He wants me to be comfortable.

I asked about his relationship with Jamie. Phoenix said when he arrived, Jamie “moved over.” He was very specific that Jamie had not moved up or down in pack structure, just over. It was a lateral move.

Of course, I had to ask about cats. His response was: Squirrels, rabbits, cats, they’re all the same. He wants to catch one but doesn’t want to hurt it. Wants to touch it so he can be the winner. Then they run and the game starts all over. If he hurt one, it couldn’t run again. Right now, the cats always hide and he can’t touch them, so the cats win. He doesn’t have a kill instinct. He wouldn’t kill a cat.

He wants his crate covered at shows. Please cover the crate! That way he doesn’t have to defend his territory. He can rest. He doesn’t have to watch everything. When his crate is covered, his “bubble” is much smaller. Otherwise the bubble extends beyond the crate.

He loves mental challenges. He’s very athletic and physically hard but very emotional and sensitive. He needs to take care of me because I am his support. When we go for walks on a leash, the leash keeps ME from getting lost, that’s what the leash is for.

We had a little time left so she talked with Jamie, too. He told her the bed (lambskin pad) he sleeps on in our bedroom gets too hot. That’s why he starts out sleeping on it, then shoves it out of the way. But he doesn’t want to go sleep anywhere else because that is HIS spot. He thinks we should put a stone floor in the bedroom so it would be cooler for him.

He wants to jump in the van and be able to go straight into his crate. The way I currently have the crates set up, he has to jump up and turn hard to the right. He doesn’t like that.

He doesn’t like going to the chiropractor at all but he likes the woman chiro better than the man chiro. The woman has better hands.

He also still likes to show off and be the center of attention.

If you’ve had an animal communicator talk to your dogs, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Agility, camping and divine intervention

The DMOTC agility weekend was everything I had anticipated — a lot of fun with my dogs and friends. Phoenix and I had some great runs, some “almost” runs and and some "WTF was I thinking?" runs. Like Tammy says, “Don’t tell me everything that went wrong, tell me what went right.” Even amidst the train wreck runs, there were always elements to be proud of.

This was the first trial we’d shown in since the rule changes at the first of September. Phoenix seemed to like the new table rule, since I dropped him each time and never asked him to change position. His auto drop, which has been hesitant because he never knew if I really meant it or was going to ask him to sit instead, got faster all three days.

Plus the judge’s count starts as soon as the dog’s paws hit the table, which reduces the amount of time he has to spend there . . . he thinks that's a good thing, not so much for me since my catch-my-breath pause has been shortened.

Camping was great, at least the first night. The weather was fine and there was a beautiful full moon. I know this because the guy in the campsite next to ours was proclaiming it loudly to everyone he could find, then he started calling people on his cell phone and telling them about the moon. Apparently he had never seen one before.

Did I mention he had a beagle tied to a tree? Did I mention that it bayed? Endlessly? One of his telephone conversations, after pointing out the incredible beauty of the full moon, included the observation that “There’s some kind of dog trial around here this weekend, there’s at least 100 dogs in the campground.” Yeah, buddy, and have you noticed that YOURS IS THE ONLY ONE MAKING ANY NOISE?

After a good night’s sleep in spite of the moon man and his beagle, I woke up Saturday morning to find the ceiling of my tent about six inches above my nose. This was not a good thing. The dogs and I crawled out and a flashlight inspection revealed a broken support pole. Seriously. The metal had just crumbled at one joint and a big chunk of the pole was gone. Too weird. This was not a cheap Walmart tent and although I’ve used it for six years, it hasn’t been used that hard.

In spite of many offers to “fix” the tent pole, I opted to camp at Motel 6 Saturday night. Ye olde duct tape repair might work on the tent pole . . . but I took a dim view of finding out at 2 a.m. that it did not, then spending the night trying to avoid suffocation by 10 yards of wet tent fabric. I "sold" my camping spot to Jill and pointed out due to Saturday’s heavy rains, she now had waterfront property.

In any event, it was the last camping trip of the season so I’ve got all winter to fix the pole or buy a replacement. Or maybe this is the Sign From Above that answers my “How long is this really going to be fun?” question. Van camping is still an option although C3PO doesn't have as much available space as her predecessors, C1 and C2, making it more difficult if I have both Belgians with me. Hauling 26" crates in and out of a vehicle multiple times a day in order to have sleeping quarters is not my idea of a good time.

Here are videos of our qualifying runs from the weekend, one in JWW and one in Standard. Phoenix took a bonus jump at the end of his JWW run so the jump with the bar falling was not actually part of the course.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Heeling class

Several of you have expressed an interest in the heeling class I’m taking with Phoenix, so here’s a little info.

As advertised, it focuses on heeling skills and nothing else so is a good fit for dogs at any level of training, providing they have a good foundation with attention work. Of course, no one would heel their dogs for an entire hour but there are plenty of breaks so the dogs aren’t working constantly. The hour goes really fast and it’s a very high energy environment, which both dogs and handlers reflect.

We’ve only met twice but here are some of the things we’ve worked on:

• Teaching words to fine-tune heel position. These include cues to find heel position, move up, move back, get closer, get off and get your butt in. Personally, I tend not to use a lot of these words since my theory on heel position is there’s only one correct spot and if I have to adjust the dog to move up, move back, etc. once he’s there, then the dog is not taking enough responsibility for finding the correct spot in the first place.

BUT . . . it is VERY helpful for the dog to be able to adjust himself and maintain heel position out of the context of actual heeling. For example: if you set up two inches off the mark where the judge wants you in the ring, when you set up for sits/downs and then have to scoot over, etc. If you haven’t taught these little doodles, your poor dog won’t have any idea how to move himself accordingly and it can be a stress builder in the ring.

Plus, teaching the dog body awareness is extremely valuable when it comes to working glove/article turns as well as turns during heeling.

• Teaching words and body language to cue speed changes. I had never taught “hurry” before but it has turned out to be an incredible tool for tightening up our about turns and the outside turn of the Figure 8. Our instructor calls it the “dizzy turn” and that’s pretty much how you teach it — psyching the dog up to drive to the right while you turn in place. Phoenix thinks this is great fun. He’s probably just waiting for me to fall over.

• Group heeling! Those of you who started training back in the Dark Ages of jerk and yank may flinch at the memory of forced group heeling marches around a building, popping a choker and chanting “Heel, good dog, heel, good dog” while the instructor monotonously intoned “Pop and release, remember to praise.”

Our group heelwork has NOT been like that! With a variety of different dogs and handlers, all moving at different speeds, frequently stopping to reward/release and the instructor calling unexpected speed and direction changes, the group heeling sequences are definite energy builders. Phoenix’s tail probably hurts this morning because I don’t think he ever quit wagging it last night. This is a great confidence boost for both of us, since my overall goal for the class is to get my happy dog back. He’s working with a focus on releasing to play as a reward and I’m using very limited treats.

One of the unplanned benefits is that the class is held in a huge training building and half of the building is devoted to agility classes on that evening, so there is a constant trail of dogs and handlers going to/leaving the agility area, plus all the wonderfully enticing sounds of teeters banging and tunnels being pummeled. Many great opportunities to enforce and reward attention!

It’s also been very beneficial for working on Phoenix’s “strange dog” issues. He’s getting to hang out by dogs he doesn’t know and dogs he knows and doesn’t like and last night he even made a new friend, a cute little American Eskimo girl from the agility class.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Random thoughts on random subjects

Autumn starts today (or tomorrow, depending on which calendar you look at.) The forecast high is 80 degrees with tropical (there’s that d*mned word again!) dew points and the possibility of severe thunderstorms. I’m lusting after crisp autumn weather, falling leaves, apple cider, Halloween, etc. . . . and we’re replaying July and August.


Phoenix and I are taking a heeling class on Wednesday nights. It is so amazingly, awesomely, totally COOL to be taking a class, not teaching one. In the 3 1/2 years Phoenix has been with me, we’ve taken a total of one, count them, ONE, obedience class. Many agility classes. One obedience class.

Phoenix isn’t the first dog I’ve trained (in spite of frequent indications to the contrary!) so we don’t really need a constant parade of classes in order to make progress. I can — and do — train mostly on my own. But wow, is it great to be able to focus on my dog for a whole hour in a busy class environment without having to split my attention seven different ways for students. What a treat.


A woman e-mailed me. Her daughter showed the family dog at the county fair 4-H show and “did real good.” Now the mom wants to show the dog. What does that involve and how much does it cost?

I wrote back and told her about getting the dog registered, encouraged her to have it spayed/neutered, talked about taking group classes and/or private lessons, the need to train consistently for about a year before being realistically prepared to show, told her how to get a copy of the obedience regs from the AKC, explained how 4-H county fair judging differs from AKC obedience trials, encouraged her to join the local obedience club to get involved in the sport, talked about entry fees running about $25 per class, plus motel and travel expenses and the need to enter trials in advance.

That was three weeks ago. I haven’t heard a word from her since.


Big camping weekend coming up! The agility trials this weekend are held near a really nice campground run by the local conservation board and this is an annual group camp-out for a bunch of us. The number of die-hard (which might be another word for stupid) campers has dwindled a bit over the years. Several folks have fallen under the spell of the local motels. Others have graduated from tents to actual campers with microwaves and air conditioning.

But there are still a few of us who enjoy putting up our tents and roughing it. Is it truly roughing it if you can have a hot shower in the morning and your friends in the campers make coffee for you?

Each time I crawl in or out of my tent, I wonder how much longer I’m going to think this is fun, so I plan to enjoy every minute of this weekend. There will be campfires and s’mores and all that good stuff. Can’t wait.


I’m re-teaching Phoenix’s send to the scent articles. Initially, I thought it would be best to send him after a sit, giving him time to focus on the pile before going to it. Having taken that in the ring this fall in Versatility and Wild Card Utility, I’ve changed my mind.

As with most things, the re-training is going slowly. In spite of the reluctance and confusion he showed about the turn and sit in the ring, he’s pretty darn sure that’s what I want in training.

I’ve changed the command although I’m not sure that has registered much. He pays more attention to the context/set-up of the exercise than the words I’m using.


We had some cat-induced drama at our house earlier this week. We’ve had some trouble with the neighbors’ cats hanging out at our place. Farm cats being what they are, I can’t exactly call up the neighbors and tell them to keep their cats at home. That only works for their dog. And it doesn’t really work so well for him, either.

Anyway, I let the dogs out before bed and there was one of the neighbors’ cats INSIDE the fence of the dog yard. There was a great deal of yelling and yowling and tooth-snapping and even some fur flying while the cat, both Belgians and I ricocheted around the yard for awhile. The cat escaped and has not been seen since. Hopefully it spread the word that our place is not safe.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A weekend at home

I stayed home over the weekend. Can you believe it?

Well, not totally at home. Saturday we went to Kay's and trained. Sunday, I planned to go to the Amana park and train but it was raining. So we went to the old barn in Amana where they hold the farmer's markets. We train there a couple of times a year. It's a good place to go when the weather is not cooperating.

The barn foundation is made from sandstone. The structure dates to the mid-1800s.

Another view of the barn, showing the sandstone foundation.

Here's where we train. Nix is sitting at the far end. It's an awesome place to work heeling, recalls and retrieves. Plus there are endless opportunities for Figure 8s around all the poles. Plus the floor is sniffy-good wood chips, so lots of chance to reward/correct for working through distractions.

After we trained, we went for a walk. In the rain. It wasn't raining that hard. The dogs didn't care and I didn't figure I'd melt. There's a paved trail around the Lily Lake so we didn't slide around in the mud. Here are the dogs with the Lily Lake behind them.

The Lily Lake is a man-made lake between Amana and Middle Amana. It is covered with water lilies. They bloom in the summer and are really pretty. Of course, I never think to stop and take a picture of them in the summer when they're pretty. I wait until mid-September when they're getting brown and crusty.

One section of the trail goes across a levee between the mill race and the Lily Lake. The mill race connects six of the seven Amana villages. The folks who settled the colonies transported stuff from one village to another via the "race."

Here's another section of trail. We walked for 45 minutes and had it all to ourselves. Maybe that's because it was raining. Ya think?

It was a nice, relaxing weekend. Now we can get psyched up for two weekends of agility, including the big camping fest of the year at Granger this weekend. Rain, rain, go away!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Gardening stuff

Here's my birthday (mal)igator from Tammy and Marsha. Isn't he adorable? Next year I think he'll swim around in the new hosta bed I set by the house.

This is a plant Tammy gave me earlier this summer. In spite of a rough start (two weeks with heat indexes above 100 degrees — NOT a good time to transplant anything) it has taken off and is very pretty. I think it is called a speedwell.

And finally, it's time to think about frost. I'm not ready to think about settling in for winter yet but I am definitely looking forward to cooler temps and no more bugs. First frost in this area averages around Oct. 9.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Problem solving, Part III

Okay, last installment.

First, I want to clarify a couple of things from yesterday’s post in regard to returning to reward on the out of sight stays — I said I wouldn’t keep coming back to treat him because it could end up causing more stress than it resolved when no treats appeared during group exercises at a trial. BUT, in training I will vary the amount of time I stay out of sight (not always 3 and 5 minutes) and will return (to heel position), jackpot and break him out of the position, then either end the session or do another out of sight exercise.

Just like rewarding at different times during heeling, the stay reward will come randomly, maybe after 20 seconds, maybe after 2 minutes, etc. But then the exercise will have a clear ending after the reward - hopefully building the understanding that when mom comes back, I get my goodies and we’re done with that part.

Today’s topic: can you train too much? Don’t laugh. Lots of my friends and students admit to not making regular training a priority but I tend to have the opposite problem. Weird. I know. That’s me.

Problem C: I overtrain. It’s ironic that even though I am guilty of overtraining, I still never managed to work Phoenix long enough at any given skill to confront lack of effort errors.

Cause: This is truly MY problem, not Phoenix’s. I’m OCD abut training. I love to work with my dog and feel like I’m slacking if I don’t get out there and do something most days of the week. Some trainers might argue that your dog should work as often as you want, as long as you want, whenever you want. That might be true in theory but imagine something you really, really enjoy doing - now imagine doing it every single day for years without ever getting a break. You HAVE to do it. How long would that be fun?

I wouldn’t say Nix was dragging miserably through our training sessions but I do admit occasionally catching MYSELF thinking, “I really don’t feel like training tonight but we HAVE to.” This should have been a signal to take a day off because I wasn’t giving my dog everything he needed — a focused and enthusiastic handler — even though I felt compelled to have a training session that day.

1) Plan built-in “days off” into our training calendar each week. I would rather have fewer really exceptional workouts than more frequent “going through the motions” ones.

2) Yes, I have a training calendar so I can decide how to make the best use of my time each week: what times are best to train at home, train before a class I’m teaching/taking, train with friends on the weekend, train at a new site, etc. It helps assure that training time happens even when life gets crazy.

3) Have a specific plan for each training session so I don’t fritter away our time and not accomplish anything. Even if we only train for 10 minutes, it’s important to my dog that I have a clear picture in my head of what I want us to accomplish.

4) Instead of two nights of training in familiar surroundings at home, plan a road trip to train at a park or shopping mall instead. Then take the next night off.

5) Grab opportunities during daily life to ask for obedience skills: quick set ups, fetching household items, Utility signals in the dining room, etc. Throwing these out-of-the-blue requests at Phoenix will give me a clearer picture of what he understands and will help him learn that compliance is not optional, whether he thinks he’s “working” or not. (This is the dog who takes a great deal of joy in stealing dirty laundry out of the hamper and racing around the house with it; we practice fronts with dirty socks frequently. Eww.)

Whew. This has been a lotta thinkin’. Thanks for coming along for the ride. Hopefully it will be helpful to you and your dogs, too. Don't repeat my mistakes. Make brand new ones!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Problem solving, Part II

All right, here we go again!

Yesterday I wrote about improving ring attitude by addressing a lack of sustained effort in training and by making the work itself rewarding (without cookies on the nose) by building delayed gratification and more play to build drive in the context of obedience work, which is obviously not self-rewarding for many dogs.

Something I wanted to add, and this applies to ANY training issue, is that knowledge is power. If you have given your dog a clear picture of what you want from him in terms of performance, that can go a long way in helping relieve stress he will encounter at a show. Vague “that’s close enough” training disintegrates under ring pressure when the dog really isn’t sure what you want because you haven’t been consistent with your criteria (exactly how you want him to perform) in training. When reinforcers like food and toys are gone, he may feel lost in a gray zone of uncertainty. He’s not deliberately blowing you off, he really doesn’t know what you want.

As several of you noted in your comments (thank you!), deliberately introducing stress during training is a vital part of ring prep, although we often ignore it because we don’t want to rock the boat with our dogs and fall under the illusion that our dogs “know what to do" because they are awesome in the back yard. This can be remedied by building some mild stressors into your training routine and showing the dog how to be successful and that you will help and support him in a firm, fair, kind manner.

Now, here’s our next issue - stays:

Problem B: Phoenix worries abut “strange” dogs in his proximity, causing him to break out of the lineup on group exercises. I’m not sure this is a fear issue, more like an elevated discomfort level. While some fellow trainers thought he was breaking to FIND me (and I’m not totally discrediting that theory), I think he’s leaving the line up to GET AWAY from the other dogs.

He has looked slightly anxious but not overly freaked out when I’ve taken him back from the stewards when returning, so I don’t think he’s in a panicked flight to come find me, more of a deliberate decision to take himself out of an uncomfortable situation.

Cause: Phoenix is the first dog I’ve ever had who has a tendency to be sharp with other dogs who get in his face. It doesn’t matter if the other dog is friendly, an idiot or has its own rude agenda. Since I’ve discovered that 98 percent of owners of “oh, he’s friendly” dogs do not see anything wrong with their dogs getting in other dogs’ faces, I found myself putting Phoenix back in his crate any time he was not being actively worked at matches, classes, etc. It was easier than constantly monitoring his surroundings for dogs who were going to invade his space and cause trouble whether they intended to or not. This meant after he got too big to sit on my lap, he didn’t “hang out” much in group doggie situations.

1) More out-of-crate “hanging out” time with me keeping an eye out for potential problems. Sometimes he lays at my feet, sometimes I sit on the ground with him, sometimes he sits on my lap (yeah, need to get a pic of that). Other times, I will let a trusted friend hold him while I leave the building and return at various intervals.

2) Random stays near other dogs also doing random stays in the context of “hanging out” at matches, classes, etc.

3) Continuing to work group exercises but NOT putting him in the line up, instead placing him ahead of the line up, behind the line up or to the side of the line up until he shows no signs of being stress and uncomfortable, then gradually moving him into the line up.

4) Contrary to lots of advice, NOT returning to feed him or having anyone else feed him during the stays. It’s been the consensus among training friends that instead of creating a happy “Someone might come feed me at any time” attitude at trials, it can backfire and instead create a “Why isn’t anyone coming to feed me? Am I doing something wrong?” attitude that will only increase the stress levels I’m trying to reduce. I will, however, jackpot at the conclusion of the exercise when I have returned to heel position. The jury is out whether I should jackpot after EACH stay or only after the final one. I’m thinking at least initially I’ll reward after each stay since we are obviously still in the training mode of this exercise and I want to reward my dog for doing something that is not easy for him.

5) Since finding groups of different dogs to do stays with multiple times a week isn’t very realistic, we will work them in potentially stressful places around our farm or I’ll create a “thinking” situation in the house: running the vacuum, rattling the dog food bowls, opening the fridge and whistling are all possibilities. Actually, the possibilities are endless because Phoenix is a dog who loves to be involved in everything I do and it will be hard for him to remain on a stay in another room when there might be fun or food involved.

Note: I’ve gotten e-mails from several malinois owners who have experienced very similar problems with their dogs following them out of the ring or breaking shortly after the handler disappeared from sight. It seems our mals take a dim view of being left alone. I suppose this can be due to the nature of dogs who bond very tightly with their owners and just plain don’t want to be left behind.

While I hate stereotyping dogs by breed (shelties are shy, rotts are aggressive, etc.), there may be some merit in the observation that mals just don’t like losing sight of their owners and stays should be taught in a way that always builds the dog’s confidence in the handler’s return.

Tomorrow, the final installment: am I over training?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Problem solving, Part I

“We cannot solve problems with
the same level of thinking that created them.”
Albert Einstein

Here we go with my evaluation of what’s bugging Phoenix in the obedience ring and my strategy to remedy it.

The first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one. Easy enough. The problem has been an obvious don’t-give-a-crap, don’t-wanna-be-here attitude in the ring the last few weekends.

The second step is identifying the problem. Problems. Plural. More than one. A little more difficult. Phoenix’s unraveling ring performances have not been easy to pinpoint to a single, obvious source.

Imagine if you went to the doctor with a sprained ankle, a deep cut on your hand and an irregular heartbeat. (Actually, that sounds like a normal day for me.) Imagine if the doctor only treated the sprained ankle and sent you home without stitching up your hand or prescribing medicine to regulate your heart rate. It wouldn’t matter that your ankle was giving you less pain. In order for you to feel better all around, the doctor would need to treat ALL the conditions. Each would require a different treatment. Each would heal on a different schedule.

That’s kind of what I’m looking at with Phoenix. I think the problems we’re having at shows are occurring on different levels and for different reasons. It’s not like I can just “fix” his heeling or his stays and everything will be wonderful again.

I sat down with a notebook and pen and brainstormed ideas of ways to address all the things that are happening in the ring. It was helpful to write down all the ideas people have given me, discarding or expanding them as I went.

One thing I refuse to do is use harsh corrections. I will correct, yes. But I will not terrify my dog into “working” for me. We will work as a mutually respectful, trusting team or we will not work. I was surprised that several people “recommended” I find a way to make him break stays in training, then correct him so hard (and this is a direct quote) “He will never want to come to you again.”

Um . . . I don’t think so. (Dear God in heaven, do some people still train like that?)

So here’s what I’ve come up with:

Problem A: Lack of drive in the ring. In other words, a crappy attitude, due to stress, boredom and misunderstanding of what I really expect from him.

Cause: Failure to teach him he is expected to work even when he doesn’t want to, when he thinks he’s had enough or when he’s in a distracting/stressful environment; failure to build value for the work through play (more than just shoving cookies at him) and to build delayed gratification through jackpotting either to treats or a toy/play session (You WILL get a reward but you have to work for it). I had started working jackpots earlier in the spring but it fell by the wayside. Geez . . . even the best training methods in the world won’t work if you don’t use them!

I truly don’t think it’s as simple as “he can’t work if he’s not getting a cookie every other step.” This is the dog who gave me happy, animated work throughout his Novice career and early Open career, including perfect and nearly perfect heeling scores. While some trainers might argue that Phoenix just figured out no food is coming in the ring, I think he knew that a long time ago and it didn't matter.

Serious crazy wild play is a powerful thing and something I haven't harnessed nearly enough. Phoenix loves tugging, balls and anything that squeaks, so his rewards need to reflect more toys and less food. That means more handler participation on my part. It's much easier to toss a cookie at him than tug for 30 seconds while it feels like my shoulders are being separated from their sockets but a cookie doesn't rev him up to red-line and tap into the drive I want. I need to quit being a lazy trainer.

I think the bottom line might be that I haven’t set the bar high enough when it came to the issue of sustained performance. I was afraid of losing attitude if I pushed for duration when training any particular skill for fear of doing the dreaded “drilling.” We would work a skill or exercise a couple of times, it was good and we switched to something else. I never asked him to perform beyond a couple of nice reps and therefore never got the chance to address lack of effort errors. When he didn’t feel like working in the show ring, well, he had no reason to think otherwise.

I also think concern about the pending out-of-sight stays, which by this year had become a standard part of every training and showing scenario, had leaked over and poisoned his attitude to an extent. It’s hard to be happy when you know you’re going to be asked to do something that makes you really uncomfortable.

Solution: In training, ask for effort beyond what’s easy and simple. Example: it’s a breeze to get a fast recall, straight front and nice finish in the back yard. But what about in a totally new place with absolutely no visible reinforcers? What about in a deliberately stressful place like “Cat-ville” at our house?

Plus, address the out-of-sight stay stress separately to ease that worry, which should make the ring a more comfortable place overall.

Note: You’d better believe he’s going to be getting lots of wonderful reinforcers when I start asking him for more effort in difficult places. But only AFTER he gives me that effort. The effort may come in very small increments but that is what I want to reward so he learns that trying is what I want. If a dog is honestly trying, that's all I ask.

Okay, this is getting crazy-long and I don’t want to lump two weeks of random thoughts into a single post. More tomorrow, which will focus on the stay problem.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Back from Des Moines

The Des Moines cluster again lived up to its tradition of being a noisy, chaotic show site with lots of diversions in the form of excellent vendors and warm chocolate chip cookies. We stayed dry in spite of a couple downpours on Friday and camping was quite excellent on Saturday night.

Phoenix appeared to have a fun time everywhere but in the ring and believe me, I’ve given that a good long thinking about. I want to get my thoughts in order before posting my plan to reinvent the wheel.

In the mean time, here’s a rundown of the weekend.

Marsha got to our house Friday morning and delivered my birthday present from her and Tammy. It’s one of those concrete alligators that come in three sections so you can put it in your flower bed and it looks like a ’gator is floating in there. Tammy painted it and it’s awesome, right down to the eyes. Can’t wait to get it put in my flowers for a few weeks until it starts to freeze at night, then it will have to “winter” in the house.

We drove to the show site and drug all our stuff in. Got perfect crating spots, close to the rings AND the cookie concession. Drove “up the hill” and set up my tent. Learned it works best if you actually open the valve when trying to inflate an air mattress. Really, I have camped before.

Friday afternoon was spent watching Paula and the poms, since it was multiple specialties only that day, not an all-breed show. It poured rain while we were still at the show building, then again later at the campground but we stayed dry, socializing with Paula and Tracy in their camper. I have serious camper envy.

Friday night was a bit rough. We were warm and dry in the tent but Jamie coughed all night. Not sure where that came from. His appetite and energy level were fine so I tried not to worry.

Saturday was classic Des Moines: showing, shopping, visiting and eating cookies (notice how I keep coming back to that?) Renee drove up from KC with a friend to show for the day. It’s always good to see my “separated at birth” sister.

We showed in Versatility and Wild Card Utility. Things did not go very well. Phoenix appeared to be relaxed and focused until we entered the ring, then all bets were off. The silly, happy dog I live and train with was replaced by a sullen, uncommunicative creature who did not particularly want any part of what we were doing. Sigh. Ate more cookies and went shopping.

Renee suggested perhaps Jamie was having a reaction to a local pollen and Benadryl might help. So I gave him one before bedtime and WOW! It totally helped. It also turned him into a very large pile of immobile tervuren. He was zonked. But he only coughed a couple of times and apparently got a very good night’s sleep.

So did Phoenix and I, if you don’t count being awake from 2 to 4 a.m. while trash collectors were emptying every Dumpster within 10 miles. And trains going through Des Moines (all 74 of them) had to sound their whistles. And policemen apprehended at least 50 criminals, all with sirens blaring.

Sunday went somewhat better. We managed a Versatility leg and second place in spite of the World’s Worst Glove #3 Turn In The History Of Obedience. I turned. Phoenix didn’t. We were now facing opposite directions and he did not seem particularly concerned by the situation. I signaled the glove while he was looking over his back and he managed a very credible retrieve. We also won Wild Card Utility although I can’t say it was a performance worth writing home about.

Once again, I drove home with my mind mulling over things that went right (there WERE some) and things that didn’t and what I can do about it.

Back to work this week and the reality that I have quite forgotten how to do my job after being out for 10 days.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Two malinois walk into a bar . . .

No, seriously.

Mals are not exactly common around here. It's a rare day when John Q. Public recognizes Phoenix as a malinois ("Sure is a purty German shepherd you got there, we used to have one just like him."), let alone finding two malinois in the same county.

So imagine my surprise when I came out of the convenience store after paying for my gas in Iowa City last night to find the Johnson County K9 unit vehicle parked at the opposite pump and the deputy checking out Phoenix, who was checking him out right back through the rolled down window from his crate.

We had a bit of a malinois mutual admiration society going on for a few minutes and I got to meet Ivan, who does drug detection, tracking and handler protection. He was smaller than Phoenix! He was a pocket mal! He was a Czech import and definitely had a different look than my American bred boy.

They were both born in 2006 and Ivan joined his handler when he was 1 year old. Wow. Phoenix was still a totally insane baby dog at age 1 and Ivan was out saving the world from bad guys already.

We had a nice chat and it was a very refreshing change not to have to explain that my dog is a malinois . . . mal-n-wah . . . MAL-N-WAH . . .  not a German shepherd and no he really doesn't look anything like a German shepherd and no they're not "bred down" from German shepherds and what part of BELGIAN not GERMAN don't you understand!



Then we picked up Kate and her two girls and went to the match in the Quad Cities. I tried a few new things with Phoenix and his stays and I promise I will put together a post about it soon but today I have the "To Do" list from hell to tackle before leaving for the shows tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Antiques Roadshow again

Yesterday I went to pick up a few more things from my aunt's house. (Vacation this week, yee-haw!)

These were the kerosene lamps my mom, my aunt and my grandparents used. Their house did not have electricity when my mom and aunt were little girls.

This was my grandma's rolling pin. She never bothered to buy an actual rolling pin, just used this glass jar to roll out pie crusts, biscuits, cookies or whatever.

Here's a valentine to my grandmother from her sister in 1929. It's one of those three-dimensional ones that fold out and it is just as shiny and new as it was 80 years ago.

Can you imagine what's in this little case? It has the coolest little latches on each end. (Sorry, blogging from home this week and no Photoshop on my computer or else would do some cropping and closeups.)

It's a dip pen, one step up from a quill pen where you chased down the family goose, plucked a feather and then sharpened it to a point so you could dip it into the ink well to write a letter to someone. The handle is mother of pearl.

It's very small. It was my grandmother's. She must have had tiny hands. Actually, I think everyone was just plain smaller back then. 

In other news: Phoenix and I are off to an obedience match this evening. I have some new ideas to try regarding his group stays and overall ring attitude. Hope to post about them soon but the next few days are crazy. This is va-ca-tion. It's supposed to be lazy and relaxing. Only it's not.

Friday we leave for the Des Moines cluster. Thank doG I only entered Versatility and Wild Card Utility, no group stays to deal with again so soon.

The Des Moines cluster is always a blast: all my obedience friends are there, fresh baked chocolate chip cookies any time of the day and excellent shopping. Michele can't come this year so I'm going to be her personal shopper. She says she'll send me a list soon. I should probably just rent a U-Haul.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Another day, another insight

I am confused.




But mostly just plain confused.

Phoenix worked better on his individual exercises today. Still not good but not as stressy as yesterday. I loaded up on the treats for warm ups and we did lots of games, tugging and play before we went in. Seemed to help but I still didn't have the focused, confident dog I have in training. He was just plain not happy in the ring. The long down was first again and bless his heart, he held it, even looked relaxed and calm when I returned. I really thought we had a chance to get through the long sit.

But he broke almost immediately and bolted toward the gate. 

Once again, I'm beating my head against the wall (ouch) trying to figure out what the heck is going on in his brain.

Each day when I have retrieved him from the steward, he has looked bright and alert but not frantic. So I'm really struggling with the separation anxiety theory. He doesn't show separation anxiety symptoms any other times. He has even been allowed to run loose in the house for short periods of time and been fine, plus he's never tried to chew out of his crate or anything like that when's he been left alone. Not to mention he is virtually bombproof and is fine with thunderstorms, farm machinery, loud noises, etc. I've always thought of him as a very well balanced fellow.

Does he know his job? I've played around with putting him in a stay, both sit and down, and having friends try to break him out of it. They can't. He won't move. Today Barb even tried pulling him out of a down on a slick cement floor today and he dug in and back-pedaled so he didn't move. So I really think he understands what he's supposed to do.

Weird as this may sound, I think he's scared of being left in a lineup with strange dogs. Bizarre? He's fine on stays everywhere but in the ring when he's around strange dogs. When he breaks, he runs immediately to the ring gate, never goes to another dog. He wants OUT of the ring. Sure, he's running TO me but he's also running AWAY from the other dogs.

Nothing has ever happened to him on stays, never been attacked or anything, so I don't know where this came from. I do know when we walk into a show site, even agility trials, his body language is not as comfortable and relaxed as my other dogs have been. 

Hindsight being what it is, I should have realized he wasn't totally comfortable in close proximity to dogs he's not familiar with. I never paid it much attention because Nix was such a rock otherwise. Maybe I should have. I think I may have misread some other cues along the line, too.

What to do now? I don't know. But I'm working on it and will let you know what I come up with. 

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Five Seasons Cluster, Day 2

"These are the times that try men's souls."

I'm not sure who said that. I think it was Winston Churchill and I think it was in reference to World War II, which was certainly a bigger problem than any dog training issue, but it's a quote that seems appropriate at the moment.

Today did not go any better than yesterday. In fact, it was worse. My brisk, confident dog disappeared entirely and was replaced by a very flat, stressed, unhappy dog who plodded his way through the exercises without any measurable enthusiasm. I think he was so worried about the group exercises that the ring ceased to be fun even on the individual exercises.

We had one of the Open B orders with the long down first. In our limited showing, Phoenix has never done that order. All the times he has broken the down, it has followed the sit and I always wondered if that had something to do with it — that he'd completed the 3 minute sit successfully and just couldn't stand the stress of the out-of-sight exercises anymore.

Well, apparently it's the position (down) that is the problem, not the building stress and anxiety that accumulates during the sit, then erupts during the down.

He got up and left the ring after about 30 seconds again. The judge excused us from the sit, which was probably a good idea, but I wondered if he would have held the sit? Somehow the down seems to be more threatening (by who or what, I have NO idea.)

As you can imagine, I've gotten tons of advice on this problem and I really do appreciate it. And I'm totally open to other ideas and interpretations. The three dominant schools of thought here are:

1) He doesn't understand how to correctly perform the exercise (needs more training).

2) He understands how to perform it but chooses not to (needs corrections).

3) He understands how to perform it but has separation anxiety which makes him unable to perform it, even though he "knows he's wrong" (needs to deal with the separation anxiety issue separately.)

After he held his stays for three trials in a row in July, I really thought we had the problem kicked. I thought wrong. Although I've never felt we had a problem with separation anxiety (no symptoms except in the show ring) I want to address that element as well as more proofing to make him confident about his job. When he breaks, he doesn't wander around or run amuck or go to other dogs. He bolts for the ring gate where I left. Every single time. He is coming to find me.

A friend suggested having someone else handle him to see how deeply the problem is tied to ME as the handler or if it's truly the exercise that's the problem and it wouldn't matter who was handling him. Fortunately, I have an evening match I can go to on Wednesday so need to get a game plan for that and hopefully learn a little more about my dog.

My #1 priority now is getting his attitude back. He was so flat and so unhappy in the ring today I felt awful for both of us. I have never had a dog who did not like obedience and I'm not about to start now. Having said that, I honestly have no freaking idea HOW I'm going to do it but I DO know that I have to find his lost "want to." Until we get that back, nothing else matters. 

So we'll go back tomorrow for the final day and give it another shot. Even though it was a pretty crappy day in the ring today, it was still a day spent with friends and lots of laughs. 

On another note: the caliber of dogs at this trial is stunning. There have been multiple 199s and 199.5s from Novice through Utility. Today there were beautiful working dogs who scored 198.5 and didn't even place. Amazing.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Five Seasons Cluster, Day 1

Do you ever feel like the universe is having a great big joke at your expense?

That's pretty much how I feel right now. 

Things did not go well at the trial today. Phoenix broke his down stay about 30 seconds after I left.

I really thought we'd vanquished that demon or at least shoved it into a box and nailed the lid down tight. The rest of his work was so-so. Ugh. It's like the last couple of months of training didn't exist.

Okay, enough pity party. I'll put on my big girl panties and deal with it!

I don't want to be a blogger who only posts when her dog is working brilliantly so I promise I will review the day in all its glory, including a fresh perspective on the whole mess from a friend, but right now I'm just tired and frustrated and headed for bed.

We'll go back tomorrow. No guts, no glory!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Thoughts before a trial

“It is better to do something and fail than to do nothing and succeed.”

Tomorrow Phoenix and I are showing at the Five Seasons cluster at Amana. He needs one leg to finish his CDX and we are going to get that done this weekend.

Several friends and I have been having totally independent conversations this week about being “competitive.” (Funny, how all of a sudden multiple people seem to think about the very same thing.)

Someone once told me they thought I was a very competitive person.

I really don’t see myself that way but I guess it depends on your definition of competitive. When I first got involved in dogs back in my 4-H days, there were some other kids my age who were very competitive. This translated into very poor sportsmanship because if they didn’t win they went off in a snit or said horrible things about the person who placed higher than they did. With that in mind, I never had a very favorable image of people who were regarded as competitive. First impressions and all that.

If you define being competitive as always having to win regardless of what it takes, to be first in every class, High In Trial, High Combined, etc., in order to be happy with the day’s results, then no, I am absolutely not competitive. I have no desire to always have to be #1, to go to Crufts with the USA obedience team or win the National Obedience Invitational. I enjoy training but am simply not interested in doing what it takes to reach that level of achievement and I’m totally comfortable admitting it.

However, if you define it as always wanting to do your best, constantly striving to improve and never being satisfied with the status quo, then yes, I am definitely competitive. I will push myself and my dog to be better than we currently are . . . but not beyond the point where training loses its element of fun because there’s too much pressure to achieve.

Everyone has their own goals. I compete against myself. I measure my success with Phoenix against previous shows and since I see every show as an evaluation of our current level of training, it’s impossible to fail. Even if we fail according to the judge’s score, well, heck, it just means we weren’t on top of our game on that particular day and then I will tweak our training to address whatever problems we might have had.

In order to finish an AKC OTCh., there is always the element of having to “win” in order to get points and the three required first places, so yeah, it is necessary to have a competitive mindset, at least in terms of setting and reaching goals and planning show strategies. But after finishing OTChs. on two wonderful and night-and-day different dogs, I still don’t look at trials from a “Must beat So-And-So or we have failed” standpoint.” Instead, going into the ring I clear my mind of everything except “I will be the very best handler I can be today so my dog and I can give our best performance.” It’s very refreshing NOT to compare yourself to anyone else.

That’s what the Skinny Little Dog and I will be doing this weekend. Have a great weekend, whatever you are doing!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Back in the day

Okay, more fun with family heirlooms. All this stuff came out of the old kitchen cupboard I got from my aunt last weekend.

This is a nose ring for a bull. (What? You don’t keep your bull nose rings in your kitchen cupboard? What’s wrong with you!) The little gadget attached to it is like a screwdriver, so you can open the ring, which is hinged, to put it in the bull’s nose. I don’t know how you get the bull to stand still so you can screw it back together, but I’m guessing some kind of headgate and very strong, agile men are involved.

I don’t even know if cattlemen use nose rings these days. The Farmer doesn’t have a cow/calf herd any more so no bull required. But even when we did have a bull, I don’t think he had a nose ring. He was just a happy fellow out in the pasture with his ladies.

Next, this is funny in a really weird and slightly scary sort of way. Nowhere on the box nor the enclosed pamphlet does it say what these pills are for. A cold? Warts? Cramps? The plague? The box assures you however, that there are "Directions Inside."

The enclosed pamphlet advised multiple times that you should “Always ask your Druggist for Chi-ches-ters Pill, the ‘Diamond Brand.’ Take no other.” This was followed by the assurance “Chi-ches-ters Diamond Brand Pills are known everywhere and are sold by all druggists everywhere. Insist on having Chi-ches-ters and refuse all others.”

That was all fine and good but it still didn’t tell me what the darn things were for.

So I Googled it and here’s what I found, according to

“Chichesters English Pennyroyal Diamond Brand pills for menstruation problems like pain, scanty or no menses (amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea), and probably abortion, 1890s-early 20th century, U.S.A.

“Their [Chichester’s] ads helped start the federal campaign about truth in advertising etc. . . .

“Chichesters first pills were called Chi-ches-ters Pennyroyal Pills. It is argued that they had to change the label because they really did not have pennyroyal [a plant] in them . . . others argue they had both pennyroyal and tansy, and were toxic. Some deaths were blamed on the early pills . . .”

As it turned out, it was a good thing they didn’t have pennyroyal in them because “The essential oil of pennyroyal may act as an emmenagogue (menstrual flow stimulant) and induce abortion. However, it may do so at lethal or near-lethal doses, making this action unpredictable and dangerous.”

Good grief. It’s a wonder any of our grandparents lived through an era when taking unregulated “medicine” could have killed them.

Here’s a chocolate lover’s recipe book that belonged to my grandma. Well, that explains a lot. Clearly chocoholism is passed genetically. I’ll share some recipes from it in future posts.

These are shoe polish tins. Does anyone polish shoes anymore? I can’t remember the last time I polished a pair of shoes. Mink oiled, yes. Polished, no.