Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day

I went down to Mom's today, just to spend a day with her and my aunt. We visited the cemetery where Dad and my grandparents are buried. They had 150 veterans' flags on display. I'm not big into cemeteries but with 25-30 mph winds snapping the flags, they were really pretty.

This is Dad's flag (yeah, I know, it looks like all the others but it does have his name printed on the binding). It was the first one as we drove into the cemetery. I asked Mom if she walked around and looked at the name on 150 flags before she found it. She said no, she just got lucky and found it right away. It's in a different place each year.

Silly Brindle kitten in a bag at Mom's.

Back to work tomorrow, launching the Crazy Week From Hell: agility class Tuesday night, obedience match Wednesday night, obedience class Thursday night (with promises of chocolate cake for Logan's U-CD, right Johnette?), leave for Ames on Friday afternoon, agility trials Saturday and Sunday. I'm leaving the House Elf a detailed list of things that need to be laundered and packed by Friday noon.

And don't forget Hickory Park barbecue and ice cream Saturday night!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Iowa Renaissance Festival

Marsha and I went to the Iowa Renaissance Festival today. I am a festival newbie, always wanted to go but never managed to get it done. It was a lot of fun and  . . . um . . . an eye opener! 

The performers were in costume and so were a lot of the people who attended. It was worth the price of admission just to watch the people!

Marsha and I made a list of the different "styles" of costumes. They included, but were not limited to: Renaissance (obviously), Scottish/Celtic, pirates, fantasy (fairies, elves and the like), samuri, Tinker Belle, the Three Muskateers, gypsies, harem girls, old west saloon girls, a possible Smurf, something I think was a Hobbit and let's face it, there were some folks who looked like they had just wandered out of a "People of Wal-Mart" e-mail. Hey, individuality is good thing. It was rainy and crummy for most of the day, which limited photo opps of odd people but we had a good time anyway.

This is a komondor, right?
Well, whatever he is, he was at the festival.
He was quite be-ribboned.

Yes, this guy is blowing a fire ball.

These folks were having a good time showing off their finery.

The lady in the blue dress on the right was nearly showing off a few other things as well. She was one wobble away from a major wardrobe malfunction.

It seemed in vogue to bring your dog(s) to the Renaissance festival. There were many dogs there. Some of them wore costumes, too. 

Jousting was the highlight of a rainy day.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Stress and the Obedience Dog, Part IV

Training To Prevent Ring Stress

Successfully preventing and/or eliminating show ring stress starts in training. The preparation you give your dog in training is more important than anything else, including what breed your dog is, where you got him, how long you’ve had him, how old he was when you started training him, whether you came from a background in competitive sports as a kid and a hundred other factors we’ve all managed to drag into the equation at one time or another.

But it’s not enough to simply “train.” Everyone in dog sports “trains.” Some train a lot. Some train a little. Yet many are still plagued by dogs who stress in the ring no matter how much "training" they've had.

When it comes to training theory, everyone has their own personal beliefs — totally positive, use compulsion, use lots of food, use a little food, don’t use any food, only use toys, ear pinch vs. motivational retrieve, correct, never correct, clicker, shaping, etc., etc.

Please let me make it clear I am NOT going to get on my soapbox and say “X theory is the ONLY way to train and if you train your dog using any other method, you are dumber than a loaf of bread and you deserve what you get.”

One thing this sport has taught me is that there are no hard and fast answers. While I have certain strong beliefs about what works and what doesn’t, I have seen exceptions to every one of them. Although I have enjoyed a reasonable amount of success in obedience, I don’t feel I’ve achieved enough status to the point of being able to distribute advice with the absolute conviction that THIS IS HOW YOU SHOULD DO IT.

There ARE folks out there who have attained that status and deserve every accolade they’ve earned. They are the trainers who want more than to simply Q and when they go in the ring with their dogs, it’s a beautifully choreographed performance where the dog and handler enjoy every moment of their teamwork. Their scores reflect the dedication they’ve put into their training. I’ve watched them at the NOI and am in awe of how their dogs work. I want to learn from them and will take every chance to do so.

So another disclaimer — everything I’m writing is based on MY experiences with MY dogs. It’s not the gospel but it is the truth as I’ve lived it and I’m sharing it in hopes it will help other trainers make some discoveries that will improve their training/showing and the relationship they enjoy with their dog.

Another reason I hesitate to say there is ONLY one way to train is that I seem to train each dog a little differently. My own training methods seem to be a journey of discovery, always evolving to meet the next challenge which is usually a problem of my own creating.

But I digress.

A person’s training beliefs may or may not change over time, depending on each individual’s capacity to embrace change. We all know someone who keeps using a training method that produces consistently undesirable results, yet she seems unable or unwilling to try anything new.

Even if we slowly discover that what we thought was the best approach to training A) doesn’t really work B) worked well for previous dogs but not your current dog or C) works okay but you wonder if there’s something better out there, it takes awhile to come to mental grips with the idea of change.

So what does this have to do with training as a way to prevent ring stress? Well, you’re gonna have to take an honest look at your training methods because you might be causing more of the problem than you ever realized and you’re causing it long before you ever get near a ring.

I know I am. It’s taken a CD, U-CD, CDX, U-CDX and UD (with a HIT, HIT run-offs, class wins and scores ranging from excellent to adequate) for me to finally come to terms with the fact Phoenix’s obedience work is not where I want it to be. He did the work and got the titles but he was doing it with less and less enthusiasm and absolutely no consistency. One day he was winning a run-off to place in a competitive Utility B class and the next day he wouldn’t even look at me when we went into the ring.

I’m a food trainer. I’ve had lots of success with food training. Can’t say I’m a purely “positive” trainer because I do make corrections. I never looked beyond the need to use food because it always worked. It worked well enough to finish two OTChs. and I figured it would work well enough to finish number three. Only it isn’t.

Let’s talk about food training. Does it work? Well, first, let’s define “food training” and then define “work.”

Most food trainers agree on the theory of “Dog performs behavior, dog earns reward.” Pretty simple, huh?

Of course, there are all sorts of way this can and does go wrong. The theory soon gets polluted to the point of “Dog performs something pretty close to behavior, dog earns reward,” “Dog performs behavior after multiple commands, dog earns reward,” “Dog performs behavior only when he darn well feels like it, dog earns reward,” “Dog performs no behavior, handler gives reward anyway.”

We would all agree this is not likely to produce brilliant results in the ring but watch any group of people training and you’ll see a lot of variations on theme.

Now, let’s define “Does it work?” In the obedience ring context, “work” equals “success,” being able to achieve your training/showing/titling goals as a confident and joyful team who is relaxed and having fun in the ring at trials. Will food training bring you success in the show ring where there is no food?

Yes. No. Maybe.

Obviously, food training works A) for some dogs B) for some trainers C) when done correctly.

Food training worked for Connor and for Jamie, at least to the degree that I needed at the time. Since I didn't show them for years and years beyond their OTChs., I don't know what the long term picture would have produced.

Food training is NOT working for Phoenix and me. Oh, it works as long as the food is available and delivered on some sort of reinforcement schedule. But when the food disappears, so does the behavior. No motivator = no behavior. But wait, wasn't I the motivator? Um, sadly, no. The food was.

What’s next? Stay tuned for the rest of the story.

(Sorry, but this has gotten too long. Again. Help. I need an editor. Oh. I AM an editor. So much for that.)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Agility humor

We got a little silly at agility class last night. Well, really, what do you expect when you put half a dozen middle-aged people out in the rain for an hour and a half? I think all of us are perfectly capable of being very serious and professional at our day jobs, but after 5 p.m., all bets are off. For some of us, the bets are off much sooner in the day.

It all started when our instructor Barb was working diligently to show us different ways to handle a sequence and the pros and cons of each way.

After observing a number of different methods, all of which included running, crossing, turning, decelerating, spinning and accelerating to accommodate the proverbial Fast Dog, Slow Dog, Crazy Dog and/or Demotivated Dog, Tracy cut to the chase and switched the emphasis from dog to handler: "Wanna know how Fat Girl would run it? Lead out!"

This instantly spawned a series of handler secret identities, all with their own special needs considerations for running a course. In addition to Fat Girl, there was Asthma Girl, Blonde Polish Girl, Arthritis Man and Arrythmia Man.

Some nights, I don't know how Barb puts up with us.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ring Stress and the Obedience Dog, Part III

Stress and The Handler

Like they say, admitting you have a problem is the first step in solving it. When our dogs fall apart in the ring, it's unfair to place all the blame on them. Most of us deal with varying degrees of stress when we show and it can have a very real effect on our dogs' performances.

Think about what happens when you find yourself in a stressful situation like the show ring or giving a presentation at work or even going to the dentist.

Your heart rate accelerates, adrenaline churns into your bloodstream, your body temperature rises (the ring really is NOT 10 degrees hotter than the rest of the show site) and you may perspire more freely. Your muscles may tense up in response to a possible fight-or-flight reaction built into our DNA by ancestors years ago when being too relaxed or unobservant could lead to being eaten by something faster and more observant than you were.

You know people are watching you and judging your actions or they might do something unpleasant to you (dentist!) so you may have unusual facial expressions and different posture/body language as you try to appear big and bold or wish very hard you could disappear. Stress is obviously more than just “all in your head.” It’s a very real, physical thing.

Stress is not necessarily a BAD thing. It makes us more alert and focused. It may give us a little extra edge. But if you have too much stress or don’t know how to channel and manage it, it can really screw things up when it comes to showing because it changes the picture your dog sees in regular training where you are not a stressball. As you walk into the ring, you may become very strange indeed.

Depending on your level of experience or what you perceive to be “at stake,” you may look so uncomfortable and unhappy your dog may think YOU want to get out of the ring. (Although I loved the point several readers have made about being such newbies that they didn’t know enough to be nervous and worried! Good for you!)

It’s over simplifying things to say “It’s just a dog show, don’t get all freaked out.” Yeah, we all know it’s JUST a dog show, but we also know it’s way more than that! It’s a sport we are passionate about. We want it to be fun. We want to be successful. We want to show the world how awesome our dog is. We don’t want to look like idiots.

Here are a few things that have helped me deal with my own stress level in the days leading up to a show and the hours and minutes before we go into the ring.

• First, define your goals. What do you want to achieve with your dog in the long term (his entire career)? How about short term (the next few months)? What do you want to achieve in the ring today? Breaking your goals down makes them feel more achievable and not so overwhelming. It takes the pressure off. You don’t HAVE to be perfect today in order to still make progress toward your end goal.

• Have a plan. I’ve found that having something specific I want to accomplish in the ring at any given trial, something I have planned to do in advance, makes me feel more like our run is in my control, not like the judge is calling all the shots and I’m only reacting. It can be something as simple as remembering to smile during signals or working on your heeling footwork. If you’re a bit of a control freak like me, this helps A LOT. Even if you fail on the score sheet, you can still feel successful because you did what you set out to do.

• Are you prepared? Being prepared will go a long way to relieving nerves. Training should give both you and your dog the confidence to work as a team no matter where you are. That’s no guarantee you are going to win or even qualify but going into the ring with a mind full of doubts is just asking for trouble.

• Take pressure off yourself. Your dog doesn’t care if he wins the class or NQs. He just wants (even if it doesn’t show at the moment) to have fun with you because you are his world. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Imagine something absolutely ridiculous, like everyone wearing Royal Ascot-style hats to show their dogs in or an exercise where the dog has to herd frogs and have a good laugh.

• What can you learn from your dog today? Instead of going into zombie handler mode, think about what your dog may be telling you at the show, both in and out of the ring. What can you learn from him to make showing a happier and/or more successful experience? What can you change in your training to make you and your dog a better team? Thinking about your dog gives your brain something constructive to do.

• Keep a positive outlook. Speak positively about your dog and how you think you’ll do in the ring. Instead of worrying about a less-than-ideal ring set-up, think about how you could re-create it in training next week. Choose your friends carefully - avoid those people who are chronically unhappy about everything from where they parked to the order of judging in their class. Seriously, if you show long enough, you’ll start to recognize these people. Run, don’t walk, away! Crate with friends who know how to laugh.

• Success breeds success. Think back to a show where everything went right and you had a great time. The weather was great, all your friends were there, your dog was awesome and there were excellent vendors. Remember how you felt that day? Make THAT your happy place and go there as often as you need to. Mentally relive your successes, don’t dwell on failures.

• Reading list: It’s certainly not a new release but Jane Savoie’s “It’s Not Just About The Ribbons” is a great read. It addresses the mental aspect of training and competing and how to develop a positive outlook and get through frustrations and setbacks. There are probably more books available along this line but I really like Jane Savoie’s because they are based on human/animal teamwork.

The next stress post will probably be the most important one: training to prevent stress. It may take me a couple of days to get it written because there are some things I want to say very carefully (to make them clear, not that they are in any way bad thoughts) and they’re still rattling around in my head in a very disorganized order.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Obedience humor and stuff

As if we needed an excuse to eat 
more chocolate at obedience trials. 
But if that's what takes . . .

Free chocolate aside, it was a good day.

For the first time in my life, I deliberately flunked a qualifying run in order to make a correction in the ring. It wasn't exactly a correction. It was more like support or encouragement. Or keeping a questionable behavior from disintegrating further.

Phoenix started to trot in slowly from the drop on recall. Yes, technically it was a trot, so technically it was fine and not scorable. It also looked like it could become a walk-in pretty darn easily. So I told him "HURRY!" and clapped my hands and jumped around a little. He hurried, he wagged his tail and he made it totally worth throwing the run.

After that, his attitude sparked up a little bit and he gave me some nice work.


I really hate that word.

Nice is fine. It really is. Some days, I will happily take "nice." But I want dazzling, spectacular, amazing, brilliant . . . well, you get my point. Fast, happy, animated, driven, confident . . . yeah, all THAT!

Nice is a single scoop of vanilla ice cream. I want a banana split with three different flavors of ice cream and chocolate syrup and nuts and a cherry.

Today we were nice. Maybe tomorrow we'll be a little nicer. Maybe we'll be enjoying banana splits in a couple of months.

So today was a success: I wanted to catch Phoenix at just going through the motions and let him know I needed more effort than that.

I feel good about ME, too. I worked at not being so formal while warming up and between exercises in the ring and concentrated on treating our run like a training session or fun match. I know it helped me be more relaxed. We played more in the ring. We played more outside the ring, too, just for the sake of playing, something I admittedly haven't done a lot of in the past.

Had a friend video us and oh boy . . . not only was Phoenix obviously showing stress (although much, much less than last weekend in Utility, confirming my suspicion that he is more comfortable and confident about the Open exercises and that makes a big difference) but he is also very much not 100% engaged with me in the ring. He was on task during the exercises but did a lot of gawking at the crowd, judge, stewards, etc. between exercises . . . which meant he was thought he had the option of disengaging. Ack, I didn't realize he did it THAT much. Yet another thing to put on the training list.

We'll go back and give it another shot tomorrow. Hopefully they refill the magic winners' chocolate bowl.

Fun news, Kate and Orbit finished their U-CDX today by winning Open A, following up on their first place win and HIT from yesterday! And Peggy was there with the love of Phoenix's life, DeeDee. They shared a malinois moment in the parking lot. For a bit, Phoenix thought he was large and in charge. Really, dude, Dee is ready to test for her SchIII. She could put the smack down on you so fast you wouldn't know what happened. Ah, well, you could just see the little red valentine hearts floating above them.

Then we went to two local greenhouses, in search of miniature roses that apparently do not exist and came home to putter around in my flowers.

I planted this bowl of pansies back in April 
when it was so cold I thought spring would never come.

My favorite lavender columbine.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Weekend project - the handler!

Thanks, everyone, for your comments and thoughts the last few days. I appreciate you all taking the time to share them.

Phoenix and I are entered in a local UKC trial this weekend. We’re going to do Open. He has his U-CDX so there’s absolutely nothing on the line and I want to use the weekend to work on ME in the ring. My friends and I have talked about this extensively - am I nervous when I show?

No. I wouldn’t call it “nervous.” I’ve shown in obedience trials since I was 11 and have always enjoyed it tremendously. I’ve finished two OTChs and shown at National Obedience Invitationals. I love to be in the ring with my dog and I don't care who is watching so “nervous” in the traditional sense is a non-issue.

Am I the same person in the ring that I am in training? Probably not and I’ll admit it.

I’m excited and a little tense, definitely. There’s a pretty good adrenaline rush going. And I know I tend to analyze every step of our performance in my head while we’re working (great heeling, fast sit, oops, there’s a lag, ugly turn, oh nice recovery) which is okay but I’d like to STOP IT (that’s what video is for, for studying after the fact) and live in the moment and stay connected with Phoenix instead of thinking about what the judge is marking and what kind of score we’re working on. It’s a bad habit I’ve slipped into.

I wouldn’t call myself a super competitive person, someone for whom second place equals losing, but having a sharp working dog and earning high scores have always been important. They still are, but I need to get my ring focus back on Phoenix so he feels supported and connected to me as part of a team (that's a hard concept to put into words) versus two separate beings just getting through the exercises. 

I’m also curious to see how Phoenix works this weekend because A) he’s very comfortable with the Open exercises and B) it’s a very quiet trial, one ring, in a familiar building and I will probably know every single dog and handler entered - in other words, it’s the total opposite of last weekend’s 10-ring circus. I’d like to get Phoenix to play with me in the ring between exercises. Definitely don’t want the judge tapping his pencil on his clipboard, waiting for us to get set up, but I know this is an area that needs work if I want both of us to be relaxed and not feeling any (self-inflicted) pressure.

I’ll definitely be taking notes for next week’s Stress and the Handler post.

Have a great weekend, no matter what you're doing!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Questions, questions

Taking a break from the stress series today to answer a couple of really good questions from yesterday. I’ll get back to it, hopefully early next week, focusing on stress prevention from a training perspective and stress as it relates to the human half of the team.

Yesterday, Elizabeth wrote: “Do you think different breeds require different considerations in terms of preparations for the ring?”

Yes and no. They’re all dogs, right? Four legs and tail? So in that sense, no. They all require a reasonable program of training and proofing to get ready for the ring. It’s helpful if newbie trainers can find an obedience mentor to help them evaluate if they’re ready to show, or better yet, to help them get ready in the first place. Pick someone whose dogs you admire in the ring - most handlers are glad to help and if you need to take a couple of lessons, it’s money well spent.

But beyond that . . . I prefer to think of dogs as individuals instead of specific breeds. A dog who is bold and confident will not need the same training and handling approach as a dog who is more reserved or has fear issues, no matter what breed it is. I avoid breed stereotypes, cuz they’re absolutely NO help when it comes to actually solving a problem.

Example: I was at a seminar once when Jamie was very young (1-2 years). I was really struggling with some attention issues — his head was on a swivel — and the seminar giver summed it up as, “Oh, he’s just being a Terv.” WTF did that mean? See? No help at all. And I shudder to remember how much I paid for THAT advice. I went home and trained through the problem myself.

However, purebreds have been selectively bred for generations for very specific traits (work closely with humans, work as a pack, work independently, etc.) so in that regard, no, all dogs are not the same. You might say they don’t have the same world view. Can you train an Australian cattle dog the same way you would train a golden retriever? I think the only person who could say for sure would be someone who had trained both an ACD and a golden.

On the surface, those two breeds are worlds apart in terms of purpose. While the basic training methods would initially be the same, I suspect there would be some tweaking and fine tuning of methods to accommodate each dog’s personality and temperament. But you could train half a dozen ACDs or goldens and each would have its own little quirks — so I think the bottom line is every dog’s training strategy requires a bit of “personalization” regardless of the breed. And once again, that’s where getting some “professional” help can be a wonderful thing, especially if you can find someone in your breed who has excelled.

Question #2
Elizabeth wrote: “If you have a dog that is extremely uncomfortable being handled by strangers in general, is there anyway to convince them that any reward is worth not just tolerating the activity but enjoying it? If not, is it fair to subject them to that kind of stress (even if you can train them to tolerate it)? This is sort of a moral conundrum that I’ve been struggling with.”

I’ve been in that situation and I can honestly say that not showing Jess, my first sheltie, in obedience because of it never crossed my mind.

Jess hated the stands for exam in Novice and Utility (StrangerdangerheistouchingmeIamgoingtodie!) but he was such an insane freak about every other exercise — bouncing, barking, spinning, pouncing with sheer delight — it was obvious that the enjoyment of training and performing outweighed the few seconds of having a judge (or even my friends who he knew) touch him.

For Jess, the reward for tolerating the stands was the fact he got to continue “playing.” That worked well for us. If he hadn’t been so thrilled with the rest of the game, I probably would have retired him after his UD and not continued to show.

I am sure Jess never found any enjoyment in those thousands of stands I asked him to do but they were so strongly linked with the bigger picture he just squinched his eyes shut and leaned away from the judge (imagine his paws being glued to the floor but the rest of him leaning at a 45 degree angle). When it was over he was ecstatic. He never did like it, but he endured it and I wouldn’t say he was unduly stressed in any way by being asked to do them.

Like so many things in dog sports, to show or not to show a dog with an issue like this is a very personal decision. Am I exploiting my dog’s fear for the purpose of winning titles and ribbons for ME? Or is my training building a relationship that can only be strengthened because of our continued work together? I prefer to believe in the latter.

If the dog were terrified to the point of soiling the ring or bolting to get away from the judge, I might reconsider but generally, assuming the dog is relatively well-blanced otherwise, I would accept “tolerance” of an exercise that is obviously very difficult for the dog. Whether or not I would continue to show the dog beyond Novice, knowing there’s another, more challenging, stand in Utility would depend on how much fun both of you are having in relation to all the other aspects of obedience.

Not wanting to do something because the dog may or may not “like” it is dangerous ground. Everyone has their own philosophy but my dogs are not in the position of getting to choose what they like or dislike in terms of training and life in general. Jess didn’t like the stands. Phoenix doesn’t like out of sight stays. None of my dogs has ever liked having their nails clipped. But stands, out of sight stays and nail clipping are a fact of life at our house.

Another way to think about it is this - I hate getting up before dawn to drive to a trial when it’s 10 below zero in January. I hate hauling in heavy crates and I REALLY hate worrying about driving on icy roads. Nothing anybody can do will ever change that. But I still show in January because I LOVE showing. The benefits (fun, friends, playing with my dog, being in the ring) outweigh the negatives.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Ring Stress and the Obedience Dog, Part II

Stress and The Dog

Thanks for coming back!

This should be the easiest part of this series to write, because the dog himself has very little to do with “fixing” ring stress. He is obviously affected by it but there’s not much he can do about it without help - it’s unrealistic to expect him to just “get over it” without giving him the skills to do so. Some dogs WILL show improvement as they gain ring experience, but don’t count on that solving all your stress issues.

So let’s talk about The Dog for awhile.

Until Phoenix, I rarely had to deal with dogs stressing badly in the obedience ring. My dogs loved to show. Of course they had their share of problems along the way but generally they went into the ring with ears up and tails wagging. I don’t know why. I did nothing to build this and I realize that now. I was just blessed with incredibly awesome dogs who loved obedience as much as I did. OTCh. Connor and OTCh. Jamie were gifts from God.

Then God — proving He has a sense of humor — sent me Phoenix.

Phoenix loves obedience, too. He loves to train. He runs hot and cold on loving to show. He is an insane agility dog and a puzzling obedience dog. Showing him in obedience is a rollercoaster experience. He’ll work wonderfully at one trial, then be flat and stressy the next time we go into the ring.

I have learned (the hard way, of course) that Phoenix needs to be in a really good place mentally when we go into the ring - and I don’t mean just playing with him versus doing a formal warm up. I mean that he needs to have a strong foundation of enjoying obedience work that is not dependent solely on the deliverance of treats or toys.

In other words, I want my dog to view doing the exercises with me as its own reward and I want him to understand effort in the face of adversity (really, adversity is the wrong word here, we’re talking about a sport we do for fun on the weekends, not a humanitarian crisis) will be heavily rewarded. But to a dog, adversity might be an overwhelming show site or a judge who walks with a pronounced limp - it might be anything the dog could use as an excuse to say, “Oh, no, this makes me worried, I can’t work under these conditions.”

With this in mind, we’ll be spending this summer working to strengthen that foundation. It’s there now but it’s not as strong as I want it to be.

We’ve all said, “If I could only take a cookie into the ring, all our problems would be solved.” Well, maybe. At least until the cookie was gone. Then we’d be right back where we started, in the ring with a dog who didn’t think this was a lot of fun cuz there weren’t any cookies.

I’m not against using food in training. I AM against using food (or a toy) as a substitute for genuine praise and interaction. It’s easy to pop a cookie in the dog’s mouth or throw a ball and be off to whatever’s next without actually taking the time to TELL the dog how amazing he is and how proud you are of him and actually PLAY with him (tugging, chase games, whatever the dog might find rewarding and fun - not just standing in one place and throwing a ball over and over) and enhance the time you are spending together. Too often, we allow our “motivators” to replace us . . . when they’re gone, so is the dog’s desire to perform. I’ll write more about this later.

I can’t blame show sites for my dog’s ring stress because show sites will be chaotic and loud until the end of time and I’ll never be able to change that. It’s a fact of life. Even stand-alone obedience trials have their share of chaos and there will always be something there your dog doesn’t like. He won’t like the dog crated next to him or the patch of sunlight in one corner of the ring. My point is, there will always be SOMETHING at every show so don’t fuss about it. And yes, it’s okay to choose NOT to show at a particular site because you and your dog find it so unpleasant it would be counterproductive to enter there. No one says you have to seek out horrible places to show but I want my dog to be confident and able to perform at the many sites that are slightly less than ideal.

Do you know how to recognizing stress in your dog? Many times, handlers think their dog is “blowing them off” in the ring, when in reality, the dog’s ability to perform is being reduced by stress. Every dog shows stress differently. They yawn. They sniff. They do not want to make eye contact. They use appeasement body language (watch the ears and tails). They move slowly (the dreaded death march). Or they may flake out and run amuck like they can’t stand to be inside their own skin (the dreaded zoomies).

They also quit doing things YOU know THEY know how to do - like all the exercises you paid $25 for the privilege of doing in the ring in front of a judge. In some cases, yes, those are the result of training issues but I’m talking about the dog who trains well, then falls apart in the ring. Is it stress? Is it confusion? Does the dog need more training? You know your dog - you have to decide. Sometimes it’s all three.

Good preparation goes a long way to preventing ring stress. Don’t show if you don’t feel ready. That won’t guarantee success but you’ll feel a whole lot more confident going into the ring with a dog who has been realistically trained and proofed versus one who hasn’t. If you’re showing a green dog at any level, relax. Throw off any feeling of pressure or expectations of greatness. He’s baby dog, think about supporting and helping him in the ring, not expecting a class win.

Sometimes dogs will “grow out” of their ring stress as they gain more experience. Phoenix’s performances over the four trials last weekend improved steadily, although he certainly didn’t go from NQ-ing to 200s. The improvements were more subtle but they were there and I was pleased to see them. Don’t count on this happening automatically, though - training is still vital to addressing stress issues. I’ll write about that next time.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Ring Stress and the Obedience Dog, Part I

Okay, here we go.

I probably should have titled this Part I of 100 Parts because it’s not a topic that can easily be resolved in one or two posts. I deliberately titled it “Ring Stress and the OBEDIENCE Dog” because I think obedience stress is different than agility stress. While both share many of the same roots, it’s like comparing apples and oranges and this is complicated enough already!

Ring stress plagues a lot of trainers and it’s a really crappy feeling to be in the ring with a dog who doesn’t want to be there and doesn’t look ANYTHING like the wonderful dog you’ve trained, so I’ll do my best to give you my insights - the why's, wherefore's and hopefully how to resolve it. Today’s post will be an overview of stuff off the top of my head. Then I’ll talk about more specifics in later posts. Otherwise this will get so long you’ll fall asleep.

A lot of this will be my own personal beliefs and observations, based on my own experiences, as well as advice and ideas I’ve gotten from friends whose dogs are lovely and happy in the ring. There’s no single answer that will fix every dog - these are just my thoughts.

First, I think most obedience dogs experience some degree of ring stress. Some just deal with it better than others. It’s not that your friend’s dog is totally stress-free, it’s that he can cope with it because of A) training skills; B) an excellent teamwork/relationship with his owner and C) his genetics and/or temperament - basically, who he IS.

Many of us take our dogs to train in different places to expose them to working amidst new sights, smells, sounds, etc. This is all well and good. Then we go to a trial and oh, dear, what a mess. “But we train in different places! He should be used to it!” we wail (I was definitely wailing last weekend when it looked like Phoenix had never worked beyond my back yard in his life.)

Our dogs are individuals and while some are oblivious to the chaos of show environments, others are very sensitive souls who pick up on every nuance they feel is “strange” or “not right.” And believe me, there is a lot that is “strange” and “not right” when you throw 1,000 dogs together under one roof and mix them up with a stew of human and canine emotions, not all of which are positive and supportive. There’s no way you can re-create this, no matter where you train, so don’t worry about it. You can spend your time more wisely.

I’ve noticed this environmental sensitivity especially with some herding breeds and although it’s certainly not restricted to any particular breed or group, I think possibly it’s more pronounced in herding/guarding/working type breeds. (Not an excuse for the behavior, just sayin’.)

In the comments on my last post, Lynn noted how “The Belgian need to manage the environment” often leads to conflict with what the dog is supposed to be thinking and doing. I hear ya, sister! Jamie was absolutely awful about this early in his obedience career. He was very concerned about everything in his vicinity. He was hyper aware of where the judge was standing, what the stewards were doing and what was going on in the adjoining rings. I always felt he was looking out for his own best interests and wasn’t totally comfortable in the ring, or didn’t feel I would protect him from “scary” people.

You might say he needed more attention work and you would be right. He wasn’t mature enough to focus only on me yet, and as he grew older and we trained more together, he got much better, he relaxed, he trusted me and life was good. But even after he had his OTCh., I could still see him multi-tasking now and then in the ring, with an ear cocked toward whatever else he thought might be important for him to be aware of. He was simply a dog who was very attuned to his environment, no matter where he was. It was the nature of the beast.

Stress is not the same thing as fear, although it may present similarly. If your dog is truly scared of men with beards at dog shows, he’s probably scared of men with beards in daily life, too. If he’s only scared of men with beards at dog shows, there’s probably more in play than just the man with the beard. If your dog has fear issues, they can make ring stress worse and vice versa. If your dog doesn’t normally have fear issues, don’t make the mistake of using them as an excuse for funky ring behavior. Dogs under stress may exhibit fear-like behaviors but ask yourself if it’s actual fear of the man with the beard or the fact that you’re in the ring, in a strange environment, acting a little strangely yourself and putting pressure on your dog to perform.

Okay, that’s all for today. I hope to have future posts address stress as it relates to The Dog, The Handler and The Training.

Please, please, please share your comments because they may kick loose another whole train of thought as I explore this stress mess.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Phoenix, UD!

Like airplane pilots say, any landing you can walk away from is a good one.

Phoenix finished his UD today and while it wasn't the sparkling performance I'd hoped for, it was a Q and a very interesting weekend that probably taught me more about my dog than if we'd been dazzling in the ring every time. Yeah, one of THOSE weekends.

First, let me flash back to Friday the 13th. Not a good day at work. I had two newspaper story interviews cancel because it "wasn't convenient." (Which begs the question, then why did you schedule them then in the first place!) There's some co-worker crap I'm going to have to take to HR and I'm not looking forward to that. Then R2 started giving me "low tire pressure" messages on the way home. I went to my favorite tire fix-it guy and he pulled a roofing nail out of the right front tire. Probably the result of too much gravel road driving due to all the road construction and detours lately. Oh well, definitely better to happen Friday afternoon than Saturday morning when I was ready to leave for the trial.

Saturday morning — I swear I am not making this up — a black cat ran across the interstate in front of me on the way to the trial. Not that I'm suspicious or anything. 

Yeah, I was pretty convinced Friday the 13th had carried right on over to Saturday the 14th.

There were two trial each day this weekend and I entered all four. By the time we got done Saturday, I was entertaining serious thoughts of cutting my losses, packing up, going home, not going back on Sunday and possibly never doing obedience with Phoenix again.

Yeah. It was that bad.

We went into the ring for the first trial and I could see Phoenix visibly deflate as I took the leash off. He wouldn't look at me, didn't want to set up, stress-yawned and walked in on the very first exercise, the moving stand. The rest of the run was more of the same. He couldn't do go-outs, couldn't do a glove turn, clearly didn't want to play. Ouch. Not only did it look like he'd never been trained, it looked like he'd been beaten regularly.

I gritted my teeth, warmed him up for the second trial and into the ring we went. He was still obviously stressed. He did a send-direct on the gloves and he couldn't figure out how to do go-outs but it wasn't QUITE as awful as the first trial. His heeling was really very nice.

I drove home, frustrated and disappointed. This was NOT the dog I have in training. He's certainly not perfect in training but he acts like he enjoys the work and the challenges. I felt like I'd wasted the last three weeks since we showed at nationals and all the work I'd poured into our training sessions, making the effort to go different places and to set up scenarios where he could be rewarded for trying hard and making effort. While the ultimate goal is a flawless performance, what I really want above everything is a dog who never quits trying, whether in training or in the ring.

I looked back at all the places we'd gone: parks, different places around the farm, familiar buildings. Probably nothing that prepared him for the chaos of an all-breed dog show and obedience trial with its staggering undercurrents of both canine and human emotions. Hindsight being what it is, I think he was simply overwhelmed.

So maybe he WAS trying and just wasn't ready to function in that kind of environment. I'd like to think my training had prepared him better than that, but obviously it didn't. His obedience career has not been that extensive. So why was I being so hard on my green dog! Thunk-thunk-thunk. Sound of head hitting wall.

We went back today. I wasn't overly optimistic but I decided to show in both trials, figuring short of him laying down and sticking his feet in the air, it really couldn't get any worse. I wanted to see if he was more comfortable with the show site today and if I could make any difference in his mental state before we went in the ring. Warm-ups are critical and I've struggled with figuring out just what Phoenix needs to go in the ring at his peak.

When we got to the building, I had him sit in my lap for awhile. I think he likes being "above" all the other dogs - arrogant little snob. And he was wonderfully warm and snuggly on my lap, since it was very chilly and damp in the building. (Did I mention we set record high temps last week and are forecast to be at near record lows tonight? Spring in Iowa. Really. Ya gotta love it.)

Our warm up was a lot of informal stuff with tugging and cheese and silliness. I figured if he could be happy outside the ring amidst the chaos, maybe some of that would carry over into the ring - along with the message that I really want him to have as much fun at trials as we do in training, no matter where we are.

We went into the ring and whattaya know - he maintained eye contact when I took off the leash. We ran to the set up for the first exercise, gloves, and he set up quickly and gave me a hard muzzle punch on my palm when I asked for a touch. Well. All right then.

It wasn't the prettiest of runs. Actually, a lot of it was pretty darn ugly. Still lots of stressy stuff and walk-ins but it was definitely better than the previous day and it was a Q for his title! Yippee! And he WAS trying. His stress level was obvious and he could have easily just quit working at any time but he didn't.

We had a show picture taken and I sure hope the photographer got a good one because that's all she took - one. 

I had serious thoughts about pulling him from the last trial but knew with his title behind us, I'd be more relaxed and since he'd improved just a little bit every time we went into the ring, I really wanted to see what we could do. Plus, by the time we went in the ring a lot of the breed folks with their endlessly barking dogs and whining blow dryers had left, so the site was much quieter.

Phoenix did his best job of the weekend! We had one substantial mark for a walk-in, otherwise would have been in a run-off for placements. He seemed to relax and enjoy the work more than he before.

We've still got some serious work ahead of us and a good six weeks until our next obedience trials, which will be the first time we show in both Open and Utility. I really want to walk into that show with a confident, happy dog. In order to get there I need to look for "shades of gray," those little improvements that will gradually take our teamwork to the place I want it to be.

THANK YOU to all my obedience friends who shared insights and suggestions this weekend, and offered never-ending encouragement and support! Sharon, Michele, Mary, Johnette and Renee (for your endless e-mail support) — you are wonderful people, I love you and couldn't do this without you! I know lots of you didn't have the best weekend yourselves, but you still had time for us.

Of course Phoenix got a new toy today, a teal and purple bungee weasel. It's really quite adorable and probably doesn't have much of a life span but Phoenix loves it. It was much cheaper in the long run that getting him a cat.

What's next? I entered a local UKC trial this coming weekend. I'm hoping it will be a relaxing and confidence-building weekend for us while we dust off the Open exercises in a ring context.

Will write more about training plans to address A) attitude and effort issues and B) how to approach the UDX campaign in future posts.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

You can't get there from here

Iowa County has more orange detour signs per square mile than any other part of the state.

Last week, three of the main routes I use to get around the county were either closed or reduced to the dreaded “one lane road, follow pilot car.”

Just shoot me now.

I am not a patient person when it comes to waiting in road construction zones. I fidget. I creep a little closer to the car ahead of me. I worry about the guy creeping closer behind me. I check my watch. I fidget some more. I change radio stations about 40 times (XM Satellite Radio encourages this sort of behavior even when I'm not stuck in traffic. It's addictive.) I decide to balance my checkbook. About then, the pilot car comes through and just as I’m scratching my head, trying to remember why I wrote a $47 check to someone named Sarah, it’s time to move.

When Highway 6 closed east of Marengo for bridge repair, waiting for a pilot car wasn’t even an option. The road was closed, period. It was detour time.

Being a “local” person, I took one look at the official detour and wondered who came up with it and what were they drinking? It was too long and added about 18 miles to my morning commute. No way was I doing that. I think “local” translates as “thinks she knows better.”

The first day of the road closure, I cut cross country on gravel, which was seriously the shortest detour if you don’t mind driving on gravel. Most people don’t like to drive on gravel so I thought I’d have the road to myself.

I thought wrong.

Apparently everyone else in the county was taking the cross-country gravel route. This was a couple of weeks ago, when it had been raining for about 10 days straight. That much rain on gravel roads meant there was one track down the middle with deep, muddy ruts on either side. Made for some excitement when you meet someone. A number of people who were driving smack dab right down the middle of the road looked surprised and amazed that someone might becoming from the opposite direction.

On the bright side, there wasn’t any dust.

It took me a couple of days to work out a better detour that stayed on hard surfaced roads. With some creative twists and turns, I found one. It adds about five minutes to my drive time and after a week, I've figured out how to time it in the morning so I don't spend the last three miles stopping behind the school bus.

Then there's a stretch of Highway 151 south of Amana looks like it’s in for a summer-long bridge replacement project, reducing traffic to one lane. I’ll get lots of chances to practice patience while waiting for my turn to follow the pilot car. Maybe I'll figure out who Sarah is and why I gave her $47.

Monday, May 9, 2011

May flowers

After a very wet and cold April and a late killing freeze last week, we finally had a warm, sunny, dry spell and I got to do some planting over the weekend.

This is a "Carnivale" begonia. I love begonias. I love flowers in pots and do a lot of container gardening.

The reason? We have a HUGE soft maple tree south of our house. It's an awesome tree and provides wonderful shade for the house . . . but . . . that huge tree is supported by an ENORMOUSLY MONSTROUSLY GIGANTIC root system that sucks water out of the ground like nobody's business. It has a very thick network of fine little roots like a mesh mat that come up within just a few inches of the soil surface around the house. Once I get perennial plants established, they do fine. But annuals really struggle to develop a root system that can compete with the tree. So I put most of my annual in containers where there's no competition for water.

These are the only tulips I have. They are pure white when they first bloom, then develop the color the longer they are open. I really want to plant more this fall.

Hosta. Sigh. I loves my hosta. A) You can't kill 'em. B) They're purty. C) You can't kill 'em. I love the interesting colors on the leaves as they come up in the spring.

And I love the different leaf textures, especially when they're so fresh and new.

This little guy is a surprise. Most hosta clumps expand by getting bigger and bigger. This one just popped up all by his independent little self. He's sort of growing out from under the side of the garage in the back of the flowerbed, behind the columbine and ferns. How did he get there?

More interesting leaf shape and color. I actually BOUGHT this hosta last fall. Most of mine are from friends and co-workers.

This is one of my all-time favorite hostas, August Moon. When the leaves first open in the spring, they are a vivid lime green. They get darker during the summer but always have a yellow-green tinge. Like a margarita.

Here's one of my hosta, fern, coralbell and columbine beds, all freshly mulched. Within a month, when the leaves all open, you won't be able to see the surface of the mulch at all. This is between the south end of the Belgians' outdoor kennel and the yard fence. It was an awkward place to mow but a lovely place for a shady garden.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Embrace your inner doofus

Today was National Embrace Your Inner Doofus Day. I suspect that may be EVERY day with Phoenix. Here he is in a moment of pre-doofus contemplation. Note the sneaky eye slant, which indicates Something Is Going To Happen. 

Yep, as predicted - a doofus outbreak. I was gardening and he was, well, it's obvious he has no toys. Poor little dog. Has to play with a flower pot. (Georgia, are you looking? Obviously this flower pot thing is a genetic quirk in the Carousel lines. I didn't give it to him, he went and found it all by himself.)

Doofus pride - whatever you do, do it well. Obviously, everyone should be so lucky to have their own flower pot. Kinda makes you want one, doesn't it? A flower pot. Not a malinois.

Trying to entice another doofus to join the fun. The attempt met with failure. You'll notice there are no pics of Jamie. He chooses to embrace his doofess-ness when no cameras are present.

That's okay. A true doofus needs no accomplice. A great deal of fun is to be had by one's self on a warm, sunny spring day. With a flower pot.

Really. Some things just can't be explained with words. It's better that I don't even try.

Shortly after this pic was taken, Flower Pot Rescue stepped in. That's okay, there was still at trowel. And gardening gloves. And that thing that attaches to the end of the hose.

Yes, the day was a success. It will probably be celebrated again tomorrow.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Friday, TG

It's Friday.


The week from hell is nearly over.


Warm sunshine.

Happy dogs.



Life is good.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Thank doG . . .

. . . for small town pharmacies.

I finally caved this morning and admitted I am NOT getting better (although I've got my voice back — my cigarettes and whiskey voice but it's better than squeaking like a mouse) and went to the drug store a block from where I work. This is a wonderful drug store. It's the kind where the pharmacist actually comes out from behind the counter to help you.

She listened to me croak and hack for about 20 seconds and said, "Oh, you don't want anything off the shelf. You want the GOOD stuff we keep behind the counter."

So after signing a form to promise I wasn't going to make meth with the pseudoephedrine decongestant or that I wasn't going to do anything stupid while under the influence of codeine-enhanced cough syrup, I happily left. That was earlier this morning. Now my head is relatively clear, thanks to a loading dose of that lovely potential meth ingredient (really, I try not to think about that very much). I'm being responsible and will not dose myself with the cough syrup until I'm safely home for the evening, after class tonight. But the promise of an actual night's sleep is a wonderful thing.

FYI: Iowa has a system set up to track who buys pseudoephedrine, how much, when and where. I don't know if this is a national system or not but it's a way to crack down on meth cookers, who buy a lot of it. It's perfectly legal to buy cold medicine that contains the stuff but you have to sign for it and then if you try to buy more than the allowed quantity in a certain amount of time, I think all sorts of red flags go up and law enforcement pays you a visit.

I didn't sleep last night. I coughed. Pretty much all night. Just ask the Farmer. And the night before that . . . and the night before that . . .

So when we all got up this morning, I shoved food at various mouths and then went back to bed. I crawled in, thought about setting the alarm and then decided screw it, if I was late to work, I was late to work. "Wake me up at 7 a.m., guys," I said and crashed. Phoenix snuggled up against my stomach and Jamie curled up against my back. They are totally into the napping scene.

Some time later, I could feel eyes looking at me. I opened one eye. Yep. Confirmed. Phoenix was about six inches from my face, staring at me. Have you ever been woken up by the power of a dog's stare? Then you know what I'm talking about. I stretched and yawned and looked at the clock: 6:58.

It's really scary when they do that.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

So much for the vow of silence

It just didn't work out.

No matter how hard I tried, I had too many things to say yesterday, even though I stayed home from work. Jamie and Phoenix took care of me. Sort of. It's a risky thing to trust one's care to two creatures who think cat-chasing and butt-goosing are very acceptable behaviors.

We all got up at 5:30 a.m., including the Farmer. We all had breakfast. I made motions to indicate I was going back to bed. The Farmer asked me why I wasn't going to work. The man is oblivious. I guess the perpetual hacking didn't tip him off. I squeaked at him and made a lot of hand gestures. He saw the wisdom of not arguing. Or maybe he just wanted to get away from me.

The Belgians and I took a two hour nap. Jamie woke me up when it was time to call in to work. He's very responsible that way. I called our secretary and squeaked at her. She understood every word I didn't say.

The rest of the day passed in a haze of cold medicine, naps, the third Jamie and Claire book and the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie (thanks, Michele). I got lots of good advice regarding liquids, which are apparently the answer to my vocal issues. I've had gallons of tea with lemon, tea with honey, cocoa, water and cappuccino. I think margaritas or rum and Coke might be helpful, but there is no rum. Why is there no rum?! (Oops, too much "Pirates.")

I'm back at work today. I'm trying the vow of silence thing again. Hand gestures are working out just fine. Believe me, we're well-versed in hand gestures here. Our publisher has a bottle of rum in her desk. I know this because . . . well, never mind. Wonder when she's going to lunch . . .

My voice is gradually coming back. Hope to have made a full recovery by tomorrow. I have a class to teach tomorrow night and know my students do not want to be squeaked at. I'm considering making flash cards.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Say what?

I have lost my voice.

This is what I hope is the final stage of an attack on my respiratory system that has plagued me since last week. It started as the sniffles, then a full-blown runny nose (the "doG, where does all this crap come from" kind). Then the sore throat and sneezing started, accompanied by the "I'm cold and I want to sleep forever" stage, followed by the cough. 

Somewhere between the sneezing and the coughing, I lost my voice. Guess I was making enough noise without talking.

I didn't lose it entirely. Nope, I sound like Gretchen Wilson, you know, that rough whiskey and cigarettes honky-tonk lounge singer's voice? Well, actually, I make Gretchen Wilson sound like Julie Andrews.

I'm 45 years old and I've never actually lost my voice. This is a first.

I don't feel sick, aside from hacking up truly disgusting stuff and what occasionally might be part of a lung. And from being so freaking tired all I want to do is curl up with my pillow and shut out the world. And drink cough medicine. Did I mention the cough?

Anyway, it's very weird to open my mouth and go through the motions of speaking and have sounds come out that make it sound like I swallowed a vinyl squeaky toy.

Seriously. I squeak. And croak.

The dogs are fascinated. Phoenix comes running, tail up, ears up, when I call him back to the house. It's the best damned recalls he's ever give me. He can't wait to hear what I'm going to say next. Honestly, I'm going to have to try this tone of voice in the ring, but short of developing a serious whiskey and cigarette habit, not sure I can replicate it.

I left work early today and don't plan on going in tomorrow. It's really hard to communicate with people when you sound like a cell phone with bad reception. Maybe every third word is audible. I got through most of today with a combination of arm gestures and e-mail. E-mailing someone who sits 5 feet away is really stupid but sometimes ya gotta do what ya gotta do.

I've gotten a lot of advice: warm drinks, lots of liquids, don't try to talk, etc. So tomorrow I'll take a vow of silence and, well, yeah, we'll see how that goes.