Sunday, July 31, 2011

Things that go bump in the night


Where to start.

Last night I went on a paranormal investigation. Yep, I went ghost hunting. There is a house in the town where I work that has documented paranormal activity. According to the owners (who don't live there, BTW, nobody lives there full time, except maybe the spirits), there are voices, footsteps, lights going on and off, small items disappearing and reappearing, that sort of thing. It's a lovely old Victorian, build in the 1880s, and the couple who own it plan to turn it into a bed and breakfast. I did a story about it for our paper and they invited me to attend one of the investigation sessions that they open up to the public.

I think in the future I might take up tornado chasing instead.

It wasn't really scary at all. One part was seriously creepy but other than that, it was almost (almost, she says!) kind of uneventful. Interesting but certainly nothing out of the Ammityville Horror.

The event began at 5 p.m. Marsha and Tammy came with me. Marsha and I thought it would be a great birthday present for Tammy, whose b-day was last week. I mean, really, how often do you get to go on a ghost hunt for your birthday? Then I talked Marsha into coming, too.

We were supposed to bring snacks, since the event would last through the evening. I dipped Nutter Butter cookies in almond bark and added mini M&Ms for eyes. They looked like little ghosts. Yeah, pretty lame but they were cute. Two gals (twins) from Iowa City who also came to the investigation said they often make the same thing. We compared almond bark dipping techniques. One of the twins was hoping to land a $25,000 grant to study hauntings overseas. Where do you sign up for THAT program?

The first thing we did when the session started was to burn white sage to purify the area and eliminate any negative energy. It got smokey but not offensive. I figured my hair and clothes were going to smell pretty funky when I got home and the Farmer would probably wonder what in the world we'd REALLY been doing.

The group leader invited any "higher frequency" spirit people present in the house to communicate with us. Apparently this eliminates the troublesome spirits and plain old jerks.

Then we learned about the different pieces of equipment investigators use to document paranormal activity. One is a ghost box. It scans through radio frequencies and if you ask a spirit person a question, he or she may answer by speaking through the box. The spirit people were not into broadcasting their opinions last night. It was pointed out that the sun was still up at this point and most haunted houses become more "active" as the sun goes down.

Another piece of equipment is called an ovulus. It is a sort of electronic dictionary that contains 4,500 (I think) pre-programmed words. Again, you can ask spirits questions and they will respond through the ovulus. It wasn't always easy to figure out what they were saying because it's a computer generated voice, so not only is it tossing random words at you, they're really hard to understand. Sometimes they have obvious connection to the house or the people who are there that night. Other times they just sound like gibberish. At one point, the words "15 minutes late" came from the ovulus. The owner of the house had been 15 minutes late getting there. Weird.

Plus, when there's a large group of people, it's really hard to get everyone to be quiet at the same time, so many times, someone was talking when the spirits answered. And someone was always dropping something, fidgeting, squeaking their chair, etc.

They also had a digital thermometer for measuring cold spots and a digital recorder for recording electronic voice phenomenon or EVPs. Most of what we did last night was conducting EVP sessions, trying to capture unheard (but recordable) responses to questions.

You must need a keener ear than mine to pick up on EVPs. I couldn't hear a darn thing when they played the recordings back. Jennifer (owner of the house) shared some previously recorded EVPs of voices saying things but I was either deaf or oblivious.

The house belonged to a doctor and his family for three generations. We started in an upstairs bedroom. That first session included several cold spots, but none that I ever felt. The thermometer gave readings of around 90 degrees close to a (live) person's arm or shoulder, about 77 for general air temperature in the room (the window AC unit was shut off) and about 62 for the cold spot. So I guess they were there although I never felt one.

Several people said they smelled pipe tobacco. Yes, Doc Hollis smoked a pipe. The gal leading the session asked if the spirit(s) present (Doc Hollis and company) wanted to make contact with any of us, they could touch us. She amended that to "touch NICELY." I guess sometimes poking, grabbing and hair pulling is involved when spirits want to reach out and touch someone. Again, nothing for me. I could smell something smokey but thought it was just residual white sage smoke, you know how smoke gets in your hair and clothes and when you move it kind of drifts around. Yeah, like that.

After frequent breaks throughout the evening (so many folks could go outdoors and smoke cigarettes, seriously, we could have been done at least an hour sooner if not for the smoke breaks), we ended up doing the last session in the basement. It was dark outside by now.

This was the creepy part. Just being in the basement of an old house is creepy when the lights are ON. We were in a small room with only one doorway. When Jennifer turned off the light, yeah, it was dark but there was a little ambient light coming through the doorway from windows elsewhere in the basement. I could see her white T-shirt sleeve in front of me.

Then suddenly it got really dark, the total absence of light. The gal leading the session called it "darker than dark." I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. So help me, if a spirit had touched me (nicely or otherwise) I probably would have had a serious bladder malfunction. Marsha did touch me once, just to make sure I was still there, and so did Tammy. That was okay. I was glad THEY were still there!

And again, people said they could smell tobacco smoke and feel cold spots. It was so close and hot in that room, I would have welcomed a cold spot! I could smell smoke again, not modern day cigarettes although heaven knows there were enough smokers in the group. I wasn't standing next to any of them.

The ovulus had a few things to say and again, it was hard to understand, although it chirped out "girls, twins" and a few other observations about our group. We all had the chance to ask the spirits questions - good grief, I have a hard enough time talking to live people face to face!

The basement experience was the end of the night. I went home, not knowing if I was disappointed or relieved. I went to bed and couldn't sleep. I kept thinking about the pipe tobacco smell and the burning sage smell and how I thought they were the same thing at the time, just drifting off the person sitting next to me as she moved. Finally, I went to the bathroom and took the shirt I'd worn that evening out of the hamper. I sniffed it. It was NOT the same smell.

Did I really smell Doc Hollis' pipe tobacco? Maybe. Maybe not. For every real "haunting" there are probably a dozen frauds. How hard would it have been to stage some of the things we experienced? Who knows.

It was an interesting night and I'm glad I did it.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The sun is shining but . . .

My dog is wet. My shoes are wet. My socks are wet. My pants are wet from mid-calf down. The gloves are wet. The tug is wet. The jumps are wet. The ring gates are even wet. My T-shirt is decidedly damp. We could not possibly be any wetter if someone had deliberately turned a hose on us.

Phoenix and I went to train at a park this morning. We've been training basically at home for the last six weeks with occasional group sessions at buildings with friends. I wanted a change of scenery.

The only drawback to training early in the morning was the wet grass. Not that I really minded. I knew my old battered Merrills were no longer waterproof. No surprise there. And I knew Phoenix didn't mind getting his paws wet. He is a lot of things but a prima donna is not one of them.

I just didn't realize HOW wet we were going to end up. It was relatively cool at 7 a.m., 70 degrees. I say relatively because we've had a lot of 75 to 80 temps before the sun even comes up lately. The air was dripping with humidity, so what didn't get soaked from the wet grass absorbed it out of the air. My hair objected and did its she-stuck-her-finger-in-an-electrical-outlet imitation. No wonder the clerk at the convenience store gave me a funny look when I stopped to get a cappuccino on the way home. He had piercings all over his face so I didn't think he had any room to talk.

Back to the park. I like going new places to train to test how well my dog knows his job. Granted at 7 a.m., we pretty much had the park to ourselves, not a lot of distractions around. But there were still new smells and the novelty of not working in the back yard. Plus I like being able to go train first thing in the morning, knowing there's nothing else on the morning's agenda and we have all the time in the world —we don't have to rush to be somewhere else at a certain time. 

I was really happy with our session. Phoenix is still working without food for 98 percent of the exercises. He's responding better and better to verbal praise and seems more comfortable with and understanding of working without the expectation of cookies. I'm using limited food for a couple of skills we're re-training. 

I've added a toy back into the mix but it's not a reward. It's just a toy and we play when I feel like playing, not with the intention of rewarding any specific behavior or building attitude. Whether Phoenix sees it that way or not, I don't know. But I'm not expecting our play to produce miraculous results — I just really, really love playing with my dog and he loves it too.

I don't know if it was the cool (ha-ha, see how hot it's been here, I think 70 is cool!) or the wet grass or what, but Phoenix was absolutely squirrelly. He worked hard and made some mistakes and we had some corrections and do-overs and let's-take-this-apart-and-work-on-it moments but he was happier than I've seen him work all summer. Seeing him so relaxed and silly made it easier for ME to be relaxed and silly, too, once again making me wonder how many of our problems I've created by being too stiff and formal when we train.

It was worth getting wet. Now all my training gear is laying on the patio table to dry out. My wet clothes are in the laundry and my wet dog is taking a nap. It's 9 a.m. and I have a whole beautiful Saturday at my disposal. Love it!

Tonight is the paranormal investigation, starts at 5 p.m., ends at 10 p.m. Can't wait, this will definitely be a new experience!

Friday, July 29, 2011

The crazy people are here!

Spent all morning and early afternoon in Homestead, taking pics and watching RAGBRAI roll through. 

Ran into Barb Taylor from Iowa City and some friends. Barb was doing today's ride only. Really, what are the odds of watching 10,000 bikers and you see someone you actually know!

My "Friends Don't Let Friends Go To Iowa" T-shirt was a big hit! I had my picture taken at least 4 times with Cyclone riders and once with a Hawkeye rider who thought that was the funniest shirt she'd ever seen even though she is an Iowa fan.

Here are some of my favorite pics. It takes for-freaking-ever to upload from dial-up Internet so I only put up a few.

Tandem has to be the way to go. Make the guy in front do all the work!

This guy had the right idea. It was really hot.

How about a little keg toss action? 
If you chucked it far enough, you got a free beer!
This gal did better than most of the guys.

The apple pie hunter.
Pie. Everywhere. Awesome. Rhubarb. Yum.

Nothing says welcome to a German community like a guy wearing lederhosen. And a Hawaiian shirt. We're a very multi-cultural community in Homestead. Actually I have no idea where this guy was from. 

No idea what these guys were doing. But it involved a ladder on the roof of a SUV. I think they were hanging a banner. Honestly. I had to look twice to see if the Farmer was involved. That is sooooo something he would do.

My favorite team jerseys.
It says "Donner Party" . . .

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The crazy people are coming!

For those of you who don’t live in the Midwest, this is RAGBRAI week: the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. Or, the Register’s Annual Great Beer Run Across Iowa, take your pick. Check it out at

It involves about 10,000 people riding bicycles across Iowa, from the Missouri River on the "west coast" to the Mississippi River on the "east coast" over a 7-day period. This year’s route brings the ride through Iowa County tomorrow.

I think you have to be mental to ride on this thing. On the surface it sounds like one huge fun rolling party, with tons of food vendors (emphasis on homemade pie!) and entertainment in all the pass-through towns and a great party at each overnight stop. I’m all about that except between the food and the parties, you’re spending about 400-odd miles with your butt perched on a hard little bike seat while you sweat and strain to pump through 50 to 70 miles each day. In July. No matter the weather. Or the hills. Iowa is not flat. I can be exhausted and sore after two days at an agility trial in a climate controlled building. Doing something like RAGBRAI would be the end of me.

I’ll spend tomorrow doing photo coverage as riders come through the Amana Colonies. It's going to be a fun day! People from all over the world come to ride in this event. They wear crazy costumes and have crazy team names, like Team Skunk, Team Cheesehead, etc. Plus the theme for Friday is “College Spirit Day” so I’ll have an excuse to wear my Iowa State “Friends don’t let friends go to Iowa” T-shirt. Like I need an excuse to wear it. Really.

Bring on the pie.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Car-top luggage carriers

A bit lighter fare today.

When Phoenix and I went to the seminar in Des Moines last weekend, Jamie stayed home with the Farmer. He usually goes with us wherever we go, even though he's been retired for 3 years, but this time I thought he’d be happier at home, hanging out on the couch and having a male bonding weekend than he would sitting in a crate for three days at the seminar.

I thought wrong.

When I called the Farmer on Saturday night, he said, “Your dog is not happy.”

Jamie had spent Friday evening pacing and barking and watching out the windows. He was in a constant state of distress when I did not come home. Then there was a severe weather outbreak over eastern Iowa that night, which only made things worse. Jamie is a drama king about severe weather. True to form, he spent the night leaping on and off the bed, quivering, vibrating, pacing, panting and having a meltdown. The Farmer did not get much sleep.

Saturday, Jamie wouldn’t eat. This freaked me out and I was seeing an IBD flare-up on the horizon. I was afraid the stress from the storm and being “left behind” was going to have negative effects, even though he was still in his own home and the Farmer was taking care of him.

By the time we got home Sunday night, things had improved. Jamie was eating again. He was very happy to see me. He squeaked and barked and showed me his teeth repeatedly (Jamie is a champion smiler.) The Farmer was very VERY happy to see me although he did not squeak or bark or show his teeth. Apparently, Jamie spent most of Sunday pacing around the house and howling. Not barking. Howling. The Farmer could hear him from outside the house. Which is where he spent most of Sunday because he couldn’t stand to be inside with the Howling Drama King and it was too bloody hot to put the Howling Drama King outside in the kennel.

If I ever left Jamie at home again for another extended weekend with the Farmer, I suspect the former would bite me when I got back and the latter might file for divorce. It’s flattering to be missed that much by one’s dog but I really wish Jamie could chill out about staying home by himself, so to speak.

But Jamie has never been much into “chilling” about anything and at age 12, I don’t expect him to start now. If it distresses him that much to be left behind, it’s totally worth the extra time and effort to take him with. With that in mind, I’m thinking about ways to make hauling gear for two big dogs a little easier, especially when we go camping this fall.

When I bought R2, I did not think having enough room to load up camping gear several times a year was very important on the overall priority list when choosing a vehicle. Now that the reality of fall camping trips is growing closer, I’m rethinking that decision and realizing while I have enough room for dogs, crates, gear bags, coolers and stuff, it’s going to be a tight fit to get a tent, sleeping bag, air mattress, etc. jammed in, too. Okay, the obvious alternative is to get a hotel but I really do enjoy camping and look forward to our annual September outings.

I’m thinking about getting a car-top luggage carrier but the idea of strapping things to the roof (R2 has a luggage rack), only to have something break or come loose and scatter bits and pieces of my life down Interstate 80 is a bit frightening. If anyone has any experience with these things and/or brand recommendations, I would appreciate hearing them.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Defining "corrections"

My goal for today is to clear up confusion about terminology and show a few examples of heeling corrections.

Let’s start with the C word itself. That seems to be the big sticking point — many folks think correction = punishment = pain. Little wonder people say no-no-no and run the other direction when it is suggested that correcting their dog would improve his performance. The word itself seems to be hard-wired to evoke unpleasant images, probably because we’ve all witnessed truly unpleasant things being done to dogs in the name of “correction.” That's the ugly extreme end of the spectrum and one I will avoid at all costs.

I don’t want to hurt my dog. And I won’t. For me, a correction might be more accurately described as a “redirection” or “do this instead” sort of action.

In trying to come up with a definition of “correction” that others won’t revolt against for the mere sake of the word, I wonder if I’ve unintentionally put too much emphasis on corrections as the solution to all training problems. They’re not. They’re only a part of it and I did not mean to give the impression they are the cure to every ill. The relationship you have with your dog, leadership (or lack of it), training methods, proofing, treats and play, plus what the dog brings to the table in terms of temperament and genetic mix form the big picture. It’s a balancing act and no single element should dominate the others. Leadership, relationship, training methods and play should take up considerably more of the pie than proofing, corrections or treats.

Each dog is an individual. I believe there are dogs out there who can be high achievers in the ring without many corrections in training. I know this because I’ve had them. Either the dog is a naturally bright learner (I think this was my case with Connor) or the trainer is exceptionally skilled in avoiding common trouble spots throughout the dog's career (hopefully, as trainers, the more dogs we train, the better we get at this).

But there are just as many (if not more) dogs who don't work that way. If you’ve only trained dogs who responded so well to positive methods that you never had to correct them in any way, shape or form, I truly hope you have a dog at some point in your life for whom those methods don't work. I’m not being mean but you will learn a lot more about training and about yourself from a dog who questions you than you do from the biddable dog who is content to always obey and never has an original thought of his own.

Once you feel your dog is “trained” and you take away the cookies and the toys to test the dog’s understanding of his job as he will perform it in the ring, the dog can make two kinds of mistakes. And yes, dogs WILL make mistakes in training. I don’t know any dog who is perfect in every single training session. Whether or not the handler recognizes these mistakes and chooses to do anything about them is another issue. It’s easy to let little errors in training slide or make excuses for them. They won’t fix themselves and a tiny error in training can easily lead to a HUGE error in the ring. Even if you don’t care about scores, ignoring errors in training can mean the difference between a leg and an NQ in the ring.

This is where you have to be honest with yourself as a trainer. If your dog makes a mistake when you pull the treats out of the picture, ask yourself, “Did I lay a solid foundation for this exercise and train it systematically without skipping steps so that it is reasonable to expect my dog to understand what I want even though I don’t have a hand full of cookies OR did I rush things and am I now assuming a level of proficiency that really does not exist and I just want to correct because it’s easier than putting the work into re-training?”

First, let me say I don’t want to use corrections to make my dog pay for my own screw ups when it came to training something right the first time. With that in mind, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt if I’m not sure if he’s not making the effort or if he’s confused. With Phoenix, I think most of his errors at this point stem from confusion. Seriously, if he honestly understands what to do, he has shown me he is willing to do it under a variety of circumstances. Distraction on heeling is the possible exception - although he knows his job is to watch me he is very keyed into the environment and hyper aware of sounds and motion. It's very hard for him to ignore his surroundings. That's just who he is and I accept that as a challenge we'll probably have his entire career.

If you feel your dog truly understands beyond a doubt what you expect of him, then his error is one of lack of effort and you can fairly give a correction. But don’t do it if you’re angry or you’re out to “teach him a lesson.” That’s not what it’s about!

If you can look back and see holes in the foundation training of the exercise or admit you may have rushed things, then the error is one of confusion — your dog really doesn’t understand what to do. Then it’s time to go back and strengthen that part of the exercise or maybe even do some re-training. This may or may not involve treats, your choice. Just remember that throwing cookies at a problem is not necessarily going to solve it. Use them wisely.

If your dog is making errors because he's scared, you have to resolve the fear issue first. You cannot correct a dog who is afraid of the environment, men in cowboy hats, baby strollers, etc. Some hard core trainers might argue the dog should be more concerned with the correction he will receive for not paying attention than anything a scary baby stroller might do but I do not buy that line of reasoning. It's thinking like that that gives corrections such a bad rap! Get the dog back on solid ground mentally first, then work on fixing the mistake.

This effort error vs. confusion error scenario is confusing because many of us are in the habit of assuming our dogs “know” the exercise when in reality they don't. It was a smack in the face this summer to realize that on a couple of exercises, Phoenix really did not know what to do, even though he had done them successfully enough in the ring to get a CDX and UD. (I’ll write about those, too, in the future.)

Okay, this is getting long but I want to write about a couple of the corrections I’m using so you can get a feel for what I’m talking about.

The thing with corrections is that not the same thing works on every dog. You might think these are silly but they’re working for us.

Remember, I don’t want a correction to be threatening, painful or frightening. If my dog finds it slightly annoying, that’s fine, maybe he’ll work a little harder to avoid it. Or if it makes me more interesting, even better!

Here are the two things I’m doing that have worked best.

1) If Phoenix drops his head or checks out on eye contact while we are either setting up or doing heelwork, I turn and run the opposite direction. I’ve been working him on a very light leash so he has to come with me because he's attached. There’s no jerking or yanking, I just run. I usually only run half a dozen steps. He catches up and gives me total eye contact. I ask him if he got lost. He looks at me like, “You are unpredictable and I need to watch you very closely.” His body language telegraphs interest in what might happen next, not concern.

2) My second correction (I use these alternately, depending on the situation), is this: I reach down and reposition his head with both hands, right hand under his muzzle, left hand at the back of his head. Fortunately, he is the perfect height for this. My hands are gentle but firm. Uh-oh, you looked away, now we will do the dreaded (tongue in cheek) head hold.

If we are heeling, I don’t stop, we keep moving. We heel around the building or the yard or wherever with me holding his head where I want it (actually a tiny bit higher than where he would normally carry it). I scold him verbally in a silly tone and ask “WHAT were you looking at?” But I’m not angry. I truly think having his head physically positioned embarrasses him. When I take my hands off, I might “bounce” him out ahead of me and break off the exercise. He understands being “bounced” and responds well to it. The head holding is annoying - the bounce is fun.

Those heeling corrections are for lack of effort errors. I have worked heeling with attention from Day One with Phoenix and truly expect him to understand what I want. It's not a new concept nor one that was taught hastily.

If he were confused (let's say we were heeling through a playground full of screaming children - honestly, we've NEVER done that before), I would set up at a distance and work stationary attention until he was confident about doing his job (watching). Then we would heel around the perimeter of the playground and call it good for the day.

Hopefully, my next post will explore confusion issues - and believe me, we have a couple dandy ones.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Seminar, corrections, attitude and lots of other stuff

This is long. Sorry. See what happens when I don't blog for a couple of days? My head gets so full of stuff I have to do a brain dump.

The Laura Romanik seminar was great! Possibly the best part was her use of detailed handouts that reflected the topics she covered so I could actually pay attention to what she was saying and doing instead of trying to scribble 100 pages of notes that I probably wouldn’t be able to read after the fact anyway.

Got some great new ideas to try. Of course, I’m not going to run out and change the way I train everything but there are a few things I can implement and I'm looking forward to working them into my training with Phoenix.

Ironically - or coincidentally - she did a great segment on corrections: when and how to use them and why they are important. I can’t repeat her entire seminar here but if you get a chance to see her, it’s worth the time and money.

Interesting comments from readers on the “Are corrections really necessary?” post! Honestly, every single point you guys have made has been bouncing around in my head during the last month, since I’ve overhauled the way Phoenix and I are training.

I’ll address some of those comments and try to make my thoughts clearer. I stand by my belief that corrections are an important part of obedience training if you want to achieve anything beyond a CD or if you want to achieve competitive scores at any level. Like many of you have said — and it bears repeating — they're not harsh or abusive. They're just an information route.

A correction is information about what you’re doing wrong and how to do it right. Imagine trying to learn a new job. You’ve been working at it for awhile and think you understood just how it should go. Your boss looks at your work, throws it out and says, “Start over and maybe you’ll get it right this time.”

Not too helpful, huh? If your boss had pointed out the place where you had made the mistake, you could remember not to make that mistake again. In the future, if you made different mistakes, your boss would be there to point them out, allowing you to eventually master the task at hand and be able to do it confidently and correctly, knowing exactly how it should be performed. That’s what I want from my dog: I want him to know exactly what I expect and for him to be able to do it truly independently, with only one command - no repeated commands, do-overs or cookie waving. And yes, I totally admit I’ve fallen short on this with Phoenix. Lessons learned. My previous dogs were incredibly tolerant of my bad training habits!

Different dogs need different types and levels of correction. I believe there ARE dogs out there who need little or no correction while others will question everything you ask them to do for their entire career. My sheltie Connor was one of the former. I am starting to think Phoenix is one of the latter. Jamie fell somewhere in the middle.

One reader asked how will corrections solve the problem of a dog losing his “support system” when we get in the ring where neither corrections nor treat/toy rewards are allowed? By correcting the dog for errors in training, the dog learns what is the right response and what is the wrong response. It erases the gray area of confusion. A dog who knows how to do the job will be confident when he goes into the ring and won’t NEED a support system to help him perform beyond what the handler can give with verbal praise, petting and body language. I think this is a state of nirvana that a lot of dog and handler teams never reach. They go into the ring in a constant agony of worry, lacking the trust and confidence that YES, their dog totally understand what to do.

Another reader mentioned the genetic factor when it comes to a dog’s trainability. She was right on! It’s no accident that many of the top OTCh. dogs in the country are from the same kennels or that when ultra competitive trainers look for a puppy, they go to kennels known for producing high-achieving dogs. That’s not saying these are going to be “easy OTChs” but it’s going to be easier to put an OTCh. on a golden retriever with three generations of OTChs on both sides of the pedigree than on one from, say, conformation lines only and no history of performance titles. Not saying that can't be done but the dogs from OTCh. lines have traits that make them highly suitable to the demands of training for that level of competition.

Most of us trainers, OTCh. and non-OTCh. alike, simply train the dog we have. We buy a dog because we like the breed, we have established a relationship with the breeder, someone else recommended the breeder, they have healthy dogs, etc. Sure, we put some time into researching pedigrees but the bottom line is we get our dogs not because we want an “easy OTCh.” but because we want to share our lives with this particular breed, for whatever reason.

None of my dogs have been chosen because they had a long string of performance titles behind both the dam and sire. Knowing that, I realize it’s largely up to ME to produce the motivation, compulsion, desire, etc. that will turn us into a winning team.

One more question from the comments: what if Phoenix makes a mistake during the non-food stage of our training? If it’s not an NQ-ing mistake, right now I’m letting it slide. Our bigger picture is stringing together a successful, passing performance in all exercises. I’ll get back to the precision element later. Yeah, I care about heeling bumps and crooked fronts but I don’t care about them right now!

If he makes an NQ mistake (doesn’t drop on signals, for example) I have to ask myself: was he not trying (result - correction) or is he really confused and doesn’t know what to do (result - pull this part of the training OUT of the non-food work and work on it individually. A bare minimum of food can return at this time but only if the dog shows me genuine effort. Flooding him with treats is not going to suddenly make everything clear in his mind.)

BTW, I have brought toys and play back into our training picture on a limited basis. Phoenix has several exercises that are rock solid (did I really type that out loud? what am I thinking!?) and after a successful sequence of 2-3 exercises (done formally, front, finish, the whole works), I will release to a toy and play. But this is not a mid-exercise release and I’m not doing it with the intent to reward or build enthusiasm. It’s just play because I enjoy playing with my dog. More on that in future posts, too.

Oh, and several of you mentioned attitude: I absolutely agree - I do not want to show a dog in the obedience ring who does not want to be there. I want my dog to be happy when we train and show. No, correcting a dog is probably not going to make him “happy.” But think about this - if you were doing a job that you were very uncertain and hesitant about because you really didn’t understand how to do it properly, how happy would you be? What if someone stepped in and corrected you when you made mistakes? Believe me, I’ve been there! Being corrected didn’t make me happy either but it helped me learn the job. When I got good at the job, I was much happier and could truly enjoy the work and perform it well.

Please understand that my corrections are followed by genuine, sincere, heartfelt, honest, appreciative (help, I’m running out of adjectives) praise when he gets it right. I am not browbeating my dog. I don’t expect him to work like a golden retriever who wags his tail nonstop and is delirious about obedience. Phoenix is an insane nut around the house (flower pot on his head, stealing socks, etc.). He's serious when we go to train. He CAN be nutty in training, depending on the exercise. I think he'll get nuttier when our understanding of each other improves. I can live with that. If he were truly miserable, we'd stop this obedience game and do something else. But he's not. The journey continues.

Something I’d like to point out from Laura’s seminar and this is only MY interpretation, but if you have to correct for something more than twice in a row, you need to do something different with that particular skill - don’t just keep correcting the dog. Either make the exercise easier or go back and strengthen whatever part of it the dog is having an issue with. Repeatedly correcting without getting better results is going to create learned helplessness where the dog thinks, “I do not know what to do. I cannot win. I give up.” This is very sad.

Okay. There’s more to come. I just have to get my mind wrapped around what I want to say next.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Are corrections really necessary?

Every once in a while, I hear someone ask, “Do I HAVE to correct my dog?” This is usually a newbie trainer who is concerned that corrections will spoil their dog’s attitude or worries that corrections need to be physically harsh in order to be effective. (Neither one is true, by the way).

More than likely, they don't understand the role corrections play in developing a dog who understands his job and how to do it in a variety of environments.

No. You don’t HAVE to correct your dog. You can try ignoring the incorrect behavior or you can start the exercise over again or give second commands or whatever. But what’s going to happen when you’re in the ring and need to do it right the first time? And your dog feels like he’s been abandoned because the support system he’s relied on to perform the exercises is gone?

Personally, I feel if you don’t make fair, well-timed corrections part of your training you’re setting yourself up to go into the ring with a dog who will probably do as he pleases once he realizes no tangible rewards or additional handler help are coming. Depending on the alignment of the planets, this may result in a qualifying performance or it may not.

Let’s put it this way, if you care enough to actually enter an obedience trial, it means you want more from your dog than just a minimal understanding of household basics. You’ve probably taken some classes or lessons and logged a fair amount of training time on your own.

Let’s do the math for a show weekend. These numbers are pretty generic and are probably on the low end. They’re obviously for a trainer who drives a very fuel efficient vehicle, stays in cheap motels and doesn’t eat much when she’s on the road!

Entry fee: $25 for 1 class x 2 days = $50
Tank of gas: $50
Hotel for 2 nights: $100
Meals for 2 days: $40
TOTAL: $240

I don’t know about you, but $240 per weekend isn’t pocket change for me, especially if I’m going to show a couple of weekends a month and enter both Open/Utility each day. Plus, by the point when you decide to show, you’ve probably already written checks for classes, building fees and lessons, so there’s another couple of hundred dollars you’ve spent getting ready. Not to mention taking time off work and “abandoning” your spouse and family for the weekend.

Why in the world would you go to this effort and expense, yet hesitate to take a necessary step that will definitely increase the chances of turning in a successful performance? When I commit that amount of resources, I want to know my dog and I are reasonably prepared. I’m perfectly happy to leave some things to chance but not when it comes to my dog understanding his job.

Tomorrow, Phoenix and I are off to the Laura Romanik seminar at DMOTC. I am TOTALLY looking forward to 3 days away from the real world!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Happy birthday Jamie!

Today is Jamie's 12th birthday!
Happy birthday, Big Red Dog!

Hey, what is my stupid brother doing?
Is there a cat involved?
Does he need backup?

I'm too sexy for the flowers.

Can we go inside now? It's freaking hot out here!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Corrections, Part I

Training has been a real pain in the butt this week. We're living in one of the outer rings of Hell. I've been getting up at 5:30 a.m. to train and it's already 80 degrees with dew points that are higher than coastal Louisiana. By the time I get home from work in the afternoon, the heat index is about 110 degrees and it stays that way until well after sundown — forget doing anything outdoors. It's just plain miserable. Needless to say, we're not training a lot, just trying to work through a few things each session and calling it good.

In weather like this, it's easier to write about training than it is to train. So here you go.

When the treats and toys disappear in training, sooner or later your dog will make a mistake (usually a lack of effort error, since he’s not getting what he perceives to be any reinforcement). If you want him to understand that he has to do his job no matter what, you’ll need to make a correction.

Of course, no one WANTS to correct their dog. We would all prefer our dogs never make a mistake! Any of us who started training during the jerk and yank era probably have some pretty negative associations with corrections. It’s no wonder people start freaking out when they worry they'll have to “correct” their dog.

If you keep motivators like treats and toys present when you train, dogs are much less likely to make a mistake and handlers are much less likely to have to deal with it and everyone is happy. A side effect of too many cookies in training is a sense of false security that my dog really understands what I want him to do. Then we go in the ring and I can’t deliver on any of those “Do this and you’ll get a cookie” promises I've been making. And the wheels fall off. Or, as a friend said, "It was a dumpster fire."

When I took the food and toys out of the picture, Phoenix was confused. He was also pretty honked off. Some of his errors were from confusion but many were from lack of effort. So the corrections I give are a teaching tool to make performance expectations clear.

Your dog wants to know what you expect from him. When the cookies disappear, he may ask questions like, "What are you going to do if I don't retrieve?" or "What are you going to do if I do signals really slowly?" Any time your gives you a less than desirable response on an exercise he was sharp at before the cookies disappeared, he is asking a question. "Is this what you want?" "What if I do it this way?" Corrections will help him figure out that you still want the same thing you did when cookies were present.

What IS a correction?

• A correction is information that shows the dog what you want him to do.

• A correction should not hurt, frighten or demoralize a dog.

• A correction should communicate the idea “That was wrong, here’s how to be right.” Period. No huge emotional meltdown for either party.

• A correction only needs to be strong enough to get your point across; if it doesn’t make an impression, you’re just nagging your dog and that’s not going to fix anything.

• A correction addresses the problem at the point where the error occurred (for example: at the point of pickup on a retrieve or during a slow response to signals)

• It is better to make 1 effective correction than 6 naggy ones.

What is NOT a correction?

• Giving a second command - this only tells the dog not to worry about not doing it the first time because you’ll tell him again.

• Starting over - this doesn’t tell the dog what he did wrong, just that it didn’t really matter what he did because you’ll give him another chance.

• Motion by the handler in order to cause the correct response by the dog (like backing up and cheering to keep a dog from walking in or stepping forward when the dog hesitates to pick up a glove).

• Verbal rescues - similar to second commands but easily become a habit which ensures the dog never actually makes a mistake because you are constantly rescuing him before he gets to the point of error.


Stay tuned - there's more to come. I'll try to cover the basic corrections I am using, plus some I used that didn't work.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

More stuff about stress

There are so many things in dog training (and in life) that are interconnected. Behaviors, beliefs, experiences and just plain who we are and how we view life weave together to create the tapestry that is our reality. This reality is a little different for everyone. I hope these posts help you understand your own dogs a little bit better but by no means should they be taken as the gospel.

I'm glad folks seem receptive to hearing about how Phoenix and I are learning to work independently with nothing but me, him and a collar he can wear into the ring. I was a little afraid I'd be getting screaming hate mail cursing me for being the Obedience Nazi and never giving my dog cookies.

I think maybe I haven't made myself totally clear on the thought process behind the "no treats, no toys" approach as it relates to resolving stress issues in the obedience ring.

Your dog gets treats in training. He works well. He gets treats outside the ring at a show. He works well outside the ring at the show. He goes into the ring. There are no treats. He turns into a different dog.

Is it stress?

You better believe it . . . but stress is caused by a lot of different things. Maybe it's NOT just the lack of cookies that's causing a ring funk. Some stressors are physical. Some are mental. The key to solving stress is to pinpoint exactly what is causing it — noises? Men in scary hats? Worry about a specific exercise? If you can untangle that big generic lump of "ring stress" and find the specific thing is worrying your dog, you've got a better chance of resolving it.

I feel that 99% of Phoenix's stress in the obedience ring is because he does not know how to continue working confidently if he's not getting regular feedback in the form of treats/toys. He doesn't know what to do, confusion sets in and there goes my happy dog. Yeah, that's stress. But it's not the same as stress induced by fear, noises, etc. That's probably an over simplification of our problem but that's the general idea. I've spent too much time relying on giving him "rewards" that he will NEVER get in a ring and undermining my own value as the ONLY reward he will ever get in a ring. (Not that food training is evil, it isn't. It's valuable for puppies and young dogs who are just starting to learn and it works brilliantly for some dogs' entire careers. It's just very, very easy to let it become a crutch and when the crutch is gone, you fall on your face.)

For a while, I thought the size of show sites had something to do with our performances. And I'm sure it did to a small extent, but I noticed through the spring and summer that Nix gave me pretty much the same ring behavior regardless of the site — small and quiet or big and noisy, didn't seem to matter. If he were truly stressed by external factors at an obedience trial, he would act outside the ring like he acts inside the ring. But outside the ring he was happy, social, bouncy, silly and responsive. Inside the ring, he was a zombie malinois. Fortunately, he doesn't have a hang up on a particular exercise or fear of a piece of equipment or specific type of environment. It's his overall understanding of what is expected of him that's the problem. And unlike agility where you're in and out of the ring in a matter of seconds with no time to dwell on errors, obedience means staying in the ring for an extended time, which gives your dog plenty of opportunity to fret about the environment or let his brain spontaneously combust because this does NOT look like training.

My goal of working my dog without treat/toy rewards, etc. is to teach him that "stressing out" when he's not getting those rewards simply is not an option and that my praise is valuable and worth earning. It's a way to recreate the ring behavior in training so I can finally address it. I'm showing him that he does not have to be a drama king just because he's not getting a treat at the end of every exercise. I'm pretty sure if I gave him a couple of treats in the ring, all his "stress" would magically disappear, which tells me it's not so much actual stress (I'm scared of the judge, I think the gates are going to eat me, etc.) but confusion about, "Why are there no treats? There are ALWAYS treats. If she wants me to work, she gives me treats. No treats. No work."

I'm still working on a "corrections" post. The thing about corrections is first, you have to be absolutely certain the dog understands what he's supposed to do — he's just choosing not to do it. And second, the correction has to show him the error of his ways without demoralizing him. Plus 101 other things. Stay tuned!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Shooting another sacred cow

For all of my adult dog training life, I have believed you were supposed to put the dog's attitude above everything else. Every seminar I attended and every book I read (and believe me, I attended and read a lot), assured me that it was my job as a trainer to make sure my dog was happy, enthusiastic and motivated at all times in the realm of training. It didn't matter if his work was not quite perfect as long as he had a "good attitude," the rest would come.

Or so they said. 

I believed them because it was very easy to get a dog with good attitude when my cheeks were bulging with cheese and I had fun toys stuffed in the waistband of my jeans. (It never occurred to me that overuse of these things might become an addictive crutch.)

This has been another one of those sacred obedience cows I've had to come to terms with this summer.

I had a dog who had been cookied, tugged and fussed over to no end, all in the name of building attitude which was somehow supposed to to ensure he would be delighted to perform anywhere, anytime. I had nearly worn myself out worrying about his attitude.

Well, his attitude was wonderful — as long as the treats, tugs and fussing continued. He looked amazing outside the ring in warm ups. When the attitude builders were no longer part of the picture (in the ring), neither was the amazing attitude.

It was replaced by a different attitude — "this sucks."

I totally agreed.

In my attempt to make everything happy-happy-joy-joy on the obedience front, I was neglecting to make a priority of the one thing that would truly make him a confident worker in the ring: teach him to do his job.

Whoa! Focus on TRAINING when we trained? At the risk of loosing precious attitude? Say it isn't so!

Um . . . did you see us in the obedience ring this spring? We didn't have any more attitude to loose. At several trials, short of laying down in the ring and sticking our feet in the air as a team, Phoenix and I were just about at rock bottom. His obedience career was going to end with his UD if something didn't change.

What's a girl to do besides watch her hair turn gray and wonder what the early symptoms of an ulcer are?

The answers started to come from a totally unsolicited e-mail that made me sit up and take notice.

"Your dog is telling you that what you are doing is not working," a reader wrote. "Teach him his job . . . quit trying to trick him that you will suddenly launch into a game or whip out some great food reward. He is not dumb. He has been shown enough to know that will never happen in the ring and that's got him very confused." She went on to explain that all the "attitude building" work I thought I was doing, was in effect creating one big lie — promising things that would never be delivered while not putting enough emphasis on teaching the actual skills I wanted him to have a "good attitude" while performing.

In order to get things back on solid ground, our training needed focus on the work at hand, not trying to ensure my dog was having a cracking good time every second of the session.

Does this sound harsh? For me and Phoenix, the bottom line is, he CAN'T have a good time until he understands what is expected of him and how to do it WITHOUT treats. Once we are rock solid on that, THEN I can put some focus on his attitude. Admittedly, this is a problem of my own creation and I wish it hadn't come to this. When Phoenix was a puppy it never occurred to me that he wouldn't follow in Connor and Jamie's cookie-loving pawprints. Phoenix had other ideas. Live and learn. Nobody said the journey would be easy.

So now when we go out to train, we train. And that's that. Yeah, it's a little odd. But it's not like I'm drilling him for hours each day. He IS getting rewards - my voice, smile, body language and touch. He is slowly starting to value these although I know he'd still rather have food or a toy. But he can have me in the ring so in order to teach him to value me, all he gets in training is me. It's fun smiling at him and ruffling his fur and telling him how brilliant he is. It's a more sincere connection than stuffing food in his mouth. Some of his work is pretty nice, some of it isn't. Sometimes his attitude is good. Sometimes it isn't. The "bad attitude" exercises are opportunities for me to help him figure out what the rules are.

A couple of folks asked about life for the other 23.5 hours of the day when we're not training. Am I doing anything different in daily life around the house?

No. The household rules that existed before are still in play. Nothing has changed. And Phoenix has not changed how he reacts to me outside of training — he's not holding a grudge or going off to sulk or anything. If anything, he's even more obnoxious and pushy than he was before! And yes, of course I still play with him — we tug and chase balls, just not in the context of a training session. (Playing WILL return to our obedience work and hopefully soon. More on that in a future post. This one is plenty long.)

Next post: the C word — corrections.

A happy note: Phoenix finished his MXJ today! He also double Q'd, winning both his Std. and JWW class! There is nothing wrong with his agility attitude — but I have no doubt that he knows what his job is in that venue. And you can't compare agility to obedience so while there's a lot I still don't understand about training in general and Phoenix in particular, I DO know our current state of affairs doesn't mean he doesn't "want" to do obedience. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Summer school

Someone asked me recently, “Why are you putting all of your training problems with Phoenix on your blog for everyone to see?”

Well, why not? I’m not happy about them but I’m not embarrassed by them either. I'm puzzled, bewildered, frustrated, vexed, disappointed and determined to work through them. Not much room left for being embarrassed. I’ve never had a dog work like this and with two happy working OTChs. in my past, Phoenix’s ’tude has been a bafflement.

Initially, blogging about it helped me sort out my thoughts and get feedback. Now, hopefully, it will give me a way to record and organize our progress.

I’m happy to say I have found a realistic and sensible training approach that should get us back on solid ground when it comes to ring performance. Yes, I will share it with you because I want to pay forward the generosity of one reader who has taken a lot of time to offer her ideas and support.

I’ll be honest - her ideas are a complete 180 degree turnaround from the way I had been training. At first, I thought, “No way. Nope. Forget it. THAT will never work. Nuh-uh. Never.”

It shot holes in damn near every sacred belief I held about obedience training. It shredded a lot of the “motivational” theories I’d heard repeated over the years. At the same time, it opened a very refreshing approach to training and performance, one that is freeing me from some unrealistic expectations I’d been carrying around.

I had a lot of sacred cows when it came to obedience training — I was pretty sure cookies were the answer to everything. If you had a problem, you threw cookies (or toys) at it. Oh, sure, you gave a little correction here and there to tweak things, but mostly it was all about the cookies/toys. How could you expect a dog to work without cookies/toys? That worked just fine for Connor and Jamie. They ate the cookies, won classes and we all went home happy. Phoenix ate the cookies and sulked around the ring in a funk. WTF?

We often talk about “getting the dog in the ring that we have in training.” How about trying to “get the dog in training that we have in the ring” instead?

I would come out of the ring at a trial and wail (trust me, my friends heard me wailing a LOT this spring), “If only he would do this stuff in training, then we could work through it.” And off I went to train, armed with cookies and toys to reward good behavior. And I had my wonderful dog in training every darn time - he was attentive, focused, brisk and happy. Then we went in the ring and the wheels fell off.

The only way I was going to get my “ring dog” in training was to take the cookies and toys out of the picture.

No rewards but me.

Yikes. Now that’s just scary.

It wouldn’t work.

It couldn’t work.

I HAD to give my dog treats and toys when we trained! Otherwise why would he work? If he didn’t get reinforcement, he wasn’t going to work. If he didn’t work, he was going to make mistakes. If he made mistakes, I was going to have to correct him. Things were probably going to get ugly.


I didn’t want to see my dog fall apart in training. Who would? Couldn’t we just keep training the way it had been? With MORE cookies and MORE play? Wouldn’t that make it all better - wouldn’t he learn that the harder he worked, the more goodies he got?

Obviously, no. I was coming dangerously close to the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

We’d been playing this game for 4 1/2 years. I kept upping the ante - more treats, better treats, treats delivered on a random reinforcement schedule, jackpots of treats, click and treat, surprise play sessions, carefully timed play breaks, new toys, old toys, favorite toys, letting him chase me around like I was the toy. I cooked chicken breast with garlic for Phoenix while the Farmer and I ate cold ham sandwiches for supper. I stunk up the house making liver brownies and fish fudge. I made sure he had tug toys, squeak toys and more balls than any one dog needs. I taught tricks, played games, broke exercises down into their tiniest elemental parts and worked super hard to make everything fun. Even though I proofed the exercises, I set him up to succeed in every possible way.

And what did that get me?

A dog who only understood how to perform in the context of frequent reward. Take the treats out of the picture and — no matter how carefully I thought I’d “weaned” him off them — he didn’t know what to do. He saw no reward in simply working with me. He wasn’t being deliberately naughty. He was doing what I’d trained him to do.

Here was the first hard truth I had to accept: my dog did not value me or the work. He did not value my praise, my enthusiasm or my touch. He only wanted the treat or the tug. When they were not delivered, he didn’t see any reason to make an effort. Hence, the crap attitude in the ring.

In order to make myself valuable, all the other goodies had to go away. How could I expect him to appreciate ME when so many other wonderful things were available? Really, I can’t compete with garlic chicken. Sure, I was the one giving him access to the wonderful things but in his mind, I was only the delivery person. I was not the reward.

For years I’d believed that delivering the goodies made me some kind of goddess in his mind. Well, it did with my two previous dogs but not with this one. I was willing to embrace a change.

So what happened the first night we trained with nothing more than my voice and my touch as reward?

For the first time in his life, I got the dog in training that I had been getting all spring and summer in the ring.

He was awful - slow, stressed, unhappy, inattentive, etc., etc.

Here was the second hard truth: my dog truly could not perform without treats/toys.

Here’s where our training is now: it’s a combination of corrections and re-training without cookies and toys. I’m not a jerk and yank trainer, the corrections are not harsh. Phoenix has a strong enough foundation in Utility (he got his UD in four weekends, he can’t be THAT confused), that I can tell when he’s choosing not to work (Why do I have to do this if you’re not “paying” me?) and when he’s really confused (I don’t know what you want.)

We’re working through things, pretty much one exercise as a time. Some come easily, others not so much. He does value some of the exercises - scent work, jumping and retrieves. Others he still has questions about - drop on recall and signals, especially.

This approach is a sort of tough love boot camp. It’s not easy. I’ve wanted to grab the cheese and the tugs more times than I can count. But I didn’t because I know that isn’t the answer for us. Oh sure, it would fix the problem for that immediate training session but we’d be right back to square one next time we went into the ring.

He’s gradually starting to value ME. I’m the only game in town, so to speak. He’s gradually starting to work some exercises the same way he worked in training earlier this summer when I was cookie pushing — focused, bright, happy. If I’d realized this 4 1/2 years ago, I never would have put so much emphasis on the magic cookie.

Believe me, this new approach has raised a ton of questions for both me and Phoenix. Any questions or doubts you might be having about the wisdom of this method, trust me, I’ve already had them. I’ve played the devil’s advocate over and over and over from every possible angle.

It has all come down to this: cookie training works fine for some dogs. It was not working for my dog. It was time for a change. He needed to learn how to work for me, not the cookie. It’s not easy. It isn’t happening over night. But I finally feel like I’m working my dog without creating false expectations of things I will never be able to deliver in the ring.

I promise to write about the difficulties (and successes!) we’ve encountered in the coming weeks. There are a lot of things I still need to say about this.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Fashion statements

I am the last person on this planet who should be giving fashion advice. Given that I live most of my life in jeans, T-shirts and sweatshirts I probably shouldn’t throw stones at what others wear, but the Farmer and I went to a wedding reception recently and it was amazing what some of the women were wearing. I'm sure these gals thought they looked very elegant and fashionable for the reception at a local country club but . . .

Really? Did you look in the mirror before you left the house?

If you have dyed your hair the same color and texture as straw and your skin tone is paler than a vampire in January, wearing dull black and gray is not a good look. It is not redeemed by your slash of scarlet lipstick.

If you are over 50 and have tanned your skin to the approximate color and texture of saddle leather or rhinoceros hide, wearing a skimpy sundress that exposes vast quantities of said saddle leather/rhinoceros hide is not a good look.

Unless you are 16 years old and weigh 104 pounds, wearing a skimpy sundress with a short baby-doll skirt that barely covers your butt is not a good look.

If you are wearing a strapless dress or any other item of clothing that requires you to tug, pull, push or re-adjust it every 45 seconds, thus repeatedly drawing attention to your boobs or your butt, it’s not a good look.

If your heels are so high they require you to lurch around the room clutching at various people’s arms in order to keep your balance — and you are stone cold sober at 1 in the afternoon — it is not a good look.

Tight clothing is not sexy. It’s just tight. It shows every bulge and bump. If you’re wearing something that looks like you were poured into it or had it painted on, it’s not a good look.

If you are 13 years old and wearing so much liquid eye liner, eye shadow, mascara, powder, blush and lipstick you look like a child hooker or a demented raccoon, it is not a good look. (Honestly, their mothers let them out of the house like that? Geez, I feel old.)

If you’re 50 and trying to dress like you’re 20, trust me, it is not a good look. Three words: cellulite, flab and wrinkles. They’re no big deal and everybody gets them but believe me, I don’t want to see yours any more than you want to see mine.

I'll step down off my fashionista soap box now. Need to do laundry and make sure I have a supply of clean jeans and T-shirts.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Summer fun

Here's what we did this weekend, when we weren't training. Some of these are out of focus, sorry, sports photograph is new to me! Is bubble chasing really a sport? The Belgians think so. They take it very seriously.

Becoming one with the bubbles.

Walkin' in a bubble wonderland.

Bubble herding?

I don't feed this dog. Ever.
He has to eat bubbles.

Old dogs CAN jump.

Just out of reach.

Pretty boy.

I know, out of focus.
But maybe it's better that way.

No photographers were harmed during this photo shoot.
But not for lack of trying.

Behold, the bubble.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Phoenix's fantasy

This is Flirt, one of Phoenix's relatives. She lives with cats. She likes cats. Apparently she thinks she IS a cat.

Catherine says she climbs up on the cat tree by herself and naps there.

I am so not letting Phoenix see these pictures.

There would be no living with him.

Occasionally there is no living with him now.

If he realized you could keep cats INSIDE the house . . . on a tree . . . for easy picking . . . oh dear.

No good could come of this.

But Flirt is adorable. You go, girl.

Friday, July 8, 2011


Back in February of this year, I started taking Symbicort. It is a steroid inhaler and it was supposed to help reduce the inflammation in my lungs. I have exercised induced asthma that is apparently borderline "real" asthma. Call it what you like, it's a total pain in the ass because it can be challenging enough to run agility and do other dog training stuff when you have normal lung function, let alone doing it when it feels like you have a plastic bag tied over your head.

I don't know if the Symbicort made things better or not. I quit taking it today, at the advice of my doctor.

The the side effects turned out to be worse than the initial problem.

Do you ever read the side effects sheet that comes with a scrip? Good grief, any given medicine might cause diarrhea, cramping, dizziness, vomiting, sore throat, high blood pressure, sleepiness, coughing, bleeding, inability to urinate, increased perspiration, erratic behavior, bizarre dreams (like I need medicine for that to happen!), flatulence, double vision, swelling of your breasts (really?), ingrown toenails and the heebie-jeebies.

In my case, it made me susceptible to every stinking germ and virus that came down the pike.

I don't want to say I never get sick but I hardly ever get anything worse than a mild cold.

This spring and summer, I've been sick 75 percent of the time with one kind of respiratory crap or another. And it hasn't been your normal sneeze for a couple of days, take some OTC stuff and feel better by the weekend crap. It was wheeze and cough, hack up thick green slime for weeks at a time crap. Yeah, crappy crap. Super crap.

I had crap for mal nationals, Easter, Mother's Day, several graduation parties, Father's Day and more obedience and agility trials and classes than I care to remember. The green slime migrated back and forth between my sinuses and my lungs. It was hard to sleep with green slime sloshing around. I rattled when I breathed. The Farmer threatened to go sleep on the couch. The dogs didn't seem to care. Actually, they wanted the Farmer to go sleep on the couch so they could sleep on the bed with me. Not because they love me that much, they just love to sleep on the bed.

After the last round of crap left me starting each day with a hack and gag smoker's cough (the Farmer did not find this attractive at all), I decided enough was enough and went back to the doc. She said given that nothing else had changed, in all likelihood the Symbicort was the problem.

How's that for irony? The medicine that was supposed to improve my lung function made me susceptible to crap that made it 10 times worse.

So for now, I'm back to life with my albuterol inhalers. I love albuterol. Better living through chemistry.

Training update: I am happy to report Phoenix and I are making slow progress but it's progress in the right direction. I promise I will dedicate a post (or six!) to what we're doing but I need to organize my thoughts. They are very disorganized right now. In fact, they are all over the freaking place.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Garden tour

This is a good time for a garden tour because it seems like after the 4th of July, the real heat of summer sets in and things can go down hill in a hurry. Here are some of my favorites.

This is a new annual I planted this year. It's called straw flower. As advertised, the petals feel like straw or dried paper even when they're fresh. They'd be great for dried arrangements if you were a crafty type of person. The blossoms close up at night.

I love old fashioned snapdragons. They are tough and beautiful and bloom all summer long until frost. They've been stomped on and peed on by both dogs and still look good.

Yeah, I know - petunias. Nothing fancy. But they're pretty. Everyone should have petunias, right Rilda?

Moonbeam coreopsis. This stuff is a workhorse. It falls into the "no kill 'um" category.

Another annual favorite - Alabama Sunset coleus. I plant a patio pot of it every year and it's just gorgeous. Very tropical. Very lush. Very low maintenance as long as I throw a bucket of water on it every day. Apparently it has a drinking problem.

Jack Manii clematis. This stuff definitely has no kill 'um status. The blooms are profuse even though they don't last long. They also stand up well to dog pee. Phoenix sees no reason to change his habits just because flowers take over a favorite pee spot one month out of 12.

Balloon flowers are just cool. It's fun to watch the "balloons" expand and finally burst into bloom.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Fourth of July!

Wishing everyone fun and safe celebrations on this Independence Day!

Phoenix thinks this is his own personal holiday, since he was the red, white and blue (collar) puppy from the Wild litter. So far, we've celebrated the day by going out to train at 6:30 this morning. It was wonderfully cool. Why can't the whole summer be like that!

July looks crazy busy. What else is new?

This week, Michele and Cougar and Phoenix and I are going up to Rockford, Ill., to take lessons with Joanne Brettschneider. She did an obedience seminar for ICDOC back in April and I liked her methods. The following week brings our local county fair, which means extra work hours and probably not a few headaches, plus a nearby agility trial on the same weekend the fair wraps up. I'm already envisioning conflicts from a work standpoint but will take things one day at a time.

Jamie's birthday is July 20. He turns 12 this year! 

Mid-month, Phoenix and I are going to the 3-day Laura Romanik seminar at DMOTC. I only signed up to audit but I expect we'll find some floor time to work during breaks. At the end of the month, RAGBRAI (the Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa OR the Register's Annual Great Beer Run Across Iowa, take your pick) comes through Iowa County before overnighting in Coralville. The month ends with my first paranormal investigation.

It'll be August before I know it. Happy Fourth!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Please, stop me!

If you see me at a vendor's booth at a show, contemplating the purchase of any type of dog bed or crate pad, PLEASE STOP ME! Distract me with chocolate or a squeaky toy. Do whatever it takes. DO NOT let me buy any more crate pads!

Yesterday I cleaned and organized our spare downstairs bedroom. For all intents and purposes, this room is a large, walk-in closet that just happens to have a bed, a treadmill and some other pieces of furniture in it. It's where all the household stuff lives that doesn't have a better place to live. In a century old house with only one closet on the first floor, that's a lot of stuff.

Most of it is dog stuff.

Imagine that.

Most of the dog stuff was crate pads. I seem to have some kind of disorder when it comes to buying crate pads and apparently have been accumulating them for no apparent reason. Phoenix has outgrown his ripping-chewing-shredding days (at least as far as crate pads are concerned) but clearly that hadn't stopped me from buying replacements, just in case. I had stacks and stacks of laundered and neatly folded pads in all manner of fleece, imitation lambswool and other fabrics.

I took inventory. After making sure the Belgians' tent crates were double padded, there were good pads in the van crates and there were pads in all the metal folding crates that I don't even use any more, plus a number of spare pads on standby should an emergency crate pad situation arise, I still had a dizzying number left over.

To make it worse, I know there is a storage tote in one of the upstairs bedrooms that is packed full of sheltie-sized crate pads. When I lost Connor, I washed up all his bedding and stored it carefully away for future use.

Looks like there will be quite a few gently used 24 x 36 crate pads on the ICDOC raffle in the spring.

In the meantime, again, I beg of you, if you see me even looking at a display of dog bedding at a vendor, please, stage an intervention.